PITTSBURGH – The Pirates’ bullpen has been a frustrating mess for most of the season. The back-end of the bullpen, which features talented, experienced arms, has been inconsistent, and some of the team’s projections haven’t panned out with some of the other arms. It’s a problem that general manager Neal Huntington seems keenly aware of, and eager to address as the season goes on.
“Very atypically for us, all of our relievers have had a tough outing or two somewhere along the way,” Huntington said. “If it was one guy, it would be a heck of a lot easier for us.”
Huntington was surprisingly frank in addressing the bullpen’s misadventures this season.
“I need to do something better here this summer to help this club. Certainly, I have to have a better off-season as a big picture when we go forward.”
The first part of fixing the bullpen is getting it to a point where there are enough healthy and available arms for it function — especially with a lead — the way it was designed.
“We like the talent we have and we think we can get some guys back on track,” Huntington said. “The big part is getting Clint back to the stability of being able to use his relievers when he wants to instead of when he has to. We’re not letting him do that for much longer than a 5-6-7 game stretch.”
The Pirates made strides on that front this weekend, giving Neftali Feliz, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson consecutive days off on Saturday and Sunday going into the team’s off day on Monday. Jared Hughes only faced two batters, as well, setting up the bullpen to be in prime health for Tuesday’s visit to New York.
The Pirates are still carrying an extra arm, something they were hesitant to do.
“At one point in time, I feel like over half of our position player group was day-to-day,” Huntington said. “That’s a tough way to go through it. To give Clint the ability to rest a player here and there, we just didn’t feel that it was in our best interest to drop to a four-man bench. We still have some guys that are dinged up, but we felt we were more healthy and given the stress of the innings again, we felt it was right to go back to eight receivers. We’ll literally go about it day-by-day if we re-balance or if we stay with eight relievers.”
One of the bright spots of the team’s bullpen shuffle over the last few weeks has been the opportunity for relievers to get extra work in during their time in Triple-A. The pitching staff in Indianapolis is a big part of the Pirates’ plan when it comes to rehabilitating struggling relievers, either from inside or outside of the organization, according to Huntington.
“It’s a testament to Scott Mitchell, our pitching coordinator, the connection he has with Ray Searage, Stan Kyles, our Triple-A pitching coach — who does a terrific job — he and Ray are also connected and then [Euclides] Rojas is in the middle of everything. [Indians manager] Dean Treanor is a long-time pitching coach. He should have probably been a major league pitching coach somewhere in his career. We’ve got some real quality pitching minds down there. They share information, they share thoughts. There’s a great connection between our major league staff and those guys.
“It’s nice to be able to take the ‘every pitch matters’ element away from the major-league environment. Every pitch matters there, but it’s different. To be able to go down and work on a mechanical adjustment, or pitch sequence, or to be able to work on some specific pitch, or some adjustment that we believe is necessary, it’s hard to do it up here when every pitch matters.”
So if step one is to get the back-end back on track and step two is to see continued improvement from the likes of Arquimedes Caminero and A.J. Schugel, is step three adding an arm to the bullpen from the outside? Huntington wouldn’t rule it out, but said it wasn’t likely in the short-term.
“In the trade market, the bigger names really don’t get involved until July,” he said. “If you want to get somebody involved, it’s a dramatic overpay at this point in time. … There’s a few small type trades so far this year. We’ve been aware [of them] and felt like if we got our guys on track, we’d be as good, if not a little bit better.”
In 2011, Huntington had to deal with a mess at the catcher position. That’s why, in the midst of the MLB draft Friday night, Huntington knew he had to act quickly from what he saw happening in Pittsburgh on his television screen.
“When Francisco [Cervelli] took the swing and how he responded, just from watching on television from Bradenton, seeing how [trainer Todd Tomczyk] was poking around the hand, we had a very strong inclination that it was hamate. He had all the signs and symptoms of hamate.”
Huntington quickly dove into his database and came up with Erik Kratz, a former Pirates catcher who had recently been on the open market and a player that Huntington had a hunch might be available.
“We’d worked through a backup catcher list from the moment Elias Diaz got hurt,” he said. “We kept it, we targeted guys, we kept track of guys. When Erik came available [from Houston], we talked about trying to sign him and bring him to Triple-A with us, but we didn’t think we’d have an immediate opportunity for him at the major-league level.”
The reason Huntington didn’t want to quickly snap up a catcher when Diaz went down was the improved play of Jacob Stallings at Triple-A Indianapolis. Similarly to Kratz, he’s a glove-first catcher with underwhelming offensive stats (he’s hitting just .197 in Indy), but has gotten rave reviews in his receiving the team’s top pitching prospects.
“In Jake’s case, he had a great spring training,” Huntington said. “We talked about him for a long time as an internal option as the Diaz injury came about. As we kept checking out external catchers, we realized Kratz was the best option and allow Jake to continue to develop.”
The only hiccup with that was that Kratz had signed a contract with the Angels in the interim.
“We called the Angels,” Huntington said. “Erik had an out on June 15, and the Angels did a very professional thing and let him out on June 11.”
For Cervelli, who had developed something of an injury-prone reputation before joining the Pirates, the hamate break wasn’t a nagging thing. One swing it was fine, the next, he was being taken from the field and headed to surgery.
“The hook of the hamate is a bone that unfortunately, on the handle of the bat, [with the] wrong pressure, wrong place, wrong swing, wrong time and it’s going to snap,” Huntington said. “The only healing process is to take it out. The bone will not heal on its own, especially with the repetitive trauma of a swing.”
The injury is surprisingly common among Major League players. Pedro Alvarez, David Ortiz, Nick Markakis, Pablo Sandoval, Giancarlo Stanton and Troy Tulowitzki have all had the injury.
“It’s, unfortunately, a part of the game,” Huntington said. “Sometimes it gets missed because it can be diagnosed as wrist pain. Our guys did a nice job of identifying a hamate immediately. Francisco went and had the surgery as quickly as he could. I’m very comfortable with our doctors, and he’s already on the road to recovery.”
Huntington said that Diaz will probably not be an option to help out in Cervelli’s absence.
“Diaz is probably still looking to return later than Cervelli if all goes well for Francisco at this point in time,” he said.