Spring Training Battles: Bullpen

The bullpen is an area that Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington doesn’t like to spend a lot of money on. I’m in agreement with this strategy. All it takes is a quick look to the 2008 Milwaukee bullpen to see that spending money doesn’t equal success.

The Brewers spent almost $26 M on the following bullpen arms last season: Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota, David Riske, Brian Shouse, Salomon Torres, and David Turnbow. Of that group, Gagne, Turnbow, and Riske ($17.4 M) bombed, Mota ($3.3 M) was average, with a 4.11 ERA, and Torres and Shouse ($5.3 M) were solid options.

So far the Pirates bullpen is shaping up to be a solid unit, with a projected payroll of about $8 M, less than what the Brewers spent on Eric Gagne.

We know that Matt Capps, John Grabow, and Tyler Yates are going to be locks, due in part to their salaries, and in part to their performances. Capps has been one of the most under-rated closers in the league, with a career 3.06 ERA in 217.1 innings. Grabow is coming off a solid year with a 2.84 ERA. Yates made 72 appearances and put up a 4.66 ERA last year. He struggled in July/August with a 7.77 ERA, following a 3.79 ERA leading up to July, but finished strong with a 1.64 ERA in September.

Sean Burnett should also be a lock due to his performance against left handers last year, and due to the fact that he is out of options. Burnett held left handers to a .171/.238/.276 line last season, compared to a .328/.442/.537 line against right handers. Craig Hansen also should be a lock, due to his $825 K salary, the fact that he’s out of options, the fact that he came over in the Jason Bay trade, and due to his improved control in Spring Training.

That leaves two spots open in the bullpen, with 11 relievers remaining in camp fighting for those two spots.

Donald Veal, the Pirates’ Rule 5 pick from the Cubs, has the inside track for one of those spots. Veal was a top prospect with the Cubs a few years ago, but has struggled with his control, posting a 5.0 BB/9 ratio at AA the last two seasons. He is currently ranked amongst the Pirates’ top prospects in the Pirates Prospect Consensus. The Pirates would have to keep Veal on the 25-man roster all season or return him to the Cubs. That will depend on Veal’s control, with Veal currently posting five walks in seven Spring Training innings.

The final spot could be down to a battle between last year’s Rule 5 selection, Evan Meek, and Chris Bootcheck, one of the Pirates’ top free agents for the bullpen this season. Of course, saying that is a bit of an overstatement, as Bootcheck was one of the only free agents brought in for the bullpen, and wasn’t signed to a major league contract.

So far, Meek has yet to allow a run, and has allowed just one walk in eight innings in Spring Training. Bootcheck has allowed four walks and struck out 11 in 8.2 innings, but has allowed five runs in that span. There has been talk of Evan Meek closing in Indy, preparing him as the closer of the future. However, a few factors have me projecting Meek over Bootcheck for the 25-man roster.

First, Meek has put up the better numbers this Spring. Second, Meek was excellent last year after being purchased from the Rays. Then there’s the roster factors. If Meek made the team, the Pirates wouldn’t have any roster implications, as Meek is currently on the 40-man roster. If Bootcheck made the team, the Pirates would have to remove someone from the 40-man roster. That could be a problem with Craig Monroe also potentially booting someone from the 40-man roster. As far as I know, Bootcheck doesn’t have an escape clause in his contract, which means the Pirates could hold on to him at AAA incase of an injury, or incase something doesn’t work out with a guy like Veal, Hansen, or Meek.

That makes the projected bullpen: Capps, Grabow, Yates, Burnett, Hansen, Meek, Veal.

There are two major questions in regards to the bullpen this year involving trades. First, Matt Capps is signed for $2.3 M this season, but has two years of arbitration left. Based on contracts to guys like Huston Street, Capps could be looking at a total of $10 M in his final two years of arbitration. With Evan Meek being looked at as the closer for the future, Capps could wind up as a trade option this year, to avoid spending the big bucks on the closer position.

The second question involves John Grabow. The Pirates have talked about bringing in left hander Will Ohman in case of a John Grabow trade. I’ve mentioned before that this makes little sense, as any team wanting to trade for Grabow could easily just sign Ohman. However, Grabow is in the final year of arbitration, and likely to be traded by the end of the year. With Burnett serving as a left handed specialist, and Veal being a big question mark, the Pirates would need a left handed arm like Ohman to replace Grabow.

Unfortunately, signing Ohman before a Grabow trade would leave no room for Donald Veal, unless the Pirates decided to carry four left handers in the bullpen. This means that the Pirates are going to have to find someone who wants to trade for Grabow rather than signing Will Ohman, and then sign Ohman to replace Grabow. I’ve got the perfect scenario, which I will save for a future post.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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