If you followed the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates at all, you know the bullpen’s success was critical to a long-awaited playoff breakthrough.
Pirates relievers posted the third-best bullpen ERA in MLB last season, boosted by the highest ground-ball rate in the bigs – 52 percent. Keeping the ball on the dirt paid off for the starters, too, but the Bucco fireman also took advantage of that approach last summer by stranding 78 percent of the runners they inherited.
Even if opponents continue to slam pitches into the ground in 2014, it’s going to be difficult for the Pirates bullpen to be that effective at squelching rallies again. Still, it’s a prudent approach for a corps of relievers that, outside of Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, didn’t record a ton of strikeouts last season.
Maybe the most encouraging part of the equation for the bullpen is that it projects to be largely unchanged from last season. Outside of the 37-year-old Grilli, all of the major pieces on the back end of the staff are either in their primes or just entering them.
Left-handers Tony Watson and Justin Wilson will be on the Opening Day roster, barring injuries. Righty Bryan Morris is in a similar position, as his increased velocity this spring has helped the Pirates feel good about his second full MLB season. Stolmy Pimentel is out of minor-league options, so the young prospect is on track to make the trek to Pittsburgh next week.
That leaves right-handers Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez in limbo for the time being. Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects laid out the latest trade rumors regarding that middle-relief pair, with Gomez’ ability to start perhaps indicating that he has the slight edge to stay with the club.
All due respect to Mazzaro and Gomez, but it’s tough to imagine either (or both) netting Pirates general manager Neal Huntington much in return. Even if they’re packaged with a minor-league prospect or MLB contributor, middle relievers are never going to move the needle significantly.
So, if the Bucs intend to pick up a useful position player – say, a first baseman to help in a potential platoon – they may have to dip into their bullpen depth even further. Who knows what someone like Grilli or Melancon might fetch unless you ask?
The Pirates have always done a terrific job finding effective relievers, so why not trust that ability by dealing from a surplus? It would take some courage, but handing more of the late-inning duties to Watson, Wilson and/or Morris could help lengthen and strengthen a batting order that still looks to have a couple holes.