Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mid Camp Report: The Bullpen

The Bucs put together a pretty competent bullpen last season, and according to recent formula: a couple of proven arms, a pick up or two, and a sprinkling of minor league two-pitch guys. In fact, the Buc bullpens have been traditionally fairly solid, and this year's edition should be no different in either composition or results.

Last year's pen was a lot like the rotation - strong for four months, and then AWOL during the dog days. Through July, the relief corps was called on to cover 328 innings over 343 appearances (86 games-82 innings/month), and did so to the tune of a 3.05 ERA. In August and September, the firemen were waved in 206 times to mop up 198 frames (103 games-99 innings/month). They were scorched, putting together a 4.95 ERA.

Some of it was the workload. The Bucs led the NL in relief innings worked, and the number of innings and outings they absorbed in the last two months was telling. The bullpen had been rated in the upper-mid pack for much of the season until the August/September meltdown, when it drifted slowly into the bottom third.

A big part of the parcel was the rotation, which left too many innings to be worked by the long guys, generally the weakest link of any pitching staff, especially as the season wore on.

Still, they did OK statistically, posting a 23-29-43/3.76 ERA line with a .256 opponent BA. But it wasn't a lock-down game until Joel Hanrahan stepped on the hill. Hanny converted 91% of his save chances, going 40-for-44, and put up a brilliant 1.83 ERA, earning himself a $4M deal during the winter in the process.

But overall, the Pirates were 43-of-65 in save opportunities, converting just 66% of their chances, and that's not so good. Jose Veras and Chris Resop went a combined 2-for-14 as closers. That's probably as good a reason as any for the Bucs to have hung on to Hanny during the off-season, although his value on the market (and contract) will continue to keep him front and center in any trade rumors involving Pittsburgh.

Most of the back-end bullpen returns. Three right-handers, Jason Grilli, Chris Resop and Evan Meek, are considered close to locks, along with Hanny. The hope is that Meek claims the set-up spot, much like Hanrahan did in 2010, and uses it as a launching pad toward becoming the man. But he's had problems regaining his mid-nineties velocity post-injury after losing much of 2011 to shoulder tendinitis. His heater so far in the spring is sitting at 92 instead of 95-96, and that margin could cost him the eighth inning set up role.

That leaves six pitchers fighting for the final three spots. They are RHPs Daniel McCutchen, Chris Leroux and Juan Cruz, a non-roster signee, and LHPs Tony Watson, Daniel Moskos and Doug Slaten, inked on a minor league deal during the off-season. Clint Hurdle has often said that his preference is to have a pair of lefties in the pen, but in the Bucs case, that may be problematic.

None of the LHPs are particularly late inning, high leverage guys, and Watson (.193/.297) & Moskos (.250/.364) both had reverse splits, getting lit up by left handed hitters. Slaten during his career has a .297/.241 split, so at least he's somewhat effective against lefties. Moskos has held his own this spring, while Watson and Slaten have had a tough start, though none of the three has worked more than six innings yet.

Cruz has been pretty effective so far, and Hurdle has used him in late inning roles this spring. Often described as the Jose Veras of 2012, the 33-year-old went 5-0 with a 3.88 ERA in 56 appearances for Tampa Bay last season. The 11 year vet has a career line of 37-35-3/4.13 ERA while playing for the Cubs, Braves, Athletics, Diamondbacks, Royals and Rays. He's the frontrunner to date for the set-up spot if Meek continues to struggle while trying to regain his form.

McCutchen replaced Jeff Karstens as the long man last year, and went 5-3/3.72 in 73 outings. Leroux joined the staff during the season, and went 1-1/2.88 with 24 K in 25 innings.But with two weeks to go until opening day, the FO is waiting on guys to step up and claim their spots. Resop, Meek, Leroux, Watson and Slaten all have 6+ ERAs.

We know that spring numbers aren't worth the pixels used to generate them, but with open spots for the taking, the players aren't making roster decisions any easier on Hurdle and the FO. Pittsburgh used 20 guys out of the pen in 2011, and they may end up going through more than a few arms again this year until the players sort things out.

The bullpen outlook is the same as last year's was - strong enough to close out a game in the final three innings, but lacking in mid-game depth and glaringly short on lefties. Its biggest improvement would be for the starters to get into the seventh inning more often and play to the strength of the relievers.

The Neal Huntington bullpen blueprint is to cobble together a strong back end and fill in the bridge guys cheaply through the system and secondary market, and that's the route they've taken again this year.

They do seem to have a pretty fair eye for useful free agents, Joe Beimel not withstanding, having brought in Octavio Dotel, Jose Veras and Cruz in the past three seasons to shore up the back end. Not only did these pick-ups fill a need, but the FO turned Dotel and Veras into James McDonald and Casey McGehee, helping to build the team talent pool, too.

They're grooming a couple of power closing arms with Indy's Bryan Morris and Altoona's Duke Welker, plus possibly Justin Wilson, to finish games in the future. The FO thought highly enough of them to ship fireballing Diego Moreno to New York as part of the deal for AJ Burnett. With a boatload of potential mid-inning guys in the system to go along with the closers, they can ride their template into the near term.

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