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Building a better Bucs bullpen

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2020 Pittsburgh Pirates Photo Day Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The principles of bullpen construction certainly have changed over the years as baseball has evolved – and from the looks of things, this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates’ pen might have even more of a revolving door look than we’ve seen in the past.

As a bit of a bullpen primer, in the early to mid-1960s major league bullpens were largely filled with failed starters and prospects deemed too raw to trust in the starting rotation, along with an actual skilled reliever or two to shut things down. Think Elroy Face.

Then in the ‘70s, teams began putting more emphasis on guys who could close out games in high-pressure – which later became high-leverage – situations. Think Dave Giusti and later Goose Gossage – for one memorable season – and then Kent Tekulve. The closer took on an even more important role in the ‘80s with the likes of Dan Quisenberry, Bruce Sutter and Dave Righetti grabbing the spotlight before stepping aside for another erstwhile starter, Dennis Eckersley, in Oakland. Lee Smith and Randy Myers were among the big names in the ‘90s while Mariano Rivera led the majors in saves three times in six years, a string that ended in 2004. In the current decade, Craig Kimbrel has either led or tied for NL lead four times.

Although the makeup of a team’s bullpen has always had an element of fluidity to it, it seemed that starting with Eckersley’s success in Oakland, managers began assigning more specific arms to more specific roles. One team that typified that approach was the Kansas City Royals of 2014-15, who trotted out the trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland with much success.

The Bucs have had their share of successful bullpen arms during the past decade, with the likes Joel Hanrahan (76 combined saves in 2011-2012), Jason Grilli (33 saves in ’13), Mark Melancon (33 in ’14, 41 in ’15 and 38 in ’16 before being dealt at the trade deadline for Taylor Hearn and Felipe Vazquez, the latter of whom would earn a combined 86 saves in parts of three seasons before being charged with sexually assaulting a minor in 2019.

Along with having clear choices for the closer role, the Pirates during their successful seasons in the early to middle part of this decade had defined roles for their other high-leverage guys – those chosen to keep things buttoned down until the ninth. But for 2021, based on reporting from several Pirates beat writers, fans could see a different approach to bullpen usage.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey last week, GM Ben Cherington made it clear that the Pirates weren’t just looking to build a 13-man pitching staff, but rather a staff of more like 18 to 20 arms, with those not on the 26-man roster at any given time able to be stashed in Triple-A Indianapolis and ready to be recalled when needed.

For that reason, the club is looking for arms with options – literally. For those not up to speed on the rules regarding options, MLB.com offers the following: “A player who is on the 40-man roster but does not open the season on the 26-man roster must be optioned to the Minor Leagues. Once a player has spent at least 20 days in the Minors on an optional assignment, one of his options is expended for that season. Only one Minor League option is used per season, regardless of how many times a player is optioned to and from the Minors over the course of a given season. Players typically have three option years, although a fourth may be granted in certain cases. Out-of-options players must be designated for assignment — which removes them from the 40-man roster — and passed through outright waivers before being eligible to be sent to the Minors.”

So, the Pirates appear to be looking for pitchers who can be yo-yo’d on the Pittsburgh-Indianapolis shuttle for at least this season and perhaps the next one as well. According to Wilbur Miller of the Pittsburgh Baseball Network, the Pirates’ current 40-man roster features 15 relievers, 11 of whom have at least one option remaining. Six of those arms – Edgar Santana, Sam Howard, Ashton Goudeau, Blake Cederlind, Geoff Hartlieb and Nick Mears – each have two options while Richard Rodriguez has three. The four relievers who have no options remaining are Michael Feliz, Chris Stratton, Nik Turley and Carson Fulmer.

Cherington has not indicated which of those relievers would be trusted with ninth-inning duties, but based on his comments, it would seem that they would be shared among several arms. I’d like to see Cederlind and Hartlieb get a fair amount of high-leverage work, just to prepare them in case they’re still around when the team is in a position to compete or at least climb back to respectability.

The point is, don’t look for any specific roles to assigned to Pirates relievers this year – or perhaps into the future as well. Instead, look for the club to develop a stable of arms with bargain-basement price tags and options – one or two years – and get the most out of them before moving on to the next set. I’m not saying I like that approach, but it appears that’s the direction things are going, at least for the foreseeable future.