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.