If you want to point to one reason why the Pittsburgh Pirates have been so successful this year, the most obvious reason would be their pitching. I talked about the pitching last night, pointing out how the Pirates are only projected to spend $36.5 M for the number one ranked pitching staff in baseball. But digging deeper into the success of the pitching staff, we can see the real fuel for this year’s team has been the depth.
This isn’t a new concept. The Pirates went through 11 starting pitchers in the first two and a half months of the season. They recently saw their All-Star closer go down with an injury, only to replace him with the guy who has the best numbers of all National League relievers. They have two prospects who have upper 90s fastballs and dominating sliders — Vic Black and Duke Welker — who they have barely had to use this year.
Even after burning through so much depth in the first four months of the season, the Pirates still have plenty to turn to in the final two months. They have Brandon Cumpton, Stolmy Pimentel, and Kris Johnson in Triple-A, all putting up strong numbers. Jeanmar Gomez is expected to make a spot start next week, so apparently the Pirates trust him as an occasional starter, even if he’s not stretched out. In the bullpen they can turn to Black, Welker, Ryan Reid, Jared Hughes, or even Johnson as an extra left-hander. Andy Oliver also recently moved to the bullpen, and could emerge as an option if his control improves in that role. They even have a pitcher who has consistently been hitting 100 and 101 MPH in Erik Cordier who never gets mentioned as an option. Cordier does have some control problems, but has been throwing with a ton of velocity all season.
Earlier this week I wrote that the Pirates don’t need to replace Jason Grilli. We still don’t have a great idea of how long Grilli will be out, but what we do know is that the Pirates have a strong bullpen without him. Mark Melancon has been statistically better than Grilli this season. Justin Wilson has been good enough to be counted on in the eighth inning. Guys like Tony Watson, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, and even Jeanmar Gomez can be counted on in the seventh inning. If Vic Black has an easy time adjusting to the majors, then you’re talking about another late inning option.
Grilli is a great reliever, but he’s also a luxury in a strong bullpen. That doesn’t mean you don’t want him back as soon as possible. It just means the bullpen won’t collapse without him, and outside help isn’t necessary.
That brings me to the subject of Brian Wilson. The Pirates were one of the teams looking at Wilson’s recent throwing session. He’s not really old, at 31 this year, but he is coming off his second Tommy John surgery. Still, he was throwing 90-93 MPH, and could help a major league bullpen.
Wilson is no different than Grilli. He would be a luxury for the current bullpen. The Pirates don’t need to sign him to continue to have a dominant bullpen. That group is already successful, so the biggest thing Wilson would change is providing a strong playoff beard to make up for the lack of playoff beard production (PBP) you’re probably going to see from guys like Jeff Locke and Tony Watson.
The current trade market is shaping up to be a seller’s market. Two months of Francisco Rodriguez landed a Grade B hitting prospect. That’s a pretty steep price just to get two months of a relief pitcher, or about 25 innings. That’s a big reason I don’t think the Pirates should be trading for a reliever. It’s not that I don’t trust Neal Huntington’s abilities to find a reliever. It’s just that anyone good enough to make the current bullpen is going to cost a lot, and any of the “Chris Resop/Jason Grilli” specials like we’ve seen at the deadline in previous years probably won’t have a shot at cracking the 25-man roster.
That’s where Wilson becomes an interesting option. He doesn’t cost prospects. He’s rehabbing, so he wouldn’t have to go directly to the majors. And he’s not too far removed from being a dominant reliever. If the Pirates took a chance on him, they wouldn’t have to bring him up right away. They wouldn’t have to lose any prospects, saving those trade chips for other deadline deals and bigger team needs. They might have to pay more than they usually pay for a guy pitching in middle relief, but that shouldn’t be an issue with their current payroll and their current place in the standings.
The upside of the deal would be big. Having a bullpen with Melancon and Grilli already shortens games. If Wilson bounced back, then you’re talking about playoff games essentially being over if the Pirates are leading after six innings. But the more important thing would be depth. The Pirates have plenty of depth, but you can never have too much. They’re two injuries away from moving from “comfortable” to “starting to worry”. And as we saw with the rotation at the start of the year, two injuries in two months is definitely possible.
There were plenty of teams watching Wilson, so it’s not like the Pirates have some sort of inside track or anything. In fact, if Wilson is looking to showcase himself for next year, the Pirates situation might not be a good one with Grilli and Melancon in the late innings, unless Grilli is expected to be out for longer than expected. But if the Pirates can sign Wilson, it’s the type of move that makes sense for the team. It adds to the current team without taking away from the future. It strengthens the biggest strength of the team, and the reason the team has been so successful. And it improves the depth, which has been the key to the continues success of the pitching staff. Those are the types of moves the Pirates should be after at the deadline, not just in the bullpen, but at all positions.
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