The trade deadline brought some good returns to the Pittsburgh Pirates, upgrading their catching situation with Chris Snyder, and adding James McDonald and Andrew Lambo from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Octavio Dotel. In the wake of the deadline, one issue is apparent, and that’s the bullpen. The Pirates have traded away Octavio Dotel, Javier Lopez, and D.J. Carrasco, and have also released Brendan Donnelly, leaving them with just Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek as the reliable bullpen arms. Wait. Where have we heard this before?
Maybe it was this past off-season, when the Pirates had decimated their bullpen. By the 2009 trade deadline the Pirates dealt away John Grabow and Sean Burnett, then in the off-season they dealt away Jesse Chavez and non-tendered Matt Capps. That left them with Hanrahan and Meek, and neither were considered as reliable as they are now. The bullpen was a big hole going in to the 2010 season, although the Pirates had signed Lopez, Dotel, Donnelly, Carrasco, and a few other options, and obviously the moves worked out.
Looking at the 2011 bullpen, I’d say the Pirates are in much better shape than they were in mid-December of 2009. Hanrahan and Meek have jumped to the level of elite relievers, and while the year to year performance of relievers isn’t always a guarantee, it’s hard not to feel comfortable with those two anchoring the bullpen. Going in to the 2010 season, the Pirates didn’t have anyone they could be comfortable with in the 8th and 9th innings. Going in to the 2010 off-season, the Pirates have their 8th and 9th inning guys. It’s going to be a lot easier for the 2011 season filling the middle relief needs, and the Pirates may already have some options in the system.
Sean Gallagher could be one option. His control is awful, but his strikeout rates look good. It wasn’t long ago that Evan Meek was putting up almost a walk an inning in the majors, and even in the 2009 season he had a 5.6 BB/9 ratio. It wouldn’t be out of the question for Gallagher to improve his control, especially when he could be used in a low-pressure long relief role.
Daniel McCutchen was just moved to the bullpen today in favor of James McDonald entering the rotation. McCutchen hasn’t had much success in the majors so far, but he wouldn’t be the first pitcher to struggle as a starter and have success as a reliever. That will be a situation to watch as the season goes on.
Jose Ascanio has back of the bullpen stuff, and looked good in 2009 before going down with a Labrum injury. He started his rehab work today in Bradenton, and will be back in the majors by September. He’s out of options, so he pretty much has to get a shot next year. He could end up being just as good as Hanrahan and Meek.
Wilfredo Ledezma and Justin Thomas are two interesting cases to watch. Both are left handed, and both have had success at AAA this year, although neither has received much playing time in the majors. It will be interesting to see if the Pirates allow one of these guys to have a shot at the left handed relief role with Lopez gone.
There’s also options available in the minors. Recently acquired Joe Martinez hasn’t done much, and I don’t consider him much more than a middle reliever, but since that’s what the Pirates need, he could come in to play. Ramon Aguero and Daniel Moskos could be options. Moskos is struggling in AAA, and Aguero is still in AA, so both are kind of long-shots to make the team. I’ve always considered Michael Crotta a future sleeper out of the bullpen. He had a great start to the 2010 season in the AA rotation, but hasn’t been as effective in AAA. Maybe a move to the bullpen would do him well.
Speaking of moves to the bullpen, the Pirates have Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Zach Duke, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, and Brad Lincoln as starting options, with help on the way from the AA level. Daniel McCutchen might not be the only starting pitcher who could make a move to the bullpen.
So is the 2011 bullpen set? Not nearly. I definitely see the need to add at least one free agent reliever, but the Pirates don’t have to repeat their 2010 approach of building the bullpen through free agency. The most important part of the bullpen is covered, which means the Pirates have some room to play around with high upside arms like Ascanio and Gallagher, converted starters like McCutchen, or minor league options like Crotta and Martinez.