The Pirates have had some bullpen problems this year. They’ve had some rotation problems as well, but the solution there is easy — wait until Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are ready, and hope for the best from Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio, and/or Jon Niese in the few remaining starts until the prospects arrive.
But the bullpen problems aren’t as simple. This isn’t a situation where you can just call up a prospect and fix things. The Pirates had one of the best bullpens in the NL last year, ranking second in WAR, fourth in xFIP, first in WPA, first in shutdowns, and second to last in meltdowns. They were led by Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, who made up the best relief pitching combo in the game.
None of that is holding up this year. They rank next to last in the NL in WAR, next to last in xFIP, 12th in WPA, 8th in shutdowns, and they have the fourth most meltdowns. They had one of the best bullpens last year, and this year they have been one of the worst. So what is fueling this change?
The Late Inning Guys
Mark Melancon – 14 IP, 3.91 xFIP, 0.72 WPA, 6 SD, 1 MD
Tony Watson – 16.2 IP, 4.57 xFIP, 0.48 WPA, 6 SD, 1 MD
Melancon and Watson were supposed to be the anchors for the bullpen, but have both struggled. Out of 173 qualified relievers in baseball, Melancon ranks 96th in xFIP and Watson ranks 136th. They’re not as bad in WPA terms, ranking 26th and 44th, respectively, but that’s a far cry from their placement last year. Likewise, 36 relievers have more shutdowns than them so far this year.
The middle relief for the Pirates has been bad, and we’ll get to that later. But when Melancon and Watson aren’t the shutdown relievers they have been in previous years, then that’s setting a big tone for the bullpen. In this case, you can only hope they revert to their former numbers quickly. For Watson, that involves a mechanical adjustment. Melancon hasn’t been as bad, giving up runs in only three outings, and having only one blown save.
The New Guy
Neftali Feliz – 12.1 IP, 3.21 xFIP, -0.06 WPA, 6 SD, 3 MD
There are a few new faces in the bullpen this year, but Feliz is the guy to highlight. He’s having a good season, although not a dominant season. It looks better than it is right now, just because everyone has been struggling. He makes for a good seventh inning option, but his performance probably isn’t what you want in the later innings to replace Melancon or Watson.
The Usual Middle Relievers
Arquimedes Caminero – 13.2 IP, 5.43 xFIP, -1.14 WPA, 2 SD, 4 MD
Jared Hughes – 4.2 IP, 7.67 xFIP, -0.41 WPA, 0 SD, 2 MD
The Pirates weren’t just successful last year because of Melancon and Watson. They also had a strong middle relief group, led by Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero. Neither of those guys have come close to matching their 2015 production so far.
To be fair, it has only been 4.2 innings for Hughes, and he missed the first month with a lat injury. Caminero, on the other hand, has struggled, leading the team in meltdowns, and ranking last in WPA. Once again, you hope that they revert to their former numbers, although these are guys you can upgrade on.
On the Bubble
A.J. Schugel – 14.1 IP, 3.62 xFIP, -0.48 WPA, 1 SD, 3 MD
Kyle Lobstein – 20.2 IP, 4.54 xFIP, 0.77 WPA, 3 SD, 3 MD
Ryan Vogelsong – 11.2 IP, 6.12 xFIP, -0.12 WPA, 1 SD, 2 MD
There should just be two names in this group, but the Pirates have had so many issues that they’ve been carrying a shorter bench, while carrying an extra reliever. If the Pirates are looking to upgrade on a bullpen spot, it would be one of these guys. Schugel actually has a good xFIP, and Lobstein has a good WPA and has been good in some extended outings. However, they’re both better as depth options, rather than guys anchoring the middle relief spots.
The Pirates will need to see some of their relievers improving in order to get back to having a top bullpen. That said, not every reliever is going to turn things around, and some of the guys in that last group might need to be replaced.
One immediate option might be Cory Luebke. He showed good results in Spring Training, and flashes of his potential when he was up earlier in the season. However, he was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring issue that had him missing the start of Spring Training. He’s rehabbing in Indianapolis, and looking great. You hope that the hamstring led to the struggles, and that he comes back as an upgrade over the last group.
I think the Pirates might also get an improvement when the starting pitchers come up. Juan Nicasio didn’t have a good outing tonight, but overall he has a 3.62 ERA and a 3.95 xFIP in the rotation. He’d made a better reliever, and would really give the middle innings a boost. That would require one of Locke or Niese to remain in the rotation, and so far Nicasio has been the better option. It’s hard to say how Locke or Niese would do in the bullpen, since neither lefty has really worked as a reliever in their careers.
As for prospects, the best option might be Chad Kuhl, if the Pirates decide they don’t need him as a starting option this year. Trevor Williams is another option for the bullpen, if he returns from his shoulder soreness soon (which is expected). Long-term, I think Kuhl has the better chance to start for the Pirates, but in the short-term, I don’t know if either has a spot in the rotation in 2016. The other starter in Triple-A who could be an option is Wilfredo Boscan, although he’s more of a depth option than a solution for the middle relief spots.
Overall, the biggest boost for the bullpen would be Melancon and Watson returning to shutdown options, and Hughes and/or Caminero returning to strong middle relievers. That said, they could use some replacements in the middle relief spots, which could come from Luebke’s return, from rotation options moving to the bullpen, or from Triple-A starters turning into relievers. Later in the season, trades could enter into this equation, although I’m mostly looking at May and June right now.
There are a lot of things that need to happen to get the Pirates back to being a top bullpen again. I’m not completely sold that they will be as good as last year, but I don’t think they will remain this bad all year.
**Prospect Watch: Kuhl Throws Six Shutout Innings, Newman Collects Three Hits. Speaking of Kuhl, he had another strong outing tonight for Indianapolis.
**Altoona Notes: Changes Could Be Coming to the Rotation Soon. Long-term, there are some starters in Altoona who profile better as relievers. Some of them might be making that switch sooner than later.
**David Todd Podcast: An Extended Look at the Farm System This Week. I had two segments with David Todd this week, and we used them to discuss a lot of prospects.
**Morning Report: The Best Stretches of Command During Tyler Glasnow’s Career. John Dreker takes a look at Tyler Glasnow when he’s at his best.