The Pirates haven’t had any issues putting together a good bullpen in recent years. What’s even more impressive is that they continue putting together strong bullpens with inexpensive acquisitions. That was once again the story in 2015.
The 2015 bullpen finished 7th in baseball with a 4.7 WAR. Looking at some of the advanced numbers, they finished first overall in WPA (11.80), first in shutdowns (186), and tied for fifth in the fewest meltdowns (62). To put those numbers in perspective, the Royals had a 9.83 WPA, and a 159:61 SD/MD ratio with their highly regarded bullpen.
A big reason for the success came from Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. The late inning guys were two of the best relievers in the game this year, and played a big factor in the Pirates having such a shutdown group.
Melancon started the year a little rough, with a velocity dip in April, but quickly returned to his dominant self and eased any concerns about a potential downfall in 2015. He ranked first among all relievers in baseball with a 5.19 WPA, and first with 49 shutdowns.
Meanwhile, Watson wasn’t far behind. He was fifth in WPA at 4.13 and second in shutdowns with 44. With these numbers, perhaps the only reliever combo that could match the Pirates came from the Yankees, with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Those two combined for an 8.46 WPA, which falls short of the 9.32 WPA from Melancon and Watson. However, their combined 71:14 SD/MD ratio pales to the 93:10 mark from the Pirates’ combo.
It wasn’t just Melancon and Watson that led to success. The Pirates had a strong group of relievers that only got stronger at the deadline. Their middle relief group was inconsistent throughout the year, with Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, and Antonio Bastardo dealing with struggles at times. That led the Pirates to pursue relief help at the deadline, adding Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton to the mix. Sure enough, right when that happened, the other relievers started putting up strong numbers again.
Bastardo finished the year with a 2.98 ERA and a 3.33 FIP. His second half was fantastic, fueled by a strong run the final two months that saw him combine for a 1.75 ERA and a 1.54 xFIP. Those numbers made him essentially a second Tony Watson. Caminero also saw some better results in the second half, although he did fade a bit at the end of the season, with his walk rate going up and the strikeouts dropping. Overall, he posted a 3.62 ERA and a 3.77 xFIP in 74.2 innings on the season, which isn’t bad for a guy that was acquired for cash at the start of the year.
Hughes had a bit of a different story. He spent the first half of the season being the only reliable middle reliever in Pittsburgh, with a 3.65 xFIP. He struggled in the second half, posting a 4.75 xFIP, although that did see improvements in September, when he got back to a 3.92 xFIP on the month.
The trade pickups couldn’t have worked out better. Joakim Soria had a 2.03 ERA and a 3.15 xFIP in 26.2 innings, with his most important contribution being that he allowed the Pirates to reduce the workloads of Watson and Melancon. Meanwhile, Blanton was added off waivers, and was fantastic, with a 1.57 ERA and a 2.77 xFIP in 34.1 innings, serving many different roles in the process.
The Pirates did go through a few rough experiments to get their final group. Radhames Liz didn’t work out, despite strong numbers in the Dominican Winter League last year. Rob Scahill put up some decent numbers, but ended up going down with an injury. Deolis Guerra couldn’t repeat his Triple-A success, although an injury could have played a role here. Vance Worley was pretty good in a long relief role, but the team eventually moved on from him to add Blanton, which worked out well.
Overall, the Pirates weren’t perfect, but they had a group that gave them consistent production and shutdown results. They had the best late inning combo in the game the entire season, and had at least one middle reliever performing in each month, even if the names changed from month to month. By the end of the season they had so many talented options that the number of productive guys behind Melancon and Watson made them the best reliever group in baseball for the final month of the season.
A rumor came out today that the Pirates have Mark Melancon on the trade block. It’s not surprising, since Melancon is in his final year of control, and projected to make $10 M in arbitration. They took the same approach a few years ago in dealing Joel Hanrahan in his final year, and getting Melancon back in the deal.
That’s going to drastically change the short-term look of the bullpen if Melancon is traded, and it’s hard to say how that bullpen could look, since there are so many options and ways to add relief pitching. It’s also hard to predict relief pitching prospects, since those can come from different areas.
The Pirates do have some prospects who are specifically relievers in the minors and could be relievers in the majors. John Holdzkom could be an option if he gets over the health issues that derailed his 2015 season. Montana DuRapau had a big season this year, finishing off strong in Double-A. John Kuchno and Brett McKinney are two other relievers who pitched in Double-A this year and could eventually pitch in the majors.
Then there are all of the upper level starting prospects — Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, Jason Creasy, Tyler Eppler, and so on. Some of these guys will make it as starters, but the reality is that not everyone from this list will stick as a starter, and some might have more success as a reliever. That’s what happened with Tony Watson and Jared Hughes.
To get a further idea of the many ways the Pirates can add relievers in the future, let’s look at where they found their relievers in 2015.
Mark Melancon – Acquired for Joel Hanrahan
Tony Watson – Was a struggling Double-A starter turned reliever
Jared Hughes – Another struggling Double-A starter turned reliever
Arquimedes Caminero – Acquired from the Marlins for cash
Antonio Bastardo – Acquired from the Phillies for Joely Rodriguez, who was a Double-A starter with the Pirates that probably profiled best with the team as a reliever one day
Vance Worley – Acquired from the Twins for cash
Rob Scahill – Acquired from the Rockies for Shane Carle, who would have otherwise been in the Altoona rotation at the start of the year
Deolis Guerra – Minor league free agent
Bobby LaFromboise – Waiver claim, and someone who wouldn’t be bad as a second lefty if Tony Watson is the closer (which technically makes him a third lefty)
Joe Blanton – Waiver claim
Joakim Soria – Acquired for JaCoby Jones, which was the highest price of any of these guys, but obviously inflated due to the deadline
The Pirates should continue getting good relief pitching options from all avenues. Some of their future relievers are in the system right now. Some will come from trading guys who are currently in the system. Some will come from “dumpster diving” moves. The track record has been strong here, and I don’t expect the results to change going forward.