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Building Pirate bullpens: Part 4

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The final part of the series.


The 2014 bullpen had some unusual elements for the Pirates.  The team made almost no bullpen changes during the off-season and the farm system had little to offer due to graduations and trades.  The Pirates also ran into a closer controversy.  The team had depth issues as the season wore on, something that hasn't usually been the case since the team got good.  The bullpen survived for much of the season due to the efforts of four pitchers.  It started running out of gas late in the season, but got help from an unexpected source.


Jason Grilli (22 G, 4.87 ERA, 11 Sv):  Grilli struggled early in the season, went on the disabled list with an oblique strain, and struggled more when he came back.  The team replaced him in the closer role with Mark Melancon, then two appearances later, traded him to the Angels for another struggling reliever, Ernesto Frieri.  The trade seemed like a hasty overreaction, especially since Frieri was struggling more than Grilli was.  As it turned out, Frieri was terrible with the Pirates, while Grilli pitched well for the Angels and then for the Braves in 2015.

Mark Melancon (72 G, 1.90 ERA, 33 Sv):  Melancon was outstanding, as a setup man and eventually as the closer.

Tony Watson* (78 G, 1.63 ERA, 2 Sv):  Watson eventually took over the 8th inning role and pitched as well as Melancon.  The two arguably have been the best 8th/9th inning duo in MLB the last two years.

Jared Hughes (63 G, 1.96 ERA):  Hughes started a two-year run of ERAs that seemingly weren't supported by more advanced stats.  His xFIP was 3.79, helped by a .246 BABIP.  (But his very low 2015 ERA was accompanied by a .306 BABIP.)  His groundball rate of 64.6% was the fourth highest of any pitcher in MLB who threw 50+ innings.  Late in the season, Hurdle started using Hughes often in mid-inning, with runners on base.  He allowed only seven of 37 inherited runners to score (19%).  League average was 28%.

Justin Wilson* (70 G, 4.20 ERA):  Wilson had an uneven season.  He was hurt by control problems and by a low strand rate of 68%.  His xFIP of 3.88 was a bit better than his ERA.  Hurdle seemed to try to get Wilson established as the 7th inning guy, but he clearly lost confidence in Wilson as the season went along.  He appeared mostly in losses in August and September.  After the season, the Pirates traded Wilson to the Yankees for Francisco Cervelli, a deal that worked out very well for both teams.

Jeanmar Gomez (44 G, 3.19 ERA, 1 Sv):  The Pirates used Gomez mainly in long relief roles in losses.  They won only 15 of the 44 games he appeared in.  The team appeared to be paying attention once again to the advanced stats:  Gomez' xFIP was 4.25.  He probably would have served as a spot starter, but the need didn't arise.  The Pirates outrighted Gomez after the season and he elected free agency.

Stolmy Pimentel (20 G, 5.23 ERA):  Out of options, Pimentel made the team out of camp.  His velocity was way down, though, and he went on the disabled list with a sore shoulder.  After he returned, his velocity bounced back, but Hurdle seldom used him.  The Pirates lost him to a waiver claim early in the following season.

Bryan Morris (21 G, 3.80 ERA):  Morris mostly struggled, with an xFIP (4.51) that was higher than his ERA.  The Pirates finally gave up on him and sent him to the Marlins for a competitive balance pick.

Vin Mazzaro (5 G, 3.48 ERA):  Mazzaro spent most of the season in AAA and became a free agent after the season.


John Axford (13 G, 4.09 ERA):  In a move that was almost the mirror image of the Kyle Farnsworth acquisition the previous year, the Pirates selected the hard-throwing Axford off waivers from Cleveland in mid-August.  With Frieri not working out and Wilson struggling a little, the team needed late-inning help.  Axford pitched decently, but was left off the playoff roster.

Ernesto Frieri (14 G, 10.13 ERA):  Like Grilli, Frieri had good rather than great velocity, but still put up outlandish K rates throughout his career, doing so for longer than Grilli.  He was terrible with the Pirates and they released him at the beginning of September.

John Holdzkom (9 G, 2.00 ERA, 1 Sv):  The Pirates picked Holdzkom up from independent ball at mid-season.  He overcame a career of injury and control problems to pitch his way to the majors, where he struck out 14 of the 32 batters he faced.  Holdzkom threw an upper-90s fastball and, of all things, a palm ball.  Possibly inspired by Holdzkom's success, the Pirates signed a couple other hard-throwing relievers from independent ball, but they didn't work out.  Holdzkom himself struggled throughout 2015 with control and shoulder problems, and didn't return to the majors.

Bobby LaFromboise* (6 G, 2.45 ERA):  The Pirates acquired LaFromboise off waivers from the Angels in mid-August and called him up to serve as an extra lefty in September.  He'd never been impressive in the minors, except for one big season.  Hurdle used him mostly to face right-handed hitters for some reason.

AAA Depth

Indianapolis provided little relief help for the Pirates.  The only reliever who spent significant time there and also appeared with the Pirates was Mazzaro.  The two most frequently used relievers were Andy Oliver*, a hard-throwing, former top prospect whose control problems the Pirates were unable to resolve; and Josh Kinney, who'd had some modest success with St. Louis.  The Pirates also gave a shot to Daniel Schlereth*, a former prospect whose situation was similar to Oliver's, but Schlereth pitched badly in AAA and was sent to Detroit for cash in June.  Holdzkom got into 18 games there before moving up.  Otherwise, the relief duties were largely undertaken by marginal guys like Wirfin Obispo, Cody Eppley, Jay Jackson and Josh Wall.

By the end of the season, the Pirates had established clear roles for three pitchers -- Melancon, Watson and Hughes -- that continued into the next season.  They nearly came up short late in the season, though, due to lack of depth.  Their experience with Holdzkom seems to have led them to search high and low for hard throwers whom they might be able to reclaim or straighten out.


After running short of bullpen arms late in 2014, the Pirates loaded up on depth in 2015.  There were few holdovers, so the team brought in a variety of potential relievers, including hard throwers, sinkerballers, one veteran lefty, and all sorts of projects to utilize as AAA depth.  And they still beefed up the pen, with remarkable success, at the trade deadline.


Mark Melancon (78 G, 2.23 ERA, 51 Sv):  Melancon overcame an early-season drop in velocity, and an overall drop in his K rate, to have another outstanding year and set a team record for saves.  The Pirates were widely expected to trade him in the off-season rather than risk an eight-figure arbitration award, but they didn't.  It's possible the team was mindful of the role the bullpen, and especially Melancon and Watson, had played in their success.

Tony Watson* (77 G, 1.91 ERA, 1 Sv):  Like Melancon, Watson saw a drop in his K rate but not his effectiveness, which may indicate that it had something to do with pitch selection.

Jared Hughes (76 G, 2.28 ERA):  Hughes settled into a 6th/7th inning role, often coming in when the team wanted a ground ball.  He allowed only nine of 56 inherited runners (16%) to score.  He also once again had a much higher xFIP (4.10) than ERA, although it wasn't due to his BABIP, which was .306.

Vance Worley (23 G, 4.02 ERA):  Worley had been a starter in all but one of his 2014 appearances, but he started only eight of 23 games in 2015.  After their experience with Jeanmar Gomez in 2013, the Pirates seemed to want to carry a long reliever who could move into the rotation if needed.  Juan Nicasio may serve in that role in 2016.

Bobby LaFromboise* (11 G, 1.13 ERA):  Except for one game in May, LaFromboise pitched out of the Indianapolis bullpen throughout the AAA season.  He had his second best minor league season, then pitched well for the Pirates in mopup roles (they lost all but two of the games in which he appeared) in September.  They removed him from the roster after the season.


Arquimedes Caminero (73 G, 3.62 ERA):  The Pirates acquired Caminero from the Marlins in a cash transaction in the off-season.  He had a history of control problems, although not severe ones.  He made progress finding the strike zone with the Pirates and, maybe more importantly, saw his velocity jump from roughly 94 to 98.  He also saw a huge increase in his groundball rate.  The Pirates tried using him as their 7th inning reliever, but he hit a rough stretch in the middle of the season, which may have led them to acquire Joakim Soria.  Caminero recovered and pitched well the last two months.

Antonio Bastardo* (66 G, 2.98 ERA, 1 Sv):  The Pirates acquired Bastardo in the off-season for Joely Rodriguez.  He gave them a second lefty, although he didn't have a history of significant platoon splits, and Hurdle didn't use him as a lefty specialist.  Bastardo pitched largely as he always had, with high walk and K rates and not many hits allowed.  He left as a free agent.

Rob Scahill (28 G, 2.64 ERA):  The Pirates acquired Scahill for Shane Carle after the Rockies had designated Scahill for assignment.  He throws fairly hard (93-94 mph) but doesn't miss bats.  He made the team because the Pirates wanted a pitcher who could go multiple innings.  They had him use his sinker more and his groundball rate was extremely high (61.6%).  He didn't pitch nearly as well as his ERA suggests, as his xFIP was 4.15 and his WHIP 1.60.  He went on the disabled list in late June with forearm tightness and didn't return until September.

Radhames Liz (14 G, 4.24 ERA):  Liz was a former top prospect who'd hit 100 mph but failed in the majors due to command problems.  He showed signs of progress in Korea and the Pirates signed him as a free agent.  With no options, he made the team but Hurdle never seemed to have any faith in him.  Despite missing a lot of bats, he didn't pitch well and the Pirates outrighted him to AAA, where he pitched extremely well as a starter.  He came back up in September, but pitched just three times and was released.

Joe Blanton (21 G, 1.57 ERA):  The Pirates got Blanton for cash from the Royals at the deadline and he was exceptional in long relief.  He played a key role in a number of close wins, as his 5-0 record shows.  He managed to strike out over ten per nine innings despite very modest (90 mph) velocity.  He left as a free agent.

Joakim Soria (29 G, 2.03 ERA, 1 Sv):  A former closer (like Axford and Frieri the year before), Soria came from the Tigers for JaCoby Jones in a deadline deal and took over as the 7th inning reliever.  He hadn't been pitching all that well in Detroit, but was very good for the Pirates.  He left as a free agent.

Deolis Guerra (10 G, 6.48 ERA):  Guerra was a former top prospect who'd never reached the majors.  He signed a minor league deal with the Pirates and pitched very well in relief in AAA.  He got called up to replace Scahill and pitched well at first, but started struggling and then went on the disabled list for the last two months.  The Pirates removed him from the roster and tried to bring him back on a minor league contract, but the Angels claimed him in the Rule 5 draft.

AAA Depth

The Pirates went in heavily for reclamation projects in AAA.  Guerra, Jeremy Bleich*, A.J. Morris, Collin Balester, and Brad Lincoln were all former well regarded prospects who pitched in relief for Indianapolis.  The closer was Blake Wood, a hard thrower who'd had some success in the majors with the Royals and who was trying to return from Tommy John surgery.  Josh Wall, who'd previously been on the 40-man roster, returned on a minor league contract.  The Indians also had Wilfredo Boscan in the rotation.  He was called up three times to serve as bullpen depth, but never pitched for the Pirates.  John Holdzkom spent the season in AAA trying to work through shoulder and control problems, but didn't make it back to the majors.

The Pirates established what may be a long-term pattern of annually restructuring the bullpen around several key pitchers by adding large numbers of pitchers, generally high-risk, high-velocity ones with upside; groundball pitchers to serve in middle inning or long relief roles; and reclamation projects who can go to AAA and potentially establish themselves as depth.  The same thing appears to be happening in 2016, as the only holdovers coming off major roles in 2015 are Melancon, Watson, Caminero and Hughes, although Holdzkom and Scahill will return as well.  Filling in around them will be some combination of major league free agents (Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio, who may serve in the Jeanmar Gomez emergency starter role); hard throwers trying to follow in Caminero's footsteps (Trey Haley, Jorge Rondon); pitchers with significant past success trying to recover from various problems (Daniel Bard, Eric O'Flaherty, Cory Luebke); and others, including the mysterious Robert Zarate, who could conceivably surprise the way Holdzkom did.  And odds are they'll acquire relief help at the deadline, too.