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The Roster Situations That Could Impact the Makeup of the Pirates Bullpen

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There are less than two weeks remaining in Spring Training, and the one area where the Pittsburgh Pirates had actual position battles is heating up. There were one or two bullpen spots available when camp began, and the last few weeks have seen certain players step up to become favorites for those roles, while other players look to be playing their way off the team. Here is a look at where everything stands, along with some roster situations that could complicate matters further.

The Locks

We know that Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Antonio Bastardo are going to make the team. I’d also say that Radhames Liz could be considered a lock. The Pirates like him enough that they’re stretching him out as starting depth. They have also given him a guaranteed deal, paying him $1 M for the 2015 season. I don’t see how they go from giving him this much of a commitment to putting him on waivers in less than two weeks.

With these four looking to make the team, the Pirates would have three bullpen spots left.

The 5th Starter Battle

My guess is that Vance Worley wins the fifth starter battle over Jeff Locke, sending Locke to the bullpen. If Charlie Morton isn’t ready by Opening Day, then both starters could make the rotation. However, that would be a short-term solution, since Morton expects to be back not long after Opening Day. From a health perspective, Morton looks like he would be ready for the start of the season. From a performance and delivery perspective, he might benefit from a little more work to get some things ironed out.

The fallout from the rotation will probably leave two spots remaining in the bullpen.

The Option Situations

This is where things get tricky. The Pirates have two relievers who had good performances in 2014, but who both have options remaining. Those relievers are Jared Hughes and John Holdzkom. There is a bit of a difference here between the two players when we talk about their 2014 performances. Hughes performed well for the majority of the 2014 season at the MLB level. Holdzkom performed well in September. I’d say that Holdzkom has a lot more upside than Hughes, but I don’t want to put them on the same level as far as their MLB performance has gone.

The guys who are out of options are Arquimedes Caminero and Stolmy Pimentel. Both are hard throwers who have shown a lot of potential in the past. The key difference is that Caminero is stepping up this year in Spring Training, while Pimentel continues to struggle. Travis Sawchik wrote about Caminero’s outing yesterday, noting that he’s not only throwing for velocity, but he’s throwing for strikes. That’s a key difference than what we’ve seen in the past.

I don’t put much weight on Spring Training stats, but I do put weight on the tools and the abilities shown during Spring Training. Right now, Caminero is looking like a guy who could finally be settling in at the Major League level. Pimentel still looks like a project, and a guy that you’d hold on to because of his upside, while working through the struggles. The problem is that this approach is easier for a rebuilding team, and the Pirates definitely aren’t that anymore. It also doesn’t make sense to hold on to Pimentel at this point, when they’ve got hard throwers like Caminero, Liz, and Holdzkom in the organization who are all showing signs that they could do a better job in the majors.

It would make sense to take Hughes and Caminero from this group. That would involve optioning Holdzkom to Indianapolis, which would be unfortunate for him. He was a great story last year, and probably deserves a shot in the majors. But the reasons to like Holdzkom are similar to the reasons to like Caminero — great stuff and limited success. The only way to keep them both in the organization is to go with Caminero. If he doesn’t work out, then you could make the switch to Holdzkom.

The Wild Card

It looks like the bullpen will have Melancon, Watson, Bastardo, Liz, Locke, Hughes, and Caminero. But there’s another situation worth watching. Clayton Richard has an opt out clause in his contract at the end of Spring Training, according to Sawchik. The Pirates brought him in as starting depth and as a reclamation project, with a similar fix in mind to what they did with Vance Worley last year. The thought all along was that he could go to Triple-A and be used as starting depth early in the season. However, this new information means he’s not guaranteed for that role.

Richard seems to have bought in to the Pirates and their ability to fix pitchers. A big reason for that is due to conversations he had with his former teammate in San Diego, Edinson Volquez. As we know, Volquez turned his time with the Pirates into a two-year, $20 M deal. Richard could opt out, and possibly sign elsewhere to be a starter right away. That would give him more money and a better role in the short-term. But he might have a better chance at much more money and a secured role in the long-term by sticking with the Pirates and finishing the work that started this Spring.

It’s possible the Pirates could add him to the active roster. That would create a lot of starting pitching depth in the bullpen with Locke and Liz on the team. It would also give the Pirates four left-handers in the bullpen. Those might not be ideal situations, and could facilitate a trade. If Morton isn’t ready by Opening Day, then this issue becomes easier, although that’s only going to be a short-term solution.

It’s also possible that the Pirates could convince Richard to stick around in the minors, possibly by paying him to alter his contract and push back the opt out date, so that he could be used as depth out of Triple-A. If they add him to the 40-man roster, he’d have options remaining, but he has enough service time to decline an optional assignment. So either way, they’d need him to accept a move to Indianapolis. His situation right now could impact the projected bullpen spots, especially if Morton is ready for the season. That might lead to some interesting decisions during the final two weeks of camp.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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