I was thinking about the need for the Pittsburgh Pirates to add a second left-hander to their bullpen this afternoon on two different occasions. The first was when Zach Duke signed a three-year deal for $15 M with the Chicago White Sox. The Pirates later announced a bunch of minor league signings, with one of them being left-hander Jeremy Bleich.

These are two ends of the spectrum. On one side, there’s Duke, who is coming off a tremendous year in the Milwaukee bullpen. Duke isn’t a stranger to pitching in relief, as he has done that in the majors since 2011. Something clicked for him this year, leading to an 11.4 K/9 and a 2.45 ERA/2.09 xFIP in 58.2 innings. On the other end, there’s Bleich, who has zero MLB experience, barely any experience above Double-A, and reports that don’t suggest he’s any kind of answer for the Pirates. But it’s not like they signed him to be the answer. This is just a typical minor league signing, which can only help the team, and can’t hurt if Bleich doesn’t work out.

I don’t want to suggest that no minor league signings will work out. Duke was a minor league free agent last year, and he didn’t sign until mid-January. Prior to that, he had been non-tendered by the Nationals in the 2012-13 off-season, re-signed to a minor league deal, called-up by Washington, released, signed by the Reds to a minor league deal, called-up, and then non-tendered again. That was all in the span of a year.

There’s a big gap between where a guy like Bleich is now and where a guy like Duke is now. The Zach Duke from last year fell a lot closer to Bleich than the current version of Duke. Once again, I’m only mentioning Bleich as an example. I think the odds are very small that he ends up being the answer. I also don’t see the Pirates going to the other end of the spectrum to pay big money for someone like Duke. So how can they get in the middle, and find someone like the 2013 version of Duke, who they can hopefully turn into the 2014 version of Duke?

One obvious route they can take is continuing to sign minor league free agents. The cost here is minimal, the risk is zero, and if the pitcher works out, they’ve solved their problem. All of that is easier said than done.

On that same note, the Pirates could take the reclamation project approach to the minor league free agents. The big change for Duke this year was a simple change in his delivery. That kind of small, simple adjustment can be made with any player, no matter how far away from the majors they may seem. Just look at John Holdzkom in 2014. He started the year having trouble finding work in the independent leagues. He finished the year pitching an important role in the bullpen of a MLB Wild Card team. The big difference? Moving his finger slightly closer together when he grips the ball.

Once again, it’s easier said than done. Every year, every MLB team signs about a dozen minor league free agents after seeing something they like, and hoping that a simple fix can lead to a massive value. For the Pirates, it will take more than just someone like Bleich to have a shot at success here, because this is a game of quantity.

Another big approach to finding a successful reliever is the classic case of converting a failed starter to relief. It worked for Tony Watson. It worked for Justin Wilson. It worked for a large majority of relief pitchers, most of whom were starting pitchers at one point in their careers. The Pirates have a lot of candidates internally. Andy Oliver already made the switch, and posted strong results out of the Indianapolis bullpen last year, albeit with the usual control issues cropping up. Joely Rodriguez and Zack Dodson both struggled in the Double-A rotation, but both have shown good stuff in the past, which might play up with a more simple approach out of the bullpen. A guy who might really benefit from a move to the bullpen would be Jeff Locke. He’s good enough to be a starter in the majors, but the Pirates might have more use for him as a reliever, especially with their need for lefties and his second half struggles in back-to-back years as a starter in the majors.

The Pirates have had success in this area before. That’s how they got Watson and Wilson. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them active this off-season, adding several other left-handed options. I would be surprised if they take the same route that the White Sox took, paying a lot of guaranteed money for a position that comes with no guarantees as far as performance goes. They’ve got one of the best lefty relievers in Tony Watson. I think they’ll be able to find another good one, and in the same way they’ve been finding solid relievers for the last few years.

Links and Notes

**Pirates Announce Ten Minor League Free Agent Signings

**Pirates Sign Brad Lincoln

**Mixed Reports on the Pirates Signing Radhames Liz

**Pirates Aren’t Currently in on Justin Masterson

**Tyler Glasnow Named Fifth Best Prospect In AFL

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26 COMMENTS

  1. I really don’t see why Wilson keeps being brought up as a “successful” relief pitcher. He had his moments, but he had a 4.20 ERA, and allowed 79 base runners between hits and walks in 60 innings and always seemed to be in trouble. From June 7th through the end of the season, his ERA was consistently above 4. At some point, I need a reliever who is going to throw strikes, and is going to be able to induce outs.

  2. Hughes is a right handed specialist, not an innings eater, Holdzcom will probably be their 7th inning guy with Watson and Melancon rounding out the 8th and 9th. They do need a left handed specialist, the Cards and Giants did well with this approach, but I agree with the people that say Hurdle won’t play them that way, he is totally bent on role playing, not on situational managing. In Hurdles mind Watson is his 8th inning guy, if he can’t get them out, then you lose, simple as that, the only way he would take him out is if he reached his pitch count or it got to the point that he gave up enough runs that the game was over. IMO, Hurdle not using Hughes and Morris correctly cost the Pirates the division and a very good pen pitcher.

  3. I’m not sure I believe having a second lefty in the pen is even a necessity for the Pirates.

    Clint Hurdle hasn’t shown a strong preference for match-ups, and clearly believes in defined roles in the back end of the pen. That means the 8th is Watson, 9th is Melancon, and the 6th is likely too soon to expect decisions to be made based on handedness. That leaves the 7th inning and tie games as the only likely occasions where that second lefty will be used in leverage situations. I’d rather have the better overall pitcher vs. the one that happens to throw with his left hand given that expected usage.

    66% of the batters Justin Wilson faced as a Pirate were right handed. I think an argument can be made that the Pirates would’ve been no worse – possibly even slightly better – had he been right handed and used in the same situations.

    • NMR: An excellent point – having a second LHRP is a luxury, not a necessity. SK was right until he mentioned Holdzkom as a LHRP. The Pirates have made it known that H could very well join Watson and Melancon as a late innings specialist, seizing that spot from Justin Wilson and Jared Hughes. As for Duke, he had an excellent year, but I think he received a benefit from pitching for a team that had all RHSP’s – lineups tended to be strongly LH hitters.

      • But whoever is the 2nd lefty will essentially be the first lefty, since Watson doesn’t get used in a lefty role. He is the “set up man”, not someone they use for the platoon advantage.

        • Absolutely right, but I think Wilson’s usage shows that Hurdle doesn’t truly have a “lefty role”. And if he already has the 8th and 9th covered as you alluded to, is it really worth having a lefty specialist for the 6th and 7th innings?

          I’d rather have the best reliever they can get, regardless of what hand he throws baseballs with.

          • But the thing I consider is that Hurdle never had a lefty specialist to utilize. Wilson’s numbers are actually slightly better against righties than lefties. If a guy is available who dominates lefties, in our division with some decent left handed bats, I think a lefty specialist is a good idea.

  4. Am I missing something? I thought after trading Wilson, the Pirates made it clear they view Holdzkom as the 2nd LH in pen.

  5. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jeremy Bleich did evolve into a lefty specialist. He is a former first round pick and a pretty darn good college arm at Stanford.

    • So far, he is aptly named (almost)….Blechh.

      But, I hope you’re correct. But, then, Jimmy Barthmaeir and Danny Moskos were ‘darn good’ college arms.

  6. Joe Beimel is out there, had a great year last year as a lefty specialist, and likely is very cheap. I find it very amusing how there are so many lefty relieving options out there who are ex Pirates.

    • JJ: Burnett elevated his game in Wash and then was signed by the Angels for $8 mil for 2 years – in those years he was not worth 8 cents. If I remember correctly, he left Pittsburgh with a bad taste in his mouth – he will wait, hoping for another decent contract. Sometime in late December or January he may be ready to sign a club-friendly contract, and hope to resurrect his career again. Not a big velocity guy, but keeps the ball down, and averaged 70 games a year in his 3 years in Wash.

      • This is very crucial, we need this. I wonder who the oldest guy is who played for the Pirates and is still playing?

        • I believe Aramis Ramirez answers my question. I don’t think anyone is still around who played before 1998

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