Yesterday I watched Francisco Liriano and Jose Contreras make rehab appearances with the Bradenton Marauders. On Thursday, Charlie Morton is expected to make a rehab start in Bradenton. The rehab appearances by Liriano and Morton mean that they’re at most 30 days from making it back to the majors. With the way the pitching has been going so far this season, those returns would be welcome additions.
You can see how Liriano and Morton could help the team. James McDonald got shelled last night, and there are warning signs which usually point to an injury. Jonathan Sanchez had a decent debut with the Pirates, then was hammered in his second start. To me, the bigger concern here is McDonald, but if Sanchez doesn’t bounce back from that last start you could make an argument that Liriano and Morton could be replacing McDonald and Sanchez soon.
It’s harder to see where Jose Contreras fits in. While the rotation has struggled early, the bullpen has been excellent. Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon have been lights out in the final two innings. Jared Hughes hasn’t been lights out like those two, but has only given up runs in two of seven outings. Tony Watson was getting hit around in Spring Training, and before last night’s appearance he had given up runs in two straight appearances. Justin Wilson has looked good, outside of his struggles with control last night. Jeanmar Gomez would have been the obvious choice, but he’s off to a good start this year.
The bullpen hasn’t been the problem from a results standpoint. So there’s not as big of a perceived need to find a replacement. However, there are some warning signs:
**For as good as Jeanmar Gomez has been, he’s not going to continue having this success with a 1.3 K/9 ratio, even if his 2.6 BB/9 ratio is low.
**It was only one outing, and it was a good one, but Bryan Morris had a 1:3 K/BB ratio in 3 innings. That ratio needs to be flipped around to keep producing those types of results.
**Tony Watson is a concern to me, just because he had been struggling with his mechanics in Spring Training, was getting hit around, and has given up runs in two of his five appearances this year. His control (4.8 BB/9) is the worst of his career, while his 6.4 K/9 is down from the usual 8-9 K/9 from the last two years.
While the results from the bullpen aren’t as alarming as the rotation, I wouldn’t say that all seven guys have spots locked down. There could definitely be an opening for Contreras. And according to Contreras, he’s being prepared to help the bullpen out, although he doesn’t mind spending some time with Indianapolis before that happens.
“They told me to be ready to help the bullpen out, but right now I’ve been rehabbing and I’ve been feeling pretty good at it,” Contreras said through a translator last week. “I don’t care where I’m going to pitch. Where they need me, I’m going to pitch. I don’t care if it’s in the bullpen, starter, if it’s in Pittsburgh, Triple-A, I don’t care.”
Contreras said his stuff feels pretty good, especially his fastball. That fork ball he throws looked nasty at times last night, working in the 91-93 MPH range and having a lot of movement while finishing down in the zone. Contreras is still working on his slider, so that’s not back yet. He’s also struggled in his last two appearances in his second inning of work, although the Pirates would probably only need him as a one inning guy.
He’s coming off Tommy John surgery, and he’s 41 years old, but Contreras could help the Pirates. His career looked to be stalling in 2009 with the Chicago White Sox. He was a starter then, and put up a 5.42 ERA in 114.2 innings, with a 7.0 K/9 and a 3.5 BB/9. The following year he went to Philadelphia and worked out of the bullpen. The results over three years were excellent. He had a 3.74 ERA in 84.1 innings, with a 9.1 K/9 and a 2.9 BB/9 ratio. Those are the dominant ratios you want to see from a reliever. As I saw last night, he still has the stuff, despite the age and despite the injury last year.
Contreras isn’t on the same rehab assignment as Liriano and Morton. Those guys are on the 40-man roster, which means they’re on Major League rehab assignments. That gives them up to 30 days of rehab work in the minors before they have to be in the majors. Contreras is a minor league free agent. Technically he’s just a member of the Bradenton Marauders roster. When Liriano was added, he didn’t count against the roster. When Contreras was added, they had to send Jhondaniel Medina down to extended Spring Training to create space.
The Pirates can keep Contreras in their minor league system up until June 1st. That’s the date when he can opt out of his deal and become a free agent. The first step will be getting ready to pitch in the majors. For starters, that process involves getting stretched out. For relievers, that process involves getting to a point where you can pitch on back to back days. Contreras isn’t to that point yet. The Pirates have more time to get Contreras ready than they do with Morton and Liriano, although looking at his stuff last night, I’m not sure he needs a lot of time. They don’t need to make a decision on him right away. However, it’s pretty much inevitable that they’ll need a reliever or two between now and June 1st. With the way his stuff currently looks, and with his dominant ratios out of the bullpen the last few years, Contreras would definitely be a good option.