For all the ups and downs of the Pirates bullpen in 2009, we think that it's pretty well put together for 2010, barring injury and with the addition of a viable lefty.
The $64,000 question, of course, is what Matt Capps reports to camp. If it's the 2009 version, with the 5.80 ERA, .324 opponent batting average, and the command of a little league pitcher, his three-year run as Bucco closer will come to an end.
He always depended on a relatively flat 93 MPH fastball that caught corners; last year, it caught the plate. Capps, 26, publicly blamed his control issues on overusing his secondary pitches; we'll see. This will be a make-or-break camp for him, if he gets to it - there's been less than subtle indications that he's on the market, and he has a $4M contract that will only jump in arbitration.
But if the Capps era comes to a close, the Pirates believe that 2008 Rule 5 pick-up Evan Meek, 26, has the stuff to replace him. Meek was 1-1 with a 3.45 ERA, and except for a rough July, pitched fairly consistently. He still has to cut down on walks, but made great strides in that direction this season.
Plan B is Joel Hanrahan, 28, who was lights out for the Bucs, compiling a 1.72 ERA. The Washington acquisition also has to find the plate more often, walking two guys every three innings. Another red flag; as a closer last season, he only converted 5-of-10 save opportunities. Capps, even with his inflated stats, saved 27-of-32 chances.
Jesse Chavez, 26, was 1-4 with a 4.01 ERA. In his first full season, he was called on a team-high 73 times. Chavez faded at the end, but we think overuse caught up to him. His control was usually fine; he walked a batter every three innings and had better than a 2:1 K to W ratio, and seems mentally suited to be an effective set-up arm. Chavez has to cut down some on long balls; he gave up 11 in 67-1/3 innings.
The addition of Meek, Hanrahan, and Chavez met one of the original goals of the new bosses; they all brought the heat, hitting 95 with regularity and reaching back for a couple more feet when needed.
Steven Jackson, 27, claimed off waivers from the Yankees, was more of a surprise than Chavez. In 40 games, he posted a 3.14 ERA. Unlike the other guys, his stuff isn't going to miss many bats, but when his change up was on, he proved to be a dependable bridge pitcher.
Jeff Karstens, 27, had a yo-yo of a year. Knocked out of the starting rotation, he thrived in the pen as a long man, and generally threw nicely as a limited-inning spot starter. But his grandmother's illness and death, followed by a cranky back, led to a late-season meltdown.
He finished 4-6 with a 5.42 ERA, and has to be considered a bubble player to come north after camp. There should be quite a crowd for that last spot, and options remaining could play a role in determining who's left standing.
Jose Ascanio, 24, part of the John Grabow deal with the Cubs, was his chief rival for the long role out of the pen. But a late-September scope to repair a labrum tear took him out of the competition until at least June. He finished the year 1-3 with a 4.99 ERA.
Old dependable Denny Bautista, 29, got another call to the big club, and per his MO, started off on fire and then rapidly faded. He ended up 1-1 with a 5.27 ERA.
Chris Bootcheck, 30, was signed as a veteran insurance policy, but it didn't quite work out that way for him in 2009. The six-year player posted his third double-digit ERA in the past four years, putting up an 11.05 ERA in Pittsburgh.
Tyler Yates, 32, had Tommy John surgery in August, and Craig Hansen, 25, has Personage-Turner Syndrome, a nerve problem, and no one knows when he'll be back. Those injuries could mark the end of their stints in Pittsburgh, though the suits could non-tender the pair and sign them to minimum-wage deals just to stockpile them in the system.
Anthony Claggett, 25, was claimed from the Yankees - a pity their payroll doesn't rub off the the Pirates, too - and got a cup of coffee in Pittsburgh. In 2006, Claggett was named by MLB.com as the Class A reliever of the year, so there may be something worth mining in his arm.
The sole returning lefty in the pen is Phil Dumatrait, 28, who came back from shoulder surgery in August, and strung together a lackluster 0-2 record with a 6.92 ERA, giving up 4 homers in 13 innings.
He had a brief shining moment as a starter in 2008, taking the place of Matty Mo, but looks like a long shot to stay with the Pirates next season. He's still a year away from arbitration, but is out of options and will likely be one of the odd men out for the long role out of the pen.
The only lefty in the system worth looking at for the pen is Danny Moskos, 23, the 2007 #1 pick from Clemson. Yah, yah, he's not Matt Weiters, but he may sneak into a Pirate uniform next year as a lefty set-up guy. Moskos was 11-10 with a 3.74 ERA at Altoona, had a pretty good split against lefties, and gets ground balls. And he was a closer for the Tigers.
It's a big jump, and he's better suited to set up than face late innings. Still, he has a shot in the southpaw challenged Bucco system.
There are a few right handers in the pipeline, although none are MLB ready yet.
Jeff Sues, 26, had a rough season at Altoona, with a 2-6-2 record and 4.46 ERA. His performance wasn't as bad as his line; his peripheries were OK, but his command was off until the last two months of the season. He'll probably get a shot at Indy next year; his current position on the 40-man roster is tenuous.
Ron Uviedo, 23, spent the year alternating between starting and closing at Lynchburg, where he went 3-3-5 with a 3.36 ERA. He was limited in his work last season, suffering a bout of elbow tendinitis, and may return full-time to relieving in 2010. We expect him to move to Altoona in 2010.
Diego Moreno, 23, closing at West Virginia, finished 1-3-5 with a 2.60 ERA. He features a mid-90s fast ball and struck out 57 in 45 innings. He should move to Lynchburg next season.
Mike Dubee, 23, came to Pittsburgh from the White Sox for Andy Phillips, and had a 2-0-6 record and 1.05 ERA as part of Lynchburg's closer-by-committee, and was 3-0-1 at Altoona with a 2.91 ERA in the second half of the season, and should start 2010 there.
Tom Boleska, 23, finished the year pitching for Great Britain in the World Cup; he put together a 2.13 ERA in 12-2/3 innings, striking out 14. Before that, he had a 1-1 slate at Lynchburg with a 1.60 ERA, although his season didn't really start until July because of an oblique strain.
This, of course, is the short list. Ramon Augero and RJ Rodriguez were left off because they're 25 and still in A ball. Also, the Pirates like to work their best guys as starters, no matter what the MLB projection may be, so tomorrow's list of rotation prospects will no doubt have a couple of future bull pen candidates included.
And we'd be flabbergasted if the Bucs didn't find one or two lefties to bring in. JR's mouth may have said it makes no difference, but his actions sure spoke loudly every time he had to bring Donnie Veal and Phil Dumatrait in to match up during the latter part of the season.
CONTRACTUAL ISSUES: Tyler Yates enters his free agency year. Matt Capps is in his final arbitration year; Denny Bautista and Chris Bootcheck, their second. Jeff Karstens may qualify for arbitration as a "Super Two" player. Joel Hanrahan will become eligible in 2011.
But a lot of guys are out of minor league options - Jose Ascanio, Bautista, Bootcheck, Phil Dumatrait, Hanrahan, and Craig Hansen. There are also injury issues - Ascanio, Hansen, and Yates will not be ready for season.