Last season, the bridge and back end of the Bucco bullpen was its strength, with Hanny, Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and Chris Resop all doing a pretty decent job of keeping the last three innings clean. But that old gang is quite likely to be broken up next season.
Joel Hanrahan, 31, is in his last arbitration year and on borrowed time. Being in the race at the trade deadline the last two years was his reprieve; the Pirates couldn't move him while they were in contention without risking a clubhouse and fan revolt. An argument could be made that they held on to him too long, given the team's summer swoons; he picked up 61 saves before August in 2011-12, but just 15 in August and September during those campaigns.
In his final arb season, he's probably in line to see his $4.1M contract jump into the $7M range for 2013. Add in his value as a trade piece, combined with some Pirate holes that the market isn't likely to satisfy, and all the tea leaves point to his departure this winter.
Jason Grilli, 35, was pulled from the Philly farm system in late July 2011 - and that's one FA signing Neal Huntington should get a gold star for - and put up a 2.76 ERA, 1.161 WHIP and 12.5 K/per nine working 92 outings covering 91-1/3 IP. His 2012 deal was worth $1.1M, and he'll get a lot more expensive now that he's in his walk year.
The Pirates have a pair of options regarding Grilli - either let him hit the marketplace, where they are unlikely to compete, or offer him a deal to become the closer on the assumption that Hanny is history. The fact that he often faced the heart of the opponent's order would bode well for a switch to closer, while his age and the Pirates reluctance to put a large hunk of the payroll into the bullpen work against his return to the club.
Jared Hughes, 27, is in line to be promoted to the back end. He had a breakout year as a set-up guy, with a 2.85 ERA and 1.150 WHIP. Hughes did have a pair of saves and finished 20 games in 2012, but he's probably better suited to a set-up role. He averages 6 K/per nine but with a 60% ground ball rate, which is why he's brought in so often in mid-inning, runners-on situations. Hughes is also under team control for a long time, not reaching arbitration until 2015.
Tony Watson, 27, is another converted starter, ala Hughes, who has put up a pair of solid seasons with Pittsburgh. He's a lefty, but with a bit of a reverse split so he doesn't fall into the LOOGY mold. He hasn't been the workhorse that Hughes has, working just 53-1/3 frames in 2012, but has a much better K rate of 8.9 per nine and a 1.125 WHIP. Both have career FIPs of around four. Watson will remain a bridge and situational arm just because the Pirate don't have southpaws in the pen, so by default, he's the match-up guy. And like Hughes, he's team friendly, not reaching his arb years until 2015.
Chris Resop, 29, has been competent as a mid-inning guy, appearing in 159 games over three seasons with a 3.88 ERA. But his K rate dropped to 5.6/nine in 2012 after 10+/nine in 2010-11 (he issued two fewer walks per nine, too, so it may have been a trade-off). But he made $850K last season, and is up for arb this year for the second time, looking at $1M contract or maybe better. That makes him iffy for 2013.
The Pirates do have a couple of probable internal additions in Bryan Morris, 25, and Chris Leroux, 28, both righties who are out of options for 2013. Leroux has made a couple of stops in Pittsburgh, with a 3.95 ERA and 1.293 WHIP, both tolerable figures for a long man/spot starter. Morris, the last man standing from the Jay Bay trade, was effective in a handful of September outings. He whiffed six in five innings, matching his strikeout-per-inning pace at Indy, where he was a back end reliever. The possibility that Justin Wilson, 25, is flipped to the pen exists, too. Evan Meek is out of the picture; he just declared for free agency last week.
Victor Black, 24, and Duke Welker, 26, a pair of power arms, are also in the upper levels and should be considered as possibilities sometime during the 2013 shakeout.
There's a couple of holdovers, too - Chad Qualls, Hisanori Takahashi, and Daniel McCutchen, who was called up briefly. Qualls and McCutchen are longshots at claiming a 2013 position, while Takahashi and his $4.2M contract will be shed.
But we don't expect the Bucs to be shorthanded in the pen next season. The FO has a history of cobbling together a viable pen and there could be several new faces added to the relief corps in 2013. The concern is that the backend could lose both Hanny and Jason Grilli, and they may prove to be a difficult pair of arms to replace, especially for a team that by design won't tie up any serious money in the bullpen.