For the past few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have acquired a lot of bounce back candidates in their bullpen, with a lot of those guys actually bouncing back. That approach led to one of the top bullpens in baseball during the 2013 season. Most of that bullpen was returning in 2014, and the Pirates looked to be in good shape.
What led to the success in 2013 was the Pirates going out and getting players who were coming off down years, but who had advanced metrics that indicated they would bounce back. That trend didn’t work as well in 2014. In fact, the Pirates saw two pitchers bounce back on other teams, after struggling in Pittsburgh. They also tried a few of their own reclamation projects, and missed.
Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris were the two players who struggled. Grilli’s struggles were worse, with a 4.87 ERA and a 4.54 xFIP that suggested he was on the decline. Then, he was traded to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri in a deal that looked like the Pirates were getting back the big reclamation project. It turned out that Grilli was the one who rebounded, going on to put up a 3.48 ERA and a 3.40 xFIP. Meanwhile, Frieri continued to struggle, to the point where the Pirates didn’t even call him up in September, despite paying the remainder of his $3.8 M deal.
Bryan Morris wasn’t exactly struggling from an ERA standpoint, as his 3.80 ERA wasn’t much worse than the 3.46 mark in 2013. However, he had a 4.51 xFIP, and a 5.92 FIP, showing he was getting a lot of good breaks. Morris was dealt to the Marlins for a first round compensation pick, which was eventually used on Connor Joe. He immediately turned into a late inning option with Miami, posting an 0.66 ERA and a 3.15 xFIP. His strikeout rate went to a career high 7.97 K/9 and his walk rate dropped to a career low 2.66 BB/9. The biggest change he made was using his cutter more often. He was throwing his fastball 61% of the time in Pittsburgh, with a 31% usage of his cutter. That was switched to 47% fastball and 44% cutter in Miami.
The Pirates bullpen was hurting in the first half of the season, with one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson were two of the best relievers in baseball, but outside of those two, almost everyone else was struggling. Seeing Grilli and Morris go on to turn things around elsewhere really hurt. Jeanmar Gomez and Justin Wilson were two other returning relievers who also struggled, compared to their success in 2013.
There were a lot of rumors at the deadline connecting the Pirates to available relief pitchers, but they opted against making a big move. Instead, they claimed John Axford and Bobby LaFromboise off waivers, and called up John Holdzkom, who was signed out of indy ball over the summer, and was consistently hitting the upper 90s with his fastball. They also showed patience with guys like Wilson and Gomez, and the results were good.
The bullpen was middle of the pack overall in the second half, but it really showed improvements down the stretch. Everything came together in the month of September, after the additions of the new relievers, and the Pirates had the fourth most valuable bullpen in the majors, and the best ERA and xFIP. Holdzkom (9 innings, 1 earned run, 14 strikeouts) was a big reason for this turnaround, although credit also should go to Justin Wilson (3.52 ERA in 7.2 innings) and Jeanmar Gomez and Bobby LaFromboise, who combined for seven innings and one run. Jared Hughes, who was the only reliable middle reliever all season, continued pitching well down the stretch. And Watson and Melancon continued being two of the best relievers in baseball.
The Pirates had one of the worst bullpens in baseball in the first half, leading to calls for that bullpen to be upgraded down the stretch. They didn’t trade a bunch of prospects for Huston Street like the Angels did, and instead stuck to their approach of finding value in the bullpen. That ended up working out just as well down the stretch.
The Pirates are fine with a late inning combo of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. Due to the usage of both players, they could opt to trade one of the two and try to get a huge return. But they’ve still got multiple years of control with each player, so that’s not necessary this year.
The middle of the bullpen was an issue this year, due to struggles from guys like Justin Wilson, Jeanmar Gomez, and a few of the players who departed in the middle of the season. By the end of the season, Wilson was pitching well, and John Holdzkom emerged as a hard throwing right-hander with a nasty palm ball, giving the Pirates two potentially strong options. Jared Hughes had a good year the entire season, although his advanced metrics suggest he shouldn’t have been that good. Still, those advanced metrics had him as a solid reliever.
Melancon, Watson, Wilson, Holdzkom, and Hughes is the start of a good bullpen. They could use two more solid relievers. Some of the internal options are Casey Sadler, Bobby LaFromboise, and Stolmy Pimentel. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pirates try and bring in help from the outside.
Last year the Pirates didn’t bring in many relievers in the off-season. Neal Huntington said during Spring Training that this was a result of their strong bullpen in 2013, and a lack of opportunity in Pittsburgh. That prevented them from being a destination for relievers looking for an opportunity. They certainly won’t have that problem this time around.
The Pirates don’t usually spend on relievers, and that is a process that has worked for them. I don’t expect them to spend big on relief pitchers this off-season, but to acquire a lot of options that could lead to a few bounce back candidates and sleepers.