Neal Huntington Talks Bullpen Construction, Possible Changes

PITTSBURGH — Options abound for a Pirates bullpen that’s been the biggest sore spot in an otherwise uplifting start to the 2018 season.

Move an in-the-groove Tyler Glasnow into higher-leverage innings? Bite the bullet and give Kevin Siegrist a Major League roster spot? Call up off-season acquisition Kyle Crick from Triple-A? Think about Joe Musgrove as a relief option after his rehab? Simply get more innings from the starting rotation?

Less than 24 hours after the bullpen blew a lead in a loss to the Reds at PNC Park, Neal Huntington was peppered with questions about the state of the Pirates’ eight-man relief corps on Sunday afternoon.

First of all, Huntington reiterated what Clint Hurdle said about what appears to be the most realistic avenue to improve a bullpen that ranked 14th in the National League with a 5.67 ERA.

No, Glasnow isn’t moving from his low-leverage spot … at least not yet.

“He certainly has the weapons to (pitch in more important situations),” Huntington said. “As you look around the game, most really good late-inning relievers were starters at some point in their careers. We still believe Tyler has the mentality, the athleticism, the competitiveness and the weapons to be a good Major League starting pitcher and fully anticipate that he’ll earn his way forward as time goes.”

So, Strike 1.

How about the lefty Siegrist, who was placed on the suspended list after he refused to report to Triple-A Indianapolis? First of all, Huntington apologized for not being more clear in the initial press release about the nature of Siegrist’s status.

Per the ‘upward mobility’ terms of his Pirates contract, the team had to offer Siegrist all 29 other major-league teams to give them a shot to add him to their Major League roster. They did not, so Siegrist has no on-field recourse except to pitch for Indianapolis or find a job in independent ball.

“It’s nothing Pittsburgh-centric, it’s that he believes he’s a major-league pitcher and has no interest in pitching in the minors,” Huntington clarified. “We still have interest in him, to build up some arm strength and go get consistent innings in Triple-A. Thirty organizations didn’t believe he was in position to help a Major League team win ballgames. I’m not sure how that situation solves itself without him pitching.”

Strike 2, at least for now.

Alright, then, where does Musgrove stand? Baseball fans remember how good he was last year for the World Series champion Astros in a high-leverage role, so why not work him back to action as a reliever first once his right shoulder heals?

Huntington brushed that suggestion aside, sticking to his first-blush statement back in January that the Pirates see Musgrove as a starter. Period.

“We’re going to be able to get him stretched back out again,” Huntington said. “Our intent is to get him back into the rotation and let him be the starter we believe he can be. We’ll get him through throwing program and see how he feels.”

Musgrove will begin his return-to-pitch throwing program in Chicago this week, then probably get a minor league rehab start or two in the books before making his Pirates debut.

Huntington also quelled any thought that Musgrove was in danger of missing a significant chunk of the season, classifying Musgrove’s shoulder discomfort as a simple muscle strain and not anything related to the joint.

“We feel we made the right decision with Joe,” Huntington said. “If this were September or October, he feels like he’d be able to go out and compete. But the bounce-back isn’t the same. Little bit of muscle soreness and strain in there.”

What about another trade pickup from the off-season, Kyle Crick?

Huntington revealed that the 25-year-old fireballer was “surprised” to be told he didn’t make the opening day roster, but the lack of injuries in spring training combined with the Pirates’ desire to have a left-on-left specialist in Josh Smoker and two long relievers in Glasnow and Steven Brault left Crick as the odd man out.

And ultimately, Dovydas Neverauskas’ five runs allowed and 2.46 WHIP in five appearances isn’t enough for the Pirates to boot him back to the minors at this stage of the season.

“He has Major League weapons,” Huntington said. “Eight games in, it feels early. While it’s been a struggle at times as a group, and the ERA is ugly, we believe this group can be a good bullpen, and we believe we’ve got some guys behind them who can come up and help them be a good pen.”

Or, how about the guys in front of the bullpen, as in the starting pitchers? Through eight games, Pirates starters were contributing 5.3 innings per outing, almost exactly average in the National League. Jameson Taillon became the first member of the rotation to penetrate the seventh inning Sunday against the Reds, when he went the distance for the first time in his professional career.

“Our starters have struggled to get into the sixth and seventh innings,” Huntington said, just before Taillon climbed the mound. “We’ve had to use a handful of relievers every game. Still think this group is capable of being a good bullpen.”

With most other aspects of the ball club performing well, the Pirates can seemingly afford to stick to the status quo in the ‘pen. It appears they will do so as a week-long trip to Chicago and Miami begins Monday.

  • Brault should stay in the rotation, and Kuhl should go to the bullpen where his stuff plays better.

  • NH is awful when he talks. Musgrove could bounce back if it was September or October. He hasn’t even thrown a ball from what I understand. Means he is shut down. That shoulder seems to be quite the concern. Curious if you believe he will make it as a starter?

  • Hopefully Brault can justify holding onto the rotation spot so they shift Musgrove to the pen, where he had success last year with Houston. I feel better, conceptually, with a backend of Musgrove and Rivero, with some combo of Santana, Kontos, and Feliz handling the 6/7 innings in close games. I like keeping Glasnow is low leverage situations, but I’d want to keep him active as well and not throw once a week.