The Pittsburgh Pirates have built a pitching staff a bit differently than the two traditional models. When thinking about how to build a pitching staff most people think about the Yankees who sign a lot of high profile free agents or the Rays who draft and develop a large stable of good arms. The Pirates however has done none of these. I’m going to explore how the current 12 man pitching staff plus the top reserves came to join the Pirates.
Drafted: Tony Watson, Brad Lincoln, Daniel Moskos, Jared Hughes
Traded: A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, Joel Hanrahan
Free Agents: Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia
Minor League Free Agents: Jason Grilli, Juan Cruz
Waivers: Chris Resop, Chris Leroux
Rule V: Evan Meek
So lets take a closer look at each of the above 17 player’s situations:
Watson: Converted starter, who was given up on by the Littlefield regime
Lincoln: Former top draft pick, who has the look of a bust and is trying to recover some value
Moskos: Highly criticized 1st round pick, who failed as a starter and is trying to make it as a reliever
Hughes: Probably the most typical of the group but he too is a failed starter trying to make it in the bullpen
Burnett: High profile free agent signed by the NYY whom essentially paid the Pirates to take him away
Morton: Major league pitcher who was traded along with two prospects to acquire a decent outfielder in Nate McLouth
McDonald: Major league pitcher who was traded along with a prospect to acquire a relief pitcher, Octavio Dotel
Karstens and McCutchen: The two lesser players the Pirates received in the Nady/Marte deal who’s return was headlined by Tabata and Ohlendorf
Hanrahan: Swapped for Sean Burnett to balance out trade because Nationals thought Milledge for Morgan deal favored Pirates slightly
Bedard: Oft injured fragile pitcher who after a rocky showing in Boston drew little interest this past offseason
Correia: Low level free agent starter signing who the year before the Pirates signed him was sent to the bullpen because of poor perfroamnce
Grilli: Signed from the Phillies AAA team and the Pirates had to give no compensation
Cruz: Minor league free agent signing
Resop and Leroux: Expendable relievers picked up off the waiver wire
Meek: Selected by the Pirates in the Rule V draft and after failing to stay on the roster the Rays essentially gave him to the Pirates
So there you have a collection of cast aways, failed starters, busted first round picks and non-desirables make up your 2012 Pittsburgh Pirate pitching staff. This is a miss-mash rag tag group if I have ever seen one yet I’m rather weirdly comforted by this staff. It isn’t a great staff but this has the ability to be a very good starting staff and with any semblance of offense could help lead the Pirates to a record they haven’t seen in quite a while.
On the flip side the offense, which I have little confidence in, is made of highly touted first round picks, big time former prospects, mid-level free agent signings and depth players who had very successful minor league careers. Just looking at the two side’s resumes one would assume the hitters are the good half of the Pirates and the pitchers are struggling but we all know that is not the case.
Joel Hanrahan: After a terrific season last year as the Pirates closer Hanrahan will once again be the team’s closer. There is no reason not to expect another great season from him. As the anchor of the bullpen Hanrahan should be in line to finish out most of the Pirates’ wins. I would not rule out a midseason trade though because the price of relievers is very high right now and if the Pirates find themselves out of it by the deadline shopping Hanrahan to a contender in need of a late inning reliever would make a lot of sense because they could potential acquire a long term solution for 1B or SS.
Chris Resop: Some thought Resop would be non-tendered but I am happy the Pirates decided to bring him back. Resop’s ability to post high strike out totals makes him good at coming into jams and getting out of them with little damage; I’ve always consider this the fireman role of the bullpen. For most of the season Resop did quite well in this role but he faded as the year went on nonetheless I expect him to return to this role and do fairly well in it.
Jason Grilli: Signed in the middle of last season from the Phillies Grilli came in and did very well. The Pirates choose to bring him back this season and he will be the team’s second highest paid reliever. Grilli has shown the flexibility to pitch late in games, pitch multiple innings and to do some mop up work if necessary. I see Grilli taking on the role of the utility pitcher; this means he will pitch in any and all situations. Grilli is really a non-descript relief pitcher but he seems to mesh well with this team so his respectable performance should be enough to warrant him a spot on the roster for most of the season.
RIGHT HANDED OPTIONS
Evan Meek: Meek will likely get the first crack at the set up role but due to his injuries and inconsistent play last year coupled with the facts the Pirates have a lot of bullpen options and Meek has an option left he is not a lock to make the team. I think last year was a fluke year for Meek and I expect him to make the team and regain his form this season. A healthy effective Meek would make the idea of trading Hanrahan a little easier to swallow or should the Pirates find themselves in a competitive position it would give them a terrific shut down duo for the 8th and 9th innings.
Chris Leroux: There has been some talk about stretching Leroux out to become a starter but I don’t see it happening. Chances are Leroux would have to be sent down to the minors for a while to work as a starter and with no options remaining he would need to be waived for that to be possible. With all that being said Leroux is not a lock to make the team. The Pirates have a lot of good options available and with being out of options he provides less flexibility that most of the people he is competiting with. He is a definite borderline player; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start the year in the bullpen or be waived, it could go either way. My prediction is that Leroux will make the bullpen and pitch well but not really do enough to distinguish himself and he will be removed from the roster at some point during the season.
Daniel McCutchen: As of right this minute McCutchen is probably the favorite for the long relief job. Should the Pirates bring in another starter as is rumored the job will likely go to a current projected starter like Kevin Correia. This could leave McCutchen on the outside looking in but with an option remaining he should definitely remain on the Pirates 40 man roster and be called upon some time this season. He might even be called upon to make the occasional spot start this season depending on the health and performance of the Pirates top starting options. There is nothing that wows you about McCutchen but his ability to give multiple innings out of the bullpen makes him a nice option to have around.
Jared Hughes: Hughes came up late last season and pitched pretty well but he is probably a long shot to make the major league roster at this point. He seems to be another pitcher in the same mold as Grilli, Resop and Leroux he can strike people out and his control while a little shaky is good enough to make him a solid relief option. The Pirates will probably call upon him at some point this season and I see no reason why he won’t be a serviceable middle reliever.
Juan Cruz: I believe Cruz is the Pirates answer for replacing Jose Veras. Before signing Cruz the Pirates had Evan Meek and a bunch of other intriguing arms to fill the set up role but what they didn’t have was someone with experience doing it who they could call upon should no one step up and take the role. Cruz gives the Pirates that; he will be the fall back option for the Pirates 7th and 8th inning roles. Cruz is on a minor league contract so he doesn’t have to make the team and very well might not but it is good the Pirates brought him in just in case he is needed. I would really like to see Cruz make the team but unless Meek starts out in AAA I just do not see a spot for him. Probably at some point this season Cruz will get his chance with the Pirates and if so I expect him to put up similar numbers to what Veras did last season.
LEFT HANDED OPTIONS
Tony Watson: Watson is probably the Pirates best option for a left hander out of the bullpen meaning he will likely make the team out of spring training. On the other hand Watson is not a complete product and could definitely use more time in the minors. When pressed into duty last season Watson performed admirably and with no other clear cut options he deserves a chance to prove himself. I am not expecting a great season from Watson but he seems like a serviceable lefty; if one of the below guys or someone else can step up it would be great for the Pirates to get him back to AAA. As it is I see Watson having a serviceable year as the top lefty in the pen and pitching a lot of situational matchups.
Daniel Moskos: Moskos may be the Pirates second best left handed option for the bullpen but he could use AAA work even more than Watson could. With their abundance of right handers I doubt the Pirates will choose to carry two lefties but if they do Moskos has the inside track to be the second lefty. Whether Moskos makes the team or not he is going to be asked to play a role in the majors at some point and I see it going quite well. I have always liked Moskos as a potential late inning left handed reliever and while that will never make him worth the 4th overall pick it should make him a useful player. I predict Moskos will begin to take some late inning situational time away from Watson by the end of the year.
Jo-Jo Reyes: The Pirates signed a slew of depth left handed relievers and I am not going to spend much time of any of them but the one I find most intriguing is Reyes. He has started in the past and has basically only been a passable spot starter but he has shown a good knack for getting lefties out meaning a bullpen role could be good for him. I think he has a chance to make the roster out of spring training but I don’t see it. I am not expecting much from Reyes but I believe he can be a decent reliever if he is needed.
Doug Slaten: Slaten is the definition of a lefty specialist; he is horrible against righties but does well enough against lefties that he still manages to keep a job. Hurdle likes two lefties in the bullpen so Slaten has a chance to make the major league roster but I don’t see it happening. If needed he would be fine if used in a LOOGY role but anything more than that could be scary for Pirate fans.
Brian Tallet: Even with the Pirates lack of left handed options Tallet stands little chance to make the team. I imagine he is here as sort of a last resort back up plan. Chances are Tallet will not play in the majors this season but by some chance he does we shouldn’t expect much. I imagine the Pirates will try to find him a spot in AAA but even that could be tough to do.
Stetson Allie: I have not given up on Allie as a potential starter but it looks as of now that the bullpen is the safer bet and that he will probably be working in that role this season. He has only been pitching for two seasons so of course he is raw I’m not sure why anyone expected anything more from him. Allie has a huge upside but is probably as far away from the majors as the younger Luis Heredia. I think Allie will show progress this season but it will likely be back in short season ball so it won’t exactly send his prospect status soaring. The potential is still very much there though.
Justin Wilson: Wilson could return to starting this season but due to his control issues I see his best fit as the bullpen. When you combined that with the fact the Pirates are light on left handed relievers Wilson could see time in the majors as early as the beginning of this season if he is needed. There were reports of Wilson hitting 99 mph out of the bullpen last season; that would be fantastic from a left handed reliever but I think more realistically we will see him consistently at 95-96 which will still be good. I expect Wilson to get some time in the pen later this season and as long as his control isn’t plain terrible I think it will go rather well.
Bryan Morris: A lot of people have given up on Morris but I haven’t. I see him as the heir apparent to Joel Hanrahan. Would that be a good return for the Jason Bay trade? Well of course not but it would still be great if he could turn into a good closer and I think Morris has the makeup to do just that. Should the Pirates opt to trade Hanrahan (and I think that depends on their contender status this season) I see Morris assuming the closer’s role by the end of the season.
Jeff Inman: Inman has a big upside and is probably easily one of the Pirates most talented pitching prospects. The problem the man can’t stay healthy. He has been in the system 3 years and has thrown just 40 innings. Inman was once considered a starting prospect but at this point I don’t see any way possible he remains a starter. He could have a future as a reliever pitching limited innings but even that would require him to stay healthier. Considering his low inning workload I would be surprised to see the Pirates start him above A+ but he could find himself in AA at some point. If he manages to stay healthy I can see him putting up very good numbers but that is a very big if at this point.
Duke Welker: The Pirates protected Welker from the Rule V draft this offseason, considering they had quite a few options they could have protected it shows they must think rather highly of Welker. He does have good stuff for a reliever and appears to have the making of a late inning reliever but for some reason I just don’t have a strong feeling about him. I see Welker struggling as a reliever in the majors but I don’t really know why, it is really just a hunch. Anyway Welker should start the season in AA but if he does well he is a candidate for an early promotion to AAA. He could even have an impact in the majors this season but I don’t see that happening.
Zac Fuesser: Fuesser is my second left handed pitching prospect on this list. He appears destined for a relief spot even though he did start 11 games last year and pitched over 100 innings. With so many other pitching prospects around him Fuesser has mainly been used in a piggy back role meaning he pitches but only after a more highly thought of prospect gets his work in. He will be in A+ this season and with a stacked starting rotation he will probably get little consideration there but could be called upon often as a long reliever. Fuesser’s true development as a reliever probably won’t start to next season when the prospects start to separate themselves from the filler but the fact he is left handed gives him a respectable chance at making an impact in the majors at some point.
Summary: For 2012 the bullpen appears to be fairly strong. My only real concern about it is that it will be overworked but hopefully the Burnett acquisition will alleviate that some. The Pirates have a good mix of right handers but are really lacking left handed options at the moment. The relievers are by no means a lock to be effective but I think considering the number of options the Pirates have available it is pretty safe to assume they will be able to find a mix that provides them with good stability this season and that is really all you can ask from a bullpen. For next season the Pirates have an intriguing mix of young pitchers who are coming up in relief roles that should allow the Pirates to cut loose some of their more expensive middle relief options. As far as long term goes it is always difficult to know exactly what pitchers will end up relievers but it appears as if the Pirates should have some options and chief among might be a fireball closer in Stetson Allie (although we should hold out hope he ends up starting).