2010 Position Recap: The Bullpen

Hanrahan was one of the most dominant relievers in the majors in 2010.

This time last year the bullpen was a huge question mark.  Closer Matt Capps was coming off a horrible season, and due for his second year of arbitration.  Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek had some promise, but neither could really be counted on, as hard as that is to believe now.  Meek had decent numbers in 2009, but struggled with a high walk rate.  Hanrahan rebounded with the Pirates, but that was only after bombing with the Nationals.  Jesse Chavez and Steven Jackson had decent numbers, and both were middle relief options.

Then things started to fall apart.  The Pirates non-tendered Capps.  They traded Chavez to Tampa Bay in exchange for Akinori Iwamura.  They outrighted Jackson to AAA, which wasn’t really a huge loss.  They were left with Hanrahan, coming off a roller coaster season, and Meek, who still hadn’t rebounded from the control issues that plagued him his entire career.

The Pirates said they would put the money that would have been used on Capps back in to the bullpen.  They signed Javier Lopez in the middle of December, then signed D.J. Carrasco, Brendan Donnelly, and Octavio Dotel in the span of a week in the middle of January to round out the pen.  Dotel was signed to become the closer, with Donnelly added as the set-up man, putting Hanrahan and Meek in low pressure situations.  Carrasco was more of a utility pitcher, while Lopez had to battle for a spot and ended up making the major league roster out of Spring Training.

The signings turned out to be a success for the most part.  Dotel struggled in April, but was effective as the closer.  Even better, he was traded at the trade deadline in exchange for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo, in a deal that already looks to be extremely lopsided in the Pirates’ favor.  Donnelly didn’t have the same success, struggling with his control throughout the season before getting released prior to the trade deadline.

Dotel and Donnelly served their purpose, as Meek and Hanrahan both had huge seasons.  Meek put up a 2.14 ERA, and more importantly a 7.9 K/9, a 3.5 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9 ratio.  Hanrahan was extremely impressive, with a 3.62 ERA, a 12.9 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9.  Hanrahan recorded an amazing 100 strikeouts in 69.2 innings of work this year.

Carrasco and Lopez were also surprises to an extent.  Carrasco was good in 2009, and just repeated his success with the Pirates.  Lopez had a down year in 2009, and bounced back with the Pirates.  Both players were traded at the trade deadline, with Carrasco going as a key part in the Chris Snyder trade, and Lopez being traded for John Bowker and Joe Martinez.

The Pirates added two relievers off the waiver wires shortly after the trade deadline: Chris Resop and Chan Ho Park.  Resop had excellent numbers in AAA for the Atlanta Braves, got injured after his first game up with the team, and was designated for assignment, being selected by the Pirates on waivers.  Park struggled with the Yankees, fell on waivers past every AL team, and was claimed by Pittsburgh on the same day.

Resop was a huge surprise, with a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings with the Pirates, along with an 11.4 K/9, a 4.7 BB/9 and an 0.5 HR/9.  Park saw a big rebound to his season, with a 3.49 ERA in 28.1 innings, along with a 7.3 K/9, a 2.2 BB/9, and an 0.6 HR/9.  Resop definitely earned a job heading in to the 2011 season with his numbers.  Park is a pending free agent, although I argue that the Pirates should re-sign him for the 2011 season.

The bullpen wasn’t a total success.  Throughout the season there were waiver claims and failed starters, plus depth options to fill in for injuries.  Hayden Penn, Chris Leroux, Dana Eveland, and Sean Gallagher were all disastrous additions.  Steven Jackson and Brian Bass spent more time than they should have giving the Pirates an extra arm in the bullpen every so often.  Wilfredo Ledezma and Justin Thomas had success in AAA, but didn’t carry that over to the majors.

A big reason for all of this was the rotation.  The Pirates had a very over-worked bullpen, mostly due to the poor starting pitching they received.  Pirates relievers combined for 540.0 innings in 2010, which was 5.2 innings below the team with the most relief innings in 2010, and 22 innings ahead of the third worst team.

Throughout the season the Pirates had an excellent bullpen where it mattered, with Dotel as the closer, plus Hanrahan, Meek, Lopez, and Carrasco helping out with their strong numbers.  Even after the deadline the Pirates had the back end of the pen covered with Hanrahan and Meek, and discovered new options like Resop and Park.  The bullpen probably was better than it seemed, but because the starting pitching was so bad, the bullpen got over-worked, and as a result gave too many innings to pitchers who shouldn’t have been getting innings in the first place.

Building the 2011 Pen

If there’s one thing we can take from the 2010 season, it’s that we shouldn’t have to worry about the makeup of the 2011 bullpen.  The Pirates are better off this year, as they have Hanrahan and Meek as the late innings guys.  Last year they had to find those guys.  This year they have to find the middle relievers who can develop under Hanrahan and Meek.  One of those guys might already be here in Resop.  If they re-signed Park, that would give them a strong group for the final 3-4 innings of a gam.

Jeff Karstens and Brian Burres are both out of options, and both did fairly well as starting pitching depth in 2010.  Karstens would be my choice of the player to keep, and might end up with a spot in the bullpen as a mop up guy/spot starter.  That would leave three bullpen spots open, and two if Park was re-signed.

One interesting option is Wilfredo Ledezma, who had a bad ERA, but put up a 10.1 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in his 19.2 innings of work.  Ledezma could replace Lopez as a sixth inning guy, and his fastball velocity, plus his 2010 ratios suggest he could manage to surprise in 2011.

The Pirates will definitely have to go externally for a few pieces, unless they want to give guys like Daniel McCutchen and Joe Martinez a shot at the pen to open the season.  The good thing about searching for bullpen arms this year is that the Pirates don’t need to add a Dotel.  They’ll be adding players to fill out the fifth and sixth spots in the bullpen, which means they can possibly take a chance on another Resop-like player.

The Future

Almost every team in the majors, including the contending teams, has a revolving door when it comes to bullpen spots.  Teams keep their top relievers for extended periods of time, such as their closer, a set up man, and maybe a middle reliever.  However, the rest is usually subject to turnover.  Fortunately the Pirates have their future in Hanrahan and Meek, with Hanrahan under team control through the 2013 season, while Meek is under team control through the 2014 season.

The Pirates have two talented relievers in the upper levels of the minors who could be back of the bullpen pitchers.  They are Daniel Moskos and Diego Moreno.  Moreno was named the best relief pitcher in the minors this year by Baseball America after his successful season in high-A.  Moreno gets his fastball up to 98 MPH, allowing him to record ridiculous strikeout numbers.  He was promoted to AA this season, but had a run-in with a staff member and was suspended and demoted back down to high-A.

Moskos returned to the bullpen this year, and while the early velocity results weren’t encouraging, he did manage to rebound, getting his fastball up to 97 towards the end of the year.  He was named the number seven relief prospect in the majors by Baseball America, in the same poll that Moreno was rated number one.  Moskos got a brief call to Indianapolis, and saw major struggles, especially with his control.  He was demoted back to AA, where he helped lead Altoona to the Eastern League Championship.

Both pitchers have what it takes to succeed in the majors.  Both players also need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft this off-season by being added to the 40-man roster.  Moskos should start in AAA, while Moreno should start at the AA level.  I could see Moskos arriving in the majors by June.  As for Moreno, he has the fastball needed to pitch in the majors, he just needs to work on making the adjustments to successfully climb the ladder.  I’m not sold that he can do that in 2011, but he could be a candidate to arrive in 2012.

There’s also the crop of starting pitchers coming up from Altoona, with Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson all likely to start the 2011 season in Indianapolis.  They could be joined by Brad Lincoln.  If the Pirates got two legit major league starters from that group, it would be a good result.  As for the remaining three, they could be candidates to switch to relief, further helping the bullpen.

I wouldn’t rule out an eventual trade, specifically with a guy like Hanrahan.  If the Pirates could package Hanrahan as part of a deal to get a starting pitching upgrade or a position player upgrade, they should definitely take advantage, provided the player in return is under team control for multiple seasons.  One thing that was understated in 2010 was just how dominant Hanrahan was.  Out of 134 qualified relievers, Hanrahan finished with the third best strikeout rate.  The only pitchers who topped him were Carlos Marmol and Billy Wagner, and Marmol had some major struggles with his walks.

With Meek and Resop holding down the late innings, and several high upside options in AA/AAA next season, it could make sense to sell high on Hanrahan to fill one of the needs in the rotation, or at either first base, shortstop, or right field.




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