First Pitch: Building the Next Great Pirates Bullpen

The Pirates have been a bit spoiled when it comes to having quality relief pitchers in the back of their bullpen. They had Mark Melancon and Tony Watson from 2013-2016, and that combo ended up being one of the best combos in baseball. Even when you consider that both had a bit of a down year in 2016, compared to their previous years, they rank among the best relievers in baseball during that span.

Melancon ranks first in WPA from 2013-2016, while also ranking first in shutdowns. He was rewarded in a big way with a four-year, $62 M contract that was briefly the highest free agent deal for a reliever in history.

Meanwhile, Watson ranked fifth in WPA and fourth in shutdowns. That is all despite the fact that he had a pretty bad year in 2016, knocking him down in each category.

The Pirates traded Melancon away at the deadline, getting back Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn. Rivero looks like a promising reliever who the Pirates have under control for five more seasons. Hearn has one of the best arms in the system right now, and at the least looks like a guy who could be a power reliever in the majors.

They could also trade Watson this off-season, and possibly get a similar return. Even without the return of a young reliever, they’d be in a situation they haven’t been in since that 2013 season, with uncertainty at the back of their bullpen.

If Watson gets traded away, the Pirates will be going with a back of the bullpen of Daniel Hudson and Rivero, with Juan Nicasio proving another hard throwing option for the late innings. This puts them in a similar position as that 2013 season where they had talent, but didn’t have comfort, due to the inexperience that their relievers had in the late innings.

The Pirates traded their closer away that offseason, sending Joel Hanrahan for Mark Melancon. They moved Jason Grilli from the setup role that he thrived in during the 2012 season, to the closer role, banking on one year and two months of success from the veteran reliever. They had Watson on the team in 2011 and 2012, although he didn’t really start to emerge as a late inning option until 2013, and really took a step forward in 2014 and 2015.

The situation heading into the 2017 season has a lot of similarities. They traded their proven closer for a promising young reliever in Rivero. They’ve got a veteran reliever in Hudson who doesn’t have a large track record of success since reviving his career, but has the stuff to pitch in the late innings. And they’ve got some other relievers who show promise, with the chance of taking a step forward like Watson.

Not everything is exactly similar. Rivero isn’t the same as Melancon. When the Pirates got Melancon, he was coming off a down year, but had been a successful reliever in previous years. He returned to that, and took a step forward after joining the Pirates. Rivero is fairly new to the majors, so his situation is more about taking the step forward, which he has the skill to do.

Hudson is talented, but he is definitely not on the same level as Grilli. The numbers put up by Grilli, prior to his time as a closer, were lights out. Hudson has some good numbers, and they might improve if he makes some adjustments with the Pirates, but it’s hard to be as dominant as Grilli was.

As for finding the next Watson, that’s hard to predict. I don’t know if that’s Nicasio ready to take the next step. It might be someone who isn’t even in the majors yet, such as the hard throwing right-handed prospects in Triple-A — Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas.

The biggest similarity here is that the Pirates have talent in the late innings. They don’t have the comfort they had with the Melancon/Watson combo the last few years. But that combo made us forget how they got to that point — they loaded up the late innings with talented, hard-throwing relievers and put them in position to excel with some key adjustments.

Whether they keep Watson or not (I’m guessing they don’t), the 2017 bullpen won’t have that comfort level. It will have plenty of talent, though. They could definitely use an addition to the bullpen if they trade Watson away, since that would help add some comfort to the situation. But this team needs a solution for beyond the 2017 season, and a relief group they can count on for future years, much like the luxury they had with Melancon and Watson the last several years.

They can accomplish this by rebooting the bullpen, and giving chances to Hudson (under control from 2017-2018), Rivero (2017-2021), the young prospects in Triple-A who have over six years of control, and possibly a new young reliever if they get that type of return in the Watson deal or any other deal.

Much like 2013, this will be a reloading year for the bullpen, where they trust unproven guys to carry the bullpen. But as we saw in 2013, that plan can work if the pitchers you are relying on have the talent to lead a bullpen.

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**The Pirates Spent the Francisco Liriano Savings, So Let’s Review the Trade Again. One of the questions about the trade has been answered, so I reviewed the deal to see where it stands today.

**Winter Leagues: Eric Wood Connects on His Third Homer of the Winter. John Dreker with the latest winter report.

**Pirates Sign Two Players Out of Independent Ball. A few minor moves to add some depth to the system.

**Blue Jays Among Several Clubs With Interest in Andrew McCutchen. Over the weekend, there was a rumor that Toronto has looked at McCutchen with on and off interest this offseason.

**David Todd Podcasts: Daniel Hudson Interview, Ivan Nova and Jose Quintana Analysis. My podcast last week with David Todd, and his interview with Daniel Hudson.

**Pirates Claim RHP Nefi Ogando From the Marlins, DFA Jason Rogers. I’d expect we will get a resolution on Rogers tomorrow.

**Pirates Announce 2017 Minor League Coaching Assignments. All of the coaching assignments were named last week. The coordinator assignments should be coming out soon.

**Scott Mitchell and Justin Meccage Promoted to New Coordinator Roles. We do know two of the coordinator roles, as Scott Mitchell and Justin Meccage were promoted to new pitching coordinator positions.

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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With Cole, Taillon, Kuhl, Glasnow, and Kingham, the Bucs have significant young starter depth with mid to top rotation potential in MLB or in the upper minors. Now with Nova signed for 3 years, that should allow us to proactively move minor league starters to the bullpen. Especially given the increasing salary of relievers, developing back end relievers will create a ton of excess value. So question for Tim – which starters at AAA or AA have the highest upside as relievers? Should the Pirates shift a pitcher with starter upside like a Holmes to the bullpen now given the organizational depth we have in starters and given the uncertainty in the MLB pen?

Zack Nagel

I’m with you. I think the starters we saw in AA last year have the best chance of being moved to the pen. None have higher upside than Taillion, Glasnow, Cole or probably even Kuhl and should be arriving before we have more than one opening. You have higher upsides coming up from A ball right behind them.


Agree the AA guys seem to be sandwiched between two waves of high upside starters. Looking at BB:K ratio plus scouting reports, I’m thinking Garcia, Eppler, and Waddell could be good bets to be back end relievers. Angel Sanchez as well assuming he recovers his form after TJ. While I think Brault and Williams could be useful relievers, they don’t seem to have the velo potential and out pitch to be back end guys.


Now that the Pirates have officially signed Ivan Nova, who was dropped from the 40 man roster?


If Watson gets traded before opening day, I’d like to see edgar santana win a job in spring training. Hudson, rivero, nicasio, santana, bastardo, leblanc and trevor williams as the swing man is a decent bullpen.

Still hope hearn eventually works out as a starter because he, keller, ogle, kranick, macgregor and whatever quality pitchers the bucs draft this june and my dark horse leandro pina could be a solid core to start internally replacing the current group of pitchers in the high minors as they begin leaving the organization.


I still think Brault would be a fine LH reliever out of the pen, in the mold of Watson.

Zack Nagel

I wonder what Waddell’s velocity would be as a relief pitcher.


We may find out? 🙂

Zack Nagel

Brault looked good starting when I watched. He has good command and good deception. He just needs to find an out pitch or decide to pitch to contact more. Stay low, generate grounders, and be a solid #4 .


Yeah, Brault definitely looks like he could have a Ted Lilly like career. He’s got the stuff and the acumen to be a crafty 4-5 lefty that sometimes pitches like a 3.

Jim Reuss

So did Jeff Locke. Hopefully consistency is what separates them.


I think it will. Jeff Locke didn’t have acumen.

Zack Nagel

Locke was a 5 that occasionally pitched like a 1-2 and occasionally like a bad minor league pitcher. Never seemed comfortable with his confidence in getting batters out. His best games always seemed to be when he was getting the called strike just off the plate.


If we trade Watson I’d prefer us getting a Top 100 Prospect instead of an MLB reliever because we already have two high upside arms in Triple A knocking on the door.


You aren’t getting that. Watson was a replacement player last year and is set to make around ~6m. There’s no surplus value there.


Look at Cecil and Dunn’s contracts, Watson has lots of value as a LH Reliever. One poor year doesn’t make him replacement level.

Also BR has him at 1.3 WAR
BP has him at 0.6
Only fangraphs has him at replacement level

Watson has plenty of value on the open market even with a down year which you can debate the extent of.


I would definitely look at fangraph’s war over BBref when it comes to future decisions as its xFip rather than ERA driven. I also think its better for relievers (ERA is a horrible metric to judge relievers, worse than generic WAR.) I am not as familiar with WARP, but it appears to take league, park, and team factors more into account than fWar. I could concede BP being a better number, but not bWar. I would note that of those three, only bWar puts him at a value that would be worth his projected arbitration salary, disclaimers about WAR aside.


WAR is a poor way to judge relievers. Watson wasn’t replacement level and certainly has surplus value. Have you seen reliever contracts the last 2 years? They don’t get paid by their WAR.


Yeah its not great. I would think xFip, SIERA, etc would be better. However, do those look better? In the last two years, Watson’s velocity has dropped by 1.1mph. His xFip has steadily increased, from 2.8 to 4.2, walk rate gone up by .9/9, and k rate down 1.7/9 (although it was .3 better in ’16 than ’15.) I just don’t see any indication that Watson is NOT a pitcher in decline. I’d take him over Bastardo still, but I don’t see the same guy that was part of a 1-2 punch like a couple years ago.


I agree that the Pirates bullpen, unlike what they started 2016 with, has the potential to be pretty good. That is assuming they don’t trade Watson, because he is the only real proven commodity in that group – many of the others have great arms, but their performances have not equaled their potential.

With all that being said, this could be a real strength for the team in 2017. The key will be getting enough from the rotations, so the bullpen doesn’t get overused and exposed, as was the case last year – especially in the first 2-3 months of the season when the team was still trotting Locke, Niese, and Nicasio out to the mound every 4-5 days. The rotation has a lot of youth and talent as well – if the rotation and bullpen come together, the Pirates could have a pretty good pitching staff in 2017.

Zack Nagel

I agree. I feel good about their bullpen but they do need to cut Bastardo loose. Get some savings. The weakest link looks like Hughes and he’s put up solid numbers every year (still scares me every time he pitches though).


If hughes pitching to his averages he cuts it as a situational #6 .

Zack Nagel

Career sub 3.00 era? Deceptively low, but you are right he is a solid 6th or in this case maybe 7th best arm in the pen. It shows a deep bullpen.


Agreed – Bastardo needs to go – he is a walk and HR waiting to happen. Hughes doesn’t give me great confidence, but overall his numbers have not been horrific…


You forgot about Liriano, who was terrible, trotting out every 5th day also.


Yeah, he was pretty bad also – especially right before the infamous “trade”….


I still like Glasnow being considered for the pen for a year. Kid needs to work on having success in the show not at AAA.


He needs to develop a 3rd pitch. I doubt he’d do that pitching from the bullpen. He would be all fastball/curveball. Glasnow and the Pirates need to figure out that change …. different grip or something maybe.

Scott H

I don’t really see the need because we have accumulated a good bit of depth, and we have the aforementioned arms in the minors, but has anyone heard any talk of the team bringing back Feliz? I don’t believe that I have, and it’s probably been determined that he will cost too much after a decent season in Pittsburgh.

Aaron L

Looking for a multi-inning closer in the mold of Andrew Miller? Juan Nicasio.

Zack Nagel

If they move Watson and/or Bastardo, it would be nice to see them add a multi-inning reliever. With a young rotation it will be nice to have several multi-inning bullpen arms.


Excellent piece. The Pirates have wheeled and dealed themselves into the position where they can have a strong BP for the next 5 years and beyond even if they do not add more. Watson, Rivero, Hudson, Nicasio, LeBlanc are pretty well set, and I like the work of Edgar Santana, Dovydas Neverauskas, Montana DuRapau, and Tate Scioneaux. Add SP/RP like Brault, Duncan, Boscan, and Kuchno, so where does that put guys like Schugel, Hughes, Webb, and Ogando?

Looking for a big year from Mitch Keller, Gage Hinsz, and Taylor Hearn at Bradenton.

Scott H

As you mentioned, we do have a good bit of depth…though I’m pretty sure Boscan is now out of the organization.


Thank you. Also, my subconscious must have taken over and kept me from even listing Bastardo. Hate to think of having to pay him $6.5 mil in 2017 regardless of whether the Mets are offsetting that for some unknown amount.


At least it is easier to come up with bullpen 2.0 succes than starting staff 2.0

One thing that makes it easier is that failures in the bullpen do not usually become great starters, but failures as starters often become really good relievers.

Roy Face as a young starter had a good arm, but not enough stamina to be a nine inning starter.

Dave Giusti, was aquired after the 1969 season to be a starter for for the Pirates. That plan stalled. He went to the bullpen, and like Roy Face, the rest is history.

And for any of you who think that no one valued relief pitchers until recently, I understand that the highest paid player on the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960 was Roy Face.


I just did a brief search for the 1960 Pirates salaries and couldn’t find anything, but I did find a letter from Joe Brown to Roberto Clemente denying his request for $23,000 for the 1960 season. The highest he was willing to go was $20,000.


Roy Face is reported to have made 50K in 1960. Some years ago when I first found this I was surprised, but when I thought about it some more, it made sense.

David N

IDK anything about the 1960 salaries either, but my antique copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia shows why Roy Face may have been relatively we’ll-compensated in 1960. Based on 1958-59 stats (and remember, these were the ones people paid attention to pre-SABR):
1958: 5W 2L, 20S, 2.89 ERA
1959: 18W 1L, 10S, 2.70 ERA

He didn’t do badly in 1960 either:
1960: 10W 8L, 24S, 2.90 ERA

Face’s likely best-compensated teammates in 1960, based on production and length of service with the team would have been Bob Friend, Vernon Law, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente, not including players who joined the Pirates as a result of the best trade, imo, the Pirates ever made: Don Hoak, Harvey Haddix and Smokey Burgess. Of course, Frank Thomas went the other way in that trade with the Reds, providing some “financial flexibility.”

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