The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen was not necessarily a weakness during the 2023 season. However, the relief corps wasn’t necessarily a strength, either.
The Pirates ranked 19th in the major leagues with a 4.27 relief ERA. The bullpen was also 19th in WHIP with a 1.33 mark.
While those numbers were middle of the pack at best, there were some positive signs.
David Bednar tied for the National League lead with 39 saves and was selected to the All-Star Game for a second straight season. Right-handers Colin Holderman and Carmen Mlodzinski developed into reliable set-up relievers and Ryan Borucki showed enough last season that he will likely be the Pirates’ top left-hander out of the bullpen in 2024.
General manager Ben Cherington realizes the Pirates need better relief pitching and adding to the bullpen is one of his offseason priorities.
“I expect we’ll add to the bullpen in some way and a combination of some of the young relievers that either emerged this year or came up and got a taste and we’re confident about going forward and showed stuff to keep getting better,” Cherington said.
Depending on what starting pitchers the Pirates are either able to trade for or sign as free agents could also impact the bullpen.
Right-handers Andre Jackson and Thomas Hatch, who started games in the latter part of the season, could work in relief in 2024. Max Kranick could also land in the bullpen after not pitching in the major leagues this year while recovering from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.
However, the Pirates certainly need upgrades in the bullpen. Here are three free-agent relievers of varying degrees who would be worth considering.
The right-hander burst on the major-league scene with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018 with a fastball clocked as high as 104 mph that season.
Hicks had the look of an elite closer and the Cardinals thought he would be a large part of their bullpen for many years. However, reality got in the way and injuries and inconsistency have kept Hicks from achieving stardom.
In six seasons, Hicks has a pedestrian 3.85 ERA over 212 games and 243.1 innings. The Cardinals finally gave up on Hicks this past season and traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays.
While Hicks hasn’t lived up to expectations, he will still be 27 years old for most of next season. Certainly, it would be worth taking a shot on a still relatively young reliever with an electric arm.
Yes, the Pirates just traded Stephenson this past season to the Tampa Bay Rays for Alika Williams. Yet Stephenson told me in September that he would not be opposed to a reunion.
The 30-year-old Stephenson had a 2.35 ERA in 42 games with the Rays. He also struck out 60 in 38.1 innings while posting a microscopic 0.67 WHIP with just 18 hits allowed and eight walks.
Stephenson developed a good relationship with Pirates manager Derek Shelton and pitching coach Oscar Marin after being claimed off waivers in 2022 from the Colorado Rockies. While he had a 4.28 ERA in 31 relief appearances for the Pirates, he showed signs of possibly becoming an elite reliever and then reached that level with the Rays.
Why not bring back someone who enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh?
Law was non-tendered by the Cincinnati Reds after pitching in 55 games and posting a 3.60 ERA this past season. The underlying numbers don’t support his good ERA as he had a 1.38 WHIP and 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
Yet Law has posted a positive ERA+ in each of the last three seasons while pitching for the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers and Reds. Law projects as a middle reliever and, importantly, can pitch multiple innings. The Pirates are going to need durable arms in the bullpen in 2024 with what projects as a very shaky starting rotation.
And it also doesn’t hurt that the 33-year-old grew up in Beechview and graduated from Seton-LaSalle High School. We all know how much Pirates fans love their hometown relief pitchers.