The Pirates have been a bit spoiled when it comes to having quality relief pitchers in the back of their bullpen. They had Mark Melancon and Tony Watson from 2013-2016, and that combo ended up being one of the best combos in baseball. Even when you consider that both had a bit of a down year in 2016, compared to their previous years, they rank among the best relievers in baseball during that span.
Melancon ranks first in WPA from 2013-2016, while also ranking first in shutdowns. He was rewarded in a big way with a four-year, $62 M contract that was briefly the highest free agent deal for a reliever in history.
Meanwhile, Watson ranked fifth in WPA and fourth in shutdowns. That is all despite the fact that he had a pretty bad year in 2016, knocking him down in each category.
The Pirates traded Melancon away at the deadline, getting back Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn. Rivero looks like a promising reliever who the Pirates have under control for five more seasons. Hearn has one of the best arms in the system right now, and at the least looks like a guy who could be a power reliever in the majors.
They could also trade Watson this off-season, and possibly get a similar return. Even without the return of a young reliever, they’d be in a situation they haven’t been in since that 2013 season, with uncertainty at the back of their bullpen.
If Watson gets traded away, the Pirates will be going with a back of the bullpen of Daniel Hudson and Rivero, with Juan Nicasio proving another hard throwing option for the late innings. This puts them in a similar position as that 2013 season where they had talent, but didn’t have comfort, due to the inexperience that their relievers had in the late innings.
The Pirates traded their closer away that offseason, sending Joel Hanrahan for Mark Melancon. They moved Jason Grilli from the setup role that he thrived in during the 2012 season, to the closer role, banking on one year and two months of success from the veteran reliever. They had Watson on the team in 2011 and 2012, although he didn’t really start to emerge as a late inning option until 2013, and really took a step forward in 2014 and 2015.
The situation heading into the 2017 season has a lot of similarities. They traded their proven closer for a promising young reliever in Rivero. They’ve got a veteran reliever in Hudson who doesn’t have a large track record of success since reviving his career, but has the stuff to pitch in the late innings. And they’ve got some other relievers who show promise, with the chance of taking a step forward like Watson.
Not everything is exactly similar. Rivero isn’t the same as Melancon. When the Pirates got Melancon, he was coming off a down year, but had been a successful reliever in previous years. He returned to that, and took a step forward after joining the Pirates. Rivero is fairly new to the majors, so his situation is more about taking the step forward, which he has the skill to do.
Hudson is talented, but he is definitely not on the same level as Grilli. The numbers put up by Grilli, prior to his time as a closer, were lights out. Hudson has some good numbers, and they might improve if he makes some adjustments with the Pirates, but it’s hard to be as dominant as Grilli was.
As for finding the next Watson, that’s hard to predict. I don’t know if that’s Nicasio ready to take the next step. It might be someone who isn’t even in the majors yet, such as the hard throwing right-handed prospects in Triple-A — Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas.
The biggest similarity here is that the Pirates have talent in the late innings. They don’t have the comfort they had with the Melancon/Watson combo the last few years. But that combo made us forget how they got to that point — they loaded up the late innings with talented, hard-throwing relievers and put them in position to excel with some key adjustments.
Whether they keep Watson or not (I’m guessing they don’t), the 2017 bullpen won’t have that comfort level. It will have plenty of talent, though. They could definitely use an addition to the bullpen if they trade Watson away, since that would help add some comfort to the situation. But this team needs a solution for beyond the 2017 season, and a relief group they can count on for future years, much like the luxury they had with Melancon and Watson the last several years.
They can accomplish this by rebooting the bullpen, and giving chances to Hudson (under control from 2017-2018), Rivero (2017-2021), the young prospects in Triple-A who have over six years of control, and possibly a new young reliever if they get that type of return in the Watson deal or any other deal.
Much like 2013, this will be a reloading year for the bullpen, where they trust unproven guys to carry the bullpen. But as we saw in 2013, that plan can work if the pitchers you are relying on have the talent to lead a bullpen.
**Here is How to Redeem Your Pirates Prospects Gift Subscription. If you bought a gift subscription for someone, use this link to show them how to redeem it. You can still buy gift subscriptions year-round on the products page. We also have the 2017 Prospect Guide available for pre-sales.
**The Pirates Spent the Francisco Liriano Savings, So Let’s Review the Trade Again. One of the questions about the trade has been answered, so I reviewed the deal to see where it stands today.
**Winter Leagues: Eric Wood Connects on His Third Homer of the Winter. John Dreker with the latest winter report.
**Pirates Sign Two Players Out of Independent Ball. A few minor moves to add some depth to the system.
**Blue Jays Among Several Clubs With Interest in Andrew McCutchen. Over the weekend, there was a rumor that Toronto has looked at McCutchen with on and off interest this offseason.
**David Todd Podcasts: Daniel Hudson Interview, Ivan Nova and Jose Quintana Analysis. My podcast last week with David Todd, and his interview with Daniel Hudson.
**Pirates Claim RHP Nefi Ogando From the Marlins, DFA Jason Rogers. I’d expect we will get a resolution on Rogers tomorrow.
**Pirates Announce 2017 Minor League Coaching Assignments. All of the coaching assignments were named last week. The coordinator assignments should be coming out soon.
**Scott Mitchell and Justin Meccage Promoted to New Coordinator Roles. We do know two of the coordinator roles, as Scott Mitchell and Justin Meccage were promoted to new pitching coordinator positions.