It seems like every year around this time I get into the same debates involving the bullpen. If you’ve read this site over the last few years, you know that I’m totally against paying anything for relief pitching. That involves trading prospects to add a reliever, or spending ridiculous amounts of money for a guy who has a limited upside due to his role. And so anytime the ideas come up to trade for a “Proven Closer” to boost the bullpen, I’m against it.
That idea is coming up this week, with a lot of Pirates fans wanting Huston Street. The Pirates seem to have some sort of interest, as they’ve checked on Street. This is a good time to remind everyone that “checking on” a player doesn’t really mean anything. Teams would be foolish to not check on Street, or any other player rumored to be available. You never know when you could get a great deal that you wouldn’t have gotten without checking. But I don’t think that will be the case with Street.
I don’t think the Pirates should deal for Street, or any other big name reliever. They’ve got plenty of prospects in the system, so a trade wouldn’t hurt them for the long-term. They’ve got money to spend, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford it. But spending prospects or money just because you’ve got that to spend is never a wise approach. In the case of relievers, you don’t need to spend to get quality. If you are spending to get quality, what you’re really spending for is comfort. A lot of teams do this, and it baffles me that the process continues, even though we have so much information that relievers are extremely volatile and not worth the expense.
I could talk about how spending for relievers is a bad idea because of how volatile they are. I could talk about how relievers really don’t provide a big impact, especially when you’re talking middle relievers. But if I’m talking about why they Pirates shouldn’t spend on relievers, all I really need to do is look at their history. That history shows that the Pirates don’t need to spend on relievers to get a quality mid-season addition. Here is a look at all of their mid-season moves over the last few years.
The Pirates didn’t really need much bullpen help during the 2013 season, as everyone in their group was performing well. The only outside move they made was signing Kyle Farnsworth as a minor league free agent during the season. He signed on August 16th, after being released by the Rays, and was called up in September when rosters expanded. Farnsworth had limited playing time, but only allowed one run in 8.2 innings, with nine strikeouts six hits, and three walks.
Not every move has worked out for the Pirates. In 2012 they traded Casey McGehee for Chad Qualls and signed Hisanori Takahashi as a free agent at the end of August. The Takahashi move didn’t work out, as he gave up eight runs in 8.1 innings with the Pirates.
The deal for Qualls is an interesting situation that highlights how volatile relievers can be. The Pirates didn’t give up much in McGehee, trading a player who was no longer needed with the addition of Gaby Sanchez. They got Qualls, who had been struggling with New York. Those struggles continued with the Pirates, as he posted a 6.59 ERA in 13.2 innings, with a 6:2 K/BB ratio.
What makes this interesting is that Qualls went to Miami in 2013 and put up a 2.61 ERA in 62 innings, with a 7.1 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9. This year he has a 1.95 ERA in 32.1 innings, with an 8.1 K/9 and a 1.1 BB/9. The move for Qualls didn’t work for the Pirates, but they obviously saw the potential for him to put up much better numbers than what he was doing in 2012. He just waited to put up those numbers after he left the Pirates.
Prior to their first big collapse, the Pirates were in their first year as mid-season contenders in a long time. They weren’t strong contenders, mostly hanging around because of the weakness of the rest of the NL Central. They needed bullpen help, but rather than making a big trade for a reliever, they made a minor move, signing a veteran pitcher as a free agent. That veteran was Jason Grilli, who was free for anyone to take from the Philadelphia Triple-A squad. He had a clause in his contract that allowed any team to sign him to a major league deal. The Phillies could either refuse and add him to their own MLB team, or release him and allow him to sign with the new team. They obviously chose the latter.
Grilli posted a 2.48 ERA in 32.2 innings with the Pirates, with a 10.2 K/9 and a 4.1 BB/9 ratio. He went on to be one of the best relievers in baseball over the next two seasons, before dropping off this year with the Pirates. He has started to turn things around since being traded to the Angels, with a 1.29 ERA in 7 innings, with a 9.0 K/9 and a 2.6 BB/9.
The irony here for the Phillies is that they went out and signed Jonathan Papelbon to a massive four-year, $50 M deal the following off-season. Grilli ended up costing the Pirates a little less than $4 M combined in 2011-13.
The 2010 season didn’t really matter as far as in-season moves, as the Pirates were clear sellers and one of the worst teams in baseball. At the trade deadline, they dealt most of their bullpen, sending off D.J. Carrasco, Javier Lopez, and Octavio Dotel in three separate deals. The returns didn’t provide any lasting impact. The biggest impact was James McDonald, who had some decent results in 2010-12, before falling off last year. They still have Andrew Lambo from that same deal, which sent Dotel to the Dodgers.
Less than a week after the deadline, the Pirates claimed two relievers off waivers. They got Chan Ho Park, who was only with the team through the end of the season, and hasn’t pitched in the majors since. He had a 3.49 ERA in 28.1 innings, with a 7.3 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. That was good production, although it was limited by taking place during two meaningless months.
The bigger impact was the addition of Chris Resop. He was claimed off waivers, and combined for a 3.88 ERA in 162.1 innings for the Pirates from 2011-13. During the 2013 off-season he was traded for Zack Thornton, who was one of two players dealt to the Mets this year for Ike Davis.
This was another year where the Pirates were a horrible team, and weren’t really making mid-season moves aimed at a strong second half. However, they did make a big move to add a reliever, and at the time that reliever wasn’t even the main focus of his deal.
The Pirates were rumored to be going after Lastings Milledge of the Washington Nationals, offering Nyjer Morgan in return. The deal was rumored for a few weeks before it finally happened. When it did happen, there was a second part of the deal added — a swap of Sean Burnett for Joel Hanrahan. That swap was meant to even out the deal for Washington, as Hanrahan was struggling, and Burnett was looking like a good lefty reliever. It ended up that Hanrahan was the best player in the deal.
He immediately turned things around with the Pirates, posting a 1.72 ERA in 31.1 innings, along with a 10.6 K/9 and a 5.7 BB/9. The walks improved going forward, as Hanrahan eventually became a top closer in 2011. His walks struggled in 2012, and he dealt with some injuries, but the overall results were still there. The Pirates dealt him that off-season, getting four players in return. One of those players was Mark Melancon, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball the last two years. He has also been much better than Huston Street, so paying for Street to replace Melancon as the closer would make no sense at all.
Going Cheap With Relievers Isn’t a Bad Thing
Looking at the common trend with the above moves, we can see that the Pirates don’t pay for relievers. They don’t deal prospects to help their bullpen. Instead they use waiver claims, sign free agents, or trade from their bench or bullpen to get potential short and long-term pieces.
The thing about this approach is that the Pirates have had a ton of success. They haven’t been perfect, as we’ve seen with Qualls and Takahashi. But for the most part, they’ve done an outstanding job of paying nothing for strong relief pitching. You could expand that track record by looking at off-season moves that brought in guys like Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, or even looking at their decision to turn struggling minor league starters into strong MLB relievers (Tony Watson, Jared Hughes).
The first attempt the Pirates have made this year has been dealing for Ernesto Frieri. That has not worked out in the first seven games that Frieri has pitched. The irony is that it looked like Frieri had the better chance of rebounding than Grilli, and it has been Grilli who has rebounded so far (although with a lower strikeout rate than normal).
I don’t know if Frieri represents the final approach to adding bullpen help. I do know that after the trade, it was mentioned that the Pirates were looking at him for a few years. With that in mind, I don’t think they’re going to be cutting him loose after just seven appearances.
It’s also possible that the recently signed Rafael Perez could work into the mix. He’s not far removed from being a strong MLB reliever, and right now he’s being used as a starter with Indianapolis. That’s probably to fill out the Triple-A rotation, but also to get Perez more innings and more of a look.
The Pirates might add more guys to help out their bullpen over the next few weeks. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the additions are the same low-key deals. I would be surprised if they pay big in prospects, or take on a guy who is making a lot of money. That’s just not what they do when it comes to the bullpen. And I’m fine with that. There are some who would call the Pirates cheap, citing basic analysis that trading prospects or spending money is the only way to make a good move. As we’ve seen throughout the last few years, the Pirates have a great track record of adding relievers without paying for them. There’s no reason that approach should change now.