Last year's Bucco bullpen was one busy place. They led the MLB in appearances, as Clint Hurdle waved them in 549 times, an average of 10 outings for every three game series. And they hung in pretty well. Eight of the top ten ERAs on the team last year belonged to relievers, led by Joel Hanrahan's 1.83 mark.
Hanny notched 40 saves, joining Mike Williams (2002 - 46) and Jose Mesa (2004 - 43) in the Pirate 40 save club, and earned an All-Star berth. He blew just four save opportunities and had a strong 1.05 WHIP. Unlike last year, there's no debate regarding the closer's job in 2012.
Which isn't to say there may not be in the near future. Hanrahan, 30, was a popular hot stove topic during the off season, and signed a $4.1M deal for this season. He still has another season of arb, so the Pirates control him through next season - if they're willing to foot the bill. Given his salary and the FO's philosophical reluctance to invest major dollars in the bullpen, the odds are heavily weighed toward Hanny being gone before he gets to walk in 2014. Enjoy him while he's here.
Assuming Hanny can repeat last year's performance, the biggest question mark regarding a pretty strong pen will be the set up man. Evan Meek was supposed to hold down that job last year, but injuries took him out of the season and Jose Veras picked up the slack. Veras did the job by and large, and appeared a team high 79 times, but was sent to the Brewers for Casey McGehee during the off season.
Meek will try to reclaim the eighth inning role. In 2010, he was 5-4 with a 2.14 ERA. He made 70 appearances and worked 80 frames, picking up 70 Ks and holding opponents a 1.05 WHIP and .183 BA on his way to the All-Star game. Last year was a different tale.
The righty was limited to just 24 relief appearances and 20-2/3 IP due to a shoulder injury diagnosed as tendonitis. He tried to pitch through it early in the year, but by June was placed on the DL, not to return until September. The 28 year old was arbitration-eligible for the first time, and signed an $875K deal.
If he can't can't nail down the job, the Bucs have a couple of guys lined up for the position in Chris Resop and Jason Grilli.
Resop, 29, answered the bell 76 times last year. His 4.39 ERA is misleading. He suffered through a horrible July (6.50 ERA) but was at 3.67 or lower every other month of the season. The righty collected 76 Ks in 69-2/3 frames, so he has the swing-and-miss stuff that a late inning guy needs. He signed for $850K in his first arbitration year.
Jason Grilli, 35, was signed from the Phillies farm system in late July, and the nine year vet pitched 32-1/3 innings with a 1.19 WHIP and 37 whiffs. He's best suited to be used as he was in 2011, as a bridge reliever rather than set up man. He inked a $1.1M contract in his final arbitration year, and will be eligible for free agency in 2013.
The Pirate pen competition is so intense that those three are the locks. The other four positions will be hotly contested, especially if Clint Hurdle decides to carry two lefties.
The returning righties are Daniel McCutchen and Chris Leroux, and they'll be pushed by non-roster invitee Juan Cruz.
McCutchen slid into Jeff Karstens' multi-purpose role last year, and he tied Resop for bullpen wins with five. The 29 year old Texan had a 3.72 ERA and worked 84-2/3 innings, a bullpen high, while making 73 appearances. He's not arbitration eligible yet, and still has a pair of minor league options remaining.
Chris Leroux also had a strong season. He finished the year with a 2.88 ERA and 24 Ks in 25 innings after getting the call from Indy. He added to his value by starting this winter in the Dominican League, where he put up a 1.14 ERA in 23+ innings, an opponent BA of .179 and WHIP of 0.85. The 27 year old isn't arbitration eligible yet, and is out of options.
In most situations, that pair would be secure heading into camp. But the Bucs signed Cruz, 33, who worked for Tampa last season, his 11th in the show. He's worked both as a bridge and set up man, and is still a strikeout per inning guy. His curse is his control. Cruz has walked an average of 5/nine innings, and that limits the situations he can be used in. But his power arm puts him in the mix to head north.
Backing those arms up on the 40 man roster are Duke Welker, Bryan Morris and Jared Hughes, all who will start the year in the minors barring injury or meltdown. Other non-roster invitees are Mike Crotta, Ryota Igarashi, Logan Kensing and Tim Wood, who should provide added depth. The Pirates look pretty solid from the right side, both at the MLB and minor league levels.
The returning lefties are Tony Watson and Daniel Moskos, with Doug Slaten, Brian Tallet and the well-traveled Jo-Jo Reyes as camp invitees.
Watson, 26, was a pleasant surprise last season. Converted from a starting role, he had a 3.95 ERA in 41 IP with 37 K. His control is a problem, with 20 walks during that time. Opponents hit just .228 against him, but he had a reverse split, being more effective against righties (.279-.193) in a limited sample of at bats. That and control will be his issues in camp, although he has a good shot to leave Florida with the club in April.
Moskos, the first round pick of 2007, had a 2.89 ERA in 24-1/3 IP. But his K rate of 4.1 per nine, opponent BA of .302 and 1.56 WHIP are more indicative of his pitching than his ERA in 2011. Like Watson, the 25 year old has a big reverse split (.364-.250), again with not many at bats in the sample.
Slaten, 32, pitched for the Nats last year, and had a 4.41 ERA. In six seasons, he's worked 137-2/3 innings with a 3.60 ERA. The curveballer has a positive split against lefties (.241-.279), although hardly a LOOGY. And he has the added benefit of being a catcher's best friend. No one has tried to steal against him in 36 straight appearances, dating back to 2010.
Tallet, 34, has pitched for three other teams. He has a career ERA of 4.79 with fairly even splits. He's a depth acquisition rather than a challenger for a spot right out of camp. Tallet is a swing man who's made 36 starts during his time in the show.
Reyes, 27, has primarily started in his five seasons, and none too successfully, with a career 6.06 ERA . The Pirates will use him as a spot starter/long man, and he's just a veteran insurance policy they'll stash at Indy.
A wildcard will be Justin Wilson, 24, who was drafted in 2008. Last year, he was used as a reliever late in the season at Indy, and he seems to have found a home in the pen. He features a fastball with lots of movement, making it a swing and miss pitch. Unfortunately, it also misses the plate quite often.
Whether the Bucs decide to keep him as a short man in 2012 hasn't been announced yet. With the dearth of lefty bullpen arms, he well may remain a reliever and could be on a fast track to Pittsburgh if he finds the strike zone a little more often.
As a group, the lefties aren't strong or deep in the system. The FO has probably made all its 2012 roster moves, but if they have another one up its sleeve, it's likely to try to strengthen this area.
Overall, the Pirate bullpen should be strong in the last three innings, but is noticeably lacking from the left side. The team could opt to break camp with six righties again, although they may keep Watson and Slaten on the roster, with Wilson a possibility later in the summer.
The pen's depth is contingent on Evan Meek rebounding to claim the set up role; it falls together nicely if he can. The FO has built a nice collection of power arms in a short time. But the best thing that could happen is for the starters to eat a few more innings and to keep the arms loose instead of limp in 2012.