To put it nicely, the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen was a disaster. That’s not exactly nice, but it’s probably the nicest way to describe what happened. Players under-performed, then went on to other teams to look lights out (Jason Grilli, Bryan Morris). The team excelled in previous years with reclamation projects, but didn’t find that same magic for most of the 2014 season (Ernesto Frieri). Mark Melancon and Tony Watson were two of the best relievers in baseball, and Jared Hughes had a surprising season, but the rest of the bullpen was disappointing.
It seemed like the Pirates would have a lot of openings and a lot of competition for the 2015 bullpen at the end of last season. That’s almost a given after a season like we just saw. And the bullpen will have some roster competition, which makes it the only position group that has real roster battles. But it won’t be a free-for-all as expected. A few of the spots are already locked down. Some late-season success from a few other pitchers might give them the inside track. And then there are the guys who have incredible stuff and no MLB success, but might have an inside track over everyone else with a lack of MLB success, due to their lack of options.
Below I have detailed the outlook for the bullpen heading into Spring Training. There will be some competition, but in reality it seems that there will only be nine guys who will really be competing for seven spots.
Guaranteed Roster Spots
Mark Melancon – He has quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last two seasons. He’ll return as the closer.
Tony Watson – He joined Melancon near the top of the relief pitching rankings last year, and should give the Pirates a dominant set up man once again in 2015.
Antonio Bastardo – The Pirates traded Joely Rodriguez to get a strong second lefty in Bastardo, which makes it easier to use Watson as a set-up man.
Likely to Have a Spot Guaranteed
Vance Worley/Jeff Locke – If Charlie Morton is ready to return by Opening Day, and right now it looks like he’s on track for that, then one of Worley or Locke will make the bullpen.
Radhames Liz – He fits the same “hard thrower with questionable control and no MLB success” category as some of the guys on the list below. However, the Pirates gave him a guaranteed $1 M contract, which means they probably see something in him that would make him more of a guarantee than the rest.
Options Remaining, But Good Numbers
There are two players competing for a spot who have a similar situation — they put up good numbers in 2014, but have options remaining, allowing them to be sent to Triple-A. Those two players are Jared Hughes and John Holdzkom. Their performances in 2014 would definitely warrant them getting a roster spot over any of the guys below. However, the upside of some of the guys below might be good enough that you hold on to them for a bit longer to see what they can do.
Out of Options, but Great Stuff
Arquimedes Caminero and Stolmy Pimentel present an interesting situation. Both have amazing stuff, with the ability to touch 98 MPH or higher with their fastballs, and good secondary stuff. They have both struggled with control and command of their pitches, which has prevented either from breaking out in the majors just yet. But they’re both still young enough that you want to take a risk on their stuff.
The problem: if one of Worley/Locke makes the team, along with Liz, then you’d have to send down Hughes or Holdzkom to make room for one of these guys. In previous years, the Pirates could do that, in order to maintain as much talent as possible. Now that they’re contenders, they might have to cut someone who has the chance to be a future impact reliever, all because they need to focus on who is giving them the best chance to win now.
I’d include Rob Scahill in this group, but he has options remaining, which means he’s unlikely to make the Opening Day roster. That goes for every other reliever or minor league free agent in camp not listed above. Their best shots would be a wave of injuries to hit the bullpen, and they’d need more than two in order to have a strong chance of cracking the squad.