BRADENTON, FL — At this point in the off-season, the Pirates have collected enough hard throwing relievers that they could almost fill two MLB bullpens with guys who have hit 97+ MPH in their careers.
They’ve added Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio to deals that combine for about $7 M, making them guarantees to make the bullpen. Feliz has topped out at 103 MPH in his career, and 99 last year. Nicasio topped out at 98.9 MPH, which came last year.
They’ve added Yoervis Medina, Trey Haley, Jorge Rondon, and Curtis Partch in smaller deals like waiver claims, cash trades, or free agent signings. Medina has topped out at 97.3, including 95 last year. Rondon hit 99 last year. Minor league reports have Partch topping out at 97 and Haley hitting triple digits.
Those guys join a bullpen that already has Arquimedes Caminero, John Holdzkom, and Rob Scahill as options. Caminero topped out at 101.1 MPH last year, Scahill has topped out at 97.8 (96.1 last year), and Holdzkom was topping out at 97.4 in 2014 and has hit triple digits in the past. Tony Watson could also join the 97 MPH list, since he’s topped out at 97.0 in 2013, and 96.9 in 2015.
With that kind of velocity, and six guys added this off-season, it would be easy to think the Pirates had a specific thing in mind when they went out looking for relievers this off-season.
“We’ve always liked power, but we like guys that throw strikes,” Huntington said on whether they had a focus on power arms. “We like guys that have secondary pitches. We like guys that induce weak contact. Power arms give you a larger margin for error. 98 doesn’t have to be on the edge of the zone. If you can move 98 around the zone, or 96 around the zone, it’s better than moving 92 around the zone. It hasn’t been necessarily a concerted effort to go get a bunch of guys who throw hard, but guys who have velocity, who have some secondary stuff who can induce weak contact — those are guys we’re interested in. Hopefully we can help some guys throw some strikes to some extent, but when you have power, it gives you a larger margin of error.”
The ability to throw strikes hasn’t been easy for some of these guys. The Pirates seem to be banking a bit on that last comment, with helping some of these guys fix their control issues. They’ve had success with this in the past, most recently with Caminero. But I had to ask the question that I’ve been asked repeatedly this off-season: Is there a limit to how many guys Ray Searage can work with, especially now that Jim Benedict is gone?
“That’s the beautiful part of the program, is it was never just about Jim Benedict. It was never just about Ray Searage,” Huntington said. “Ray is fantastic. Jim Benedict really helped us. But we have some other guys that can step in, and will step in to fill those roles. Our focus for Ray Searage is to make sure the projected 12 that we’re taking north are ready to go. It’s to win games from day one of Spring Training.”
If the Pirates get a few of the guys above to step up and fix their control issues, then they’re going to have the makings of a great bullpen, with several guys who can go multiple innings. That part is important, because the Pirates haven’t been as aggressive with adding rotation options this off-season.
The current rotation projects to have Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, followed by Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong. The final three project as fourth or fifth starters at their best, which doesn’t give the Pirates a strong group. Huntington has said in the past that Juan Nicasio could be an option for the rotation, and reiterated that again today, saying that Nicasio will be stretched out in Spring Training as a starter. But that still leaves the rotation with a lot of question marks.
“There’s no question we’re going to have some guys step forward, and pitch with a bit more consistency, or we’re going to have to have some guys step up and come out of our system, and help us over the course of the year,” Huntington said.
They’ll get a boost at mid-season when Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon arrive. But both have things to work on before they come up.
“We’ll get [Taillon] some upper level competition,” Huntington said. “We’ll get Tyler some continued advancement against upper level competition, and look forward to those guys helping us at some point this year.”
So what happens until then?
It might not be a big coincidence that the Pirates have been focusing so much on the bullpen. Huntington said that that the big focus with the bullpen wasn’t adding power arms, but adding guys who can take over earlier for the starters, with the ability to go multiple innings. The Pirates feel they can trust Cole and Liriano to anchor the rotation, with the bullpen helping the final three spots.
“If the remaining three guys can give us a legitimate chance to win every time they take the ball, and our bullpen can carry them multiple innings, because we’ve constructed it as multiple guys who can go multiple innings, it gives Clint flexibility and versatility, and the ability to use the bullpen how he wants, and not how he has to,” Huntington said.
This is similar to the approach the Pirates took with J.A. Happ last year. Yes, Happ had amazing numbers. However, the Pirates were quick to pull him. He only pitched beyond the sixth inning in two of his 11 starts. In one of those starts, the Pirates had a four run lead. In the other start, he was pulled in the 7th without recording an out, with another four run lead. The rest of the outings saw him go six innings or less, even if he was well below 100 pitches. Five of his starts saw him throw fewer than 90 pitches.
The usage wasn’t the reason Happ had success, but you’d have to figure that his success wouldn’t have been as great if he was given a chance to go 7 innings and 100+ pitches every time. The Pirates took him out earlier than they would with someone like Cole or Liriano. It was easier to take this approach with Happ in September, because the Pirates had a deeper bullpen. It would be more difficult to take this approach for two months with three starters, which is why the Pirates are focusing on getting the right bullpen arms.
“When the bullpen is where we line it up, and how we want it to go, then yes, the idea was to give Clint the ability to go get our starters a little bit earlier, if need be,” Huntington said. “But if the starters can go deeper, and if our offense allows us to have the starters go deeper, then that would be ideal as well.”
The tricky thing here is the usage of the bullpen. Huntington praised Clint Hurdle’s ability to manage the workload of the pen. Last year the group was overworked, but Hurdle still managed to avoid guys going more than three days in a row, and gave them proper time off after longer outings. I don’t think the 2016 bullpen could afford to pick up Niese, Locke, and Vogelsong every start for multiple innings, but if those guys can put together a few good starts here and there, then the bullpen could help them out in the other appearances.
This is also where the velocity comes into play. Huntington mentioned that the velocity allows guys to play in any role, and used Nicasio as an example.
“Nicasio could go two innings,” Huntington said. “He could go the 5th and 6th, but he could also go the 7th and 8th. Or he could go the 8th. Or he could go three hitters in the 9th, depending on [the usage of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson].”
It doesn’t sound like there will be specific roles for any of the relievers in the bullpen, outside of the obvious roles for Melancon and Watson in the late innings. Because of that, the Pirates could have a different guy stepping in each night as a long reliever, and other guys stepping in for short relief a few days after a long relief appearance. That could make the workloads easier to manage.
The approach will be interesting. I still think the Pirates could use another starter for their rotation, and I’m not convinced that they’re set with the current options. But even if there is another starter added, we could see a situation in the bullpen where they load up on multi-inning guys and use those guys to help boost the rotation with some early exits.
**The Pirates have seven players eligible for arbitration, and the deadline to tender deals is this Friday. The Pirates are a file and trial club, which means any players who don’t sign pre-arb deals by Friday will go to arbitration with the team. Huntington didn’t have any deals to announce today, but said that the agreements tend to come down to the deadline.
“Most of the discussions tend to happen as you get closer to the deadline, and we anticipate that will be the same this year,” Huntington said.
The players eligible, and their projected salaries, are as follows:
Mark Melancon – $10,000,000
Tony Watson – $4,600,000
Jeff Locke – $3,500,000
Francisco Cervelli – $2,500,000
Jared Hughes – $2,200,000
Jordy Mercer – $1,800,000
Chris Stewart – $1,600,000
**The Pirates signed Daniel Bard last week, and he’s current at Pirate City participating in the workouts. Bard has thrown 17 innings combined over the last three seasons between the majors and minors. As a result, he won’t be competing out of major league camp, but will start in minor league camp, with a chance to work up to being an option in the second half of the 2016 season.
“Our goal is to have him help us at some point later this year,” Huntington said.
I wouldn’t classify Bard with the other guys who are hard throwers, simply because there’s a chance that he isn’t that same guy anymore. However, the Pirates still like his stuff and what they’ve seen from him in the last year.
“It’s a guy that’s obviously had a ton of success in the past,” Huntington said. “Has had some challenges. Took some steps forward last year with a different organization, but wasn’t able to take that final step. Figured it would be a worthwhile shot to see if we can help him recapture some of the strike throwing ability he has had in the past. We still see the stuff, and felt like there was an opportunity to see if we can help the young man.”
**Huntington on Jung-ho Kang’s rehab: “He looks great. He’s done a nice job of keeping the overall conditioning level up, and now we’re beginning to ramp up into baseball type activities, and getting ready to take that next step. Just how much has the lower half deconditioned? How much has the rest of the body deconditioned, despite all of his work? I don’t mean to say that he hasn’t worked, because he’s worked hard. He’s worked his tail off to keep in as good of a condition as he can. But how much has the time down deconditioned him? That’s only something we can answer as we go through each step of the process. He’s in a great spot. He’s done everything we’ve asked, and then some, to put himself in position to be ready to go as quickly as possible.”
**Huntington mentioned Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, Wilfredo Boscan, and Kyle Lobstein as rotation depth guys aside from Taillon and Glasnow. I wouldn’t be surprised if Boscan and Lobstein start in the Triple-A rotation to give some early season depth, with Kuhl being the next guy up after he gets adjusted to upper level hitting. I could see Williams and/or Brault starting the year in Altoona due to a numbers crunch.
**Huntington on Nicasio: “A guy that has Colorado-skewed numbers, but when you take them out of Colorado, you put them in context, a guy that could be an option for us, depending on how the rotation shakes out.”