Spring Training 2013 Position Battles: The Bullpen
With pitchers and catchers reporting today, and Spring Training starting up this week, we will be previewing the position battles to follow throughout the Spring. To keep track of the players who are in camp, and the updated status of each position battle, check out the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training Tracker.
If there’s one area where Neal Huntington has been successful, it’s building a bullpen. Huntington has found a lot of quality, low-cost relievers over the last few years. Joel Hanrahan was a throw-in from the 2009 Lastings Milledge trade, and ended up closing for the team for two and a half years. Jason Grilli was available to any team that wanted him in July 2011, and the Pirates got him on a minor league deal. Tony Watson and Jared Hughes were struggling starters in Double-A who both saw their stocks soar when they moved to the bullpen.
This year the bullpen building will be put to the test. Hanrahan was traded, making Grilli the closer, and testing the “Proven Closer” theory. Mark Melancon was acquired in the Hanrahan deal. He looks very much like Hanrahan looked when he was acquired in 2009 — coming off a horrible season that looks to be the result of some unlucky secondary ratios. From there the Pirates have some hard throwers, 5th/6th starters who might be better as relievers, and several other low-key moves. Those types of moves have worked out well in the past, but this year the majority of the bullpen is made up of those unknown relievers. That doesn’t mean the bullpen will struggle. It just means it won’t come with the comfort factor of having established relievers.
Jason Grilli – Grilli will take over as the closer now that Joel Hanrahan has been traded.
Mark Melancon – Melancon is not only out of options, but he was also one of the key pieces in the Hanrahan deal. The Pirates will be hoping that he bounces back from his 2012 struggles, and pitches more like he did in 2011 with the Astros.
Tony Watson – Watson made more appearances than any other Pirates reliever last year, and he’s the top left-handed option on the team.
Jared Hughes – Right behind Watson in appearances was Hughes. The right-hander also led the bullpen in innings. That’s even more impressive for Hughes, since he spent some time in Triple-A.
The bullpen could be affected, depending on how the rotation shakes out. Right now it looks like Francisco Liriano won’t be healthy on Opening Day. That would move Jeff Karstens to the starting rotation. If for some reason Karstens isn’t in the rotation, he would move to the bullpen, taking the long reliever spot. For now, I’m projecting Karstens to make the rotation with Liriano not expected to be ready by Opening Day.
Out of Options
Contenders: Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris, Jeanmar Gomez
Based on the above locks, the Pirates have three open spots in the bullpen. They also have three players who are out of options, meaning they would have to be designated for assignment if they don’t make the team. Out of this group, I think Bryan Morris has the best chance of making the team. I’d almost put him as a lock. He’s got the most upside here, and I don’t think the Pirates are going to let the final piece of the horrible Jason Bay trade walk without giving him a fair chance in the majors — especially when there’s no reason to let him walk.
Leroux and Gomez both fit the profile of a long reliever and potential rotation depth. Gomez is better for the latter role, since Leroux struggles with his changeup. Leroux has more potential as a relief option. In his three years with the Pirates he has combined for a 3.95 ERA in 41 innings, with an impressive 8.8 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and 0.2 HR/9. The ratios are really what makes him look appealing.
One downside is that Leroux has lost some velocity. In 2010 his fastball averaged 93.8, ranging from 91.1 to 97.2. In 2011 his fastball was averaging 93.7, ranging from 91.8 to 96.5. Last year his fastball averaged 91.0, ranging from 88.9 to 94.3. He also leaned on his slider more, throwing it 57.2% of the time, and throwing his fastball 41.8% of the time. The previous two years he threw his fastball around 63% of the time. Leroux did miss a lot of time last year with a strained right pectoral muscle, which could be the reason for the velocity loss. It doesn’t explain why he leaned more on the slider, unless it was because his fastball wasn’t as effective at lower speeds. That will be something to watch this year throughout the Spring.
Contenders: Andrew Oliver, Justin Wilson, Duke Welker, Vic Black
The four remaining pitchers who have options are probably better off going to Triple-A. Vic Black needs time in Triple-A, as he’s only pitched as high as Double-A. He also needs to continue working on his command. Duke Welker has some impressive stuff, but saw his control issues return last year. That’s something for him to work on in Indianapolis. Andrew Oliver and Justin Wilson are similar pitchers. They’re both hard throwing left-handers with serious control problems. They both have those control problems whether they’re starting or relieving. Both pitchers would be better off going to Triple-A and pitching out of the rotation while trying to fix their control problems.
Contenders: Kris Johnson, Vin Mazzaro, Jonathan Sanchez
The Pirates have a lot of NRI pitchers, but the three with the best shot of making the team are Johnson, Mazzaro, and Sanchez. Johnson is coming off a very impressive performance in the Dominican Winter Leagues. He’s been upper level depth in previous years, spending the 2012 season filling in between Altoona and Indianapolis. The question to ask this Spring is whether he can carry his winter league performance over to Spring Training and break through to the majors.
Mazzaro was recently outrighted to Triple-A to make room for Francisco Liriano. He’s a hard throwing sinkerball pitcher, which doesn’t separate him from Jared Hughes. He also doesn’t have much of an advantage over Jeanmar Gomez or Chris Leroux, so I’d have a hard time seeing him making the team. Right now the Pirates can keep most of those other guys, and keep Mazzaro in Triple-A as depth.
The role for Sanchez is a question mark. I’ve got him as a contender for the rotation, and his upside is probably greater in the rotation. He is coming off a bad year in 2012, which was full of injuries. The reports when he was signed said he was healthy and working on his mechanics. The Pirates would have two ways to show he is healthy. One way is to send him to Triple-A and let him work out of the rotation. They could call him up as immediate depth in that scenario. Another approach would be to keep him in the bullpen in order to show that he can handle things at the major league level. The problem with this is that they’d need to stretch him out in order to use him in the rotation, and he doesn’t have any options remaining.
If the Pirates do add an NRI, they won’t have to worry about a roster spot. Adding an NRI would mean one of Gomez or Leroux would be designated for assignment, opening up a roster spot.
A Second Lefty?
I project Bryan Morris and Chris Leroux to take the fifth and sixth bullpen spots, which means the final spot could come down to a question of whether the team wants a second left-hander. Clint Hurdle has been big on having two lefties in the bullpen, and the Pirates have plenty of options available.
Sanchez, Wilson, and Oliver all fit the same profile. They’re starters with control problems and all three post dominating strikeout ratios. The fact that the Pirates have three of these types of pitchers means they wouldn’t necessarily need to keep all three in the Triple-A rotation. Plus, that rotation looks like it could be crowded. The loser of the Jeff Locke/Kyle McPherson battle will go to Triple-A. Gerrit Cole and Phil Irwin should also both return to the Triple-A rotation. That leaves two spots for Sanchez, Wilson, and Oliver. One of those three would have to go to the bullpen, so why not do that in the majors?
Sanchez would make sense, as Wilson and Oliver are younger, need more work, and still have a remote chance of increasing their value. I think you could also make an argument for Wilson, since Sanchez has shown from 2009-2011 that he can be a successful starter in the majors. At this point Wilson doesn’t seem like a strong bet to improve his control, which means he’s going to need to learn to be successful with that control in the majors. That’s not impossible (just look at Sanchez), and it would be easier if he was working out of the bullpen as the second left-hander.
You’d also have to add Kris Johnson to the mix here after his winter league performance. I don’t fully trust winter league results, so I wouldn’t project Johnson to make the majors solely off his performance in the DWL.
The final spot could go in any direction. If the Pirates don’t care about two lefties, then it could be anyone, including Gomez or Mazzaro. If they want to go with two left-handers — which is the approach I expect they would take — then I’d say it would be a battle between Wilson and Sanchez. If I had to make a prediction, I’d go with Wilson.
Projected Bullpen: Jason Grilli (Closer), Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Bryan Morris, Chris Leroux, Justin Wilson