The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen was strong for the club during the 2011 season posting a ‘pen 3.76 ERA over 526.0 innings. Only one reliever did not return for the 2012 season, right-hander Jose Veras, who was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for infielder Casey McGehee.
Like Veras, right-hander Juan Cruz signed a minor league contract and will make the club as a non-roster player this season.
- Locks in the ‘pen: Juan Cruz, Jason Grilli, Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Chris Resop, Tony Watson (lefty)
The Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton will start the season on the disabled list. General Manager Neal Huntington said the decision to carry an extra bench player, or an extra arm, is still in discussion. Instead of carrying 12 pitchers, the Pirates could decide to use 11 arms (four starters and seven relievers) and 14 position players to help the club during their tough month of April.
“That is an option,” Huntington said. “That is something we are talking about. The best use of the bench for Clint to win those early games. Eight bullpen guys allows us the protection early as your starters are getting built up, getting into the cold weather. It is an option that we could go 11 pitchers,  position players. Or we could go four starters and eight relievers and go 12 and 13. We’re still working through that. Probably our final decisions will be made in Philadelphia in terms of the final spots as we go forward.”
“We’ve talked about both scenarios,” Manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’ve talked about the difference in personnel. We need to factor in the off days involved and how much the extra pitching you think you’d need or could use, or if the bat would play better. That’s where we are in the discussions right now. Would the extra arm be the benefit, or would the bat be a benefit? It could open up a position for all three of the utility men to make the club, or it could open up an opportunity for another long man to make the club.”
Cruz, 33, has allowed two runs on five hits over 9.1 innings this spring. He has walked one and struck out seven over his nine appearances.
“Juan has pitched well this spring,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do coming in. He’s competed well. He’s worked extremely well. He’s gotten outs and been efficient with them.”
“I decided to come here because I saw what they did last year,” Cruz said on why he chose the Pirates over the offseason. “I decided to come here because I think it was a good opportunity for me and for the organization. It’s the right team [for me] right now.”
This spring was not the first year that Cruz had signed a minor league contract with a non-roster big league invite. Cruz also had a similar deal with the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the 2011 season. He posted a 3.88 ERA over 56 appearances with them last year.
Cruz, who could be used in the back-end of the bullpen, said he is unsure of his role with the Pirates, but will be ready whenever the phone rings in the ‘pen.
“I will be ready for whenever they call my name,” Cruz said. “I will be ready to go. I’m not really worried about what my role is with the team, I just want to be ready whenever they say…I’m more confident with my pitches. I use my stuff more confidently. You can always get better, and I feel really, really good now. Especially compared to where I was last year.”
Grilli, 35, has allowed three runs on six hits over 10.0 innings this spring. He has walked four and struck out six over eight appearances.
Whenever Pirates Grilli was given the ball last season with Pittsburgh, he thrived. Grilli pitched from the 5th inning on during the 2011 season, including his first save on August 24 — his first since 2009. It was in the back end of the ‘pen that Grilli enjoyed the most.
“I hope that’s my role,” Grilli said. “I’ve always taken the ball whenever it’s been given to me, whatever inning that is. I worked my way to being a back end of a bullpen guy thanks to [Pirates Manager] Clint Hurdle. He’s been a very big proponent for me in my career from the time he said, ‘what do you want out of your career?’ I said, ‘I want to be in an important role in key situations’. He felt that I could handle the back end, the later innings. I like that. I always have.”
After signing as a free agent in July last season, Grilli posted a 2.48 ERA over 28 appearances (32.2 innings) with Pittsburgh. Grilli referred to the 2011 season as a “comeback year” after missing the entire 2010 season due to right knee surgery.
“Last year was more of a comeback year, getting strong, almost losing my career to now, I was able to just get stronger as I regularly would,” Grilli said. “It’s just something that I kept challenging myself because you have to.”
“I want to keep myself in the best shape because I don’t know when I’m going to say I’m done with this, or the game is done with me. Hopefully it’s the first statement. I want to take the jersey off when I want to, so I got to keep myself in the best shape. I really am pushing myself to limits that I never did before. I’m hoping that mentally and physically it’s going to carry me through a championship season here.”
Hanrahan, 30, has allowed three runs on five hits over 8.0 innings this spring. He has walked two and struck out 12 over eight appearances.
Bucco closer Joel Hanrahan saved 40 games in 44 opportunities during the 2011 season. His 40 saves ranked sixth in the National League and represented the third-highest single season total in team history (since saves became official in 1969) behind Mike Williams (46 in 2002) and Jose Mesa (43 in 2004).
Hanrahan, who was named to the National League All-Star team in his first season as Pittsburgh’s closer, posted a 1.83 ERA over 70 appearances (68.2 innings) last year.
The Pirates closer has been incorporating his slider more during spring training. Hanrahan relied on his slider a lot during the 2010 season to get guys out, but last year he didn’t use it as much. His fastball, which clocks in the high 90′s, was his weapon of choice for 2011.
“His slider — the year before I got here, it was unbelievable,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “Last year he didn’t use it as much. He tried throwing it a little bit later in some situations. The slider seems to be taking much better form early this year than at any time last year. He’s thrown a number of them already.”
This spring, however, Hanrahan is reaping the benefit of using both.
“It’s something that we wanted to try and hybrid the two guys,” Hurdle said. “The fastball, when you’re having it and it’s working, it’s great. But you want to lose a pitch. He had it one time and I think he just kind of lost it, misplaced it, didn’t need it. I think he understands that it can be a benefit as well. He’s really focused on trying to just really command that pitch to the best of his ability, and his fastball command is always going to set everything else up.”
Meek, 28, has allowed five earned runs on eight hits over 9.2 innings this spring. He has walked four and struck out eight.
Meek worked hard over the offseason to get his body in better shape, dropping nearly 20 pounds by cycling, and building up arm strength, in order to bounce back from his injury plagued 2011 season.
The All-Star reliever he once was during 2010 hit 95-97 with his fastball regularly on the gun, while posting a 2.14 ERA over a career-high 70 appearances (80.0 innings). During the 2011 season, Meek battled right shoulder tendonitis for most of the year, appearing in just 24 games with Pittsburgh.
“Hurdle was with Texas [as the team’s hitting coach] in 2010,” Meek said. “He knows that year, but he’s never seen it for himself. It was really disappointing for me to come into last year with high expectations of myself, to go out there last year, and do what I did. I feel like I’m ahead now then I was last year.”
In two of his eight outings, Meek has tossed multiple frames in order to build up his arm strength this spring. The idea was intentional and a plan that was put into place by pitching coach Ray Searage.
“It’s absolutely intentional,” Hurdle said. “He needed to pitch. From where he was last year, he felt healthy enough to do it. It was another way to develop arm speed, velocity. His velocity has improved. He can carry a little bit of a workload, stretch out a little bit. It’s been a plan that Ray’s had in place. Evan has been more than willing to work with it, and to do whatever he can to get himself back to the version that he was in 2010. It’s way better than anything we’ve saw last year already.
“The first step was to make sure that I could do it,” Meek said of the plan this spring. “They wanted to see that I was healthy, that I could take on that kind of load. I’m really pleased with how I’ve been able to bounce back. I’ve felt great this spring. I think really what they’re trying to do is get me reps, just try to get me innings, just run me back out there, and back out there. As a reliever, if you throw and you sit for a while, you kind of get a little out of whack. They know me, and they know that I need to get out there and get those innings and feel what I’m doing. I need to feel what I’m doing wrong. I need to feel what I’m doing right. Then I need to make the adjustments as we go. They’ve done a phenomenal job preparing me.”
Throughout spring, Meek has been anywhere from 90-94 with his fastball. Although it is still a few ticks below what he fired back in 2010, Hurdle still sees progress from Meek. And he also believes there’s no reason why he won’t gain it back.
“There’s times where it’s way better than it was last year,” Hurdle said. “The biggest thing isn’t so much the velocity, but the finish on his pitches. You saw him throw some breaking balls [Wednesday], some guys took funny swings. Real funny swings…I also think we’re also starting to see a guy whose mound presence has improved. There’s a lot more confidence out there now.”
Resop, 29, has allowed four runs on six hits over 9.0 innings this spring. He’s walked one and struck out nine over seven appearances.
The righty reliever established career high’s in games (76) and innings pitched (69.2) in his first full season in the Majors with Pittsburgh during 2011. Resop ranked ninth among N.L relief pitchers in innings pitched and tied for eighth in strikeouts (79). Resop finished with a 4.39 ERA.
Watson, 26, has allowed six earned runs on 11 hits over 10.0 innings this spring. He has walked one and struck out four over eight appearances.
The lefty reliever said his main focus over the offseason was to improve on his consistency this year. After making his Major League debut with the Pirates on June 8 against Arizona last season, Watson finished with a 3.95 ERA over 43 appearances (41.0 innings). But his ERA jumped up and down over his four months in Pittsburgh.
“Consistency with the delivery,” Watson said of his offseason focus. “Consistency with the pitches. If the delivery is consistent, everything’s consistent. Then the pitches will be consistent. That was a big thing for me. Just continuing to be consistent with everything.”
Despite a 5.40 ERA this spring training, stats for pitchers are hard to read into. Watson said himself that he’s been working on different things each outing to the mound.
“Results-wise no,” Watson said of his overall performance during the Grapefruit League. “I’ve been kind of up and down. Not really looking for what I want personally. In the grand scheme of things, I feel like I’ve been making some good pitches. Working on some things. It’s starting to all come together full circle.”
“There’s some timing things that everybody goes through. Mechanically, I’ve been working on some new pitches. Just trying to feel some things out. See what works for me, and what doesn’t. Then go from there. The main thing is just going out there and competing and getting back into the swing of things.”
Final Battle: Jared Hughes, Chris Leroux, Daniel Moskos
“It’s going to be a good ‘pen,” right-hander Jared Hughes said of the final bullpen battles. “We’ve got a lot of talented guys. All each one of can do is focus on ourselves, focus on our team, and go out there and try to win games.”
“I feel like I’ve made the most of my last three outings,” Chris Leroux said. “So, we’ll see what happens Tuesday. I just want to be part of that seven-man pen.”
Hughes, 26, has allowed four runs on 13 hits over 10.0 innings this spring. He has walked three and struck out 10 over nine appearances.
After starting the 2011 season in Double-A Altoona, where he made 11 starts and appeared in two games in relief, Hughes was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis in June where he was used exclusively in the bullpen. Hughes posted a 2.11 ERA over 42.2 innings with 45 strikeouts before getting a call to the big leagues on September 6. Overall, Hughes appeared in 12 games with the Pirates where he allowed five runs on nine hits over 11.0 innings. He walked four and struck out 10.
“To improve [getting] left-handed hitters [out] is huge, being able to get inside on them,” Hughes said of what he gained from his experience last season. “I can also take last year and take it as a confidence booster and say, ‘Hey, I can hang. I can go up there. I can throw my sinker and hang in the big leagues, have success, and help this team win.’ That’s how I can take last year to improve this year.”
Over the offseason, Hughes was focused on being able to pitch to left-handers more efficiently. Against lefties in the Majors, Hughes allowed three runs on three hits over 4.0 innings, which included a home run and three walks.
“Last year I did well at times, but I also realized I needed to be able to pitch left-handers more efficiently,” Hughes said. “Getting inside on them, so I can open up the outside of the plate to my sinker. Also to be able to throw a change-up low in the zone to throw off their timing.”
Leroux, 27, has allowed nine runs on nine hits over 9.1 innings this spring. He’s walked five and struck out 14 over nine appearances. Five of those outings were scoreless, and seven of his nine earned runs came from two rough outings where he walked three and gave up two long balls.
After striking out two batters over a perfect inning of relief against the Baltimore Orioles at McKechnie Field on Saturday, Chris Leroux said after the game that he is dropping the change-up. Leroux was told to lose the change, and will look to going back to being a power pitcher.
In Leroux’s case, he is out of club options. If he doesn’t break camp with the Pirates, the team would have to designate him for assignment, and could face another team claiming him.
“That’s where we don’t want to get caught up in positive spring training performance,” General Manager Neal Huntington said. “We also don’t want to get caught up in negative spring training performance. But there’s indicators in both, and we can’t ignore the indicators when a guy has a great spring, or a guy has a bad spring. You don’t want to bail out on a guy too quickly.”
“Chris has shown the velocity, he’s shown the breaking ball, he’s shown an improved change-up. He’s made some mistakes that have gotten hit hard. As we project into April and beyond, can we get them to make the adjustments, or are the adjustments going to play on a consistent basis that has one of the best seven for our bullpen…He’s not a lock. But there’s some things we’ve liked, there’s some things that we’d like to see as we go forward. We’ll try to see how that all factors in as we make that decision.”
Moskos, 24, has allowed one earned run on six hits over 9.0 innings. He has walked five and struck out nine over nine appearances.
Moskos, the Pirates first round pick in the 1st round of the 2007 draft, made his Major League debut last season in Pittsburgh. After making eight appearances with Triple-A Indianapolis, where he posted a 1.69 ERA, Moskos was called up on April 30 against the Colorado Rockies and tossed a perfect inning of relief.
The 25-year-old lefty went on to make 30 more appearances with the Pirates, where he posted a 2.96 ERA over 24.1 innings. Moskos said his experience in the big leagues last year was invaluable.
“Experience is the best learning tool in this game,” Moskos said. “There’s no price tag you can put on it. You don’t know how to prepare for the big leagues, until you’ve been there and gone through it, seen where the game is faster, things that you need to work on really magnifies mistakes and things of that nature. I think that, that experience is probably the most valuable thing you can really get it.”
Over the offseason, Moskos said he focused on consistency and working on improving his breaking ball.
“You have outings where you feel pretty good, then you have outings where you’re not so good,” Moskos said. “You want to try and have more of the previous. The main thing I worked on this offseason when I went home, was finding my breaking ball. That’s going to be a big pitch for me moving forward. It was a big pitch that was kind of missing at times last year. Times when I struggled I think, the breaking ball was probably the main cause of that. I worked hard on that this offseason and it’s shown strides so far this spring. I’m always going to keep trying to get better and get better with it.”
by Tim Williams
The Pirates used 19 relief pitchers during the 2011 season. In 2010 they used 22 relief pitchers throughout the course of the season. The team heads in to the 2012 season with more relief options than spots, although chances are everyone will get a shot throughout the season due to reasons like injuries or poor performance.
40-Man Roster Options: Daniel McCutchen, Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Duke Welker
Lincoln and Wilson will begin the year in the Triple-A rotation, but both have the stuff to be late inning relievers out of the bullpen. Morris and Welker both have closer stuff, with fastballs that usually sit around 96 MPH, and good strikeout pitches. Welker throws a hard slider, while Morris has been working on a cutter this off-season. McCutchen is a very versatile pitcher, capable of pitching in any role out of the pen.
Starters Turned Relievers: Tim Alderson, Michael Colla, Aaron Pribanic
The Pirates have seen several pitchers move from the minor league rotations to the major league bullpen over the last few years. That list includes Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, and Daniel McCutchen over the last year. Aside from the possibility of Lincoln and Wilson making that transition, the Pirates could see more guys make that jump this year.
Tim Alderson has been pitching out of the bullpen for the last year, but came in to camp this year throwing 90-92 MPH, along with a big breaking curveball that gets a lot of grounders. Michael Colla moved to the Altoona rotation last year with a lot of success, although his stuff profiles better as a relief pitcher. Aaron Pribanic is similar to Jared Hughes in that he’s a sinker ball pitcher who throws much harder out of the bullpen, touching 96 MPH in shorter outings.
Sleepers: Victor Black, Jeff Inman
Victor Black and Jeff Inman both have the stuff to be late inning relievers in the majors one day. Both have dealt with injuries, which has prevented the 2009 draft picks from advancing to the upper levels of the farm system. Inman will start the year with an ankle injury, while Black will get the push to Double-A. Both pitchers hit 98 MPH with their fastballs at the end of the 2011 season. Black has shown some control issues this spring. The big key for both pitchers will be staying healthy. If they can stay healthy, and put up strong numbers, they both have the stuff to move quickly through the minors up to the majors.
Closer Candidates: Bryan Morris, Duke Welker, Brad Lincoln
Joel Hanrahan is in his second year of arbitration. If he follows up on his 2011 season with another strong year in 2012, he would likely be due $7-8 M in 2013. That’s a high price for a closer for a small market team like the Pirates, and the Pirates would be better suited to find a replacement option and deal Hanrahan before the 2013 season. The best candidates to fill that role are Morris, Welker, and Lincoln. All three are hard throwers out of the bullpen with a good secondary pitch. If I had to pick the best of this group, I’d go with Morris.