Clint Hurdle and the rest of the Pirates management have been on record stating they would like to carry at least two left handers in the major league bullpen. With less than two weeks remaining until opening day there are only 7 left handed pitchers left in camp and three of them, Rodriguez, Liriano and Locke, figure to be prominent members of the rotation. That leaves 4 players vying for what should be in theory two bullpen jobs. The four players left fighting it out are Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Mike Zagurski and Jonathan Sanchez. These four players come with different experience levels and different backgrounds. Wilson and Sanchez have been used up to this point largely as starters but are now being looked at as possible relievers. Watson and Wilson are on the Pirates 40 man roster and Zagurski and Sanchez are NRI with Sanchez having an opt out clause if he isn’t added to the roster by March 24th. Below I take a look at the background of each of these 4 players and try to assess each one’s chance of cracking the Pirates 25 man roster out of Spring Training.
Heading into spring training Watson appeared to be a lock for one of the Pirates bullpen jobs. He has been a part of the Pirates major league team for a year and a half now and has been largely effective. However Watson has only pitched sparingly this spring due to what is called by the team and Watson himself mechanical and physical issues. No specific injury has been cited and Watson has pitched in a few minor league games but still his long absence from major league camp and the mysterious issues he is reportedly having make him no longer a lock to begin the season in the major leagues.
Last season Watson was dominant against left handed hitters and was good against right handed hitters as well making him an ideal left handed reliever for Hurdle who doesn’t appear to like using his relievers strictly as matchup guys. If healthy and ready to pitch Watson is undoubtedly the Pirates best left handed option out of the bullpen and his potential absence from the Pirates roster could really hurt the team. Watson could begin the year on the DL if his issues are truly injury related or he still does have 2 options remaining so the Pirates could start him down in AAA if they believe him healthy but needing more time to get acclimated to game speed. At this point no one except the Pirates seems to know just what is really going on with Watson and what his status looks like for opening day. If I had to put a number on it right now with all I know I’d say it is 50/50 that he is one of the 25 guys heading north at the start of April.
Over the course of the last two seasons the Pirates have tried Wilson as a starter to begin the year only to have him switch to relief near the season’s end. The change in roles was not due to him being ineffective though but rather to him struggling with his control. Wilson is one of the Pirates most talented pitcher in terms of just pure stuff but he has a big problem with his control. As Wilson moved up the minor league latter he became harder and harder to hit but his walk rate stayed relatively steady in the mid 4s BB/9. If he can manage to get that down to even under 4 Wilson has the talent to become a strong middle of the rotation starter and if he can get into the low 3s he could possibly become a decent #2 but as it currently stands Wilson’s best chance at major league success seems to be as a reliever.
Wilson got a cup of coffee in the majors last year and showed good stuff striking out a lot of hitters but when he didn’t do that they were mainly finding a way to get on base. Wilson faced only 26 batters in the majors last year of those he struck out 7 and allowed 13 to reach base. So far this spring Wilson has shown more of the same being tough to hit but continuing to walk too many hitters. It is difficult to tell exactly how the Pirates currently view Wilson; rather they see him as a potential starter they will want working out his kinks in AAA or whether they now think the best path forward with him is as a reliever. At the beginning of Spring Training I had Wilson on the outside looking in for a bullpen spot but with Watson’s mysterious issues and the Pirates comments on wanting at least two left handed relievers and multiple bullpen arms capable of throwing multiple innings I think Wilson’s chances of making the team are growing everyday. If I had to put a number on it right now I think I’d give him a 70% chance of coming north with the Pirates.
Zagurski received a minor league contract from the Pirates this past offseason and at the time he appeared to be little more than just depth for AAA but a couple of things have changed and they are the same two things I have discussed at length so far. One the Pirates appear likely to take two left handed relievers north and two Tony Watson very well may not be one of them. Those two factors along with a strong spring showing from Zagurski has brought him squarely into the conversation as a potential bullpen arm for the Pirates. His major league track record isn’t too good but he is coming off the best and longest major league stint of his career in 2012. It wasn’t good as his WHIP was 1.500 and his BB/9 were 4.6 but it was an improvement. On the positive side Zagurski has been fairly effective at AAA although he still has shown a problem with his control (something that is a theme for all Pirates left handed relief candidates). The other positive of Zagurski’s game is that he does have the ability to miss some bats although his numbers in that category have been slipping the last couple of seasons.
It should be pretty clear what the Pirates have in Zagurski and that is a below average left handed reliever who should be used as nothing more than a fill in should injuries arise during the course of the year. He almost certainly isn’t going to be a great reliever for the Pirates but his strong Spring performances gives some hope that he could be an effective one at least. The Pirates are having trouble with injuries as I stated with Watson so it definitely isn’t inconceivable he could start the year with the Pirates and be released once Watson is healthy. In fact if I were forced to guess right now I think that is exactly what the Pirates are intending to do with him. Since I have Watson as a 50/50 proposition and since I see Zagurski as Watson’s alternative I will also give him a 50/50 chance of making the Pirates out of spring training.
Like Zagurski, Sanchez was signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp but unlike him Sanchez came with some intrigue and in my mind some chance of making the team. Sanchez has had success in the majors before as a starting pitcher albeit one who managed to do so despite having poor control. Over the last two seasons however Sanchez’s control problems have gotten out of hand and he has been unable to still be effective in spite of them. Sanchez entered this Spring as a long shot for the rotation but certainly as a solid candidate for one of the available bullpen jobs. His first outing this spring was solid but it was followed up by 3 very poor outing where he showed essentially no control what so ever. He appeared to be out of the picture but a second solid showing a few days ago has him back in the competition although he is a long shot at this point. Still his overall numbers suggest he still has a few kinks to work out before being ready to contribute at the major league level.
Ideally the Pirates would prefer to send Sanchez to AAA, have him work on a few things and give him a chance to show that his control is now at least back to an acceptable level. However the Pirates probably do not have that option seeing as Sanchez has an out clause in his contract if he isn’t added to the roster by March 24th and from reports I’ve seen it sounds as if he intends to use it. As things currently stand Sanchez’ chances of making the Pirates appear very slim and in fact there are only two scenarios in which I can see him making it. The first scenario I think is highly unlikely and that is if the Pirates see something in him that suggests a minor tweak here and there can bring him back to his old form and don’t want him to leave. The second more likely but still doubtful scenario is if Ton Watson isn’t ready, the Pirates are intent on bring up two lefties and they deem Justin Wilson would be best served by heading back to AAA to start. Overall I’ll place Sanchez’s odds at around 10%. That leaves me at 180% for the four, the remaining 20% to me represents the possibility the Pirates opt to go with just one left hander.