If there was any doubt that Neal Huntington can build a bullpen, then the 2013 season should have erased that doubt. Last off-season, Huntington traded Joel Hanrahan in his final year of team control. In return, the Pirates got Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel, and Ivan De Jesus. Hanrahan made $7 M and went down early with a season ending injury. He will be a free agent this off-season. Melancon put up a 1.39 ERA in 71 innings, and is under control for the next three years.
Sands was disappointing. De Jesus had a good season but looks like infield depth. Pimentel had a great season, looking like he could be a major league starting option for the next six years. But Melancon alone made the trade a win.
It wasn’t just the Hanrahan trade. The Pirates brought back Jason Grilli and gave him the closer’s role, despite no experience pitching in the ninth inning. The pair of moves wasn’t favorable. The Pirates went from an established combo in the eighth and ninth inning to a guy with no experience in the ninth and a guy coming off a down year. It provided no comfort that the Pirates would have a good bullpen. But the Pirates ended up having a great bullpen, with Grilli and Melancon pitching lights out in 2013. People might still believe that you need “proven closers” pitching in the ninth inning, or the same pitching in the eighth, but thankfully the Pirates don’t seem to have that mentality.
There were two other key off-season moves that led to a strong bullpen. The Pirates traded two pitchers out of the Dominican Summer League in exchange for Vin Mazzaro and Clint Robinson. Robinson was lost via waivers at the end of Spring Training, but Mazzaro made the majors and put up a 2.81 ERA in 73.2 innings. He also showed a good tendency to get out of jams. Jeanmar Gomez was acquired in exchange for Quincy Latimore. Gomez made a few starts in the rotation, and was great out of the bullpen, putting up a combined 3.35 ERA in 80.2 innings. Gomez and Mazzaro ended up costing nothing in prospects, and nothing financially, but were both a huge boost in quality bullpen innings this year.
The bullpen options weren’t all external additions this year. Tony Watson was already around, and was an established left-handed reliever. He took that to the next level this year, especially in the second half of the season. Watson posted a 0.69 ERA in 26 innings over the second half of the season, which was the fifth best of 152 qualified relievers during that stretch. He also had a 1.89 FIP to back up that number, which ranked 11th of those 152 relievers.
The Pirates turned to two other young, internal options in Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris. Both pitchers came up through the system as starters, but have moved to the bullpen in recent years. Wilson was immediately dominant, pairing with Watson to give the Pirates two top lefties out of the pen. He had a 2.08 ERA in 73.2 innings, with a 7.2 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9 ratio. Morris had a 3.46 ERA in 65 innings, although his advanced metrics didn’t support that number. He’s got the chance to be a late inning option in the future, but he needs to adjust to the majors with more strikeouts and fewer walks.
On Tuesday I talked about how the Pirates had amazing depth in the starting rotation, which helped them overcome a lot of injuries. The Pirates had a lot of depth in the bullpen, but the bullpen stayed healthy and productive all year. Jason Grilli went down for a few months with an injury, and Jeanmar Gomez missed a few weeks while he was pitching out of the rotation, but that was the limit to the bullpen health problems. Jared Hughes filled in the most when the Pirates needed an extra reliever, but struggled with his control over 32 innings.
Outside of Hughes and the top seven relievers, there was no one else who pitched more than 11 innings in relief. Ryan Reid was the reliever who had 11 innings, and he was the only other reliever with double-digit innings. The Pirates were fortunate that their bullpen stayed mostly healthy throughout the year, although they had the depth if injuries did come up. Because those injuries never came, they were able to trade from that depth in August, sending out Vic Black in the Marlon Byrd deal, and trading Duke Welker in the deal for Justin Morneau.
Overall the Pirates had one of the strongest bullpens in the majors. They combined for a 2.89 ERA, which ranked third in the majors. That was legit, as their 3.59 xFIP ranked 7th. What’s more impressive is that the bullpen threw 545 innings, which ranked fourth in baseball. All of the top ten teams ranked by innings finished below the Pirates in ERA and xFIP. Some of those teams finished well below the Pirates. To have a strong bullpen is one thing, but to have a strong bullpen that is relied upon that often, and stays strong and healthy? That’s something very rare.
Black and Welker were two key pieces of the bullpen future. Black was the top relief pitching prospect in the system, and profiled as a future closer. He even served as a closer for the Mets at the end of the season. Welker was a hard throwing reliever who had the stuff to pitch in late innings in the future for the Pirates. But the trades definitely won’t hurt the Pirates in the future.
As we saw with this year’s bullpen, it’s not difficult to get quality relievers at the major league level. Jason Grilli was originally acquired as a minor league free agent, signed away from Philadelphia’s Triple-A team. Mark Melancon was a buy low move in the Joel Hanrahan trade, and Hanrahan was only a few years removed from being a buy low option himself. Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro cost nothing in prospects or money. Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, and Jared Hughes were all converted starters.
This is how the Pirates can continue building their bullpen in the future. They seem to have the eye for buy low relievers, or just relievers who have no surface value and can be had for next to nothing. Their minor league system is loaded with starting pitching options, and eventually some of those guys will have to move to the bullpen, since you can only have five starters in a rotation. In fact, just look at the current rotation candidates for the top three levels of the minor league system next year.
Triple-A: Jameson Taillon, Jeff Locke (if Burnett returns), Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, Nick Kingham, Kyle McPherson (mid-season)
Double-A: Casey Sadler, Joely Rodriguez, Zack Dodson, Adrian Sampson, Robby Rowland
High-A: Tyler Glasnow, Clay Holmes, Jason Creasy, John Kuchno, Ryan Hafner, Cody Dickson (mid-season), Buddy Borden (mid-season)
Some of those guys are guaranteed to be starters (Taillon, Glasnow as examples). Others look like they could be middle of the rotation starters, but there might not be space in the rotation. There are some who are still more potential than results right now. For example, Dodson, Sampson, and Rowland haven’t put up the best numbers. They will probably move up out of necessity, so they don’t block the guys coming up from West Virginia. They have talent, but don’t stand out as much as the other pitchers at the top three levels. They almost remind me of how Jared Hughes and Tony Watson looked when they were in high-A and Double-A. Those two didn’t look like strong starting prospects, but saw huge boosts once they moved to the bullpen.
Some of the guys above will be future major league starters. Some will be used as depth out of Triple-A. Some might be traded, since the Pirates are getting close to a point where they have enough pitching depth to make such a move and not feel it. But just because of the quantity of pitching prospects above, it’s safe to assume that a few of these guys will be future relievers, and maybe even future late inning relievers. The Pirates don’t have to get all of their relievers internally. They can continue to buy low and get the Mazzaro/Gomez types. But it certainly helps to have options from all talent avenues. If major league teams eventually wise up and stop paying for relievers, or place more value on the buy low types or guys like Mazzaro/Gomez, then at least the Pirates will still have plenty of internal options available to maintain a strong bullpen.