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.
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