BRADENTON, Fla. – The 2016 MLB playoffs saw some unique bullpen usage, especially with the Cleveland Indians eschewing traditional bullpen roles, and using their best relievers when they are needed. That approach is something that could theoretically help teams during the regular season, especially in situations where a game is at risk early, and the best reliever is being saved for the ninth inning, when a lead might not still exist. But don’t expect the Pirates to go that route this year.
“There’s more conversation externally out in the public than anywhere,” Clint Hurdle said of whether the playoffs changed some views on bullpen usage. “When you have days off, like you do in the playoffs, it’s a completely different dynamic. You’re running out of games. That hour glass has been flipped over, and you’re talking about outs. You’re counting outs. Opportunity arises, you have the personnel to do it. It’s always something that we’ll revisit.”
The Pirates have the potential for a strong trio in the late innings again this year. Tony Watson is the key to everything, and is coming off a down year. He had a 3.06 ERA and a 4.20 xFIP, with a decline in his walks, ground balls, and a big decline in his home run rate. The latter led to issues all year, which really became noticeable when he took over the closer’s role. Prior to the 2016 season, Watson was one of the best relievers in baseball, and the Pirates could use that version as their closer in 2017.
Behind Watson, the Pirates have acquired a potentially dominant duo of relievers. They added Felipe Rivero in the Mark Melancon trade last year, giving them a power lefty who can hit 100 MPH, and could singlehandedly make that Melancon trade look like a steal for years. Rivero has some amazing strikeout potential, especially with his changeup, and could end up being the best reliever on the team this year. If he cuts down on his walk rate, he could end up one of the best relievers in baseball.
The Pirates also added Daniel Hudson this offseason, giving them a power right-hander to pair with Rivero in the late innings. The combination of Rivero and Hudson behind Watson is similar to what they had last year with Watson and Neftali Feliz behind Melancon, and could lead to a lot of success if the players play to their potential.
Hudson hasn’t seen the best ERA, but his advanced metrics have been promising, and he has the ability to get a lot of strikeouts. The Pirates liked what they saw, and went with a familiar route of taking a reliever and hoping the advanced metrics translate to the field.
“I’ve watched him and we got to see him in short stints,” Hurdle said. “I like the arm, the man, the slow heartbeat, the adaptation, the buy-in. He’s grown into it, the ability to pitch late. High-leverage situations, he embraces. He’s got the stuff and the skill set to do it, the makeup to do it, and he could be a guy that could go hand in hand with [Watson] when he’s not available.”
The trio of Watson, Hudson, and Rivero might be a bit more traditional. One area where a non-traditional role might make sense would be with Juan Nicasio. The Pirates tried Nicasio as a starter last year, but moved him to the bullpen in the second half. His results in the bullpen were outstanding, with a 2.96 ERA, a 2.87 xFIP, a 12.0 K/9, and a 2.96 BB/9. The Pirates didn’t really have a role for him either, using him in extra innings, as a multi-inning guy, or in some high leverage situations. That was a role that he thrived in, and will return to in 2017.
“I like the role we had him in last year. He flourished in it,” Hurdle said. “There were games when he could go late leverage, depending on the use of the other guys. There were days when he came in and stopped the biggest situation of the game in the sixth inning, and then was able to add an inning or another inning to it. It was actually a similar situation in what you saw the two men get used for in the post-season. We had a guy doing it for us, and at the end of the season in his exit interview, that’s what he felt best doing.”
The other three bullpen spots currently project to go to Jared Hughes, Antonio Bastardo, and possibly Wade LeBlanc or Tyler Webb for the final spot. All three spots are up for grabs, but it would be difficult to imagine Hughes and Bastardo not making the team if they’re still on the roster by the start of the season.
The middle of the season could be a different story. The Pirates have plenty of starting pitching depth, and guys like Trevor Williams and Steven Brault could help out in the bullpen if needed. They also have two hard-throwing relievers in Indianapolis with Dovydas Neverauskas and Edgar Santana projected to make the big leagues at some point this year.
Neverauskas has done a good job turning his career around the last few years. He always had the ability to throw hard, hitting 95 MPH when he was 18 years old. He didn’t have much control, and never added that control with his four seam fastball. He switched to a two-seamer in 2015 and started getting that pitch up to the 97-98 MPH range last year in relief, instantly becoming a future MLB reliever.
Hurdle said that Neverauskas stands out with his spin rate, velocity, movement, and that the performances on the field match what the scouts and analytics have seen.
“The guy is getting outs,” Hurdle said. “He’s got the ability for swing and miss. He’s got the ability for weak contact. We challenged him at different levels. He was able to adapt and perform well at those levels. He got in the Future’s Game and loved it.”
When Neverauskas makes the majors, he will be the first player born in Lithuania to make the big leagues, which is a pretty amazing story, especially when you consider he is two years removed from looking like a non-prospect in A-ball.
“He’s poured so much of himself into the organization and in his developmental program,” Hurdle said. “We’re impressed with the young man. He’s got a cause as well. Lithuania. He’s pitching to be the first Major League player. It plays in to the equation for him, to impact a country. To do something that nobody else has done before.”
Another good story is the development of Edgar Santana. Two years ago, he was just making the jump to the United States, after spending one year in the Dominican Republic. He didn’t play baseball until the age of 19, after focusing on college first. He’s now the top relief pitching prospect in the system, with the ability to hit upper-90s with movement, along with a plus slider.
Santana moved quickly through the system, but he hasn’t flown under the radar of Hurdle, who heard about him a lot, especially after Santana’s performance in the Arizona Fall League this offseason.
“What’s really good now about our player development system, if I don’t see somebody personally, I have people call me about our people,” Hurdle said. “They see them in the Fall League, they see them pitch here, in the Future’s Game. Santana had a really nice Fall League, and he got a lot of people’s attention in the Fall League. So then you go and grab the video and watch the stuff. The slider is wipeout, the fastball is firm with life. He’s got a changeup that’s a legitimate third pitch that he hasn’t utilized, and he’s going to be able to utilize in the future.
“He’s a late developer. He wasn’t allowed to play ball until he was 19. And the way he’s grasped the mentality — he speaks good English. The common sense part of it, along with the baseball application part of it is kind of special and unique. He’s a very interesting story as well. He’s a guy that likes pitching late. We’ll see where that can take us. He’s in a good spot.”
Santana and Neverauskas have the stuff to pitch in the late innings one day. This year, they will only be needed to add a bit of a bonus. The Pirates already have three dominant relievers in their late innings, along with a flexible reliever in Nicasio. If Santana or Neverauskas can quickly adjust to the majors and provide a boost to that group, the Pirates could have a bullpen by the end of the year with plenty of options to get creative in the playoffs.