PITTSBURGH — Tony Watson is no longer the Pirates’ closer — at least for now.
That was the message manager Clint Hurdle delivered to reporters Friday afternoon. Hurdle had said after Watson blew two consecutive saves in Baltimore that he would re-evaluate the situation, and what he’s come up with seems to be a solid solution.
Felipe Rivero will be used in the highest-leverage situations, whether that comes in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings. Joining him in the back-end of the bullpen will be Juan Nicasio, who will provide a right-handed foil and fill in one of the other spots in the late innings.
Each reliever can go multiple innings and they have some of the best numbers in all of baseball, with Nicasio holding a 1.35 ERA and Rivero sporting an 0.58 figure.
Daniel Hudson, whose changes Travis Barnett wrote about extensively, will help out with the seventh inning, as will Wade LeBlanc.
It adds up to the Pirates getting close to optimal usage out of their bullpen. Rivero and Nicasio have been their best pitchers and with only two men really performing well, they need to be used judiciously and not tied to one inning.
“I don’t think the best thing for our club is to take the hottest pitcher in Rivero — he’s the fourth-best (relief) pitcher in the game right now with any numbers you want to grab — and put him in the ninth inning, not knowing how many reps or touches he’s going to get there,” Hurdle said. “He’s got 31 touches right now. He’s been used aggressively. We plan on maintaining that. Nicasio is not far behind him and his numbers are also solid and strong. It’s the same role. It’s just the start of it is pushed back an inning.
“We’re going to use the bullpen to win games. There’s not a closer. Depending on the lineup and the game situation, Felipe could pitch the eighth, he could be in the same role he’s been in, Nicasio could be in the same role he’s been in. One of them could pitch the ninth.”
As for Watson, Hurdle said the plan is to use him in lower leverage situations while he works on improvements, much as the team did with Hudson.
“He’s got work to do,” Hurdle said. “To get Tony back will make our bullpen the best bullpen. There’s time in front of us. We have to address this first and see where we can take this.”
PLAN FOR TAILLON
Jameson Taillon threw a 25-pitch bullpen session Friday afternoon and had all positive reports.
“I felt really strong all the way to the end,” he said. “My arm felt fine and my legs felt fine. It was all positive.”
Hurdle said that Taillon will rejoin the rotation soon, but declined to provide a specific date. He also said the team is not yet ready to announce who will be coming out of the rotation. He did say that they are considering all three of Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams, and whether the player taken out of the rotation would be better served moving to the bullpen or to Indianapolis. Hurdle seemed to be leaning towards sending someone out, particular if it’s Glasnow or Kuhl.
“It’s not as easy as everyone thinks to slide someone into the bullpen in the middle of the season just after you’ve unplugged him from the rotation,” he said. “There is a lot going on in that young man’s head. They’re not able to pitch back to back days, number one. They’ve never gone out, gotten hot and not pitched, number two. That’s a lot to ask.”
LOVE FOR LeBLANC
After Rivero and Nicasio, the Pirates’ reliever with the next-best numbers is Wade LeBlanc. The veteran lefty, traded for nothing besides some cash at the end of last season, has a 1.09 WHIP and a 3.31 FIP in a team-high (for a reliever) 35 innings pitched.
“He’s a pitcher that every team wants one and most good teams have one,” Hurdle said. “He’s going to do whatever it takes. He’s also got the arm resiliency to do whatever it takes. He’s pitched four out of six days. Nobody knows it. He pitched four out of five on the road. Nobody knew it. Nobody asked about LeBlanc — if he’s available. They just think he’s going to pitch every day. He has had multiple roles. I think his experience lends to that. He understands the role, he’s good with the role and he has provided us some normalcy back there when there’s been some turbulence.”
Chris Stewart is eligible to return from the disabled list, but Hurdle said he’s going to require longer to recover from his left hamstring strain. Stewart performed some running drills on Friday.