Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Buc Battles: The Bullpen

Well, the suits said that a bullpen was the easiest thing to build, and on the cheap, too. Looks like they were right; the cattle call starts tomorrow for their auditions.

The April starting seven from last year's relief corp - Matt Capps, John Grabow, Tyler Yates, Jesse Chavez, Sean Burnett, Donnie Veal, and Chris Hansen are gonzo; only Yates, Veal and Hansen even remain with the organization.

It's not like they were breaking up a dominant group of arms. The pen ranked 15th in the National League in 2009 with a 4.61 ERA and had a league-low 28 saves. They walked too many and didn't strike enough guys out.

So it will be an entirely new gang entrusted to put out the fires in 2010.

Coming back are Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan; both will get some time to ripen as late relievers, much like last year, judging by the Bucco bullpen signings. The Pirates brought veteran guys in ahead of them who can serve as tutors, not blocks, for their future progression up the bullpen ladder.

The finisher will be 36 year-old RHP Octavio Dotel, who hasn't closed regularly since 2004 when he notched 36 saves. He can certainly miss bats - he's struck out 940 hitters in 770-1/3 innings over his eleven year career, with 83 saves and a 3.73 ERA - but there's some question whether or not he can seal the deal.

Dotel's save percentage is 68%, he has control issues, walking over four batters per game, and his splits last year weren't all that great. Still, for this point in the Pirates' development, he'll do nicely.

38 year-old RHP Brendan Donnelly has eight seasons of experience, and he looks to be the favorite to become the set-up man. He can slip the ball past hitters, too, with 343 K's in 354-2/3 career innings.

Donnelly was lights out for the Marlins last year, but is less than three years removed from Tommy John surgery and hasn't worked over 25 innings since 2006. That's the club's main concern; can he handle the workload? If he can, his lifetime 3.02 ERA gives good indication of how effective he can be as Dotel's bridge.

Ah, but the bottom three. The four pitchers above are locks; after that, it's a battle royale for a spot on the 25 man roster.

Two guys have a leg up on the competition. Javier Lopez is the alpha lefty candidate, and was the first reliever signed by the Pirates back in December. He was a dud with the for the Red Sox last season, but from 2006-08 was quite effective, with ERAs of 2.70, 3.10, and 2.43 as Beantown's middle reliever.

And hey, they have to have a lefty, right? Last year should have taught the suits at least that much. So the Bucs have Wilfredo Ledezma, Brian Burres, and Justin Thomas in camp, too, throwing from the south side. But none of the group appear to match up to Grabow or Burnett.

Neal Cotts was an interesting pick-up, and would be part of the mix, but he had TJ surgery in July, and his timetable for 2010 isn't known.

D.J Carrasco is touted to be the favorite among the non-roster invitees to land a spot in the corps. After a very forgettable three years spent flopping between starting and relieving for the Royals, he found his niche in Chicago. He became a part of the White Sox bullpen, and put together ERAs of 3.96 and 3.73, with an impressive 93-1/3 innings worked last year.

If it goes to form, the last spot will be decided between Steven Jackson and Chris Jakubauskas, with a possible challenge from Kevin Hart if he loses his starting role to Daniel McCutchen.

Other invitees are Brian Bass, Vinnie Chulk, Jeff Karstens, and Jack Taschner, all righties with previous big league relief experience. But they seem ticketed to provide insurance policies at Indy, not break camp. Yates and Hansen are injured, and late season possibilities at best.

Better or worse? Well, it'll depend on whether Dotel can recapture his 2006 magic and Donnelly can provide 70 innings or so for the cause. Meek and Hanrahan should excel without facing the pressure-cooker of closing quite yet, and the last three pitchers are, well, the last three. We're still concerned about the lack of left-handed relievers; the lack bit the team badly during the sad sack second half of 2009.

But if the questions are answered in the positive, the Pirates should be strong for the clutch 7-8-9 inning roles. So if the starting staff can get the game into the last three innings, the bullpen should be better at holding and finishing games, especially if Dotel becomes a hammer.


WilliamJPellas said...

Much as I like Donnelly, I don't agree that he is as pivotal as you are suggesting. If Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan are healthy---and they should be---then there is more than enough depth to weather whatever comes our way in 2010. I'm a bit concerned about Meek, first because of his strained oblique last season (those tend to linger), second because of his oft-stated desire to throw a 100 MPH fastball. Don't get me wrong, it'd be cool to see. But, just stay healthy and get 'em out, Evan. That's more important. He DOES throw very hard, though, regardless.

Ron Ieraci said...

I dunno that I meant to make Donnelly sound pivotal; but a bullpen should be four deep, and it's kinda thin on the back-end if everyone doesn't pan out.

Overall, Will, I think it's just an OK pen, but we'll see; the suits are right that pen performance is an up and down thing.

WilliamJPellas said...

I suppose I'm counting on Javier Lopez to be the 06-08 version, in which case we have even more depth. However, Lopez was never dominant even when he was pitching well, so maybe I'm counting my chickens ahead of time. In addition, Dotel has not always been the most reliable of closers, and Donnelly is, as you say, something of a question mark given his late-career Tommy John surgery.

But at the end of the day I still like this 'pen a lot better than last year's.

Ron Ieraci said...

I'm still up in the air about whether it's an upgrade or not, Will. The suits basically swapped out Capps, Grabow, Chavez and Burnett for Dotel, Donnelly, Hanrahan and Meek.

It could be stronger; it's just I have trouble accepting that every question will be answered in the positive. But that's why they play the games; I can only hope the suits are sharper on the pick-up than I am (and that wouldn't take much, believe me!)

WilliamJPellas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WilliamJPellas said...

I hear you, and I hope you don't think I've been imbibing the Kool Aid of late! But I'd rather have Dotel than Capps any time; while his overall numbers as a closer haven't necessarily been significantly better than Capps, Dotel has had some injuries during his closer years that have skewed his stats somewhat. In any case, Dotel has THE highest K per 9 ratio of any active reliever in the game. Give me somebody who misses bats consistently, and I'll take my chances.

And I'll also take Donnelly, Hanrahan, and Meek over Chavez, Burnett, and (fill in a name from last season's bullpen here). Really, the only spot at which the 2009 'pen would figure to be superior is at the number one lefty spot, where John Grabow is one of the best in the league, and Javier Lopez....uhh, is not.

No doubt we'll hit some potholes on the way to September, but don't forget, we also figure to have at least a handful of serviceable arms stashed at Indianapolis for just the sort of event you describe, Ron. While I am still mightily peeved at this bunch for letting our 'pen go to crap over the past two seasons, I am very optimistic about this year's edition. I just hope we won't see another fire sale and that this team is kept together for the whole year so we can see what we've got. I'm expecting Dotel to be Jose Mesa Part Deux! :-D