Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Bullpen - Set Up to Mop Up

After yesterday's look at the closers, we move on to the hoi polloi of the pen, the arms from the eighth inning set-up crew down to the long and mop-up guys.

This year's bridge tag-team should be the same as last year's, RHP Tyler Yates and LHP John Grabow.

Tyler Yates showed periods of promise, and streaks of maddening wildness. His 2008 line was 73-1/3 innings, 6-3-1/4.66, with 63 Ks and 41 BBs. The 31-tear old needs badly to put it together; he has closer stuff but little league control.

When he's on, his mid-90s fastball and little slider are nearly untouchable - Yates throughout his career has generally given up fewer hits than innings pitched - but he has to work ahead in the count, not behind. His 1.54 WHIP is testament to that. This was his last year for arbitration, so he has to show the suits he can find the dish if he wants another contract here.

John Grabow had a career year last season, blossoming when Damaso Marte was moved, giving Grabow the set-up job. He came through with his first full-time sub 4.00 ERA season, with a line of 6-4-1 and ERA of 2.84.

Of concern are the bone chips floating around in his elbow that landed him on the DL in 2007. Grabow was dangled as trade bait during the off season, and like Yates, he's in his last year of team control. And like Marte, the 31-year old doesn't have a big split between RH & LH hitters, so he's more than a LOOGY. The Pirates don't seem to like dropping dollars on relievers, so we look for a deadline deal in Grabow's future.

After that pair, it should be a free-for-all for the remaining handful of bullpen spots.

Everyone knows Sean Burnett's story. Another of the stable of AAAA starters, he was DFA'ed in early 2008 - and no one took him. Finally, last year the Bucs converted him to the pen, and after some Indy time and a shaky MLB start, Jeff Andrews moved him over a bit on the rubber, and he took off, halving his ERA in the second part of the season. Burnett finished the year with 58 appearances, 1-1/4.76, averaging 7 Ks and 5 Ws per nine innings.

Still, the 26-year old number one pick has issues with control, and his splits easily qualify him as a stone-cold LOOGY. He's out of options, so he breaks camp with the team or becomes a free agent. While he's said by the suits to not be a lock to make the club, Burnett is the only LH with any experience outside of Grabow and should be a Buc in April.

From the wild child no one wanted to fast riser, Evan Meek is quite a story. As a Rule 5 selection, he was unfortunately thrown right into the fire early in the season when the Pirate staff imploded. The suits tried to give him back to Tampa Bay; they wouldn't take him, and for a few bucks, Meek became a Bucco.

Put at the right level, he regained his control at Altoona and continued to look strong in a brief stop at Indy. Meek walked fewer than three batters per game, and struck out eight per nine innings in the bushes. He throws a low 90s heater that sinks, and has a good groundball out ratio. The 25-year old RHP will probably start out the season at Indy to reinforce his mechanics, and has the opportunity to supplant Yates, maybe as soon as this summer.

30-year old RHP Chris Bootcheck was picked up from the Angels, and looks like a minor league depth signing. The Angels drafted him first in 2000, but except for a decent showing in 2005, he's never shown MLB ability.

He throws a low 90s fastball, and also has a slider, curve, and changeup, befitting a guy that was a starter until 2006. Bootcheck provides a veteran presence to a young minor league system.

LHP Daniel Haigwood, a 25-year old, throws a high 80s - low 90s fastball, a curveball, slider, and an excellent changeup. And, praise the Lord, he typically gets ahead of batters early in the count. Haigwood is considered to have some major league potential; he struck out 60 in 57 innings at AA Portland last year, so he's a signing with some upside down the road.

Haigwood was converted to a reliever last year by Boston, and just what the Bucs plan to do with him at this point is up in the air. He'll probably report to Altoona - Indy is starting to get logjammed - and depending on the organizational needs, he could end in the pen or rotation.

Juan Mateo was a hot shot in the Cub organization, but after shoulder woes in 2007 that lingered into last season, they let him go. The Bucs signed him, and flipped him to the bullpen, both to ease the stress on his shoulder and because he's pretty much a one trick pony, depending on his mid 90s heater to carry the day.

The 26-year old RHP is ticketed to start at Indy or Altoona, depending on the numbers crunch, and is on track to become a middle inning reliever in the show.

The big Rule 5 pick-up, high-kicking, power pitching Donnie Veal, came to mini-camp firing darts but with mechanics that'll drive Joe Kerrigan to a shrink's couch. The Pirates would love to straighten him out enough to carry this year as a long man. Then they could ship him to Indy in 2010 to fill a starting role, where his value would skyrocket. And unlike Evan Meek, if the 24-year old LH doesn't cut the mustard here, he's likely to find a home somewhere away from PNC.

Craig Hansen is the Buccos mystery child. The 25-year old RHP has a rifle for an arm, but can't find the dish. A lot of his problems trace back to the Red Sox fast tracking him after drafting him first in 2005; he's had more MLB appearances than AA and below outings since then.

As Wilbur Miller at Pirate Player Profiles reports: "...The Pirates face a difficult situation with Hansen. He has no options left, so they'll have to carry him in the majors, which they'll almost certainly do because he's perceived to have a very high ceiling."

"Unfortunately, putting him into a close game is the equivalent of conceding defeat. He probably needs a couple years in the minors to work on his mechanics, but he won't get them now. Keeping him in the majors will be the equivalent of carrying a Rule 5 pick, except he can't go to the minors after a year."

RHP Brian Slocum, who will turn 28 in March, looks like a veteran Jason Davis-type insurance policy for the Bucs. He can start and come out of the pen, and has had a couple of cups of coffee with the Indians. Slocum depends on a low 90s fastball, and also throws a changeup and curve.

The word is that the suits think he has a decent shot of making the roster, but it makes more sense for him to start the year in Indy and join the club if needed.

Jason Davis was DFA'ed and booted off the 40-man roster, but after a slow dance with the Japanese league, decided to take another shot with Pittsburgh. The 28-year old RHP has parts of seven MLB seasons under his belt, and can still bring it, throwing in the mid 90s.

He brings a veteran presence to the organization, and being equally comfortable as a starter and reliever, can fill in the back of the rotation or as long bullpen man competently if called upon. Davis will likely begin in Indy again.

Romulo Sanchez, the unlikely focal point of a blogosphere bobblehead battle, isn't very likely to be on the roster to deserve one. When the 24-year old RHP was called up (he'll turn 25 in April), John Russell buried him, and no wonder. He walked twice as many hitters as he fanned.

But the suits have more confidence in him; he's still in the 40-man roster. Sanchez is young, and throws in the mid 90s, so he looks like another case of picking potential rather than production. He was 5-1-4/3.46 at Indy last year, but for a power pitcher, his strike out rate was awfully low, just 5 batters per nine innings. And Indy is probably where he'll be come April.

Dave Davidson will be 25 in April, and probably will start the year at Indy after spending the last two seasons at Altoona. GW isn't sure why he's sticking on the 40-man roster, but suspects that a dearth of LH pitchers in the minors makes him more valuable to the Bucs than to many other clubs, so they're unwilling to risk losing him to the Rule 5 draft in a league that sees lefties as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

His K rate is OK, nailing 7-8 batters every nine, but he offsets that by walking 5 per game while with the Curve in 2007-08. His stuff isn't overwhelming; he throws a 90 MPH heater and a curve. But Davidson does give up fewer hits than innings pitched, and is one Buc minor-leaguer not plagued by the long ball. He'll get his spring workout with the Canadian team in the WBC.

Denny Bautista, as Wilbur Miller noted, was rated by Baseball America among the top five prospects for three different teams: Florida, Baltimore and Kansas City. Hey, he throws in the mid-to-upper 90s. Unfortunately, no one seems to know where the ball's going. He was lights out for a few weeks after Pittsburgh claimed him, but NL batters quickly learned to show some patience, and the bottom fell out.

With the 26-year old's terrible command - he's never walked fewer than 4.5 batters per nine in any MLB stint - Bautista is ticketed to head to Indy as a reclamation project. He was taken off of the 40-man roster and DFA'ed after the season, and signed a minor league deal with a June 1st opt-out clause if he's not on the Pirate roster. We suspect he'll get to exercise it.

The Pirates play 17 games in 18 days to open the season, and that should effect how they build their early bullpen. Our guess is that they might keep a sixth starter as protection against a 2008-type blowout. If that's so, there will be precious few spots up for grabs in camp if one assumes that Capps, Grabow, Yates and Burnett are locks.

A lot depends on whether they hold on to Veal or not; he could become that mop-up/long guy if he doesn't pitch his way out of Pittsburgh. It'll be an interesting spring with so many unproven arms in Bradenton this year.

(Tomorrow, we'll feature the starters invited to camp, and on Tuesday we'll check out the rotation candidates in the system.)

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