The Buc bullpen was a mainstay last year, at least until September. And everyone should be back - Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Jeanmar Gomez and company.
But while the relief corp spent a long time among the league's elite, they finished the year just 14th in WAR. It's not that they fell off the earth; the guys had an ERA of 2.89 with an xFIP that was 3.59, third and seventh in MLB. The strand rate of 78.3% was top five, and the GB rate was 52%; they were the only pen in baseball to generate half their outs in the dirt.
No, their problem is that they were toodependable and called on too often. They worked 545-2/3 IP, fourth in the league and with more frames under their belts than even the woebegone Astro firemen. So as a unit, the first thing they need to keep on keepin' on is some help from their starters. Even with those innings, they were among teams with the fewest appearances, a tribute to the multi-inning abilities of the staff. Still, the inability of the rotation to get deeper into games may have contributed to their late season stumble.
It wasn't a complete September meltdown; the ERA over the last 30 days was 3.40 with a 3.24 xFIP. But along with the workload, regression also reared its head - the BABIP skyrocketed to .330, even with the GB rate holding at 52%, and the strand rate, as a result, dropped to 71%.
To Clint Hurdle's credit, no one reached 75 IP, even with Grilli out for a few weeks. But four guys worked 70+ innings, and that's a hefty workload, even if spread out.
That regression may show up next season. Jason Grilli was the only one of the seven that had an ERA higher than his xFIP in 2013; Jeanmar Gomez's was about the same, and he'll be looking for a rotation spot in 2014. Mark the Shark was the only one of the remaining five who didn't have a spread that was less than a run, so the potential for a sabermetric day of reckoning in 2014 certainly exists.
For those guys, you can zero in on three areas: average K rates, high strand rates and low BABIP averages. But before we go into doom and gloom mode, there is a bright spot, and it's one the Pirate FO has always recognized - year-to-year performance is basically a crap shot among relievers because of their small sample size.
Grilli has performed at a high level since joining the Pirates, and looked like he was getting back into his old groove in his later performances, with his velocity and movement coming back. Mark the Shark may have to alter his cutter heavy approach a bit and work RH batters tight more often instead of living on the outside half. Tony Watson has a pair of strong seasons back-to-back, and in 2014 gave up a little punch-out power to focus on his command and busting batters inside.
Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris, though, are poster children for future regression. All three have just so-so K rates and high walk rates that they got away with last year. Unless they improve their command in 2014, they could be due for a crash.
The Bucs won't sit around and wait to see if that happens; the bullpen
is the one position on the team that turns over by design, both because of
Pittsburgh's management philosophy and because they FO doesn't believe in
sinking much money into the relive corp.
Among returning players, Jared Hughes had a tough year, and if Ryan Reid and Kyle Farnsworth return, it will be with minor league deals. Kris Johnson, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin could vie for roles, along with Zack Thornton. Gomez and/or Stolmy Pimentel are in the mix if they can't claim a rotation spot. So they do have some minor league depth options, though not much at the back end after losing Vic Black and Duke Welker.
The Pirates are pretty good at evaluating bullpen arms, the occasional Joe Beimel/Chad Qualls to the contrary. They have guys stashed away in the minors awaiting conversion (Mark Melancon is the only guy in the bullpen who spent his pro career as a reliever), and have a nice eye for picking up FA and players on minor deals.
One other thing to look for: Neal Huntington said, "This is an area we can trade from," which makes for an interesting off season dynamic. So the Bucs aren't locked in, and in fact the only constant in their bullpen is change.