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.
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