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Around the Horn: Bucs' bullpen strongest at back

All-Star closer Vazquez anchors late-inning relief corps
January 9, 2019

With Spring Training about a month away, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the second part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. Next up: the bullpen.Big question: Can the late-inning arms do it again? The Pirates

With Spring Training about a month away, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the second part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. Next up: the bullpen.
Big question: Can the late-inning arms do it again?
The Pirates remade their bullpen on the fly last season. Only one late-inning reliever finished the year with the same job he had on Opening Day: closer Felipe Vazquez. Out went George Kontos, and down went Michael Feliz. In came Keone Kela, and up came Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez. Edgar Santana stepped up to pitch high-leverage innings, too, before undergoing Tommy John surgery late in the year.
The end result? Five relievers with an ERA+ of 120 or better, and it was actually Vazquez -- the team's lone 2018 All-Star -- who posted the highest WHIP (1.24) of those five.
The Pirates had a number of issues with their ever-changing middle-relief corps last season, which is why their bullpen put up average numbers overall, but they built an impressive late-inning group that will return this year.
The Bucs need someone to solidify the front end of the bullpen. The high-leverage relievers? All they have to do is keep up the good work from 2018.
The back end: Vazquez, Kela, Crick, Rodriguez
Vazquez struggled at times early last season, but he tweaked his pre-pitch mechanics to prevent pitch-tipping and dominated over the final four months. He wound up with 37 saves, third-most in the National League and sixth in the Majors. He'll be back in the ninth inning.
The Pirates gave up a pair of interesting prospects for Kela, who began the year as the Rangers' closer. The 25-year-old righty was lights-out in August, then Pittsburgh shut him down "to ensure an optimal amount of rest and recovery to be ready" for this year, GM Neal Huntington said. If everything goes as planned, the Pirates will have a second closer in front of Vazquez.

It's easy to forget that Crick and Rodriguez didn't make the club out of camp last year, because they quickly became a part of the bullpen core. Crick increased his strikeout rate, cut down his walk total and held righties to a .154 average and .475 OPS. He was everything the Pirates hoped he'd be when they acquired him from the Giants in the Andrew McCutchen trade last offseason.
Rodriguez will be back in the late-inning mix this year after bursting onto the scene last season. Consider where he came from.
Rodriguez joined the Pirates with no fanfare as a Minor League free agent in December 2017. The 28-year-old rookie had five MLB appearances and a mid-September DFA to his name at that time, and his arsenal consisted of two pitches: a 93-mph fastball and a slider. Yet he ended last season with a 2.47 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, 88 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 69 1/3 innings over 63 appearances. Lefties hit just .155 with a .439 OPS against him. He totaled 1.7 bWAR, matching well-known Yankees relievers Albertin Chapman and Dellin Betances.
The potential long men: Nick Kingham, Steven Brault, Jordan Lyles
These three are all candidates to crack the Pirates' rotation, but it's worth repeating that at least two of them could wind up in the bullpen as long relievers/rotation depth. The Bucs like to have two multiple-inning relievers in their bullpen so that the arms in the 'pen aren't overly taxed.
It would be an adjustment for Kingham, who is out of Minor League options, while Brault and Lyles have more experience in the bullpen. They would also be candidates to work as "followers," if the Pirates employ an opener.
The competition: Nick Burdi, Feliz, Dovydas Neverauskas, Tyler Lyons, Roberto Gomez
There could be one spot or two up for grabs, depending on how the Pirates assemble their roster. Burdi may have somewhat of an advantage, as he must spend the first 60 days of the season in the Majors to shed his Rule 5 Draft restrictions. He'll need to prove himself worthy, however, showing full command of his power arsenal.
Lyons offers experience and upside as a lefty reliever if he can rebound from a rough 2018. He signed a Minor League deal, but he has a very real chance of making the Major League roster.
Feliz and Neverauskas have yet to put up results that match their stuff. Neverauskas consistently dominates Triple-A competition, but a 6.02 ERA summarizes his struggles in the Majors. Feliz enjoyed a few strong months last season then went into a tailspin and wound up signing a split contract during his first trip through the arbitration process.

In the pipeline: Jesus Liranzo, Blake Weiman, Geoff Hartlieb, Elvis Escobar
The Pirates claimed Liranzo early last April, put him on the 40-man roster and never called him up. He thrived in Double-A, then posted a 5.00 ERA in Triple-A, striking out 47 but walking 31 in 45 innings. He'll only be 24 years old next season, so perhaps his time will come.
Hartlieb, a non-roster invitee, followed a full season in Double-A with a stint in the Arizona Fall League; he should start the season in Triple-A. Keep an eye on the two lefties, Escobar and Weiman, as they begin the season in the upper Minors.
Escobar, 24, made the transition from outfielder to pitcher last season and struck out 36 with a 3.56 ERA in 30 1/3 innings for Class A West Virginia and Double-A Altoona. Weiman, 23, also jumped from West Virginia to Altoona last year. The lefty recorded a 2.42 ERA and 1.00 WHIP with 77 strikeouts and only nine walks in 67 innings out of the bullpen.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.