Last night I wrote about the problems that have been plaguing the Pittsburgh Pirates in the bullpen. They’ve had a lot of guys who were key players in the bullpen last year struggle this year. They’ve had guys traded away who instantly turned things around, which was a process that usually worked out the opposite way, with the Pirates adding the rebound candidates. They added bounce back candidates to the bullpen, and none of them have really bounced back.
Today we got to see the biggest issue with the Pirates’ bullpen. Francisco Liriano had a good start, giving up two runs in six innings. However, the offense was quiet, scoring no runs during that span. Then, Brandon Cumpton came on in relief, and gave up three runs in the eighth inning, which gave Detroit a 5-0 lead. Gaby Sanchez hit a two run homer in the ninth inning, and those three runs ended up being the difference. It’s entirely possible that Sanchez doesn’t hit the home run and things play out differently if Cumpton maintains the 2-0 score. But the fact is that the three runs given up in the eighth were the difference.
It was the same situation on Wednesday. Vance Worley didn’t have a good outing, and left in the sixth inning with the Pirates down 5-4. Stolmy Pimentel gave up three runs in the seventh inning, and the Pirates eventually lost 8-4. Pimentel’s outing didn’t really matter, since Worley gave up enough to lose. But there’s the possibility that the Pirates play different with a one run deficit, and stage a comeback.
These two scenarios aren’t hard to imagine. It’s what happened to the Pirates all throughout the 2013 season. Their bullpen kept them in games when they were behind, just long enough for the offense to come back. That hasn’t been the case this year. The Pirates have a great combo with Tony Watson and Mark Melancon in the late innings, but they have struggled getting leads to those two, or keeping the game close and allowing the offense to come back.
Enter today’s waiver claim, John Axford. The addition was a good one, in the sense that Axford:
1. Didn’t cost anything more than money.
2. Has had stretches in the majors where he has been a solid reliever.
3. Has numbers this year that are better than some of the guys currently in the bullpen.
Axford has really struggled with his control this year, with a 6.2 BB/9 ratio. He also gives up a lot of homers, with a 16.2% HR/FB ratio. That’s above the league average, but it’s also close to what he’s been doing the last few years. He’s a project who needs to cut down on the walks in a hurry. The Pirates weren’t successful turning Ernesto Frieri around. We’ll see if they have any luck with Axford. If they do, then they could find their seventh inning guy.
The Pirates can’t stop with the addition of Axford. They need to find more ways to upgrade their bullpen, which seems to be the biggest weak link on this team (outside of the injuries). Melancon and Watson are obviously secure in their roles. Jared Hughes has been great as a middle reliever this year, although his 1.80 ERA probably won’t continue going forward, as indicated by his 3.76 xFIP. Justin Wilson is on the opposite end of that. His xFIP is 3.88, but he’s been underperforming that with a 4.66 ERA.
If the Pirates could get Wilson to bounce back, that would be another big boost. That’s going to require a drop in walks. He’s been doing a better job of that lately, with a 2.8 BB/9 ratio during the month of August. It’s an extremely small sample size of 6.1 innings, but he’s had four good outings in a row, and the hope would be that he could build on that.
Axford’s 3.98 xFIP would rank fifth on the team, serving as an upgrade over Stolmy Pimentel, Jeanmar Gomez, and Brandon Cumpton. If he can also cut down on the walks, then that could be another boost, while also improving his numbers to the point where he could pass Hughes and Wilson.
Beyond that, the Pirates still have some question marks in their bullpen. The move today upgrades the bullpen, mostly due to the fact that the bullpen has some bad relievers. They could and should add more, but you’re probably not getting anyone much better than Axford at this point, due to the waiver process. Then again, they don’t really need a late inning guy. They just need guys who can be reliable, and be counted on to keep the Pirates in the game. Axford has done that in the past, and he could do it again in the future. Getting more guys of that quality wouldn’t be the worst move they could make.
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