The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the off-season with a similar situation to their 2009/2010 off-season, as it pertained to the bullpen. They didn’t have an established closer, they only had one or two strong internal options, and they were looking to add a few players in the month of January to boost the pen. Looking back at my preview of the bullpen in early January, we see the parallels, and the state the bullpen was in at the start of the calendar year:
A year ago at this time, the 2010 bullpen was largely incomplete, consisting only of Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Javier Lopez, and a few minor signings competing for spots, such as Wilfredo Ledezma, Vinnie Chulk, Jack Taschner, and Brian Burres. In the following weeks, the Pirates added D.J. Carrasco, Brendan Donnelly, and Octavio Dotel, giving the bullpen a major boost to start the 2010 season, and leading to one of the few strong points on the 2010 team.
This year is somewhat similar. After trading Carrasco, Lopez, and Dotel at the trade deadline in 2010, the Pirates are left with a bullpen that is largely incomplete, although in better shape than last year. Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek each had breakout years, and are much stronger options this year than they appeared to be heading in to last season. The Pirates also claimed Chris Resop off of waivers in August, and saw strong numbers from him. The Pirates still have some work to do, and Frank Coonelly mentioned in his chat yesterday that they were looking to add a bullpen piece or two, which means we could be in line for another busy January.
What if I told you back in January that the following would happen:
-Evan Meek would struggle, and would be placed on the disabled list, potentially missing more than the minimum 15 days.
-The Pirates would sign three bullpen arms in the month of January, and one of them (Jorge Julio) would be released.
-Michael Crotta, Daniel McCutchen, and Daniel Moskos would all be on the 25-man roster before the end of April.
My guess is that you would have assumed the bullpen was a wreck. Yet we know that this isn’t the case. Evan Meek has struggled, but the strong play of Chris Resop has made up for his loss. The Pirates only kept two of their January signings, but those two players were Jose Veras and Joe Beimel, both off to great starts. Crotta, McCutchen, and Moskos have all been on the 25-man roster, but all have fared well, and they’re not there because of poor performance, but as good fortune would have it, due to injuries to the pitchers who had the worst performances (with the exception of Crotta, who earned his promotion out of Spring Training).
Surprisingly, pitching has been the strong point of the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates, and that’s especially true in the bullpen. The Pirates’ bullpen has the second best ERA in the league, at 2.30. Their anchor has been Joel Hanrahan, who sports a 1.69 ERA, a 13:4 K/BB ratio in 16 innings, and nine saves. However, the pleasant surprise has come from the middle relief, with two pitchers stepping up to fill in for Evan Meek.
Chris Resop has continued his strong 2010 performance so far in 2011. In 2010, Resop posted a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings with the Pirates, along with a 24:10 K/BB ratio. So far this season, Resop has a 1.76 ERA in 15.1 innings, with a 17:6 K/BB ratio. He allowed two runs on April 7th in 0.2 innings, and has been outstanding ever since, with his only other run allowed this season coming tonight, thanks to a poor play by Ronny Cedeno that should have made the run unearned.
It’s fitting that Resop has stepped up during Meek’s struggles, because you could make a case that Resop is this year’s version of Meek. Both players burst on to the scene by putting up surprising seasons for the Pirates, Meek in 2009 and Resop in 2010. Both players went in to the following off-season with questions about whether that season was legit. Meek proved himself in 2010, and was good enough to make the All-Star team. Chris Resop could be a strong candidate to represent the Pirates in the All-Star game this year, based on his early season stats.
Resop hasn’t been a huge surprise, mostly due to the success he saw in the final two months of the 2010 season. The biggest surprise has come from Jose Veras, who currently has a 2.92 ERA and a 21:3 K/BB ratio in 12.1 innings. Veras came in to the season with a 4.24 ERA in 176.1 innings, plus an 8.7 K/9 and a 5.0 BB/9 ratio. So far he has an incredible 15.1 K/9 ratio, and most importantly, a 2.4 BB/9 ratio.
It’s safe to say that the strikeout ratio is unsustainable, but the control might not be. Veras has some nasty movement on his pitches, and has been working in the strike zone, getting the first pitch strike 55.6% of the time, compared to his career line of 50.6% of the time.
None of this mentions that Daniel McCutchen has pitched nine scoreless innings, or that Joe Beimel has a 2.84 ERA and a 7:2 K/BB ratio in 6.1 innings. It doesn’t mention that Michael Crotta has put up a 4.50 ERA in 10 innings, which is a number that could be lower, as Crotta has been subject to some questionable calls this season, such as his most recent outing with an umpire who wasn’t calling low sinkers all game.
In short, the bullpen looks great. They don’t need Evan Meek to succeed. The best part is that, if Meek returns, the Pirates could have four shut down relievers in the bullpen, assuming Resop and Veras continue their early season dominance. That’s something the Pirates desperately need, as they can’t afford to lose leads late in the game.
Looking long term, this group could be together for a few years, although that could be less likely, as the Pirates don’t have a tendency to spend a lot on their bullpen (and their approach has worked so far). Hanrahan and Veras both have two years of arbitration remaining, following the 2011 season. Meek and Resop each have three years of arbitration remaining, with both players becoming first time arbitration eligible in 2012.
Odds are the top four players in the bullpen won’t be together by this time next year. A lot can happen, whether it’s trades, injuries, or poor performances. The reality is that, while the bullpen has been strong, the individuals that make up that bullpen aren’t worth much, at least not in the terms that they should be untouchable. If the Pirates can manage another Octavio Dotel type trade, they should definitely do it. The best part about this bullpen is that they have the ability to pull such a trade off, while keeping one of their strengths together. Worst case scenario, they just add an external option, and that’s an area where they’ve had success over the last two years.
The Pirates in 2010 had a bullpen that was worth a 1.9 WAR, although part of that had to do with injuries and waiver claims on guys like Dana Eveland, Hayden Penn, and Sean Gallagher. The number two bullpen in 2010 was worth a 6.7 WAR, which is about a five win improvement over where the Pirates were in 2010. The overall impact of a strong bullpen isn’t much if going from a bottom-third bullpen to the number two bullpen only improves your team by five wins. At the same time, those five extra wins would be nothing to scoff at, especially for a team like the Pirates, coming off a season like their 2010 campaign.