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How did the 2013-15 Pirates build their bullpens?

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New York Mets v Pittsburgh Pirates - Game Two Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

There’s been some discussion, obviously, about the Pirates’ recent waiver claims and about how to build bullpens. I’m not trying to characterize anybody’s “position” here, but I was curious just how much of a role waiver claims played in the Pirates’ best bullpens, which was pretty much 2013-15. Well, not just waiver claims — there were actually very few -- but similar transactions, like trading cash or an obscure prospect for a guy who’d been designated for assignment. (There were actually only two straight waiver pickups, neither of whom did much.) Or any other transaction where the team gave up little or nothing for a marginal reliever who subsequently played a meaningful role in the bullpen.

What I found was that pickups like that seldom played more than a limited role in the bullpens in those years. The biggest exception was Jason Grilli, who was toiling for the Phillies on a minor league deal just before the Pirates signed him. The Phillies released him so he could sign a major league deal with the Bucs, which was nice of them. The other main exception was Arquimedes Caminero, whom the Pirates obtained for cash from the Marlins after they designated him for assignment.

Beyond that, the biggest “bargain basement” acquisitions were long relievers. The Pirates traded minor prospects for Vin Mazzaro, who was a long reliever in 2013, and Clint Robinson after Kansas City dfa’d them. They got Jeanmar Gomez, who served as a swing man in 2013 and long reliever in 2014, the same way from Cleveland. In 2015, they got Rob Scahill, who’d been dfa’d by Colorado, for a decent-ish prospect (Shane Carle), and Vance Worley, who’d been outrighted by the Twins, for cash. That same year, they also got Joe Blanton, who’d been struggling with the Royals, for cash. He played a huge role in middle relief, but just for two months.

The Pirates’ bullpens in those years were very strong in innings 7-9 and, except for Grilli, the pitchers who handled those roles were not bargain pickups. Many were prospects who came up through the team’s farm system: Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Jared Hughes and, to a lesser extent, Bryan Morris. Significantly, Watson and Hughes were major contributors throughout those three years and Wilson was for two years before he was traded for a significant addition in Francisco Cervelli. The few others were more “traditional” pickups. Mark Melancon came in the Joel Hanrahan trade. Joakim Soria, who played a big role as a setup man in 2015, came in a standard deadline deal for a pretty good prospect (JaCoby Jones). They got Antonio Bastardo from the Phillies, who wanted to dump what they could of his salary, for a decent prospect (Joely Rodriguez).

I guess if there’s any conclusion to be drawn from the Pirates’ experience in those three years, it’s that you don’t build a bullpen through waivers and other bargain basement moves, you round it out. Nearly all of the Pirates’ late-inning relievers came up through the farm system, or they were players who already had successful major league track records (Melancon, Soria, Bastardo). I’m very skeptical that the kind of talent a team needs in the late innings will slip through the cracks in the sort of quantity necessary to provide the 3-4 shutdown relievers a team needs for the late innings. That matters to the Pirates right now because, apart from Felipe Rivero, they don’t have anybody like that and I don’t think they’re going to find the guys they need through waiver claims.

Here’s the full list of all the relievers who appeared in nine or more games during those years:

2013

Jason Grilli: Free agent.
Mark Melancon: Trade with Boston.
Justin Wilson: Prospect.
Tony Watson: Prospect.
Bryan Morris: Prospect (acquired from Dodgers while in low minors).
Jared Hughes: Prospect.
Jeanmar Gomez: Trade with Cleveland after being dfa’d.
Vin Mazzaro: Trade with Kansas City after being dfa’d.

2014

Grilli (traded during season), Melancon, Wilson, Watson, Hughes, Morris (traded during season).
Stolmy Pimentel: Trade from Boston.
John Axford: Late-season waiver claim from Cleveland.
Ernesto Frieri: Trade with Angels for Grilli.
John Holdzkom: Signed from independent ball.

2015

Melancon, Watson, Hughes.
Arquimedes Caminero: Acquired for cash from Miami after being dfa’d.
Antonio Bastardo: Trade from Philadelphia.
Joe Blanton: Acquired for cash from Kansas City.
Joakim Soria: Deadline trade with Detroit.
Rob Scahill: Trade from Colorado after being dfa’d.
Radhames Liz: Signed to major league contract after big showing in winter ball.
Deolis Guerra: Minor league free agent.
Vance Worley: Acquired for cash from Minnesota after being outrighted.
Bobby LaFromboise: Waiver claim from San Diego.