The Pirates’ bullpen was unspectacular, but solid in 2018. After being fairly middling in 2016 and 2017, they combined to finish in the top 10 in baseball in FIP (7th- 3.86), strikeout rate (7th- 24.5%) and HR/9 (6th- 0.94). They were still pretty pedestrian in terms of WAR and WPA, but it seems safe to say that the bullpen is once again a strength. With so many returning pieces, it should be a strength again in 2019. Still, it ?s tempting to think that the Pirates should pick up another noteworthy reliever this offseason.
If we ?re being optimistic, the Pirates have about $20 million to spend this winter. That would put their payroll back around 2016-2017 levels. Realistically, they ?re probably going to spend less than that. While a free agent reliever is appealing because they are ?cheap ? in terms of pure dollars and cents, but they also provide the worst return on investment.
Going by Average Annual Value, the five biggest reliever free agent signings in 2017 were Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Brandon Morrow, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. Combined, they made $59.83 million in 2018 and were worth 1.3 WAR.
Meanwhile, Richard Rodriguez, who came to Pittsburgh on a minor league deal, was also worth 1.3 WAR last season at less than 1% of those costly free agents ? salary. The only 2017 free agent reliever that was worth more WAR than him was Tony Watson of the Giants.
Rodriguez was a fantastic find, but he ?s not a unicorn. The last two years we ?ve seen All-Star relievers who were waiver wire claims (Brad Hand), minor league free agents (Brandon Kintzler), buy low veterans (Jeremy Jeffress) and struggling young players (Felipe Vazquez, Blake Treinen). There ?s no shame in dumpster diving for bullpen help. Sure, sometimes you wind up with a Josh Smoker, but spray and pray is effective.
With a front four of Vazquez, Keone Kela, Kyle Crick and Rodriguez, the Pirates may already have enough high quality relievers to get by in 2019. They have enough depth that they can risk giving a high ceiling, low floor guy a shot rather than overpaying for someone who would probably only be their fifth best reliever anyway. Investing more in the infield while going value shopping for another arm is the better play.
Here are some guys who could be had at a very low acquisition cost (minor league deals, cash consideration trades) that I think have the potential to be another Rodriguez-type find.
Banuelos was one of the most promising lefty pitching prospects in baseball when he signed with the Yankees in 2008. Since then, he ?s undergone two elbow surgeries and saw his fastball velocity drop to 86 MPH. He ?s had to relearn his mechanics, but it has been worth it. He hit 94 again this season for the Dodgers ? AAA affiliate and was an All-Star. For more on his journey, I’d recommend Austin Moseley’s profile on him for The Oklahoman.
Banuelos had the third best strikeout rate among AAA lefties with at least 60 IP last season (27%). That was primarily as a starter, too. If he can add another tick to his heater as a reliever, then his stuff should translate to the majors.
The Pirates could use another lefty besides Vazquez and longman Steven Brault in their bullpen. Banuelos may want to keep starting, but he ?ll be turning 28 in March. The bullpen may be his only way back to the majors. With that being said, he could be anything from a long man to a LOOGY. That kind of potential flexibility is valuable by itself.
Espinal has been slowly rising through the Yankees farm system, but there really isn ?t anywhere for him to go. New York is going to bring back most of their super bullpen from last season, so the 27 year old righty has no clear path to the majors. It ?s a shame because he just turned in a very strong season in AAA.
Espinal had the fourth best strikeout rate (33.1%) and third best swinging strike rate (14.5%) among AAA pitchers with at least 60 IP last season. He finished with a 2.40 ERA as a reliever over 60 IP with a 2.80 FIP overall. His low ground ball rate may be a concern, but plenty of relievers get by with far worse.
For a lot of teams, he would be a sleeper in the organization. For the Yankees, he ?s a depth piece that ?s fairly far down on their chart. If he slips through the cracks, he could be a steal.
This may be a familiar name to some. The Pirates drafted Pounders in the second round of the 2009 amateur draft. He was dealt to Kansas City after the 2011 season and has bounced around the last three years, making stops with the Royals, Angels and Rockies.
He ?s struggled in the majors for all three teams, but he ?s looked good in AAA three years running.
The strikeouts have translated to the bigs. The difference is he can ?t keep the ball in the park against major league hitters.
Granted, there are plenty of pitchers who just couldn’t make the jump from AAA to the majors. There ?s a good chance Pounders is one of those guys, but there ?s still swing and miss potential there, even if he is already 28. Strikeouts are king and are usually far more expensive to acquire. If the Pirates still see that spark that made them draft him, then they should pursue him on a minor league deal.
Ynoa may be a casualty of Baltimore ?s upcoming 40 man roster crunch. He missed almost all of 2018 with a shoulder injury, and there is no guarantee he ?ll be added back from the 60-day DL. Baltimore picked him up a couple years ago for cash considerations, so they may be more inclined to sell him rather than a player who has been in the system longer. And if we ?re looking for the next Richard Rodriguez, why not raid the team RichRod came from? After all, it seems just about every pitcher sees their ERA drop a run or two once they leave Baltimore.
Ynoa is your run of the mill fifth starter right now, mostly because he doesn ?t have a good third pitch. The curveball generates a decent amount of spin, but he would probably benefit from just throwing his plus fastball– which can hit 95 MPH– and slider. From FanGraphs ? Eric Longhagen ?s 2017 profile on him for Baltimore ?s top prospects:
He sits 90-94 with a running fastball. Its movement is generated by Ynoa ?s low three-quarters arm slot, which also gives left-handed hitters a good long look at his relatively planeless heater. He deals with this issue by attempting to work his average, mid-80s slider in on lefties or by running his changeup off their hip and back onto the corner.
That sounds very similar to Juan Nicasio ?s profile when he came to Pittsburgh. Ynoa is just 25, so there ?s still time to grow and mold him, too.
He would cost a 40-man roster spot, but he comes the most major league ready. Perhaps he ?s a long man. Perhaps he ?s a sprinter. It really is going to come down to how well his shoulder has healed. If it has and Baltimore moves on anyway, he could make a team very happy.