By Jason Shetler
The 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen were trying to find an identity for a good portion of the first half. Things started to steadily fall into place, as with an All-Star season turned in by Felipe Vazquez, the Pirates received significant contributions from both Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez. During last year’s trade deadline, the Bucs bolstered the bullpen even more by acquiring Keone Kela from the Texas Rangers.
For as solid as the Pirates pen became over the course of last season, their one glaring hole was a reliable lefty reliever outside of Vazquez. Josh Smoker made the 2018 Opening Day roster, but his stay in Pittsburgh was short-lived, and he was quite frankly an utter dumpster fire. The Pirates took a flyer on Enny Romero, claiming him off waivers from the Washington Nationals in mid-April. Romero dealt with a shoulder injury, and after coming off the DL, he was designated by the club in early July. Despite Steven Brault being with the Pirates for much of last year, the control was a major issue for him, as his 5.6 BB/9 was the highest mark of any Pirates pitcher in 2018 with a minimum of 50 innings pitched.
After signing Tyler Lyons to a minor league deal on New Year’s Day, the Pirates decided to give a similar deal to a familiar name in Francisco Liriano on February 5th. From 2013-2015, Liriano was a vital cog in the Pirates rotation, helping lead them to three consecutive playoff seasons. Coming off a subpar season with the Detroit Tigers as a starter a year ago, he entered Spring Training looking to compete with Lyons for a spot as a lefty reliever. Although his command was shaky at times in the Spring, Liriano was still able to outperform Lyons. On Saturday, the Pirates announced that Liriano had made the 2019 Opening Day roster, but did they make the right decision?
As mentioned before, Liriano’s 2018 campaign was a mediocre one in the Tigers rotation. Aside from having a high 4.9 BB/9, he posted a K/9 of 7.4, which was the lowest of his 13 MLB seasons. During his big league career, Liriano would get tons of swings and misses, due in large part to his wipeout slider. The swing and miss rate for his career is 12.6%, but that figure took a dip last year at 10.0%. However, Liriano remained dominant with left on left matchups, as lefty batters only managed a .516 OPS against.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington hasn’t ruled out the concept of The Opener to be used at some point this year. Last season, Liriano held opponents to a .635 OPS against first time through the lineup, so he could be a candidate for that spot, if they choose to flirt with the idea. Because Liriano will be making very less in 2019, it wouldn’t hurt to try and utilize him in a LOOGY role against left-handed batters, even in high leverage situations, so I don’t mind him being on the roster to begin the year. The Pirates will likely have Liriano on a short leash if he struggles, since there isn’t a lot invested in him monetarily.