Jason Grilli left tonight’s game with right forearm discomfort. He will be re-evaluated tomorrow, at which point we will hopefully learn more about his situation and whether he will miss any time. Forearm discomfort and a pitcher walking off the mound and leaving the game after throwing a pitch usually don’t result in just a few days off. It’s very possible the Pirates will need a replacement on the roster for Grilli in the short-term.
Mark Melancon, RHP - No doubt, if Grilli goes down, Melancon is the next in line to close. He has the second best ERA among qualified relievers, next to Jesse Crain. He also has the sixth best xFIP this year out of 151 qualified relievers, so it’s safe to say his dominant numbers are legit.
Justin Wilson, LHP - If Melancon becomes the closer, Wilson is the obvious choice to take over in the eighth inning. He has a 1.86 ERA in 53.1 innings this year, with a 7.8 K/9 and a 3.2 BB/9. His xFIP is lower, at a 3.58, but that’s still the third best on the team. The only argument against Wilson being the eighth inning man is that he’s a lefty, and managers don’t usually like to use lefties in that type of role. The Pirates pretty consistently get six innings from their starters, and they have Tony Watson as a lefty option for the seventh. I don’t see the problem with Wilson as a set up man, but if the Pirates do go with a right-hander…
Vin Mazzaro, RHP - Mazzaro isn’t a name you trust. But if you look at the numbers, he’s been outstanding this year. He has a 2.64 ERA in 44.1 innings, with a 6.1 K/9 and a 2.0 BB/9. He has a 3.87 xFIP, which ranks fifth in the bullpen out of guys who have pitched more than ten innings. The only guys ahead of him are Grilli, Melancon, Wilson, and Jeanmar Gomez (19 innings in relief). Gomez could also be an option. Or the Pirates could go with a combo of these guys and Wilson, taking a committee approach.
Jared Hughes, RHP - He’s currently on the 15-day disabled list, and is rehabbing in Indianapolis. Hughes threw a shutout inning tonight, and threw another one two nights ago. Normally relievers pitch on back to back days as the last step in their rehab before returning. From all the reports I’ve received, Hughes has looked filthy with a great sinker in his rehab work. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him take Grilli’s roster spot if Grilli has to go on the disabled list. If Hughes returns to the majors with nasty stuff, he could be an 8th inning option.
Vic Black, RHP - He turned a lot of heads with a 98 MPH fastball and a plus slider in the Future’s Game. That’s the same old stuff for Black if you’ve seen him at any point in the last two years. He’s got the stuff to close in the future. I don’t think the Pirates could put him in a late inning role right away. Justin Wilson has stepped up as a late inning possibility in his first full season in the majors, but Bryan Morris hasn’t done the same. Black’s got great stuff, but he’s got just as much of a chance as being Morris (slower to adjust to the majors) as he does Wilson.
Duke Welker, RHP - He was called up last month, although that was when Black was injured, and I would think Black is ahead of him on the depth charts. Welker has an upper 90s fastball and a hard slider that is an out pitch. He’s got late innings stuff, but like Black, he probably wouldn’t be a late innings option right away.
Ryan Reid, RHP - Reid was up in the majors earlier, and had a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings, with a 5.7 K/9 and a 2.5 BB/9. He’s not dominant like the guys previously mentioned in this article, but he is a good option for the final spots of the bullpen. In Triple-A this year he has a 0.83 ERA in 43.1 innings, with an 8.3 K/9 and a 2.7 BB/9 ratio.
Stolmy Pimentel, RHP - The Pirates don’t need to turn to Pimentel right away. He’s better used as starting depth in the second half. But he could emerge as a bullpen option in September if he’s not needed in the rotation. Pimentel has a fastball that has touched 98 MPH this year, and consistently hits 96 as a starter. He also has a plus slider that has rapidly been improving in the last year.
Kris Johnson, LHP - Johnson has been a solid starter for Indianapolis. After tonight’s start he has a 2.23 ERA in 96.2 innings in the rotation, with a 66:30 K/BB ratio. His value to the Pirates might be better this year as a third left-hander. If Grilli goes down for an extended period, Johnson could allow the Pirates to use Justin Wilson solely as an 8th inning reliever, while still having two other lefties in the bullpen. He’s not currently on the 40-man roster.
Andy Oliver, LHP - He is on the 40-man roster, but Oliver’s control has been struggling this year. Since the start of May he has a 68:72 K/BB ratio in 67.2 innings. He also has a 4.26 ERA, although that is slightly inflated by his last outing where he allowed eight earned runs. Oliver might be an option for the bullpen, as he has dominant stuff and horrible control. There’s no guarantee the control issues will be resolved as a reliever. The Pirates would need a lot to go wrong in order to turn to Oliver and see if he can pitch as a reliever.
The Pirates have a great situation here. Their set-up man has arguably been better than their closer. You could argue that replacing Grilli with Melancon is an upgrade in the ninth inning (although I’d rather see the best reliever used in the highest leverage situation, but that’s a conversation for another time). Justin Wilson has been dominant, and is a great eighth inning replacement. Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez aren’t 8th inning names, but their numbers suggest they could fill the role, and as we’ve learned from the past, that’s all that matters.
In the minors the Pirates have plenty of relief pitching depth. They have three guys who throw 98 MPH or better with plus breaking pitches (Black, Welker, Pimentel). They have a guy in Ryan Reid who just doesn’t allow runs. They have a lefty in Kris Johnson who has dominated Triple-A hitters this year in the rotation, and would only be needed as a third lefty. That’s not even considering the guys they have in the majors in middle relief who haven’t been mentioned in this rundown.
It’s possible that one of Black or Welker could realize their late inning potential in the majors right away like Wilson did. I’d personally be more comfortable with trying Hughes first. He was one of the best relievers on the team last year, and it sounds like he’s back. He’d be the last reliever in the bullpen, so there’s no harm in giving him a shot and seeing if he’s returned to last season’s numbers. A lot of people will call for Black because of his upside, but people tend to confuse upside with where a player is at right now. It’s far from a guarantee that Black will enter the majors already pitching at his full potential.
Losing Grilli hurts in the sense that you never want to lose a talented reliever. But if Grilli goes down, the Pirates are well stocked to replace him and maintain a strong bullpen.