First Pitch: Time to Start Looking at the Bullpen Depth

Jose Contreras could be a 7th inning option for the Pirates soon.

Jose Contreras could be a 7th inning option for the Pirates soon.

If there’s one thing the Pirates have been good at, it has been finding relievers. Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, and even guys like Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro have come cheap for their production. Those bullpen scouting skills look like they will be put to the test this year. Tom Bragg wrote today about how the bullpen has been over-worked, noting that a lot of the current relievers are on pace for career innings totals. If that continues, then the Pirates are likely to see some injuries, or poor performance from pitchers. When you combine that with the fact that some relievers are already playing over their heads, and will see an eventual regression, then things don’t look as good for the bullpen in the long-term. In the short-term, the short outing by A.J. Burnett tonight didn’t help matters.

Fortunately the Pirates have some depth. They’ve already started to call on that depth this year. Vin Mazzaro is currently in the majors, while Bryan Morris was up a few weeks ago and threw three shutout innings. One player who could be arriving soon is Jose Contreras, who just finished throwing back to back days in a rehab appearance with Altoona. Contreras’ stuff looked nasty when he was rehabbing in Bradenton. He didn’t have good stuff in his second inning of work, so he’ll probably only be a one inning guy in the majors. He’s had success in the past as a reliever, and could emerge as an answer for the seventh inning spot.

The Triple-A starters also provide some depth, although that depth is needed more for the rotation right now. Jonathan Sanchez and Jeff Locke have both struggled. James McDonald is coming off a great start, but has been inconsistent. Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton are both rehabbing, and both should be back in a week or two. Until then, guys like Phil Irwin, Andy Oliver, and Kris Johnson are better used as rotation depth. If Sanchez and/or Locke fail to make it as starters, they could move to the bullpen and help out there.

The bullpen in Triple-A has some options. Aside from Morris, the 40-man roster currently has Duke Welker and Vic Black. Both are hard throwers with plus breaking pitches. They also both have control problems, but the upside of late inning relievers.

The problems in the majors have led to problems in Triple-A. As a result, Kyle Waldrop, Brooks Brown, and Ryan Reid have taken on multi-inning roles or spot starts in the last week. All three have pitched well, and they all three showed some potential during Spring Training. Mike Zagurski could also be added to this list. None of these guys are going to have the upside of Morris, Black, or Welker, but the hope would be that they could be as productive as Gomez or Mazzaro.

The Pirates have depth, but the problem is that depth only helps after a pitcher goes down or struggles. Very rarely do you have a situation where a pitcher performs well, then suddenly needs to be replaced. If that happens, it’s usually an injury, which isn’t good. What is more common is a reliever struggling for a certain period of time, and eventually getting replaced. That’s not a good situation. Take Jared Hughes as an example. He had great numbers last year in 75.2 innings. This year he has given up a run in 4 of 10 appearances, including 3 of his last 4 appearances. Ideally you want to avoid as many bad performances as possible. But where do you draw the line between a guy having a bad week, and a guy not being the best option for your team anymore?

Even with the depth, the Pirates are going to have some struggles. They will need to let someone play themselves out of the bullpen before turning to the depth options. And then there’s no guarantee that the depth options will step up immediately like Morris and Mazzaro have done. The easiest solution would be for the starters to get things straightened out, thus reducing the workload on the bullpen and making it so you don’t look at a Triple-A pitching staff full of depth options and think that might not be enough.

Links and Notes

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**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.

**Top Performers: Gregory Polanco Quietly Having a Strong Season.

**Top Performers: Andy Oliver Has Been One of the Best Pitchers So Far.

**A Lot Being Asked of Pirates’ Bullpen.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Week Ten Recap, Bryant Finds Home Run Stroke.

**Prospect Watch: Sanchez Hits Walk Off Homer, Bad Start For Taillon.

**Marauders Win Fourth in a Row Thanks to Big Nights From Osuna, Kingham.

**Minor League Schedule: 4/23/13.

**The Bullpen Didn’t Need Burnett’s Control Issues.

Tim Williams

Author: 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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  • jg941

    The issue with Hugfhes isn’t just his bad numbers – if you’ve been watching him each game, it’s become obvious that he has become an ineffective pitcher, either way off th eplate or right-down-the-middle (or so it has seemed)

    I think a well-timed wake-up call is needed there (given that he has all of his options remaining), and perhaps a call-up of Morris or Welker is warranted (and then see where everyone is once Contreras is ready to go.)

    • emjayinTN

      jg: The loss of command by Hughes this year is obvious to the eye and also in the stats. His WHIP in 2012 was 1.15/in 2013 1.61, and his GO/AO in 2012 was 2.70/in 2013 1.57 which means his ball is not sinking as it did last year, when he was inducing a lot of ground ball outs. Mentioned above is Kyle Waldrop, I think a HS teammate of Michael McKenry. Right now at AAA he is 1-0, 2.25 ERA, 14K/2W, 2.67 GO/AO, and a .175 Average Against. I like Hughes, but right now he is off his game, and coming in at the most pressure-filled moments is not conducive to being able to work at it “on the job”.

  • https://profiles.google.com/102804497270034978273 Marco Rincones

    Jose Contreras has always seemed to have a miraculous arm. It would be wonderful if we still believe this to be true late this season after he has helped the Buccos bullpen to become one of, if not, the best in the NL. With Karstens, Morton and Liriano possibly coming to the aid starting staff – if even one of them can be effective and remain healthy for much of the season – well, we might just keep winning close, low-scoring ball games. And, if our offense could continue to improve….Well, it does give a man hope doesn’t it!

  • leadoff

    Contreras is coming, count on it whether the bullpen is worn out or not, someone is going back to the minors.
    As far as the options the Pirates have, it is good to have many, both in starting and bullpen, most teams in baseball would like to have as many options. IMO, because they do have as many options as they have, I don’t think they are going to wait around for players to completely crash before they make changes.
    Pitchers like Locke and Sanchez are not pitching that bad and both are improving each game, maybe not at the rate that the Pirates or Pirate fans want, but they are not regressing and both of them are throwing well.
    Early season stats are not what the Pirates are looking at with these two pitchers.
    The option situation could dictate who comes and goes, I don’t know if Contreras is on the 40 man. I do believe that if they make a move with Sanchez other than the 25 man they probably will have to release him. Right now he is pretty well stretched out and it looks like his arm strength is built up. His next start should be interesting.

  • benny113

    Jeff locke is amazing he just needs to be molded he has played so long at the minor league level and the amount of time he spent at triple a he was dominate the best prospect pitching wise the pirates have