PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have made a handful of minor moves this offseason, most of them dedicated to improving or reshaping their bullpen depth. But the core of their relief corps remains the same as it was in September.
Pittsburgh picked two right-handed relievers in the Rule 5 Draft: Jordan Milbrath, who will compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster, and Nick Burdi, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Bucs also claimed a few relievers off waivers in lefty Nik Turley and righty Shane Carle.
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But at this point, the bullpen arms the Pirates deployed last September, after Juan Nicasio was claimed off waivers by the Phillies, are set to return in similar roles this year.
BULLPEN IF SEASON STARTED TODAY
Felipe Rivero, LHP (closer)
George Kontos, RHP
Daniel Hudson, RHP
Dovydas Neverauskas, RHP
Edgar Santana, RHP
Steven Brault, LHP
Jordan Milbrath, RHP (Rule 5 Draft pick)
The Pirates won't have any questions in the ninth inning, at least. Rivero established himself last year as one of the Majors' best closers, posting a 1.67 ERA with 21 saves and 88 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings. He's their guy in the ninth inning for the foreseeable future.
Kontos was a savvy waiver claim in August. The 32-year-old brought a wealth of experience and a 3.00 career ERA, and he pitched well for the Pirates down the stretch. He could fill a number of roles in the bullpen.
Neverauskas and Santana could grow into setup men, and they looked better in September than they did in previous big league stints. For all their inexperience, the Pirates' bullpen posted a 2.59 ERA over the final month of last season, trailing only the Indians for the best mark in the Majors. Burdi is another high-upside arm with late-inning potential, and he will join the group later in the season.
Beyond Rivero and Kontos, there aren't a lot of sure things.
Hudson has late-inning stuff and experience, but he struggled in his first year with the Pirates. He finished with a 4.38 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP in 61 2/3 innings over 71 appearances. Strikeouts weren't an issue, as he fanned 66 batters, but he walked a career-high 4.8 hitters per nine innings.
Overall, it seems like they are in need of another experienced reliever, preferably someone to pitch in front of Rivero in the late innings. Neverauskas and Santana are talented but unproven. Brault has little experience as a reliever. Milbrath and Burdi haven't pitched above Double-A.
WHAT MIGHT CHANGE
In the projection above, Milbrath is a tentative selection, as is the case with most Rule 5 picks heading into Spring Training. That spot could go to right-hander A.J. Schugel, who has more experience and the ability to work multiple innings. It could go to another starter, like Tyler Glasnow. Or it could go to someone the Pirates acquire between now and Opening Day.
Brault's status is also not set in stone. If the Bucs acquire a more proven lefty reliever, perhaps that pitcher will bump Brault to Triple-A. Brault could also find himself in the big league rotation, opening a spot for Turley or lefty Jack Leathersich.
It remains to be seen who will pitch the seventh and eighth innings, though Kontos figures to nail down one of those roles. But the top five -- Rivero, Kontos, Hudson, Neverauskas and Santana -- seem likely to crack the Opening Day bullpen. Rivero, Kontos and Hudson are veterans. Neverauskas and Santana may be future late-inning arms, and there's not much more they can prove in Triple-A.