The other day I was going back and looking at a few articles that I wrote from the start of the season, when I ran across this title:
At the time it was true. The bullpen was great last year, and the Pirates were returning the same bullpen this year. But five months after that article was written, it’s clear that the emphasis in that sentence should now be on the “was”, as the Pirates don’t have one of the best bullpens this year.
The strange thing about the bullpen this year is that it was a totally different approach to what we’ve seen in the past. In previous years, the Pirates have had reclamation projects, or mid-season waiver claims, or struggles in the final bullpen spots that hid the fact they had good guys in the important spots. There was never a good feeling going into the season, but the results didn’t end up that bad.
The 2014 season looked like the first year where they had a solid bullpen that you could be comfortable with. Yet it has turned out like many of those years over the last decade. The Pirates have a strong back of the bullpen, but the middle inning guys are hiding that, and in some cases, making it impossible for leads or tie games to get to the late innings. We saw that tonight, when Justin Wilson gave up a run in the seventh inning. Wilson looked great last year, but has really struggled this year, with his control being a major issue.
That’s a common issue with relievers. They can be very volatile, with massive changes from one year to the next. The Pirates benefitted from this big time last year, getting production from Mark Melancon, Jeanmar Gomez, and Vin Mazzaro for low prices due to their down seasons. This year it looks like the tables have been turned.
We’ve already seen the Pirates on the opposite side of the “relievers are volatile” game this year. They saw Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris struggle in Pittsburgh, only to immediately turn things around with their new teams. They’ve seen Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez have issues, after looking like decent middle relievers last year. All of this has led to the need for a middle reliever who can take the ball in the seventh inning and get it to Tony Watson or Mark Melancon. Or a few relievers who can be counted on to keep the game close, so that the offense can come back or break a tie. There were times last year when the Pirates went to extra innings, and you just knew the bullpen would pitch well until the Pirates offense eventually scored a run to win the game. That feeling doesn’t exist this year, which is a shame, because the Pirates’ offense is much better this season.
So how do the Pirates get back to having a good bullpen? This year they’re pretty much stuck with what they’ve got. You’d hope that John Axford can provide some value in the middle innings, or that John Holdzkom can be legit. That would provide a nice boost this season. But next season how do they solve the middle innings? Do they keep giving guys like Wilson a chance and hope he turns it around? Do they go with outside help? Or maybe a guy like Holdzkom gets his shot.
They didn’t add too many strong options last off-season, possibly because there was just no need for relievers. Back in Spring Training, Neal Huntington mentioned something to the media about how the lack of opportunities to win an MLB job made it harder for them to attract talent last off-season. They definitely won’t have that problem this off-season. I’m never a fan of paying big for relief pitching, but it’s obvious the Pirates have to address this area. If they do go the reclamation route, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. It has worked in the past. It worked against them this year. Hopefully they can get back on the right side of that in the future.
The good news is that the important spots in the bullpen are filled with Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. But as we’ve seen all year, you need a lot more than that to have a successful bullpen. Whether it’s more reclamation projects, or fixing the current internal reclamation projects, the Pirates need to find a solution for their middle innings. The bullpen once looked like a strength, and an area with a lot of depth. Now it looks like the biggest weakness of the team, with no easy solution in sight.
Links and Notes
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.