The Pirates are Returning a Bullpen That Was One of the Best in Baseball

The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates season begins on Monday when the Pirates take on the Cubs. To prepare for the start of the year, I’ll be previewing all of the position groups on the Opening Day roster. Here are the previews we have so far.

The Pirates Rotation Has Some Red Flags, But Still Projects to Carry the Team

The Pirates Won’t Have to Wait For Gregory Polanco to Have a Top Outfield

Pirates Will Once Again Have Strong Infield Defense and Offensive Questions

The Pirates are Returning a Bullpen That Was One of the Best in Baseball – READING

The Pirates Have a Bench That Can’t Hit Right-Handers

Last year the Pirates had one of the best bullpens in the majors. The bullpen combined for a phenomenal 2.89 ERA, which ranked third in all of baseball, and second in the National League. Their 3.35 FIP ranked fifth overall, indicating that it wasn’t just luck that led the Pirates to their success. Many of the members from the 2013 bullpen will be returning in 2014. In fact, the only major change was to swap out Vin Mazzaro for Stolmy Pimentel, which could end up being a nice upgrade if Pimentel realizes his upside in the majors. Here is a look at what to expect from each reliever this year.

Jason Grilli was dominant when healthy last year.
Jason Grilli was dominant when healthy last year.

Jason Grilli

Grilli was lights out last year, posting a 2.70 ERA and a 1.97 FIP. The only downside was that he missed time with an elbow injury, putting him out of action for a little over a month. He was a little shaky when he first came back, but settled down and finished the year with five scoreless outings in a row.

There are two concerns with Grilli heading into the 2014 season. The first concern is that he won’t be able to repeat his 2013 success. Both his FIP and xFIP were lower than his ERA. Part of that is due to his struggles in early September. However, if he continues striking out well more than a batter an inning, there’s no reason to think that he can’t put up an ERA below 3.00, and probably more likely something closer to an ERA around 2.00.

I’m not as concerned with the chance for regression. The bigger concern would be his age and his health. He missed a month last year, and at age 37, expecting full health seems optimistic. The Pirates played it safe with him during Spring Training, limiting his workload and getting him a lot of work at Pirate City, where pitch counts can be controlled. What they need to avoid is a scenario like the 2013 season, where Grilli had 27 appearances in the first two months of the season. It’s not a bad thing to see your closer that often, since that means you’re winning a lot of games. However, winning by more than two or three runs can help to avoid using your closer for every single win.

Steamer: 65 IP, 2.82 FIP

Oliver: 56 IP, 2.91 FIP

ZiPS: 50.1 IP, 2.61 FIP

Mark Melancon ranked as one of the best relievers in baseball last year.
Mark Melancon ranked as one of the best relievers in baseball last year.

Mark Melancon

Despite putting up one of the best seasons of any reliever in baseball last year, Melancon comes with concerns. Like Grilli, there’s the concern of regression. In Melancon’s case, regression seems more likely. He had a 1.39 ERA last year, which was below his 1.64 FIP and 2.05 xFIP. You probably don’t need to see the advanced metrics to know that a guy who posted a 1.39 ERA probably won’t continue with those numbers. However, the advanced numbers from Melancon suggest that he can still post a dominant season.

The other concern comes with his struggles in the closer role at the end of the season. I don’t hold the belief that a pitcher can be dominant in the 8th inning, but needs something special to dominate in the 9th inning. I think it’s more likely that Melancon’s late-season struggles came as a result of his workload and a small sample size. He basically had one bad week at the end of the season, and prior to that he converted 16 of 17 save opportunities.

Considering Grilli’s age and health concerns, there’s a possibility that Melancon could get some more save chances this year. I’d expect him to continue to dominate, although maybe not to the extreme that we saw last year. With Grilli set to be a free agent after the 2014 season, Melancon could use any opportunities this year to show that he can replace Grilli as the closer in future years.

Steamer: 65 IP, 2.74 FIP

Oliver: 70 IP, 2.98 FIP

ZiPS: 68.2 IP, 2.64 FIP

Tony Watson was one of the top five relievers in the game in the second half of the 2013 season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Tony Watson was one of the top five relievers in the game in the second half of the 2013 season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Tony Watson

Watson got off to a bad start during the 2013 season. He had a 4.44 ERA in 26.1 innings through the first two months of the season. That might have been due to the fact that he was dealing with an injury last Spring, which altered the way he prepared for his season. The good news is that Watson was healthy this Spring, getting a lot of multi-inning appearances at Pirate City to build arm strength and possibly prepare for multi-inning roles this year.

The interesting thing about Watson’s season was how he recovered from that bad start. He was one of the best relievers in baseball in the second half of the season. His 0.69 ERA ranked 5th out of 152 qualified relievers in the second half. His 1.89 FIP suggests that he will regress a bit, but still could be dominant.

The biggest change for Watson last year came with improvement to his control. He went from a 4.39 BB/9 in his rookie season to a 3.88 BB/9 in 2012. Last year he saw serious improvements, putting up a 1.51 BB/9. This could be due to a switch in his approach. In 2011 he was throwing a four-seam fastball. He switched to a sinker in 2012, and got more comfortable with the pitch last year.

I doubt Watson will carry his second half results over and continue pitching like one of the best relievers in baseball. However, I could see him exceeding his projections below, especially if he continues showing improvements with his sinker and eliminating the walks.

Steamer: 55 IP, 3.60 FIP

Oliver: 64 IP, 3.69 FIP

ZiPS: 63.1 IP, 3.46 FIP

Justin Wilson needs to maintain his lowered walk rates going forward.
Justin Wilson needs to maintain his lowered walk rates going forward.

Justin Wilson

Like everyone else in the bullpen last year, Wilson had a dominant season, posting a 2.08 ERA. However, if you’re looking for someone who could regress, Wilson is a prime candidate. He’s not at risk of dropping to the point where he’s a bad reliever. He just shouldn’t be expected to put up another ERA like he did last year.

Wilson’s control is an issue, with a 3.4 BB/9 last year. He benefitted from a .229 BABIP and an 84.9% strand rate. That combo means that his walk rate was hidden by a lack of hits, and the impact of the walks were reduced by a high strand rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if the BABIP stays low. It probably won’t be in the .229 range, but Wilson has always had a low BABIP throughout his career in the upper levels. FIP expects him to drop to league average, and I think he could exceed that.

The strand rate will probably go down, which means those walks will catch up to him. He did show improvements last year with his control, posting the best BB/9 of his pro career, including the minors. Whether that can continue will be something to watch. I think Wilson will end up with an ERA in the mid-3 range this year, similar to his 3.41 FIP last year. That’s still a good reliever, but that’s not the dominant looking ERA we saw last year.

Steamer: 55 IP, 3.49 FIP

Oliver: 104 IP, 4.33 FIP

ZiPS: 72 IP, 3.99 FIP

Jeanmar Gomez pitched well in a lot of roles for the Pirates last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Jeanmar Gomez pitched well in a lot of roles for the Pirates last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jeanmar Gomez

Gomez filled a ton of roles last year. He was a starter, a long-reliever, a one inning middle reliever, and a late-inning guy at times. In the process, he had a 3.35 ERA and a 3.85 FIP. His results in the bullpen were closer to the FIP, with a 3.77 ERA. Gomez plays perfectly into the Pirates’ system of strong infield defense and defensive shifts. He’s got a great sinkerball, which led to a 55.4% ground ball rate last year.

The Pirates could use Gomez in a similar role this year, although Stolmy Pimentel’s presence means that Gomez might not make a lot of starts in the rotation. He’s not a dominant reliever who gets strikeouts, but his sinker-heavy approach makes him a great option for the middle innings, long-relief, or any other role he might be needed for. The projections are lower on him, although that could be due to his struggles before coming to the Pirates. Two of the projections also have him getting over 100 innings, which is something I don’t see happening.

Steamer: 59 IP, 3.76 FIP

Oliver: 142 IP, 4.12 FIP

ZiPS: 128.1 IP, 4.14 FIP

Bryan Morris looked like a different pitcher this Spring. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Bryan Morris looked like a different pitcher this Spring. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Bryan Morris

Morris had good numbers last year, posting a 3.46 ERA in 65 innings. However, his 4.34 xFIP suggests he would be in line for regression if he continues pitching the way he did during the 2013 season. Fortunately, he looks like a different pitcher this year.

Morris has added a two-seam fastball, which looked effective in camp. He has been hitting 97 MPH, and his stuff looks nasty. Last year Morris threw his cutter 49.6% of the time. I’d expect him to lean more on his fastballs this year, using the cutter as an out pitch, instead of his primary pitch. That could help him improve the control numbers (3.9 BB/9), and possibly add some more strikeouts compared to last year (5.1 K/9).

It’s hard to say how Morris will perform with his new stuff. Most of the projections have him finishing near his advanced metrics last year. If the new approach does well, he could repeat his 2013 ERA, and actually have the advanced metrics to support that success as legit.

Steamer: 30 IP, 3.74 FIP

Oliver: 76 IP, 4.24 FIP

ZiPS: 74.2 IP, 4.36 FIP

Stolmy Pimentel will get a shot at the Majors this year, with a chance to be a starter next year.
Stolmy Pimentel will get a shot at the Majors this year, with a chance to be a starter next year.

Stolmy Pimentel

At the start of Spring Training I wrote about Stolmy Pimentel, and why he looked like a favorite for the Opening Day roster. He ended up making the team, after getting a starter’s workload during camp. Pimentel’s major league track record is limited to the 9.1 innings he pitched last year. He’s on the team because of his stuff and his upside. Read the article above for a breakdown of his stuff.

The 2014 season will largely be about getting Pimentel adjusted to the majors. The Pirates have three starting pitchers in their rotation who are eligible for free agency after the season. They’ll replace one of those spots with Jameson Taillon. Pimentel could be another candidate to start next year if he does well in the majors this year. I’d expect him to get a Jeanmar Gomez-type role, working some long-relief early in the season, getting a few spot starts, and picking up higher leverage appearances if he starts to show success in other roles.

Steamer: 35 IP, 3.90 FIP

Oliver: 150 IP, 5.11 FIP

ZiPS: 142.1 IP, 4.31 FIP

The Depth

As good as the bullpen was last year, the Pirates were lucky. They didn’t see many injuries to the core group. If you take out September call-up innings, the Pirates had about 60 innings from their depth throughout the season. Four of their seven primary relievers threw 70+ innings in the bullpen. The other three went 65 innings (Morris), 50 innings (Grilli), and 45.1 innings (Gomez). Grilli was the only reliever who had an injury that caused him to miss a lot of time. Gomez was limited in the bullpen because he was helping out in the rotation.

In short, this rarely happens. And don’t expect it to happen again this year. The Pirates will most likely need to turn to their depth, and fortunately, they have a lot of depth to turn to.

The 40-man roster has Jared Hughes, Duke Welker, and anyone who will also serve as depth for the rotation. The Pirates usually try to preserve their rotation depth, so Hughes and Welker seem like the first guys the team could turn to if an injury occurs. Hughes has a nice sinker, but the pitch lacks consistency at times, which is why he hasn’t landed a full-time major league job yet. Welker saw a brief appearance in the majors last year, and ranked as one of the hardest throwers in the league during that small sample. His minor league reports back that velocity up. He’s got the fastball/slider combo to be a late inning guy, and the 2014 season could be his chance to show what he can do in the majors.

The non-roster invitees include a lot of depth options, both left and right-handed. The lefties include Daniel Schlereth, Adam Wilk, and Yao-Hsun Yang. I’d expect Schlereth to get the first shot at a job if one of Watson or Wilson go down. However, regular season results with Indianapolis could change that.

On the right-handed side, the Pirates have a lot of interesting options. Zack Thornton was acquired for Chris Resop a year ago, and had an excellent season in the minors last year. He doesn’t have the best stuff, but pounds the strike zone and gets a lot of ground balls, which is an approach the Pirates seem to like. Jake Brigham, Cody Eppley, Josh Kinney, and Jay Jackson were all minor league free agents, and could be options depending on their success with Indianapolis. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jackson and Brigham get extended roles with Indianapolis early in the season, especially with Jeff Locke getting stretched out and Jameson Taillon missing a month. They could also be two of the main options that the Pirates turn to if they need bullpen depth.




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dr dng

For me, the bullpen IS a concern because it just seemed so automatic last season Get a lead by the 6th, turn it over to the bullpen and game over. Thinking about it, it was also probably a little frustrating for the rest of the league when they played the Pirates as well. I just say to myself, “Can they be that good again?” I guess we will see starting tomorrow!

Brian Bernard

I’m less optimistic about the pen. In this case, please accept the eyeball eval – Grilli has lost a few MPH on the fastball which I think will hurt his effectiveness and Melancon seemed to really struggle as batters focused on an opposite field approach against him. I am higher on Watson and Wilson, and would have preferred Mazzaro over Gomez but those are I suppose lesser concerns. I have no take on Pimentel having not seen him.
Overall, I still like the group but the lack of dominating closing options like we had last year stresses me. In a salvage situation, I wonder who would step into the closer role if the top two struggle? Wilson stands out to me as a strong option if he does take a step forward but after him I’d think Welker has a longshot to impress.
In this senario, we could lose as many as 10 games as compared to last year which would have to be made up, as you noted, with some non save type wins, and that trade-off might be the difference of making or not making the playoffs this year.

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