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Quality Relievers Don’t Need To Break The Bank

Rodney's bow and cock-eyed hat are part of the package if he's acquired. Photo by Nam Y. Huh/AP

Rodney’s bow and cock-eyed hat are part of the package if he’s acquired.
Photo by Nam Y. Huh/AP

Ever since Clint Hurdle took over as skipper, the Pirates have had a good bullpen. From Hanrahan to Grilli to Melancon, plus the rest of the Shark Tank, the Bucs have gone from doormat to contender the last few years because they have done a good job holding onto late leads.

But in 2017, the group may look very different.

Jeff Locke is just about guaranteed to be non-tendered or traded. Jared Hughes is a non-tender candidate. Neftali Feliz might have pitched himself out of the Pirates’ price range. I recently argued that the Bucs should field offers for Watson.

Right now, the only safe bets to return to the bullpen are Felipe Rivero, Juan Nicasio and Antonio Bastardo. The Pirates could be replacing about half of their bullpen from a year ago.  A few of those spots will likely go to internal options like A.J. Schugel, Trevor Williams, or Dovydas Neverauskas, but they will probably have to bring in an outsider or two.

The price for relievers is skyrocketing this year, with Brett Cecil signing for over $30 million, leaving plenty of fans wondering who Brett Cecil is (he was with the Blue Jays). Other lucrative contracts for Melancon, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen are still to come.

But like we’ve seen in years past, if you’re willing to go dumpster diving, there’s good players to be found.  Here are four suggestions that could be signed for next to nothing and are easy to get.

Fernando Rodney

It was a tale of two seasons for Rodney in 2016. With the Padres, he had an 0.31 ERA. With the Marlins, it was 5.89.

That evened out to a respectable 3.44 clip to go with a 10.2 K/9 and a 55.2 ground ball percentage, but there are concerns if he can keep it together in his age-40 season. It’s a big reason why the Marlins decided he was not worth his $2 million option to come back.

At a price like that, the Pirates should scoop him up, especially if Watson is traded.

While his fastball took a dive at the end of the season, his bread and butter changeup was equally good between the two clubs.  It was worth 6.6 weighted runs overall with 3.4 coming with the Padres. If he benefits from a little Ray Searage and Company pixie dust, that fastball could be a threat again rather than just a get-by pitch.

He still has more good baseball in that right arm, but he may not be able to go 68 games a year. If Feliz walks, Rodney should be the next target as a reliever who has closer experience.

TJ McFarland

If the Pirates keep Watson, they probably won’t be looking to add a fourth lefty to the bullpen. If they do trade their closer or think they can handle another southpaw, McFarland may be a good guy to look at.

McFarland isn’t much of a stuff guy, but that hasn’t stopped him from being a quality major league reliever. In 2014, he walked just two per nine and had a 2.76 ERA.

But as the walks increased in 2015 and 2016, so did the ERA. It’s why he looks like a non-tender candidate, even though MLBTR projects him to make just $700K in his first year of arbitration.

He threw 26.1 innings in AAA this year, walking just 2.4 per nine. There is still potential for having good control, and getting Francisco Cervelli to frame his pitches instead of Matt Weiters should help.

While Baltimore may have a very celebrated bullpen, they’ve also failed at developing some pitchers and let them go way too early (Pirate fans have them to thanks for letting the Cubs get Jake Arrieta). I’m obviously not suggesting that McFarland could be as good as Arrieta, but Baltimore isn’t exactly a great environment for pitchers and a change of scenery could do him good.

Paul Sewald

The Rule 5 draft is usually reserved for rebuilding teams who know they aren’t going to be competitive, not clubs like the Bucs who should be in the middle of the playoff picture.  With that being said, Sewald may be worth making an exception for.

The 26 year old righty was left off of the Mets’ 40-man roster despite having a very strong season as their AAA affiliate’s closer. He went 65.2 innings in 56 appearances, striking out 11 batters per nine innings. He finished with a 3.29 ERA and 19 saves.

Sewald has struck out at least 9.8 per nine at every stop of his rise through the minors, but control has been an issue. He issued 6.3 free passes per nine in 2014, and while he limited that to a more reasonable mark of 2.9 BB/9 in 2016, he had six wild pitches.

He also had some trouble keeping the ball in the park, surrendering nine dingers last year.

The risk with Sewald is that they are committing a spot on the 40 and 25 man roster for someone who has never thrown a pitch in the majors. They basically did that with Kyle Lobstein early on last year, so it’s not unreasonable. The worst case scenario is he gets sent back to the Mets, who already have so much pitching talent that he probably would not make an impact there.

Maikel Cleto

Cleto had a 1.80 ERA and 12.4 K/9 in AAA this year. His fastball averages out to 97 MPH when he is in the majors.

He is also, amazingly, a minor league free agent.

Cleto has had a couple cups of coffee in the majors and was always sent back to the farm because of his control problem, walking 30 in 45 career innings. While that is still an issue, he cut his walks to four per nine in 2016. That’s not good, but it’s manageable.

Cleto isn’t going to take a trade or a two million dollar contract like Rodney, a guaranteed spot on the major league roster like Sewald or even any compensation like McFarland. All the Pirates need to do is give him a minor league deal and promise him an honest look at spring training.  The 2017 season will be his age-28 campaign.  Cleto is a flyball pitcher, which may not fit into the Pirates’ ground ball ethos, but he’s worth a look.

He might not work out, but there is no risk in signing him. If he does, they may have a right-handed Felipe Rivero at their disposal.

About Alex Stumpf (40 Articles)
Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.
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