The Pirates are Planning to Use a Strong Bullpen to Boost Their Rotation

BRADENTON, FL — At this point in the off-season, the Pirates have collected enough hard throwing relievers that they could almost fill two MLB bullpens with guys who have hit 97+ MPH in their careers.

They’ve added Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio to deals that combine for about $7 M, making them guarantees to make the bullpen. Feliz has topped out at 103 MPH in his career, and 99 last year. Nicasio topped out at 98.9 MPH, which came last year.

They’ve added Yoervis Medina, Trey Haley, Jorge Rondon, and Curtis Partch in smaller deals like waiver claims, cash trades, or free agent signings. Medina has topped out at 97.3, including 95 last year. Rondon hit 99 last year. Minor league reports have Partch topping out at 97 and Haley hitting triple digits.

Those guys join a bullpen that already has Arquimedes Caminero, John Holdzkom, and Rob Scahill as options. Caminero topped out at 101.1 MPH last year, Scahill has topped out at 97.8 (96.1 last year), and Holdzkom was topping out at 97.4 in 2014 and has hit triple digits in the past. Tony Watson could also join the 97 MPH list, since he’s topped out at 97.0 in 2013, and 96.9 in 2015.

With that kind of velocity, and six guys added this off-season, it would be easy to think the Pirates had a specific thing in mind when they went out looking for relievers this off-season.

“We’ve always liked power, but we like guys that throw strikes,” Huntington said on whether they had a focus on power arms. “We like guys that have secondary pitches. We like guys that induce weak contact. Power arms give you a larger margin for error. 98 doesn’t have to be on the edge of the zone. If you can move 98 around the zone, or 96 around the zone, it’s better than moving 92 around the zone. It hasn’t been necessarily a concerted effort to go get a bunch of guys who throw hard, but guys who have velocity, who have some secondary stuff who can induce weak contact — those are guys we’re interested in. Hopefully we can help some guys throw some strikes to some extent, but when you have power, it gives you a larger margin of error.”

The ability to throw strikes hasn’t been easy for some of these guys. The Pirates seem to be banking a bit on that last comment, with helping some of these guys fix their control issues. They’ve had success with this in the past, most recently with Caminero. But I had to ask the question that I’ve been asked repeatedly this off-season: Is there a limit to how many guys Ray Searage can work with, especially now that Jim Benedict is gone?

“That’s the beautiful part of the program, is it was never just about Jim Benedict. It was never just about Ray Searage,” Huntington said. “Ray is fantastic. Jim Benedict really helped us. But we have some other guys that can step in, and will step in to fill those roles. Our focus for Ray Searage is to make sure the projected 12 that we’re taking north are ready to go. It’s to win games from day one of Spring Training.”

If the Pirates get a few of the guys above to step up and fix their control issues, then they’re going to have the makings of a great bullpen, with several guys who can go multiple innings. That part is important, because the Pirates haven’t been as aggressive with adding rotation options this off-season.

The current rotation projects to have Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, followed by Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong. The final three project as fourth or fifth starters at their best, which doesn’t give the Pirates a strong group. Huntington has said in the past that Juan Nicasio could be an option for the rotation, and reiterated that again today, saying that Nicasio will be stretched out in Spring Training as a starter. But that still leaves the rotation with a lot of question marks.

“There’s no question we’re going to have some guys step forward, and pitch with a bit more consistency, or we’re going to have to have some guys step up and come out of our system, and help us over the course of the year,” Huntington said.

They’ll get a boost at mid-season when Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon arrive. But both have things to work on before they come up.

“We’ll get [Taillon] some upper level competition,” Huntington said. “We’ll get Tyler some continued advancement against upper level competition, and look forward to those guys helping us at some point this year.”

So what happens until then?

It might not be a big coincidence that the Pirates have been focusing so much on the bullpen. Huntington said that that the big focus with the bullpen wasn’t adding power arms, but adding guys who can take over earlier for the starters, with the ability to go multiple innings. The Pirates feel they can trust Cole and Liriano to anchor the rotation, with the bullpen helping the final three spots.

“If the remaining three guys can give us a legitimate chance to win every time they take the ball, and our bullpen can carry them multiple innings, because we’ve constructed it as multiple guys who can go multiple innings, it gives Clint flexibility and versatility, and the ability to use the bullpen how he wants, and not how he has to,” Huntington said.

This is similar to the approach the Pirates took with J.A. Happ last year. Yes, Happ had amazing numbers. However, the Pirates were quick to pull him. He only pitched beyond the sixth inning in two of his 11 starts. In one of those starts, the Pirates had a four run lead. In the other start, he was pulled in the 7th without recording an out, with another four run lead. The rest of the outings saw him go six innings or less, even if he was well below 100 pitches. Five of his starts saw him throw fewer than 90 pitches.

The usage wasn’t the reason Happ had success, but you’d have to figure that his success wouldn’t have been as great if he was given a chance to go 7 innings and 100+ pitches every time. The Pirates took him out earlier than they would with someone like Cole or Liriano. It was easier to take this approach with Happ in September, because the Pirates had a deeper bullpen. It would be more difficult to take this approach for two months with three starters, which is why the Pirates are focusing on getting the right bullpen arms.

“When the bullpen is where we line it up, and how we want it to go, then yes, the idea was to give Clint the ability to go get our starters a little bit earlier, if need be,” Huntington said. “But if the starters can go deeper, and if our offense allows us to have the starters go deeper, then that would be ideal as well.”

The tricky thing here is the usage of the bullpen. Huntington praised Clint Hurdle’s ability to manage the workload of the pen. Last year the group was overworked, but Hurdle still managed to avoid guys going more than three days in a row, and gave them proper time off after longer outings. I don’t think the 2016 bullpen could afford to pick up Niese, Locke, and Vogelsong every start for multiple innings, but if those guys can put together a few good starts here and there, then the bullpen could help them out in the other appearances.

This is also where the velocity comes into play. Huntington mentioned that the velocity allows guys to play in any role, and used Nicasio as an example.

“Nicasio could go two innings,” Huntington said. “He could go the 5th and 6th, but he could also go the 7th and 8th. Or he could go the 8th. Or he could go three hitters in the 9th, depending on [the usage of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson].”

It doesn’t sound like there will be specific roles for any of the relievers in the bullpen, outside of the obvious roles for Melancon and Watson in the late innings. Because of that, the Pirates could have a different guy stepping in each night as a long reliever, and other guys stepping in for short relief a few days after a long relief appearance. That could make the workloads easier to manage.

The approach will be interesting. I still think the Pirates could use another starter for their rotation, and I’m not convinced that they’re set with the current options. But even if there is another starter added, we could see a situation in the bullpen where they load up on multi-inning guys and use those guys to help boost the rotation with some early exits.

Other Notes

**The Pirates have seven players eligible for arbitration, and the deadline to tender deals is this Friday. The Pirates are a file and trial club, which means any players who don’t sign pre-arb deals by Friday will go to arbitration with the team. Huntington didn’t have any deals to announce today, but said that the agreements tend to come down to the deadline.

“Most of the discussions tend to happen as you get closer to the deadline, and we anticipate that will be the same this year,” Huntington said.

The players eligible, and their projected salaries, are as follows:

Mark Melancon – $10,000,000

Tony Watson – $4,600,000

Jeff Locke – $3,500,000

Francisco Cervelli – $2,500,000

Jared Hughes – $2,200,000

Jordy Mercer – $1,800,000

Chris Stewart – $1,600,000

**The Pirates signed Daniel Bard last week, and he’s current at Pirate City participating in the workouts. Bard has thrown 17 innings combined over the last three seasons between the majors and minors. As a result, he won’t be competing out of major league camp, but will start in minor league camp, with a chance to work up to being an option in the second half of the 2016 season.

“Our goal is to have him help us at some point later this year,” Huntington said.

I wouldn’t classify Bard with the other guys who are hard throwers, simply because there’s a chance that he isn’t that same guy anymore. However, the Pirates still like his stuff and what they’ve seen from him in the last year.

“It’s a guy that’s obviously had a ton of success in the past,” Huntington said. “Has had some challenges. Took some steps forward last year with a different organization, but wasn’t able to take that final step. Figured it would be a worthwhile shot to see if we can help him recapture some of the strike throwing ability he has had in the past. We still see the stuff, and felt like there was an opportunity to see if we can help the young man.”

**Huntington on Jung-ho Kang’s rehab: “He looks great. He’s done a nice job of keeping the overall conditioning level up, and now we’re beginning to ramp up into baseball type activities, and getting ready to take that next step. Just how much has the lower half deconditioned? How much has the rest of the body deconditioned, despite all of his work? I don’t mean to say that he hasn’t worked, because he’s worked hard. He’s worked his tail off to keep in as good of a condition as he can. But how much has the time down deconditioned him? That’s only something we can answer as we go through each step of the process. He’s in a great spot. He’s done everything we’ve asked, and then some, to put himself in position to be ready to go as quickly as possible.”

**Huntington mentioned Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, Wilfredo Boscan, and Kyle Lobstein as rotation depth guys aside from Taillon and Glasnow. I wouldn’t be surprised if Boscan and Lobstein start in the Triple-A rotation to give some early season depth, with Kuhl being the next guy up after he gets adjusted to upper level hitting. I could see Williams and/or Brault starting the year in Altoona due to a numbers crunch.

**Huntington on Nicasio: “A guy that has Colorado-skewed numbers, but when you take them out of Colorado, you put them in context, a guy that could be an option for us, depending on how the rotation shakes out.”

  • This adjusted bullpen use strategy will work brilliantly if we add one more starter and move one of Locke or Voglesong to the bullpen. Then we’ll only have to do it with one rotation spot consistently and another every now and then, and we’ll have another multi-inning arm in the bullpen. So I don’t think NH talking about this as a strategy option necessarily disqualifies them from adding another starter. It will still be a great thing to try with the 5th rotation spot. (For example, even if Locke is the better pitcher than Voglesong, using Voglesong as the fifth starter on a short leash gives them the option of turning Locke into a left-handed reliever, filling another hole in the process, but he’ll also be available in long relief.)

  • Tim- Is there any chance that the Pirates split up Cole and Liriano to try to keep the bullpen from going extra innings three consecutive days?

  • I would still like to see them bring Latos in.

  • Having relievers that can throw multiple innings should help keep the bullpen rested.

    I would think it’s easier to pitch 2 innings every other day than 3 innings in a 4 day period (because you’re always giving your arm a chance to recover). A reliever like Nicasio or Feliz can average up to an inning per game (2 innings every other day) as opposed to a max of .75 innings per game. (No reliever will average that much because there will be games when they’re capable of pitching but not needed, but the point stands.)

  • So Huntington basically admitted that he only has 2 legitimate starters currently and traded walker for a guy he hopes to occasionally get more then 5 or 6 innings from. WTF. Does no one remember by the second half last year they were concerned with the bullpen usage when we had 3 guys you could count on to go fairly deep into games with locke being the only standout that you didn’t expect 6 from. By the time glasnow and taillon arrive, we may not have a bullpen left. What happens if they are slow to progress and can’t make it midseason. This whole column makes me nervous and upset.

    • Maybe that was the best he could get for a defensively challenged 2nd baseman?

      • And remind me again who forced Huntington to trade his 2.5 WAR starter only making $10m?

        • I think it was a good deal.

          • Clearly…

            • You don’t? I think JHay can dupe that 2.5 WAR and Niese is better than anything else we had in the rotation.

              Granted, I would’ve loved Cueto, et al, but that wasn’t a realistic option.

              • I’d honestly prefer to stay on topic right now. We’ve hashed this out before, and can certainly save it again for a rainy day, but there’s some good fresh content here and I think most would prefer that. (no offense to you, buddy. I shouldn’t have opened that can of worms.)

  • Eric Marshall
    January 12, 2016 4:12 pm

    Would definitely like to get one more potential #3 starter. Don’t care if it is a reclamation project or not. I like the plan otherwise… wasn’t the going line last about Locke… that he was great the first two times through the lineup but once he hit the 3rd he got killed. Could be a way to maximize on this knowledge. If Locke can pitch twice through the way he did last year he will be a great pitcher… just limited in innings.

  • *This is the kind of adaptation I’ve come to expect out of Huntington & Co, and a big reason why I’m so fond of them.

    Nobody should think that this was the plan from the beginning, or at least I sure as hell hope not. You don’t trade your starting second baseman for a pitcher you’re paying $10m to go five innings, at least not if you know what you’re doing. But at some point they clearly realized they failed to produce the traditional starters needing to stay in contention, and so they adapted.

    This will be no means be an *easy* plan to implement, and their pen is still far too short to reasonably have a chance of making this work, but it’s most certainly better and smarter than the alternative.

    *The repeated comment about Nicasio outside of Coors makes me wonder if Huntington is referencing some sort of proprietary Pirate metrics, because he’s surely smart enough to know the roads splits from Nicasio in ’13 & ’14 sucked by literally any and every metric publicly available.

    • Re: Nicasio — his FB velocity dropped steadily from 95 to 93 until he moved to the pen, when it bounced up to 95 again. Then he gained another 1 mph last year. So, maybe they are giving him a mulligan for 13-14. (2 mulligans?)

  • I’m sorry to say that I find Huntington’s statements to just be an admission that the current rotation is sorely lacking, and they are hoping for a leap of faith to bail it out.

  • Ugh- what good does having a good bullpen do if you are behind when you put them in the game? We traditionally put our “less than stellar” bullpen arms in when we are behind- even if you have better 2nd tier relievers, that doesn’t make up for having 3 #5 starters in your rotation. If they don’t sign a real pitcher, i’m going to be real ticked off.

  • as things stand today, they have like 7 million in the budget to spend, I wonder where that goes…a lefty bullpen arm, a starter or a bench player(s)…I agree as it stands the bullpen could be better than last year, but the starting rotation wont be as good, at least until Glasnow/Taillon come up.

    • Without another starting pitcher whom is at least a 3.5-4 FIP guy in the rotation, we are looking at, if lucky, a .500 team at the break- The reason is- not only the direct effect in terms of WAR for a good #3 vs. a #5, but also the trickle down effect on the extra innings in the bullpen and the situational usage.

      • In *traditional* bullpen roles, yes, but there are people in the game that believe relievers can handle more innings if their usage was adjusted.

        • There’s also the assumption that somebody like Vogelsong is going to completely stink. Which is a distinct possibility, but we’ve seen crazier things happen. It wouldnt shock me one bit if Vogelsong put up a sub 4.00, maybe 3.50 ERA for the first 2-3 months of the season. Chalk it up to change of scenery, last opportunity, Ray Searage…who knows, but there’s some upside from a veteran like that who’s done it before.

          I will be disappointed if they dont add another starter, ideally a true #3, but I dont think it means disaster if theyre trying a different approach to bridge themselves to June. Using the bullpen in an unorthodox fashion with multiple guys capable of pitching multiple innings, its a patchwork approach to eat innings till Glasnow comes up. Glasnow has the potential, even in his first year to be a true #3 starter I think. I think he could be capable of pitching with an ERA somewhere around 3.50 in his first season. You put that with Cole, Liriano as 1, 2…Niese as a #4, and Vogelsong/Locke/Taillon as your options as a #5 and that could be a very good rotation and pitching staff if things go their way.

          • See, this isn’t an “until June” plan. They must commit to this plan for the duration of the season.

            You don’t call up two rookie arms and expect them to go 7 strong through a pennant race. You just don’t. Taillon and Glasnow will need caddies just as much as the current back three; they just hopefully will provide more *quality* innings while they’re in.

            • I have lower expectations for Taillon, just given the fact that he hasnt pitched much in 2 years, not to mention if you go back and look at his numbers prior to the surgery, they were good, but not dominant. He obviously progressed quickly and was playing with much older competition (circa 2012-2013), but I think at this point and compare Glasnow’s pitching numbers to Taillon’s, they progress at the relative same pace and age up until Taillon’s injury, but Glasnow’s numbers have been sub 3.00 ERA at nearly every level. I know he has things he needs to work on and even when he comes up, he’s going to need to be brought along slowly, but I do think Glasnow can and will contribute more than Taillon this year.

              • I think scouting the stat line misses the process-based development that helped Gerrit Cole so much.

                If you remember, folks outside of the team weren’t as high on him coming up through the ranks feeling he should’ve been dominating more than he was. Reality was that he was learning more than competing much of the time, and that experience and depth to his repertoire has obviously paid off in the end.

                Glasnow has blown away competition by relying on two dominant pitches, and that cannot be taken away from him, but I do question just how much of a *pitcher* he’s become.

                I have confidence that Taillon has followed closer to the Cole path than Glasnow, and won’t be one bit surprised to see him be the more effective Major League pitcher early in their careers.

                • Very fair assessment, hopefully Glasnow’s stuff affords him the opportunity to learn on job while being a productive pitcher at the same time in the majors next year. As NH said above about high velocity pitching, it gives you a bit more margin for error. Hopefully Glasnow’s fastball gives him that same benefit early on.

                  • Absolutely agree! But I think this is where that bullpen comes into play…Glasnow can probably get away with two plus pitches and marginal command a couple times through the order, but that’s more and more likely to catch up to him the more a club sees him and the higher that pitch count runs. This isn’t going to be a kid that runs off a string of ten-pitch innings, after all.

                    Getting him out after 5 more often than not is a real plan…expecting him to go 7 strong is a pipe dream (IMO).

                • Ironically, at the time those who were down on Cole were going “much higher on Taillon and his numbers”.

                  Full circle.

                • If, and it’s a BIG if, Glasnow can command his fastball and curve, he will dominate all but the best hitters in the game.

                  Taillon should be much more reliable, but not nearly as dominant.

              • Taillon was better in A+ & AA most of the time than Cole was. There goes your theory.

          • Oh, Ryan Vogelsong is gonna stink. Don’t worry about that. I’m sorry, but I think the Giants know more about pitching than the Pittsburgh Searages. That cows been milked for all its worth.

            • Somewhat off point,

              but why the assumption that SF is much better with knowing pitching?

              • The three banners they’ve hung in the ballpark recently.

                • Gotcha.

                  Seems a bit of a lazy way to look at individual things they do well/not so well. Otherwise i have to assume they hit and play defense and pitch well. Which is true in some ways, not true in others.

          • Malorie do you remember the last time we picked up a San Francisco guy they gave up on. He didn’t even make it to ten starts and was awful and much much younger then the ancient vogelsong. He shold not in any fashion b part of this team.

        • Hurdle is a very old-school manager with only a few exceptions. The fact that he NEVER uses Melancon unless the team is ahead (or tied in extras when we are home) and it is a save situation lends credence to this.

          – and quite honestly, there are “people” in the game that odd thoughts and rhetoric regarding just about anything you can think of. Doesn’t give it any value.

          • Y2, the game of baseball had 100 inning relievers into the mid-90s. This isn’t a “theory”. It’s been done as long as baseball has been played.

            • NMR- you misunderstand. I know it has had relievers that do that. But back then you might have had 2 relievers on a team, and they pitched basically the rest of the game when the starter needed to come out.

        • I just mean that Hurdle is a slave to those traditional bullpen roles and is unlikely to change much, no matter what huntington is planning.

          • Sure, I think a healthy amount of skepticism is warranted.

            I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic given his adoption of shifting and playing time constraints in particular, but you’re absolutely correct to place the onus on them.

            • I’ll give him the benefit of surprise with his adoption of the shifts, but when it comes to playing time and roles of his players, he has shown a reluctance to go against tradition

      • I don’t think the math works out on your claim. Steamer currently projects Niese, Locke, and Vogelsong for FIP of 4.00, 3.92, and 4.38, respectively. So you are saying essentially, they need to replace Vogelsong with someone like Locke. The difference between Locke and Vogelsong over 200IP is 1 win. So, at the break, that’s half a win. So you’re saying they are an 80-win team unless they upgrade from Vogelsong?

        http://www.fangraphs.com/projections.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&type=steamer600&team=27&lg=all&players=0&sort=19,d

        • I mean, I’m not saying I don’t want a #3 starter. I’m just saying I don’t think the gap is big enough to make them merely a .500 team.

        • No, I don’t give a darn about projections- I’m talking about their actual performance, being no worse than 4 Fip, but hopefully 3.5 say over the last 3 years for example. Expecting Vogelsong and Locke to be around the 4 FIP mark is a fools game IMO. I’m also (which i left out) assuming at least 180+ innings from this new pitcher- something Locke and Vogelsong aren’t going to give. The added pressure on the bullpen and the additional 1 run per game in half a season is where my projection is coming from.

    • Save the money at this point; they’re going to need it at the deadline.

      • I was thinking that 105 was the number they were going to spend for the start of the year and then have additional space for additions at the deadline…so hopefully by year end its around 110, which to me is where they should be at this point.

        • I agree (I’d add ten to each figure, actually), but they very well may need every penny…

          • I do think they’ll add another ML player that will take them over 100. Although it seems less likely based on what NH is saying today that a Latos, or Fister or even ugh…Masterson would be brought in, I think maybe NH is waiting out the market and he might be able to get one of those guys on a really cheap deal. Cheaper than even what you would think guys like that would get at this point. I think Latos and Fister could get 8-10 million on a 1 year deal but as things continue to progress, maybe they end up having to take 4-5 million just to get a contract for next season.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    January 12, 2016 3:34 pm

    I like the potential upside associated with guys like Nicasio, Medina, Feliz, and Bard – I think they were all good signings. The bullpen looks like it could be very strong from the right side…when you add these guys to Melancon, Hughes, Holdzkum, and Caminero – the problem is that only 4-5 of them can and will make the team – the rest will be in Indy or let go. On the left side, we have Watson and who else? Bastardo was maddeningly inconsistent with his control and he tended to give up the long ball a lot – so, I was hoping we could land someone who would be an upgrade over him – someone who throws strikes and keeps the ball down on a consistent basis. If we got a real #3 starter, we could move Locke to the bullpen – he can be tough on LH hitters, but his control is hardly one to be counted on day to day.

  • not buying locke and vonglesong at 4th and 5th starter, need to come up with a reclamation project to bring in to compete.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    January 12, 2016 3:28 pm

    Given today’s FA signing, one could argue that the Marlins rotation is as good, if not better, than the Pirates rotation as it currently stands….

    • Not really.

      At this point, they’ve got Chen as the #2. Certainly not a guy that profiles as clearly better than Liriano, and behind him they have a long list of guys that had poor years last year and didnt throw more than 100 innings. You’d have to say that Fernandez is so much better than Cole that the “meh” in the rest of the rotation still is overall more than PGH.

      Phelps had the best stats last year, and he’s unsure for OD and far from #3 like numbers. Liriano and Locke seem to be upgrades over the MIA options for those slots, and its tough to assume Fernandez will be as good a Cole. Sure could be.

  • BaseballDusty
    January 12, 2016 3:27 pm

    I’m reading Travis Sawchik’s “Big Data Baseball” and I’ve been thinking that maybe they Pirates are planning on a new pitching strategy to maximize what they get out of starters by limiting the number of the times through the line up, while using a strong bullpen to pick up the slack. It wouldn’t be as radical as the shifting plan was in 2013, but it could be a first step in reinventing how pitchers (both starters and relievers) are used.

    • WHYGAVS

    • Yeah, get through the lineup once and pray…

    • You would have to quantify your specific reliever’s statistical dropoff in thei2 2nd inning of work in order to show value in this approach. Personnel dictate whether or not you can be succesful here and given that we already have multiple pieces of our relief core previously, it would be unlikely that any of those pitchers whom have always pitched 1 inning, could pitch 2 innings with the same results. Adding a couple fringe ML pitchers in the bullpen is not enough to bull off this approach, is just isn’t. I don’t care who disagrees with me, there are no stats which show this would work that account for the variability and the need for roster flexibility which we also don’t have.

      If you go into the off-season with maybe 1 piece in the bullpen, you can go out and remake your bullpen with only valuable performers that have shown ability to pitch more than one inning succesfully in both situations of low and high leverage. You can fill out that bullpen with a few pieces that have options remaining. That is the only way this is likely to succeed, and we don’t fit that mold.

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