First Pitch: Pirates Will Need More Than John Axford to Upgrade the Bullpen

Last night I wrote about the problems that have been plaguing the Pittsburgh Pirates in the bullpen. They’ve had a lot of guys who were key players in the bullpen last year struggle this year. They’ve had guys traded away who instantly turned things around, which was a process that usually worked out the opposite way, with the Pirates adding the rebound candidates. They added bounce back candidates to the bullpen, and none of them have really bounced back.

Today we got to see the biggest issue with the Pirates’ bullpen. Francisco Liriano had a good start, giving up two runs in six innings. However, the offense was quiet, scoring no runs during that span. Then, Brandon Cumpton came on in relief, and gave up three runs in the eighth inning, which gave Detroit a 5-0 lead. Gaby Sanchez hit a two run homer in the ninth inning, and those three runs ended up being the difference. It’s entirely possible that Sanchez doesn’t hit the home run and things play out differently if Cumpton maintains the 2-0 score. But the fact is that the three runs given up in the eighth were the difference.

It was the same situation on Wednesday. Vance Worley didn’t have a good outing, and left in the sixth inning with the Pirates down 5-4. Stolmy Pimentel gave up three runs in the seventh inning, and the Pirates eventually lost 8-4. Pimentel’s outing didn’t really matter, since Worley gave up enough to lose. But there’s the possibility that the Pirates play different with a one run deficit, and stage a comeback.

These two scenarios aren’t hard to imagine. It’s what happened to the Pirates all throughout the 2013 season. Their bullpen kept them in games when they were behind, just long enough for the offense to come back. That hasn’t been the case this year. The Pirates have a great combo with Tony Watson and Mark Melancon in the late innings, but they have struggled getting leads to those two, or keeping the game close and allowing the offense to come back.

Enter today’s waiver claim, John Axford. The addition was a good one, in the sense that Axford:

1. Didn’t cost anything more than money.

2. Has had stretches in the majors where he has been a solid reliever.

3. Has numbers this year that are better than some of the guys currently in the bullpen.

Axford has really struggled with his control this year, with a 6.2 BB/9 ratio. He also gives up a lot of homers, with a 16.2% HR/FB ratio. That’s above the league average, but it’s also close to what he’s been doing the last few years. He’s a project who needs to cut down on the walks in a hurry. The Pirates weren’t successful turning Ernesto Frieri around. We’ll see if they have any luck with Axford. If they do, then they could find their seventh inning guy.

The Pirates can’t stop with the addition of Axford. They need to find more ways to upgrade their bullpen, which seems to be the biggest weak link on this team (outside of the injuries). Melancon and Watson are obviously secure in their roles. Jared Hughes has been great as a middle reliever this year, although his 1.80 ERA probably won’t continue going forward, as indicated by his 3.76 xFIP. Justin Wilson is on the opposite end of that. His xFIP is 3.88, but he’s been underperforming that with a 4.66 ERA.

If the Pirates could get Wilson to bounce back, that would be another big boost. That’s going to require a drop in walks. He’s been doing a better job of that lately, with a 2.8 BB/9 ratio during the month of August. It’s an extremely small sample size of 6.1 innings, but he’s had four good outings in a row, and the hope would be that he could build on that.

Axford’s 3.98 xFIP would rank fifth on the team, serving as an upgrade over Stolmy Pimentel, Jeanmar Gomez, and Brandon Cumpton. If he can also cut down on the walks, then that could be another boost, while also improving his numbers to the point where he could pass Hughes and Wilson.

Beyond that, the Pirates still have some question marks in their bullpen. The move today upgrades the bullpen, mostly due to the fact that the bullpen has some bad relievers. They could and should add more, but you’re probably not getting anyone much better than Axford at this point, due to the waiver process. Then again, they don’t really need a late inning guy. They just need guys who can be reliable, and be counted on to keep the Pirates in the game. Axford has done that in the past, and he could do it again in the future. Getting more guys of that quality wouldn’t be the worst move they could make.

Links and Notes

**Rob Manfred Elected as the New MLB Commissioner

**Pirates Acquire John Axford

**Matt Hague Designated For Assignment to Create Room for John Axford

**Prospect Watch: Sampson Gets Hit Hard in AAA Debut, Jones Homers Again

**Can JaCoby Jones Become a Starting Shortstop in the Majors?

**Clint Barmes Starts a Rehab Assignment With Altoona

**Pirates Sign Pitcher Matt Nevarez

**Morning Report: High-Priced Arm Has a Tough Debut

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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I thought I was going to disagree with tim on this one, after reading it I don’t. Axford also brings along considerable playoff experience and has performed very well in them. That kind of experience is much needed as a calming influence on the pen. I’m often left scratching my head by this front office, this is not one of those times, good job nh.


One thing about Hurdle he does not like to manage man to man, the likes the zone, the pitchers have so many pitches that they can throw and no matter what happens in those pitch allotments they are not coming out. Watch other managers make move after counter move, makes you sick watching Hurdle stand there and chew gum.


I could not agree more, hurdle does have some good points and is the best manager they have had since leyland,but the biggest flaw and by far the most costly one to this team is his constant mismanagement of the bullpen. How many times does a guy have to not perform before hurdle realizes he should not be used.The thing that really gets me is the # of times guys who should get more chances and don’t versus the guys who should not get chances and do. ( grilli, morris versus frieri,pimentel ,gomez to name a few)


Worse to me was the game they lost Wednesday night leadoff. That was the game that was very winnable,even though Worley didn’t pitch well. But, if you win that game, all the pressure was off with Scherzer going yesterday. Hurdle’s move to bring in Pimental and then Gomez was damned near laughable. And in both games, the 2nd baseMEN made 2 really bad plays that eventually came back to bite them. One of those guys shouldn’t even be anywhere near MLB, and the other is about as borderline as one can be.


The loss to the Tigers was a managerial mistake, Hurdle got a clean 7th inning out of Cumpton, if he stays satisfied with that they might have tied that game in the ninth, but no, he has to get two innings or more out of anyone not named Watson or Melancon, he had Watson and Wilson that he could have used in the eighth, but this game was lost as far as Hurdle was concerned when it was 2-0, that is when he threw in the towel. Cumpton gets the blame by media and fans, but Hurdle is the one that should have gotten it. They have a pretty good pen right now if it is ran properly, but with poor use of Cumpton, he will be another Morris give away.


Hurdle has left Cumpton out to dry a couple of times. Don’t know if that means he likes him or hates him.

Guy Nito

I also don’t get the Gomez love by FO. Nice to have his rubber arm available for spot starts last year, but given current depth options, . not to mention his below replacement numbers, he seems totally expendable


I’m sure their argument would be that Gomez does have demonstrated value as a possible spot starter and long relief guy – in Jeff Locke’s last five starts, he has an era of a little under 7, Cole has been on the DL for a long time, and since the last time he was sent down (perhaps unfairly), Cumpton has not pitched well. If Locke doesn’t turn it around, and Cole can’t go now or in the future, who would start? Sadler hasn’t pitched well for the Pirates, Kingham just went through a rough patch in AAA, Sampson just got rocked, the list goes on…. By far the most consistent starters in the Pirates’ minor league system are guys pitching in A ball and no one suggests they should be jumped to Pittsburgh to start. Meanwhile, Gomez has pitched reasonably well for the Pirates – at 3.54 his era is more than a run better than Grilli’s when we traded Grilli away. Interestingly, Gomez’ and Grilli’s stats for the entire season are highly similar with the exception that Gomez (appropriately) wasn’t trying to close games.


Gomez is a long relief, mop up guy and should not be used in high or medium leverage situations, another Hurdle poor usage situation.

Guy Nito

there’s gotta be a spare Farnsworth or Qualls out there. Pirates have been shameless late season dumpster diving for years.


Seems like there’s a reasonable chance the Axford transaction could work out. Last year with the Brewers, Axford had a worse era and WHIP than he does this year with the Indians in the DH league – he was acquired late in the season by the Cardinals and pitched well for them down the stretch and pitched even better in the 2013 post season (1.59 era and 1.06 WHIP) including two scoreless appearances against the Bucs. It also seems like the law of averages would suggest that its about time for the Pirates to fix a relief pitcher this year. He certainly has a power arm. He looks like a guy who if he walks someone he needs to come out of the game unless maybe he has two outs in the inning. Statistically, he’s pitched substantially better this year than Stolmy so he is a step (maybe a small step, maybe more than a small step) toward improving the bullpen for the stretch run (assuming Cutch and Walker get back reasonably soon). At least the Pirates are doing something to try to correct a serious problem in the bullpen – I mean, hey, they’re even picking up some salary!


I see your cut and paste functions work well.


Well, I didn’t think it was against the law so I thought it was OK – just like to respectfully debate Pirate baseball.


Matinez should have been charged with a fielding error and a throwing error. It should have three unearned runs. Root Sports showed the replay three times and if he makes a throw he has the runner out.


Really hurts seeing Grilli pitch so well now


Maybe the trade woke him up? It might not have happened if he stayed in Pittsburgh.


If if and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a Christmas it would be. Too bad the team didn’t go after a strong reliever at the trade deadline, then they wouldn’t have to try to rehab washed up (Frieri) or aged versions of once solid relievers (Axford) on the fly. The notion that you can experiment and turn around struggling relievers in the middle of a pennant race is laughable. Every now and then, you just might have to depart with precious 2020 prospect to do better than that, despite this site’s mantra that relievers are a dime a dozen. See, e.g., the Orioles trade for Andre Miller. Until that day, if only Wilson, Hughes, Cumpton and Gomez would just pitch better, we could win it all…


Yes please cite Andrew Miller as an example. That man has a career ERA over 5. And he is pitching well beyond his career numbers this year. They are a dime a dozen, because guys like him pop up every single year. The Pirates have been beyond proficient at finding those guys, so why do what the Orioles did and part with a top 100 prospect to maybe get a guy like that. They may have just gotten him for free in Axford


++++ Moose !


How do you know how hard they went after anyone ? You don’t anymore than the rest of us.


You’re right… I don’t. All I know is the Bucs didn’t make any trade deadline moves either of the past two years when their competitors did. Was it because no one was willing to trade any of their relievers? (The Street, Russell, and Miller trades suggest not). Was it because the asking price was “too high?” (Only if you think the O’s, Braves and Angels — all perennial contenders — bankrupted their farm systems this year to get them.). Was it because the FO underestimated the extent of the bullpen’s woes and overestimated its ability to pull more rabbit relievers out of the hat? (Maybe.). All I know for sure is that actions (or, in this case, non-actions) speak louder than the words any of us can utter.


You’re certainly correct, Leo.
We talk a lot on this blog about the relative ease at which relief pitching can be acquired. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
So when a year-long bullpen shortage continues to go unsolved, there are really only three causes. Either our assumption on the ease of acquisition was wrong, the people making the acquisitions are incompetent, or they just simply are not making the acquisition a priority.
I personally do not believe the first two choices are true, which does seem to lend credence to the thought that they just simply don’t see this bullpen problem as one that needs addressed.
I’m open to hearing how you’d interpret their actions.


NMR : just my opinion of course,but I think as shrewd evaluators of pitching as Searage and Benedict certainly seem to be, I would feel safe in saying they all know they have a problem RIGHT NOW, but didn’t think so earlier in the season,and truthfully,for good reason.However, once Grilli was injured and un-reliable, Wilson reverted to no command, and Morris was extremely disappointing, they were put in a bad position. They tried to do something with Grilli for Frieri,but that didn’t work out obviously, and then even Watson became human after the ASB. Gomez doesn’t even resemble the same pitcher he was last year either.There aren’t/ weren’t a lot of options out there right now, so I am not sure what they can do to adress it further,but I am sure they think they need to do something more without giving up a good prospect. One other thing I would point out is that it looks pretty bad this year, but that is because the relievers were so good last season,and it was impossible to sustain that success. Like the Cardinals and their BA with runners in scoring position last season, regression had to come.


It is, IMHO, the single-most frustrating move (or lack therof) this FO has made. I don’t complain or second -guess too often, mostly because I am usually wrong (JHay, Mercer, Hughes for starters….), but it is beyond explanation to try to ride the pennant race with this bullpen. I will give them Pimentel, he has a live arm and they weren’t ready to let that go…. I will give them Grilli for Frieri, at the time I thought it was a shrewd move to get past Grilli and get some improvement out of Frieri. AND Morris just wasn’t getting it done, despite good stuff. They were perhaps too impatient for Morris and too patient with Frieri and PImentel. But Gomez defies explanation. He chipped in in 2013, was very useful, but this 2014 team simply didn’t have the need for ‘spot starters’ and therefore his ‘value’ to the team is pretty minimal. And the treatment of Mazarro is baffling. When he was first cut from the team, Hurdle called all around the league because “he deserved to pitch up here” and now Hurdle says his “AAA numbers don’t mean everything” and there is a big gap between AAA and MLB. All true, but has Vin really regressed from April?

Getting Axford is a plus. Not a panacea, but simple fact is he CURRENTLY is better than Pimentel and Gomez and he does have a track record of being much more than that. It also is not hard to improve upon Gomez, simply recalling Mazarro would do that.

But in my opinion the most blatent incompetence was not picking up Bonifacio and Russell from the Cubs as the Braves did. The prospect cost wasn’t exorbitant… Bonifacio provides much better Neil Walker insurance than Michael Martinez and Russell becomes at least a solid LOOGY in late innings for this pen. If NH had simply made that trade, then Russell replaces Gomez, Axford replaces Pimentel and Cumpton replaces Frieri…and I’m gonna put the knives away. But he didn’t. Missed opportunity.


Mazzarro has about the same numbers in AAA that Axford has in MLB. However, despit what most others here and o other Pirate blog site say, Pimental has never impressed me. I watched him in Altoona last season, and his lack of command seemed pretty obvious ( to me at least ! ). He was getting a ton of swings and misses that I didn’t think he would get in MLB. Actually,I was surprised that he was successful in Indy, though obvioulsly I was hoping I had been wrong. But he hasn’t shown me any thing different so far this season. You saw what happened when he tried to challenge Stanton.


The Axford pick up is interesting, if nothing else, it could offer a right handed strike out option if he doesn’t walk the batter first.

However, at some point the 2013 Pirate’s bullpen needs to stop being used a comparison point, while not 2012 Orioles, last years Pirate’s relievers amassed the 14th highest win probability added of any bullpen in the last 30 years, they were historically elite. Just as the Cardinals should not have expected their performance with runners in scoring position to continue the Pirates should not have expected to their relievers performance in high leverage situations to continue.


I’ve heard of hitters being ” 3 true outcome guys.”, but that description might fit Axford also Andrew.


I for one am glad to see Pimentel go. The “project” that Tim keeps bringing up cost them Bryan Morris, who is a better pitcher than Pimentel, and Lord knows how many games just by occupying a roster spot for a likely better performing player.

Next year, it would have been the same thing, except he would have been given a scholarship rotation spot. They have enough guys to cover the 4th/5th spots of the rotation.

Brian O'Donnell

Last year, it seemed like we were trying to improve and make the playoffs. This year, it seems like we are trying to survive and sneak into the playoffs. The waiver wire claims show lack of ambition. I hope this changes by the end of August.

William Wallace

I agree. It’s like taking your car to a mechanic and he tells you to replace the transmission and you ask him to put that stuff in that hopefully gives you more time in the belief it will solve your problem. Alas a week later you are replacing your transmission after you broke down 300 miles from home.


Hard to say if they’re any less ambitious than last year since they didn’t get byrd and morneau until very late in august.

It is so hard to be critical of them not getting anyone on waivers since we don’t really know who gets claimed before they get to the bucs.

But yeah help is needed sooner, not later.


Tim, Axford has a 6.18 BB/9.


I was thinking why not Mazzaro, but his BB/9 is about the same.

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