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.

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  1. Pirates are not looking like a team that can compete in 2016 in any meaningful way. However they can retool and shed some payroll so they can utilize it elsewhere next offseason. Try have assets in Joyce, SRod, Feliz, Melancon, and even Niese. Throw in Freese except that I really like him being on the team haha. That brings back some decent prospects / payroll flexibility

  2. So, he passed over Stallings to pick up a veteran and castoff who has the exact same profile as Stallings. Why didn’t they just reward Stalling and give him the promotion? He’s been in the system awhile – another case of the Pirates going with external options over their own prospects. Nothing changes….
    I didn’t see much in the way of Neal taking the bulk of the responsibility for the mess of the entire pitching staff, not just the bullpen. Its all on NH and his FO – and they continue to make things worse by stubbornly refusing to promote their prospects and rid themselves of the tried and failed….

    • I’m sorta on the fence about this post.

      I’m fine with Stallings staying down. As far as what’s best for the organization, does it really matter which sub .200 hitter is behind the plate? Conversely, Stallings has (by the profiles on this site) been managing the AAA pitching staff very well. Getting those pitchers MLB ready takes precedence over promoting a catcher who can’t hit. So, I think, keeping him behind the plate at Indy is probably the most important thing he can do for the Pirates.

      As for the other youngsters, yeah…I think their time is coming…unless the Pirates un-F*!& themselves shortly, I’d be shocked not to see Bell, Hanson, Kuhl, Taillon, and Rogers on this team by the end of July.

  3. The really frustrating thing is that there isn’t really an external solution to this problem. It’s easy to talk about trading prospects to acquire a top-tier starter, for example, but those guys fall into one of two categories — an emerging star on the verge of free agency with a still-affordable contract or an established star with a contract a team in “sell”-mode wants to get rid of.

    In the former case, the player would cost a fortune in prospects and would almost certainly not re-sign. So unless your gamble pays off with a World Series, it wasn’t worth it. Meanwhile, the latter player would be just as expensive in terms of prospects lost and, while he might stick around past the end of this season, it would be at a cost the Pirates wouldn’t — and probably shouldn’t — pay.

    Which isn’t to say the situation is hopeless, just that the change is going to have to come from within — more specifically, from Taillon, Glassnow and Kuhl. I’ve heard all the reasons why bringing them up now is a bad idea in a perfect world, but we no longer live in a perfect world. Desperate times require desperate measures.

    If we were the Dodgers, Yankees or Red Sox, we could just take a bad contract off another team’s hands, but the Pirates don’t have that luxury. Realistically, they only have two cards to play: They can be patient and hope the pitchers they already have start pitching better or they can bring up the kids and hope the novelty doesn’t wear off until October.

  4. The sad part is that Polanco and Marte have both stepped up to stardom as hoped for, Harrison and Jaso have done the job as starters, Kang has come back as dangerous as before, Joyce won the backup job and performed above expectations, Freese does great at a bargain price. The big disappointment is Cutch. The pitching situation was some what predictable and the FO has to wear it.
    This team would be dangerous with pitching and some semblance of a normal Cutch.

  5. I’m glad Neal at least admitted that he needs to do better in the off-season. From a pitching standpoint this past off-season was a complete disaster. Anyone still believe that Ray Searage can fix any pitcher that’s handed to him? Anyone? Anyone still think that the Pirates would be foolish to pay market value for pitching? Anyone?

    I think their bench and every day lineup is good enough to play in the World Series right now. I really do. Their pitching staff, top to bottom, just isn’t nearly talented enough to contend and that was obvious from the first day of the season. Now that they’re playing some quality pitchers, the offense isn’t bailing out the pitching staff. There isn’t really an end in sight either. If things don’t change quickly, they will struggle to be better then a .500 team.

      • They are second in all of baseball in Team batting Average (.272), third in OBP (.347) and sixth in total runs scored. (300)

        Pitching wise they are twentieth in ERA (4.22), have given up the tenth most runs (293) and have the fourth most walks (233). I was a little surprised to see that they have only given up the 10th most homeruns (74)

        Bitch about the offense if you want, but there aren’t too many teams with better line ups statistically. Pitching staffs, on the other hand… There are many. Too many.

        • Just the facts. As politely as I can put this the trend is falling rapidly. Esp with cutch not looking like he’ll find the magic soon.

          • Just the facts. For the month of June the Pirates average 3.5 runs per game which is a hair low low but right around the league average. However, they gave up 5.3 runs per game, which is horrible. The every day lineup, though certainly not murderers’ row is more than adequate. The problem is the pitching. Clearly.

    • WELL STATED, Thomas H. I could not agree with you more. I was extremely unhappy this past winter, especially after the Vogelsong signing. Neal H. did not even come remotely close in terms of quality to replacing Burnett, Happ, and Blanton. In his defense, he can only work with the budget that Bob Nutting gives him, but this past off season was pathetic in terms of bolstering the pitching, and the chickens are now coming home to roost.

    • I’ll volunteer defending their spending choices. I prefer them spending to sign Polanco and Cervelli to extensions than spending money on Happ or some of the #3 options that were out there last winter.

      • They need to spend on both. It is not 2003 or 2006 or any of the other years from 1993 to 2012 when we were mired in misery. They are a contending organization now (well, maybe not at this very moment; although they could be if they had a better past offseason), and they need to start spending like it. I am not advocating signing people like Zack Greinke to ridiculous deals, but they certainly could have done better than what they did this past winter. They are past the point of having to rely on reclamation projects and since we do not know when help will arrive from Indy., then more should have been done this past winter from a quantity and quality standpoint with regard to upgrading the pitching staff. This 2016 season now teeters on disaster because of the failure to upgrade this past winter

  6. Please don’t deal for relievers when our starters are in a disastrous situation. One or two relieves is not going to fix this. If Cole is done then trade for 2017. I’d even package mccutchen if the deal is right (keeping meadows in mind. As Blaine said to give them a few weeks before it comes to that.

    • I’m of the opinion that no one’s untouchable…ever. But it has to be the right deal. Dealing Cutch now would be bad…unless you find someone desperate, his value is too low right now.

      FWIW, in the pre-spring training battles that were going on here, I floated what I though would’ve been a fair deal for Cutch: A trade to Texas for Mazara, Profar, and DeShields. If I’m Texas…I jump on that deal in February and laugh if it’s proposed today.

  7. Wow can you imagine if they traded malecone during the off season what a mess the bullpen would be in. Come to think of it, it is currently in a terrible mess. Does anyone know how many games the Pirates lost after leading after 6 innings when a relief pitcher(s) came in to hold the lead? Seems like allot to me.

  8. So the best you could do Neil is Erik Kratz! Wow what about all the talent we have in AAA. The great pitching and the hitting. Keep fiddling NH and this season is exactly where you want it! Trade your parts and build up the farm system. Because you do not have an answer to this teams problems.

    • This was always going to be a ‘play for the WC season’. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that…the Pirates don’t have the money or talent of the Cubs.

      I think it’s too early to press the eject button on the season…but not by much. If the Pirates can’t claw their way above mediocrity in the next three weeks, it’s probably time to make some changes and get the team ready for ’17.

      Bell, Taillon, Hanson, Kuhl, and maybe even Rogers will need to come up and, I’m sure, there will be plenty of takers for Jaso, Freese, and Joyce. Other than those three, the Pirates don’t really have any movable pieces…none of the starting OF’s are going anywhere and I don’t know that any of the pitchers have any real value.

      • MLBTR had a blurb that the Cubs aren’t done. They have been kicking the tires on another RP mentioning the Yankee’s big three. The article said that Chapman would be a possible pick up because he is a rental…

      • I really dont see any scenario where the Pirates are selling at the deadline due to the fact that even mediocrity keeps you in the NL wild card race this year. I’d be more inclined to reason that even if they choose to “get ready for ’17”, it would be by adding players with multiple years of control to help this year and in the future as opposed to a pure rental. For example going after Teheran as opposed to Rich Hill or something.

        • And dealing for someone like Teheran is something I think they should avoid doing. With the way the trade market shakes out anymore, a guy like him with that much control is going to be as expensive as hell. I couldn’t envision him being moved for anything less than something like a Glasnow/Hayes deal…and that probably wouldn’t be enough.

          26/29 of their next games are against winning teams…with the state of the club now, I can’t see them winning more than 10-12 of those 26.

          If Cutch doesn’t get it figured out, the starters turn it around, and the BP solidifies itself, I think you’re looking at a sub.500 team come July 18th.

          Oh, and this is all before we learn of Cole’s fate 🙁

          I get what you’re saying, but, if that’s how it plays out…I think the organization would be foolish to start throwing hail mary passes. Get the young guys up, let them get a half-season of ball under their belts, and regroup.

        • NH gamble that the opening roster will keep him afloat until the arrival of prospects, the way that Liriano, Caminero, Watson, Hughes, etc have imploded should have him change course and play the course without trading any good pieces for value prospects. I know that playing the long game is something that many fans don’t care to embrace, but it’s the way to go imo

        • I could see Melancon and Feliz being traded at deadline and Niese too possibly. This team isn’t going to compete in any meaningful way this year. Retool, shed some payroll, and get ready for next year.

          • If everything goes south…Melancon, yes. Feliz is cheap enough that the Pirates would keep him just to have some semblance of a respectable team. Niese is a maybe…he’d have to string together 3-4 good starts and get his ERA around 4 to have any real value.

            I don’t have any special love for Feliz, but I’ll call this now: if the Pirates trade him, the FO has absolutely given up on the team and they don’t win 78 unless, at least, three rookies dominate.

      • IF THE SEASON WENT DOWN THE TUBES, you forgot about the biggest trade chip of ALL…..MELANCON! I see a team needing a utility piece like S-Rod as well. In all fairness, I don’t see Jaso getting traded at the deadline if we were sellers but I can see him getting traded in the offseason. BOTTOM LINE: basically our WHOLE BENCH and MELANCON would be gone!

        • Yeah, Melancon…forgot about him…my oversight. He’d net something, but I don’t know how much…it would be interesting to see. After all, nobody wanted him in the off-season…well, at least not for whatever the Pirates were asking. He’d have more value now, but how much? As Soria cost the Pirates J. Jones, I’d have to think Melancon would be work about 1.5X that. I don’t know that he’d catch on a closer somewhere else, I kinda see him being a guy that moves to the eighth.

          I do disagree about Jaso, if the Pirates pull the plug, Bell gets promoted and Jaso really doesn’t have a role…Rogers could easily be the bench piece that spells Bell and plays the occasional OF.

          • I’ll keep this short! We can agree THEE trade deadline brings MAXIMUM value on a trade so with some competition I see 3 prospects IF HE WAS TRADED ALONE unlike the Hanrahan deal.

            • You love those CAPS!


              Yeah, I agree…Melancon (who isn’t at risk of a QO) will have maximum trade value at the deadline.

              As for three prospects? I think that’s going to depend on how you define ‘prospects’. Minor leaguers? Guys who have a shot at the majors? Those who should make the majors? Those who’ll be starters? Those who’ll be impact starters?

              Heck, the Pirates could get ten prospects for him if you consider that a Whitehead-type player is a ‘prospect’.

              If the Pirates were to get three ‘prospects’ for him, and one was a potential impact guy, I think you’d be looking at someone from the lower levels and the other two would be fringe guys but more advanced. I’m thinking something that would resemble a Tarpley, Osuna, Stallings type of return.

      • Can’t compete with the Cubs now and won’t in the future unless they decide to add to their player budget. The Cub’s are not going away in a long time.

        • I wouldn’t go that far. If 2/3 AAA pitchers get near their ceiling and Bell pans out, this team gets much, much better. Maybe not favored to take down the Cubs but, perhaps, good enough to stick around and pass them if they hit a slump or suffer a key injury.

          However, I do agree the Pirates need to spend some money. The payroll keeps going up a bit every year…if the youngsters pan out, they save a bit more money.

      • Why was this a play for wild card season at the start? The Pirates only lost AJ from last years very successful team. Any other loss was self inflicted. Neal has done a good job for the Bucs but this offseason was probably his worst.

        • Because, being realistic, PGH was a guarantee to be behind CHC to start the year in terms of expectations.

          The Cubs threw a ton of money at an already solid team, and PGH just wasnt spending 40 million in one offseason. CHC simply put together the best team in baseball that no team could match on paper….and then went out and backed that up on the field.

          We’d be a better team with Happ and pushing Nicasio to the pen, but thats still likely 5 games behind where CHC is because CHC is just the best team in baseball. Thus, our best chance from the first pitch was the WC.

        • Not fair to blame NH for the degradation in the pitching staff. Who here predicted Liriano’s demise, or Watson’s struggles?

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