If there’s one area where the Pittsburgh Pirates have had success adding players over the last few years, it’s been the bullpen. That was seen in 2011 with the makeup of the top performers in the bullpen. The 2011 pen was made up of mostly outside acquisitions from the past few years, most of those coming from low cost moves.
Top closer Joel Hanrahan was acquired in a trade, along with Lastings Milledge, in exchange for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett. The trade was originally a swap of Morgan and Milledge, with the Hanrahan for Burnett swap added to even the deal in Washington’s favor. Hanrahan had a breakout year in 2011, with a 1.83 ERA in 68.2 innings, and 40 saves.
Jose Veras, who led the bullpen with 79 appearances, was a free agent signing, joining the Pirates for $1 M. Veras spent some time in the late innings, putting up a 3.80 ERA in 71 innings this year, with a very impressive 79:34 K/BB ratio.
Daniel McCutchen was added as one of the minor pieces of the Xavier Nady trade in 2008. The Pirates sent Nady and Damaso Marte, and received Jose Tabata and Ross Ohlendorf. They also had their choice of either Phil Coke and George Kontos, or McCutchen and Jeff Karstens. McCutchen struggled last year in the bullpen, with a 5.47 ERA in 24.2 innings as a reliever, along with a 6.49 ERA in 43 innings as a starter. He worked exclusively out of the bullpen in 2011, with a 3.72 ERA in 84.2 innings, with the big reason for his turnaround being a dip in home runs. His HR/9 ratio went from 1.7 in 2010 to 0.7 in 2010, cutting out one homer every nine innings, which amounted to about nine homers in 2011.
Chris Resop was added via waivers in 2010, and immediately impressed, with a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings in the final two months of the season. Resop pitched 69.2 innings for the Pirates in 2011, with a 4.39 ERA and a 79:30 K/BB ratio. He pitched a lot in the late innings, and was solid throughout the year. He had a few inconsistent months, such as the month of May, when he allowed an 8.38 ERA in 9.2 innings, and the month of August when he allowed a 10.32 ERA in 11.1 innings.
Joining Resop on the “waiver claims” list was Chris Leroux. The Pirates claimed Leroux in September 2010, and kept him on the 40-man roster ever since. The move didn’t make sense until mid-way through the 2011 season, when the Pirates made an adjustment to Leroux’s arm slot, having him pitch from a three quarters delivery. The move worked, and allowed Leroux to put up a 2.88 ERA in 25 innings in the majors, with an 8.6 K/9 and a 2.5 BB/9 ratio.
In a similar low-cost move, the Pirates added veteran Jason Grilli as a free agent. Grilli was signed by the Phillies to a minor league contract, but had an out-clause in his contract that allowed him to sign with a Major League team if another team wanted him on the active roster. He could only join that team if the Phillies refused to put him on their active roster. The Pirates made the offer, the Phillies refused, and Grilli joined the team. In 32.2 innings over the final two months of the season, Grilli posted a 2.48 ERA, along with a 37:15 K/BB ratio.
There were a few home grown arms in the mix, specifically the two left handers. Tony Watson had the biggest impact this year, with a 3.95 ERA in 41 innings in the majors, along with a 37:20 K/BB ratio. Watson wasn’t exactly used properly throughout the year, being used as a long reliever in July, rather than the top left hander out of the bullpen. That led to him taking a break in August, with the Pirates optioning him down to AAA. Watson returned toward the end of the month, and struggled in a few outings, but settled down and posted a 1.86 ERA in 9.2 innings in the month of September.
Daniel Moskos pitched 24.1 innings in the majors, with a 2.96 ERA. Despite the ERA, Moskos didn’t look as good as Watson, with an 11:9 K/BB ratio. The Pirates also didn’t seem to favor Moskos as much as they did Watson, giving the impression that Watson is clearly number one on the depth chart for left handers.
Other home grown arms include sinker ball pitchers Michael Crotta and Jared Hughes. Crotta had a brief appearance in the majors at the start of the season, but went down with an injury, and was eventually outrighted off the 40-man roster and re-signed by the team. Hughes came on strong at the end of the year, and got a September call-up, with a 4.09 ERA in 11 innings, and a 10:4 K/BB ratio.
It wasn’t all success stories and cheap acquisitions this year. The Pirates came in to the year with limited left handed options, due to Moskos and Watson making the jump to AAA at the start of the year. They signed Joe Beimel for $2 M in the off-season, only to see Beimel start the year on the disabled list. When healthy, Beimel posted a 5.33 ERA in 25.1 innings, along with a 17:9 K/BB ratio. The team stuck with him through the end of August, at which point he was released to make room on the 40-man roster for September call-ups.
Evan Meek might have been one of the more disappointing stories out of the bullpen this year. Meek was another low-cost addition, being selected by the Pirates in the 2008 Rule 5 draft, and later acquired from Tampa Bay for cash considerations. He broke out in 2010 with a 2.14 ERA and a 70:31 K/BB ratio in 80 innings, and was a candidate to close in 2011. However, he dealt with a shoulder injury in 2011, and wasn’t nearly as effective. His velocity was down from 2010, and his control was lost, with a 5.2 BB/9 ratio, up from his 3.5 ratio in 2010. Veras and Resop did the job as set up men throughout most of the year, although the Pirates lacked a top of the line set up man, something Meek was expected to be in 2011.
The strength of the 2011 bullpen can probably be seen the most with Jose Ascanio and Tim Wood. Both pitchers feature mid-90s fastballs, and upper 80s hard sliders. Both pitchers also struggled in their limited time in the majors. In years past, the Pirates would have probably given them more time, hoping that their arms would lead to another successful story. That wasn’t the case this year, with Ascanio only getting 6.1 innings of work, and Wood getting eight innings.
Is the Bullpen Set in 2012?
One result from all of the low cost additions is a crowded bullpen. For the 2012 season, the Pirates already have a closer in place, something that has been a question mark the past two years. Hanrahan has been with the team both years, although the Pirates wanted an established closer in 2010, and we didn’t know what Hanrahan could do prior to 2011. His numbers put him up there as one of the top closers in the game, and he should return as the anchor to the bullpen in 2012.
From there, the Pirates have a lot of options, with almost everyone under control from the 2011 bullpen. Based on the results, it would be hard to imagine the 2012 bullpen wouldn’t include Daniel McCutchen, Tony Watson, and Chris Leroux. That leaves three other spots, with guys like Veras, Resop, Meek, Moskos, Grilli, and Hughes in limbo.
Meek seems like an obvious candidate to return in 2012, based on his upside and his previous success. However, looking at Meek’s numbers over the last three years, you could make an argument that the 2010 season was an outlier. He had a 3.45 ERA in 2009 and a 3.48 ERA in 2011. In 2010 his ERA was at 2.14. ERA isn’t the best way to determine the skill set of relievers, but strikeouts and walk rates are. Meek saw consistent strikeout ratios over the last three years, but his walks again saw an outlier in 2010. He walked 5.6 batters per nine innings in 2009, and 5.2 in 2011. In 2010 he was down to a 3.5 BB/9 ratio. His velocity also dropped in 2011 to an average of 92.6 MPH, down from 94.6 MPH in 2010. However, his average velocity in 2009 was 92.6 MPH, which once again shows that 2010 was the outlier.
There was another big difference from the 2010 season. Meek threw his fastball 71.8% of the time in 2010. He threw it 51.4% of the time in 2009, and 51.9% of the time in 2011. It’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion here on Meek. Was 2010 an outlier season? Was his success due to a focus on the fastball, rather than his off-speed pitches? What led to the spike in velocity? At this point, I don’t think I would count on Meek as a potential set up man. I’d keep him around, hoping that he returns to his 2010 numbers, but the fact that his 2009 and 2011 seasons look identical makes me question whether his 2010 season was legit.
With Meek joining McCutchen, Watson, and Leroux, the Pirates would have two open spots. Chris Resop, Jose Veras, and Jason Grilli are all eligible for arbitration this off-season, and I can’t see the Pirates keeping all three, as it would come at the expense of someone like McCutchen or Leroux, who provide the same production at a cheaper price. Jared Hughes and Daniel Moskos each have options remaining, so they can start off the season in AAA.
I could see the Pirates letting all three of the arbitration eligible players walk. It seems that the needs going in to the off-season are a strong set up man, and maybe a second left hander, which could be filled by either Moskos, or someone like Aaron Thompson or Justin Wilson. For the set up man, the Pirates could go with an overlooked free agent in January, or they could hope that one of the in-house options like Leroux, Meek, McCutchen, or the arbitration eligible guys, emerge as the answer.
It’s also possible that, with the depth in the bullpen, the Pirates could make a minor trade, sending off a guy who profiles as a middle reliever at best, in exchange for a team need at another position.
Whatever the case, the Pirates have a lot of options at bullpen in 2012, and that’s not counting some of the guys emerging from the minors.
It’s hard to evaluate bullpen prospects. Most of the relievers in the lower levels of the minors don’t profile as guys who can make it past the AA level, if that. Most of the top pitchers in the upper levels are working out of the rotation. In those cases, it’s hard to tell how their stuff will play out in a move to the bullpen. For example, Jared Hughes was working in the lower 90s as a starter the last few years, but started flashing a 96 MPH sinker when moved to the bullpen this year.
The two big profile names that were moved to the bullpen this year were Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris. Wilson, a left hander, was moved out of the AAA rotation due to a lack of control, which led to a 4.8 BB/9 ratio this year. In the bullpen, Wilson flashed amazing stuff for a left hander, working in the upper 90s, and hitting 99 MPH on a few occasions. He still dealt with control issues, but that kind of stuff from a left hander is definitely intriguing.
Morris was also moved to the bullpen, although in his case it was due to overall struggles in the rotation. Morris had a 6.04 ERA in six starts this year in Altoona, along with a 17:16 K/BB ratio in 25.1 innings. That was strange, as he had a 4.25 ERA and an 84:31 K/BB ratio in 89 innings at the AA level in 2010. Once he moved back to the bullpen, Morris put up a 2.05 ERA in 52.2 innings, along with a 47:17 K/BB ratio. His mid-90s fastball and solid curveball make a good mix out of the bullpen, and he’s got the stuff and the mentality to be a future closer. He is in the bullpen for now, although the Pirates haven’t ruled out moving him back to the rotation one day. He also has one option remaining, which means the Pirates need to see what he can do in the majors at some point in 2012.
The Pirates have a few starters who profile better as relievers in the majors. Aaron Pribanic and Michael Colla are two of those guys. They both pitched out of the Altoona rotation in 2011. There’s also a few lively arms who have struggled at high-A and AA. Duke Welker has a great fastball, but has dealt with control problems throughout his career. Diego Moreno looked like the closer of the future prior to this year, but struggled at the high-A level. Brian Leach has good stuff, but saw a huge lapse in control this year. Victor Black was returning from a series of injuries this year, and was focused mostly on getting adjusted to pitching on a consistent basis. He wasn’t anywhere near the 96 MPH, future closer scouting report that he had when he was drafted.
The Pirates aren’t hurting for bullpen arms, although they do have a situation to watch going forward. Joel Hanrahan has two years of arbitration left, and if he continues pitching like he did in 2011, he could easily be a candidate to make $7-8 M in 2013, his final year of arbitration. Heath Bell, for example, made $7.5 M in his third year of arbitration. The Pirates could pay that, but a better option would be finding an internal replacement before that point. At any rate, they would need to find a replacement before the 2014 season, as I don’t see them bringing Hanrahan back, considering what it would take to do so on the free agent market. Spending that much on a closer, when you’ve got a payroll around $50 M, isn’t the best use of funds. So while the bullpen looks pretty crowded in 2012, at some point this year the Pirates need a replacement to emerge for Hanrahan.