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Building Pirate bullpens: Part 2

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By 2010, it wasn't Dave Littlefield's bullpen any more.  Literally.  That year, other than two relief outings by Brad Lincoln, nary an inning was thrown by a reliever who was in the organization when Huntington took over.  (This changed in later years, thanks to Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, among others.)  Success was still a ways away, though.  The 2010 bullpen ranked 28th in ERA, the 2011 bullpen 20th.  Getting quality beyond the top few relievers remained a problem, especially in 2010.

2010

Holdovers

Evan Meek (70 G, 2.14 ERA, 4 Sv):  Meek had a spectacular first half, getting an All-Star selection that was widely ridiculed even though it was well earned.  He shared closing duties late in the season after Octavio Dotel was traded.

Joel Hanrahan (72 G, 3.62 ERA, 6 Sv):  Hanrahan and Meek gave the Pirates an outstanding setup duo.  Hanrahan's ERA was skewed by a disastrous outing in an infamous, early-season game against the Brewers.  Hanrahan got the majority of the closing opportunities after Dotel was traded.

Dan McCutchen (28 G, 6.12 ERA):  A product of the Nady trade, McCutchen didn't throw hard (90-91 mph) and wasn't a groundball pitcher.  The Pirates gave him a couple shots at starting early in the year, then brought him back from AAA to serve as a long man for the season's last couple months after D.J. Carrasco was traded.  He struggled in both roles.

Steven Jackson (11 G, 8.74 ERA):  The Pirates called Jackson up from AAA briefly four separate times.  He pitched badly and was dropped after the season.

Acquisitions

Octavio Dotel (41 G, 4.28 ERA, 21 Sv):  The Pirates preferred a veteran presence as closer over going with Hanrahan or Meek right away, so they brought in Dotel.  He didn't have the dominating stuff he'd had earlier in his career, but he was adequate in the role until the team traded him to the Dodgers at the deadline.

D.J. Carrasco (45 G, 3.88 ERA):  A finesse, groundball pitcher, Carrasco came in on a minor league deal.  He was the first in a string of cheap, marginal pitchers who were very serviceable for the Pirates as long men.  He also started a trend of the Pirates not getting too attached to their long men, as they sent him to Arizona in a deadline trade that netted them Chris Snyder plus the absence of Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby.  Like most of the long men the team let leave, Carrasco had little success afterward.

Javier Lopez* (50 G, 2.79 ERA):  A career, soft-tossing LOOGY, Lopez signed a one-year, free agent deal.  His platoon splits were so extreme that even the Pirates used him primarily in his proper role, although not as strictly as the Giants did after getting him from the Pirates in a deadline deal.  He wasn't nearly as effective with the Pirates as the ERA indicates; he had a 1.47 WHIP and 4.44 xFIP.  He was much better for years afterward with the Giants.

Brendan Donnelly (38 G, 5.58 ERA):  Another veteran bought in as a free agent, Donnelly had never thrown hard nor been a groundball pitcher.  He pitched very poorly for the Pirates, who waived him in late July, ending his career.

Sean Gallagher (31 G, 6.03 ERA):  A former top prospect who'd struggled with the Padres, the Pirates acquired Gallagher for cash at mid-season.  He was heavily used in relief the rest of the year, and was terrible.  They let him go after the season and he never returned to the majors.

Chan Ho Park (26 G, 3.49 ERA):  The Pirates acquired Park off waivers from the Yankees and he pitched fairly well over the season's final two months.

Wil Ledezma* (27 G, 6.46 ERA):  The Pirates signed Ledezma to a minor league deal before the season.  He threw hard for a lefty, but had struggled in numerous opportunities at the major league level.  He pitched very well in AAA and was called up in late July.  He pitched poorly over the rest of the season.

Jack Taschner* (17 G, 6.05 ERA):  Taschner's track record was similar to Ledezma's, except that he didn't throw hard.  He won a bullpen spot coming out of spring training, but pitched poorly and was released in June.  He'd been used as a LOOGY earlier in his career, but wasn't by the Pirates.

Chris Resop (22 G, 1.89 ERA):  Claimed off waivers from the Braves, Resop threw fairly hard and was a groundball pitcher.  He pitched well over the season's final two months.

Justin Thomas* (12 G, 6.23 ERA):  Waiver claim from Seattle.  Thomas pitched well in AAA, but not in several callups.  He was waived after the season, then re-signed to a minor league deal, but he never made it back to Pittsburgh.

Chris Leroux (6 G, 5.79 ERA):  Another waiver claim, Leroux was similar to Resop:  a groundball pitcher with 93-94 mph velocity.

AAA Depth

Jackson, Ledezma and Thomas all opened in AAA and got called up.  Indianapolis had several relievers with ordinary stuff and limited ceilings:  Brian Bass (minor league deal, got called up for four games), Vinnie Chulk (minor league deal, released in July to go to Japan), Anthony Claggett (waiver claim near the end of the previous season, struggled so badly in AAA that he got demoted to AA), Cory Hamman* (minor league journeyman in his last pro season).  In retrospect, the most interesting reliever at Indianapolis was Jean Machi, who came in on a minor league deal, left after having just a so-so season, and ended up having a couple very good seasons for the Giants.  Late in the season, Dan Moskos* got promoted from AA.

Having traded off the minimal bullpen talent he inherited from Dave Littlefield, and with no help available in the farm system, Huntington had to assemble nearly an entire bullpen, including AAA depth, from scratch.  The solution was a legion of major and minor league free agents, and waiver claims.  What's striking about the relievers the team brought in is the absence of any upside.  They were a combination of aging veterans well into their declines (Dotel, Donnelly, later Park), and very ordinary journeyman (Carrasco, Ledezma, Taschner, Thomas, Bass, Chulk, Claggett).  The exceptions were probably Lopez, Gallagher, Resop and Leroux.  Lopez was a capable LOOGY, Resop had some success for a while, and Leroux looked promising before arm problems did him in.  Gallagher just failed.

Probably one reason the Pirates settled for relievers who had little chance of being more than bandaids was that there was no point making the bullpen a priority on a team that was going nowhere.  If you're at least a couple years from contending and you're going to revamp your bullpen on an ongoing basis, there's no long term benefit.  When the Pirates traded for pitching, they usually went for guys they wanted to use as starters, even though a contending team probably would have viewed them as relievers.  Ross Ohlendorf, Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio fell into this category.  All three were derailed by health issues, with only Ohlendorf having any success.

2011

Holdovers

Joel Hanrahan (70 G, 1.83 ERA, 40 Sv).

Evan Meek (24 G, 3.48 ERA):  Opened the season as a setup man, but was in and out with shoulder problems.

Dan McCutchen (73 G, 3.72 ERA):  McCutchen performed reasonably well as the long man.  As with Pirate long men before and since, it was a one-year gig.  He was sent to the minors the next year and was ultimately outrighted.

Chris Resop (76 G, 4.39 ERA, 1 Sv):   Resop pitched better than his ERA indicated; his xFIP was 3.53 and he fanned ten per nine IP.

Chris Leroux (23 G, 2.88 ERA):  Struggled initially in AAA and was demoted to AA, but earned late season callup and pitched well.

Called up

Tony Watson* (43 G, 3.95 ERA):  Watson had been moved to the bullpen by the current front office and saw his velocity jump to the mid-90s.  (I saw him sitting at 85-87 as a starter in high A.)  He had some control issues with the Pirates after a June callup.

Dan Moskos* (31 G, 2.96 ERA):  Moskos got several callups and had a good ERA, but his xFIP was 4.68.  He never returned to majors.

Jared Hughes (12 G, 4.09 ERA):  Another starter who moved to the bullpen and saw a velocity increase.  Hughes is a sinkerball, extreme GB pitcher.  He got a September callup.

Michael Crotta (15 G, 9.28 ERA):  Similar to Hughes, a tall right-handed groundball pitcher who moved to the pen.  He had a 93 mph fastball with so much movement that umpires couldn’t seem to pick it up.  (I wonder whether Russell Martin or Francisco Cervelli could have helped him.  Or maybe some of the other pitchers early in the Huntington regime, for that matter.)  Crotta made the team out of camp but soon went on the disabled list with elbow trouble.  He never got back to the majors.

Acquisitions

Jose Veras (79 G, 3.80 ERA, 1 Sv):  The hard-throwing (mid-90s) veteran signed as a free agent.  He pitched decently as a setup man, fanning ten per nine IP.  The Pirates traded him to Milwaukee in the off-season.

Jason Grilli (28 G, 2.48 ERA, 1 Sv):  A veteran who threw 93 mph with a good slider.  He'd had only limited success in a long career, but suddenly figured things out in AAA with the Phillies.  Despite needing relief help, the Phillies released Grilli so he could sign with the Pirates in July.  He immediately started dominating in the majors.

Joe Beimel* (35 G, 5.33 ERA):  The Pirates signed Beimel to a minor league deal, then called him up two weeks into the season.  He’d been a successful LOOGY for a number of years prior to coming to Pittsburgh, but Clint Hurdle bizarrely tried to use him as a one-inning reliever.  Right handed hitters destroyed him for a 1.027 OPS.  Beimel missed some time with elbow problems, then was released at the end of August.

Tim Wood (13 G, 5.63 ERA):  Small righty who threw 94 mph.  Signed as a minor league free agent, he pitched well in AAA, got called up, didn’t pitch well, and was sold to Texas in August.

AAA Depth

Beimel, Hughes, Jackson, Leroux, Moskos, Watson and Wood all got called up during the season.  The only significant AAA relievers who didn’t were Justin Thomas and Cesar Valdez, whom the Pirates had acquired during the off-season as the Exicardo when they sent Zach Duke to Arizona.  The team sold Valdez to the Marlins in July.  They took fliers on two pitchers struggling to return from health problems — Blaine Boyer and Dan Meyer — but neither worked out.

This was the first bullpen that looked somewhat like the Pirate bullpens we're used to seeing now.  Every pitcher in it was Huntington's responsibility in one way or another:  either he acquired them, or he moved them from starting to relieving.  There also was dramatically less fiddling around with low- or no-upside, career mediocrities like Wil Ledezma and Steven Jackson.  Or even marginal guys with a bit more upside, like Resop and Leroux, for that matter.  Some of the differences with prior years:

  • The bullpen had a stable core for the first time under Huntington, as four relievers got into 70+ games.  And this was in spite of the fact that the team's best reliever from the previous year, Meek, struggled with arm trouble.  It wasn't the 2014 Royals by any means, but Hanrahan was outstanding, and Veras, Resop and McCutchen were all solid.
  • The team was able to get help from the farm system.  None of the four callups -- Watson, Hughes, Moskos and Crotta -- pitched all that effectively, but the first three (Crotta, of course, wasn't healthy) were a huge upgrade from the Franquelis Osorias and Brendan Donnellys.
  • Except for McCutchen, nearly everybody had at least average velocity.
  • Grilli gave them a second major success, following Hanrahan, with a struggling veteran reliever.  Because Grilli and Hanrahan both had enjoyed some success in their careers, they arguably didn't pose the sort of extreme risks that guys like Denny Bautista and Sean Gallagher posed.  Maybe that was the reason the Pirates finally had some of their pickups turn into major pluses.
  • I'm not sure it was the first time, but the Pirates took fliers on injury-hampered pitchers, hoping they'd recover.  Apart from Meyer and Boyer, they also brought back Tyler Yates for a second time on a minor league deal as he tried unsuccessfully to return from Tommy John surgery.