Today we wrap up the 2011 Indianapolis Indians preview with a look at the bullpen. So far we’ve covered the infielders, outfielders, and the starting pitchers. A few of the players from the starting pitching preview will eventually factor in to the bullpen as well. Overall, the bullpen isn’t that important. Even when players have success, it doesn’t guarantee success in the majors. Last year the Pirates had Vinnie Chulk, Wilfredo Ledezma, and Justin Thomas dominating out of the Indianapolis bullpen. Chulk went to Japan, Thomas bombed in the Majors, and Ledezma didn’t have any luck in his time in the majors, although he did display good velocity.
For this reason we won’t go over every last player who could possibly pitch in the bullpen this year. Instead, we’ll focus on guys in Spring Training, starters who could turn in to relievers, and some top prospects.
I mentioned in the starting pitching article that I could see Sean Gallagher, Brian Burres, Cesar Valdez, Fernando Nieve, Tony Watson, Michael Crotta, and Aaron Thompson all ending up in the bullpen, whether it was at the start of the season, or later in the year. Eventually the Indianapolis rotation won’t have room for them, as it will contain some combination of Brad Lincoln, the top four starters from the 2010 Altoona rotation, and Donald Veal.
From this group of starters-turned-relievers, the most interesting guys are Valdez, Watson, Crotta, and Thompson. We know what Gallagher, Burres, and Nieve are capable of in the majors. All three have pitched in a bullpen role in the majors, and while they’re good depth to have, they are more or less replacement level players. That’s not to say that Valdez, Watson, Crotta, and Thompson will be difference makers, but there’s a chance that one of them could surprise enough to be a strong middle reliever, similar to the expectations that are on Chris Resop this year.
Watson and Thompson might be the most important, due to the lack of left handed options in the system. Watson seems the most promising of the two, since he’s had success at the AA level, while Thompson has struggled at the same level in a starting role. It wouldn’t surprise me if Watson was in the majors by the end of June.
Relievers in Spring Training
Chris Leroux and Daniel McCutchen are both on the 40-man roster, and both have major league experience pitching out of the bullpen. McCutchen is a former starter, but it seems that the Pirates have made the switch with him, and will use him exclusively as a reliever going forward. Leroux was added late last season, and has stuck around on the 40-man roster all off-season, with one option remaining. His results haven’t been anything special, but he does throw in the mid-90s, which could explain why the Pirates have held on to him for so long.
Justin Thomas returns as a non-roster invitee this year. Thomas made 12 appearances in the majors last year, with a 6.23 ERA in 13 innings, and a 5:5 K/BB ratio. He pretty much amounts to depth out of AAA, which is the role he played last year.
Daniel Moskos is also on the 40-man roster, and should start out the season in AAA, although there has been some speculation that he will go right to the majors, due to the lack of left handed options available. Moskos had a great season in Altoona last year, rediscovering his fastball velocity in the closer’s role. He moved to Indianapolis mid-season, where his control absolutely fell apart. After 17.1 innings in AAA, he returned to Altoona where he eventually got back on track, including hitting 97 MPH in the Eastern League playoffs. His AAA appearance raises some concerns, but a left hander that can hit 97 MPH is not someone who you want to write off.
I saw Moskos several times last year, ranging from his early season struggles, to when he came around with his fastball, to his post-AAA outings, and finally to the point where he rebounded in AA. He didn’t have a strong start to the season, but quickly regained his fastball and started having success in the Altoona bullpen. When he returned from AAA he struggled some, but eventually rebounded to the point where he was a dominant reliever again. There are some control issues to worry about with him, although I don’t think they’re as drastic as the 18:20 K/BB ratio he put up in 17.1 innings in AAA. He should be in the majors by the end of June, if he isn’t there at the start of the season.
Ramon Aguero is also on the 40-man roster, and is another potential back of the bullpen prospect with good velocity on his fastball. Aguero missed most of the 2010 season, so he should start back in Altoona in 2011. If healthy, he should end up in AAA quickly, and might even be a candidate for the majors this year.
Diego Moreno is the best reliever in the Pirates’ system, after having a dominating year in high-A in 2010. He moved to AA briefly, but was suspended by the team and demoted back to high-A where he finished out the season. Moreno will move back to AA this year, and like Aguero, is a candidate to make the majors this year, assuming he gets off to a hot start in Altoona.
Some of the marginal prospects who should also end up in AAA this year: Anthony Claggett, Jared Hughes, Michael Dubee, Tom Boleska, Michael Colla. Craig Hansen doesn’t really qualify as a prospect, but he should also see some time in AAA this year as he tries to come back from the condition to his nervous system that has put him on the bench for most of the last two seasons.
Opening Day Projection
The estimated opening day bullpen:
CL – Daniel Moskos
RP – Fernando Nieve, Chris Leroux, Daniel McCutchen, Justin Thomas, Tony Watson, Cesar Valdez
Candidates to join the bullpen in May/June: Ramon Aguero, Diego Moreno
Could pitch in the major league bullpen in 2011: Daniel Moskos, Fernando Nieve, Chris Leroux, Daniel McCutchen, Justin Thomas, Tony Watson, Cesar Valdez. Ramon Aguero and Diego Moreno could make it, depending on how quickly they move up to AAA from Altoona.