First Pitch: How to Handle the Struggling Pirates Bullpen

The start of a season magnifies everything. If a player does well, the hopes for that player skyrocket. If a player struggles, the panic sets in. And perhaps no position experiences this more often than the bullpen.

In fact, bullpen panic exists year round. If Starling Marte starts the year 3-for-29, people will have concerns. If he goes 3-for-29 in July, people will hardly notice, outside of just pointing out that he’s had a bad stretch of eight games. But that’s not the case with the bullpen. Their struggles are highlighted year-round, and that’s especially true early in the season.

The Pirates have seen their bullpen struggle this year, and that continued in tonight’s game against the Chicago Cubs. Mark Melancon blew a two-run save opportunity, giving up three runs in the ninth inning. That came after Tony Watson gave up a run in the eighth inning. And all of this wiped out the Pirates scoring six runs combined in the sixth and seventh innings, going from down 4-2 to leading 8-5.

These types of losses hurt. They’re the types of games a team should win, especially when you hand a three run lead to two of the best relievers in the game last year. Normally you’d just chalk it up to a bad night and move on. The problem is that it hasn’t been just one night.

Monday night’s game saw Arquimedes Caminero inherit a 1-1 game, and then proceed to give up three runs, with two earned. Caminero has been fantastic outside of this outing. Antonio Bastardo followed by giving up another run, and the Pirates lost 5-2.

Prior to tonight, Tony Watson gave up three runs on opening day, giving the Reds a 5-2 victory. But between that outing and tonight’s outing he made five appearances with five shutout innings.

Then there’s Mark Melancon, who came on to pitch last Monday with a four run lead and gave up three runs before closing out the game. I will add that he made three appearances between that outing and tonight’s outing, combining for 2.1 innings, with no runs, one hit, and one walk. Prior to that, he pitched two shutout innings in two appearances. So he’s had two bad outings out of seven, and one of those cost the Pirates a win.

But there is additional concern with Melancon, which comes due to his decreased velocity. When I talked to him last week about this topic, he said that he didn’t notice the velocity drop. Apparently that’s still his response.

I don’t think the velocity is an issue, as long as Melancon can be effective with a lower velocity. And I’m not sure that we can call two bad outings in seven appearances a big enough sample to say that he is or isn’t effective. You can go back to last year and find a few seven game groupings where he had two bad outings. He led to two losses in his first five appearances in August. He blew two saves in games that the Pirates lost in the first half of May. Then there were other instances where he had bad outings, but didn’t cost the Pirates a game.

Right now the bullpen looks like a concern, but it’s a much smaller concern than the reactions would indicate. Those reactions are based on a 14 game sample which is highlighted by the start of the season, along with the addition of a velocity drop from the top reliever, who has struggled in two of his appearances.

A month from now we might be looking back at this situation as the start of a bigger problem. And if this does turn into a bigger problem, then the Pirates should eventually act. I just don’t know if now is the time to act on this, especially since the alternative scenario would have us looking back at this a month from now and laughing at how a few bad games had people worrying about the bullpen. Or maybe no one will remember it, just like no one remembers how plenty of Pirates hitters struggled during the first few weeks of the 2014 season, before the offense went on to become one of the best in the majors.

The moral of the story? The early season results aren’t always a good indicator of how things will go. The bullpen is a concern, but not a concern that needs to be acted on yet.

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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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Did someone mention Hughes was solid?

I don’t care too much if Watson gives up the occasional solo HR if he’s got a 2 run lead. Right now, he looks like all we’ve got. Maybe Scahill. Caminero looked good tonight, but he was aided by pitching to the bottom of the lineup in a snowstorm.

dr dng

Does anyone get frustrated like me when we have a left handed pitcher throw a good 8th inning and the first batter in the 9th is a left hander so we bring in the right handed pitcher? (or vice versa in earlier innings) But remember, I am just learning about these things.


Tradition. Stubborn manager…(but like 99% of other mgrs)

dr dng

I don’t know what to do about the bullpen….


Melancon needs some down time as closer right now. My opinion would be use Watson. His velocity fine.


Early season blown saves cost us the division last year.


In my opinion, the team’s mis-management of the overall roster and personnel decisions cost them the division last year – some of which did result in bullpen failures. Decisions involving Ike Davis, Morris, Pimentel, Frieri, Grilli, and Wandy Rodriguez all combined cost them the division last year.


I have not been impressed with Liz at all – and I guess that should not be a huge surprise, as he has never had much success in MLB – only oversees or in winter ball.

Bastardo is what he is – hot and cold, which is what he was his entire career in Philly. He is just not a dependable relief pitcher. Although Wilson was awful last year, when looking at their entire career bodies of work, I don’t see a huge difference between the two.

I have said this several times starting last year, Melancon did an admirable job as a closer last year when he was kind of forced into that role by the failures of Grilli, Frieri, etc. However, he is not the ideal closer. Plus, there is obviously something wrong with him this year, for him to lose velocity, losing command, and getting hit so hard.

The only 2 guys who I think will be solid all year are Watson and Hughes.

We used to have what seemed like an unending supply of relief options, not so more it seems. The guys at Indy, outside of Holzkom, do not excite. Maybe we need to call up Holzkom to be the closer and use a closer by committee approach until someone grabs the role. Maybe also bring up Sadler or Kingham, and move Worley to the bullpen?

And tell Charlie Morton to take his time getting back!


“The early season results aren’t always a good indicator of how things will go. ”

I agree with this completely….not just the ‘pen, but the whole team.


“Caminero has been fantastic outside of this outing. ”

Z28 has given up runs in 3 of his 7 outings. Hardly what I would call fantastic.

Michael Helgert

If Caminero could establish slightly more control, and establish a slider, he would be a dominant closer with that fastball. Great pickup

David Rosenberg

Who is there in the minors who could help? Holdzkom is having control issues. Morton appears nowhere near ready, so Locke and/Worley will not shift to the pen. Anyone else who could fill in if Melancon goes on the DL. Loss in velocity like that could be related to a physical problem

Scott K

I don’t expect Hurdle to change his approach based on the first couple weeks of the season. Nor should he considering the track records of Hughes, Watson and Melancon. However, I think Melancon’s drop in velocity is a concern. for there to be a 3 mph drop in velocity from last season to this one, there has to be some kind of a physical problem. One he is not acknowledging.

Last night was a tough loss. Reminiscent of a few games vs Brewers early last year and we all saw how that ended. Cubs are hot right now, but it’s only April. It’s a long way until October. Just relax, the cream always rises to the top.

Sean W

Bucco mngmnt philosophy has been to roll the dice on pitchers on the cheap, believing that staff will fix the prob, which has produced some great results. Stats suggest that this philosophy cannot be sustained. Maybe we are seeing it now. Maybe not


Can liz, call up holdzkom drop melancon to the eighth and give watson a chance at closing. No more mark the toothless shark when the game is on the line.

Scott K

Overreaction to a tough loss. If anything changes, it will be Melancon going on the DL, not going back to being a set up man.


I’ve never liked melancon as closer, he has been very lucky and it’s catching up to him. He’s just never passed the eye test with me.

Scott Kliesen

So you’d prefer a closer who comes in and throws serious gas, like Stan Belinda?

I want guys who consistently get the job done. And since Melancon has been the closer, he has been excellent. Last night was the exception.

Now I will say, I believe he’s injured and that’s why he’s lost his fastball velocity. A DL stint may be forthcoming sooner than later.


Scott: Melancon has been excellent, but he has a velocity issue that no amount of mental toughness will be able to overcome. Last night’s decision to keep Watson on for a 2 inning Close may be a sign that your prediction of a DL stint for MM is very near.

Scott K

if he keeps throwing cutters that don’t cut, he’s there sooner than later.


No I want a closer that does not cause me to go through two rolls of tums every time he enters a game.

Scott K

Pilbo: That’s based more on perception than reality. In other words, it’s a you problem.


If you say so scott, to me a malox moment is a malox moment regardless of the outcome.


he’s been pretty ‘lucky’ since we traded for him.

I hope ALL of our bullpen guys get as ‘lucky’ as him.


So your saying when melancon comes in the game you get all warm and fuzzy thinking it’s a done deal? My thought is oh crap I hope he don’t screw up. like I’ve said before he had been getting the job done but it was on a wing and a prayer, well the wing feel off and god is having a laugh.


pb: Liz has not been good, but Holdzkom is a mess at AAA – last 2 outings combined for less than 2 IP, he has given up 3 hits, 2 ER, 4W and 4K’s. His control and command are just not there right now.

Scahill and Hughes have done very well in our BP; Bastardo, Liz, and Melancon have been terrible so far, but in the cases of Bastardo and Liz, they have pitched very little so far. I think Watson is in the middle of the good and the bad, and until Melancon starts to give us the type of pitching he has provided the past 2 years, maybe a switch of he and Watson would shake it up a little. Pitchers, especially Closers, just do not lose 3 or 4 mph on their FB from one year to the next. He has an awesome breaking pitch, but needs that 3 or 4 mph to set up the breaking pitch.


Thanks emjay, need a fix fast though. Ya can’t win a race in the first lap but ya can darn sure lose it.


Just wanted to point out that the Brewers and Braves were leading their divisions at this point last season. It is early.

However, the book on Melancon is fairly well established. Sit on the cutter and take it to RF. His cutter isn’t Mariano’s. He’s been needing another pitch to keep hitters honest for awhile now.

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