The 2011 Bullpen
A year ago at this time, the 2010 bullpen was largely incomplete, consisting only of Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Javier Lopez, and a few minor signings competing for spots, such as Wilfredo Ledezma, Vinnie Chulk, Jack Taschner, and Brian Burres. In the following weeks, the Pirates added D.J. Carrasco, Brendan Donnelly, and Octavio Dotel, giving the bullpen a major boost to start the 2010 season, and leading to one of the few strong points on the 2010 team.
This year is somewhat similar. After trading Carrasco, Lopez, and Dotel at the trade deadline in 2010, the Pirates are left with a bullpen that is largely incomplete, although in better shape than last year. Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek each had breakout years, and are much stronger options this year than they appeared to be heading in to last season. The Pirates also claimed Chris Resop off of waivers in August, and saw strong numbers from him. The Pirates still have some work to do, and Frank Coonelly mentioned in his chat yesterday that they were looking to add a bullpen piece or two, which means we could be in line for another busy January. Here is a preview of the 2011 bullpen as it sits right now, including where the Pirates could add pieces:
Last year the Pirates were uncomfortable giving the closer role to either Meek or Hanrahan, opting to sign Octavio Dotel for the role, signing Brendan Donnelly as the set up man, and putting Meek and Hanrahan in low pressure situations. The approach might have paid off for Meek and Hanrahan, as they both put up strong seasons, and both emerged as future closer candidates once Dotel and Donnelly were gone. Despite the strong season, the Pirates might be looking for an external option to close games in 2011.
The Pirates have pursued expensive relief options this off-season, such as Octavio Dotel, Kevin Gregg, and J.J. Putz. All three have signed elsewhere, but the speculation is that the Pirates are still looking for a similar reliever. The price of these relievers would easily trump anyone else in the bullpen, and would likely make them one of the highest paid players on the team. For that reason, it would be very safe to assume that the Pirates were looking at Dotel, Gregg, or Putz as a potential closer, rather than a 7th inning man behind Meek and Hanrahan.
Brian Fuentes is the name being thrown around right now, with the Pirates listed among the interested teams. Fuentes is looking for Scott Downs type money, about three years and $15 M, and it’s unlikely the Pirates make that sort of commitment to a reliever. However, if he were to accept a one year deal, the Pirates could be an attractive landing spot, assuming they’re offering the closer role.
If the Pirates do sign someone to be their closer, that would return Meek and Hanrahan to 7th/8th inning duties, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. For one, it would provide for a very strong bullpen. Another bonus is that it frees up both pitchers to be available for high pressure situations that occur before the 9th inning, rather than locking them in to 8th/9th inning roles, and hoping a less talented reliever can get out of those jams and get a Pirates’ lead to the final innings. Or, signing a closer could mean that Meek or Hanrahan would become trade bait, capable of fetching an important piece for the Pirates, such as a young starter. Meek or Hanrahan would have a lot of value on the trade market, considering the high prices being paid for relievers on the open market this off-season, and the low cost/years of control each reliever has remaining.
The Pirates have a strong back of the bullpen, regardless of whether they add a new closer, but what about the rest of the bullpen?
Locks for the Bullpen
Chris Resop is the most intriguing option outside of Meek and Hanrahan. In 2010 he had a strong year as a starter in AAA in the Atlanta farm system, putting up a 2.09 ERA in 82 innings, with a 10.0 K/9 and a 3.5 BB/9 ratio. He made one appearance with the Braves in the majors, got injured, and was eventually waived and claimed by the Pirates. With the Pirates, Resop had a lot of success in a small sample size of innings. In 19 innings he put up a 1.89 ERA, along with an 11.4 K/9 and a 4.7 BB/9 ratio.
Resop is kind of like Meek and Hanrahan were this time last year. He’s a guy who could be a back of the bullpen option, although because of his limited success, he could just as well end up doing a 180 and become no more than middle relief depth. Resop is in a similar position as the top Pirates’ relievers were in 2010, put in a low pressure situation thanks to the talent in the back of the bullpen. If the Pirates sign a closer, Resop would either be a 6th inning guy, or he would allow the Pirates to trade one of Hanrahan or Meek, while still staying strong in the 7th inning.
The only other lock for the bullpen would be Jeff Karstens, who agreed to a one year, $1.1 M deal, avoiding arbitration. Karstens had a good year in 2010, with a 4.92 ERA in 122.2 innings, working mostly as a starter. Ideally the rotation won’t be in the same shape it was in last year, which means Karstens should serve as the long reliever out of the bullpen, as well as a spot starter.
The Fallout From the 5th Starter Battle
The Pirates will have Charlie Morton, Brad Lincoln, Scott Olsen, and Brian Burres competing for the 5th starter role this Spring, and the fallout could provide an additional bullpen option. Lincoln and Burres are likely to go to AAA as starters if they don’t win the job, although Morton or Olsen would likely remain in the majors.
Morton is out of options, which means he would either have to make the team, or be designated for assignment. He had a horrible season in 2010, although he rebounded at the end of the year, with a 4.09 ERA in 33 innings in September, with a 22:9 K/BB ratio. It’s easy to want to cast Morton aside due to his poor 2010 results, although that’s not exactly the best move to make. Despite the numbers, Morton saw an increase in his strikeout rate (6.7 K/9, up from 5.8), and saw his walk rate drop for the second year in a row (2.9, down from 3.7). He also saw his average fastball velocity jump to 93.2 MPH.
The biggest problem for Morton came via home runs. He had a 1.7 HR/9 ratio, due to an extremely unlucky 18.1% HR/FB ratio. He also had a .369 BABIP and a 53.2% strand rate, both well beyond the .300 and 70% league averages for starters. His BABIP was .304 in 2008 and .310 in 2009, both near the league average. His strand rate was 60.7% in 2008, which was below average, but 71.4% in 2009, which was close to average. There was obviously something wrong with Morton in 2010. The question is, was that an issue that was limited to 2010 (and which might have been solved by September), or is that an issue that will continue. The only way to find out is to keep Morton on the team, which I think is the right move.
I actually see Morton and Olsen as the leaders for the 5th starter role, due to their situations. Morton is out of options, and while Olsen has options remaining, he has the right to decline those options and declare free agency, since he has over five years of service time. Odds are that one of the two will win the 5th starter role, with the other one going to the bullpen, while Lincoln and Burres go to AAA.
Other Internal Candidates
The Pirates have Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio on the 40-man roster, with both pitchers out of options. Both are returning from injuries, which means they could end up starting the year on the disabled list. If that doesn’t happen, both players would need to make the 25-man roster, or be designated for assignment. If both players made the opening day roster, that would give the Pirates a full bullpen, assuming the rest of the bullpen would consist of Hanrahan, Meek, Resop, Karstens, and Olsen or Morton.
Other internal candidates would could compete for an opening day spot are Daniel McCutchen, Chris Leroux, and Michael Crotta. All three are on the 40-man roster, and all three have options remaining, making it likely that they end up in AAA as bullpen depth.
The Pirates have Brian Burres, Cesar Valdez, Fernando Nieve, Justin Thomas, Sean Gallagher, and Tyler Yates as non-roster invitees, although like the previous group, these players will likely end up as depth options out of AAA.
Prospects in the Wings
The Pirates have a few prospects on the 40-man roster who should be making the jump to AAA to start the 2011 season. That group includes three left handers: Aaron Thompson, Daniel Moskos, and Tony Watson. While all three could reach the majors this year, I project Moskos as the leader of the group, and predict he ends up in the majors by the end of June. The Pirates also have Ramon Aguero on the 40-man roster. Aguero is returning from an injury in 2010, and could start at AA, although if he’s back to form, his trip to AA wouldn’t last long.
The best reliever in the system is Diego Moreno, who had a great year in high-A in 2010, and made the jump to AA, before getting suspended and moved back to high-A. Moreno should return to AA, and if he’s as effective as he was in high-A last year, he could be on the fast track to the majors, with the potential to serve as a back of the bullpen option in the future.
Assuming no pieces are added, my current projected bullpen, which is constantly updated on the 25-man roster projection page, is:
Closer - Joel Hanrahan
Set-Up - Evan Meek
7th Inning - Chris Resop
Middle Relief - Scott Olsen, Jose Ascanio, Kevin Hart
Long Relief - Jeff Karstens
I could see one of Hart or Ascanio starting the year on the disabled list, which opens a spot, potentially for an external addition, such as a new closer option. That current list also only includes one left handed option, Scott Olsen, who isn’t even a lock for the bullpen. This means the Pirates could seek out a left handed reliever or two, which could potentially bump Ascanio and Hart. The left handed relief market is thin, with Will Ohman, Joe Beimel, and Ron Mahay leading the group.
The three middle relievers seem to be the most likely to go if the Pirates were to add a closer and one or two left handed relievers. Ascanio and Hart could be stashed on the disabled list to start the year, and there is the chance that Olsen could accept an assignment to AAA and become the first call-up if the team needs a starter. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Pirates add one or two relievers this month, which could force some of those middle relief options off of the roster.