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Bullpen A Problem?

Some interesting comments by Dejan Kovacevic on his blog:

Before the season, I listed middle relief as one of the Pirates' potential weaknesses, and that was not at all taking into account that Evan Meek would have the couple poor outings he has had. So far, I've seen little to change my mind.

I've given credit the past three years to Neal Huntington for having built reasonably good bullpens by cobbling together veterans at good value with good chemistry. No such credit was given this offseason, and it does not appear any is forthcoming.

That said, I wouldn't invest much energy in doubting Meek. He's way too talented, way too tough to allow this to beat him down.

 Am I missing something? What exactly has been so bad about the current bullpen? Meek's been awful, but I agree that he's not somebody to worry about long-term. Garrett Olson is a problem, but he's just a stopgap. That job was supposed to be Joe Beimel's. Not that I'm a big fan, but Beimel has been a mostly OK reliever for some time and he actually wants to pitch in Pittsburgh. He's also been a durable reliever, so his current issues weren't predictable.  Even if he doesn't make it back, Olson likely will be replaced in the short term by Dan Meyer or Scott Olsen, and in the long term by Dan Moskos or Tony Watson.

Beyond that, the very small sample size we’ve had so far has been encouraging. Chris Resop has been shaky, but he pitched very well late last year and I see no reason not to be optimistic about him. Jose Veras and Jeff Karstens have pitched very well, and Mike Crotta so far has been a very happy surprise. Maybe things will unravel eventually, or maybe not, but once you get beyond Meek, where's the big problem with the results so far? Is it the shortage of Veteran Presence? Are there too few guys with finely tuned tobacco-spittin' techniques that they can teach to the young 'uns? Are there people still, incredibly, wailing about the release of Brendan Donnelly?

I'm also puzzled by the idea that Huntington did well in constructing bullpens his first three years. Last year, sure, but those first two years . . . ? Was I hallucinating? Were Tyler Yates, Denny Bautista, Franquelis Osoria and Chris Bootcheck really not terrible? Wait . . . here it is: The Pirates were last in the NL in bullpen ERA in 2008 and next to last in 2009.

It seems to me that Huntington is finally getting it right. He's searching for guys with good arms who've been overlooked, like Resop, instead of guys with good arms who've simply been terrible long-term, like Bautista and Bootcheck. It'll always make sense to bring in a veteran arm or two, like Veras, but you can't build the bullpen every year strictly out of inexpensive veterans. For one thing, the better, established relievers are getting overpriced. The Pirates can't afford to sink a big chunk of their payroll into the bullpen. It'd be suicide for Huntington to start using Ed Wade as a role model.

For another, that's a very high-risk approach. Relievers by nature are highly erratic. The inexpensive ones are even more erratic.  If your bullpen is full of veterans, you can't juggle it during the season by sending somebody down. One of my criticisms of Huntington in the past was that he waited too long to ditch non-performing veterans like Bautista and Osoria. The problem, no doubt, was that they didn't have options. The erratic nature of relief pitching means that all bullpens should be regarded as works in progress, which requires a team to have talent available that has some roster flexibility. If Crotta struggles, he can be sent down and they can give Chris Leroux a chance. This gets easier if a team has a supply of good arms coming up through the minors. Huntington had little flexibility before because he inherited a farm with all the fertility of Mordor. That's changing now. Aside from Crotta, hopefully guys like Moskos, Watson, Diego Moreno and Brian Leach will provide possibilities, and there should be still more later. I'm encouraged, not discouraged, by the fact that Huntington is no longer set on Proven Veterans as the answer in the bullpen.