What’s going to happen in the bullpen?

Last night, I was reading this article on Pirates.com about Justin Wilson and Evan Meek and it dawned on me that I’m not really sure what the Pirates are going to do with their bullpen this spring. It’s not a bad problem; they have quite a few deserving relievers and at least at this point in March, not enough spots to go around. If we assume that the only mortal lock for the ‘pen right now is Joel Hanrahan, that leaves six spots and plenty of guys that could take them. Let’s try to talk our way through this.

Here are the righties that could conceivably make the bullpen out of spring training:

  • Chris Resop
  • Chris Leroux
  • Jason Grilli
  • Evan Meek
  • Jared Hughes
  • Dan McCutchen
  • Brad Lincoln
  • Juan Cruz
  • Ryota Igarashi 

I was going to include Bryan Morris, but he’s probably a stretch because he hasn’t pitched above Double-A. The same thought goes for Duke Welker; both guys could be in the Pirates’ pen at some point this year and both could be good big league relievers, but they won’t break camp with the team. I also could put Logan Kensing here, but he hasn’t pitched this spring with a strained abdominal muscle and so he’s probably a long shot at this point. Shairon Martis is technically an option here as well, but for now I’m guessing that he’s with the club to be Triple-A rotation depth, of which the club doesn’t have much.

  • Tony Watson
  • Danny Moskos
  • Doug Slaten
  • Jo-Jo Reyes
  • Justin Wilson

Reyes probably isn’t being considered for a bullpen slot, but given his struggles as a starter, his splits, and the Pirates’ relative lack of lefty-reliever depth, I think that he probably should be. Wilson is a more complicated case that we’ll talk about more in a second. 

That’s 14 guys for six spots. The Pirates will certainly break camp with one lefty and there’s a decent shot they’ll go north with two, so the competition for the 4-5 spots for righties could be pretty heated because there are quite a few good options. One question to ask is who the Pirates would lose if they don’t make the club. Resop and Leroux are out of options and I’m pretty sure the club would lose both of them; they both have good arms, bit strikeout totals, and Leroux has become a solid groundball pitcher. They’re both kind of under the radar right now, but it’s hard to believe they’d go through waivers unnoticed. They didn’t get get through waivers in the past; that’s the reason they’re on the Pirates. Grilli is out of options, too, and while he might get through waivers I think he’d probably refuse an assignment to Indianapolis in the hopes of finding either a big league job or going to Triple-A for a contender (this is speculation on my part; I know that he knows Hurdle and he may stay out of loyalty to him even if he’s demoted). Cruz is on a minor league deal and though he technically has an option left, I’m assuming that his deal gives him the right to refuse a minor league assignment if he doesn’t make the club. I don’t know if Igarashi has the same right since his contract is a split contract. Kensing and Martis are pretty likely to accept minor league assignments, given the point they’re at in their careers, so I don’t think losing either of them is a concern. Dan McCutchen should have an option year left and he’d be my candidate for a DFA to open up a 40-man roster spot should Cruz or Igarashi make the club; I think he’d probably clear waivers. 

On the left-handed side I’d guess that Reyes and Slaten would take a minor league assignments at this point in their careers because, well, where else would they go? Wilson might make the most sense as a second lefty behind Watson, though it’s not entirely clear if the club wants to be a starter or reliever. I’ve only seen him pitch in person once, but he had to expound a ton of effort to get through seven one-hit innings. As a starter, his fastball isn’t good enough and he has to rely on a bunch of off-speed and breaking pitches to get hitters out, which is what results in his nibbling and high pitch counts. As a reliever he can crank the fastball up nicely and he could probably be a very effective fastball/curve guy. I won’t blame the team for giving him one more go as a starter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his home ends up in the bullpen.

Let’s say that Resop, Leroux and Watson will all definitely make the team, which I don’t think is any kind of stretch at all. That gives us four total relievers (with Hanrahan) and three open spots. Now, do you use a spot on Lincoln or McCutchen to work as the long man? Leroux started this winter in the Dominican, Resop started 15 games for the Braves’ Triple-A club in 2010, and Watson made regular starts for Altoona in the same year. They all could function as a long relievers if necessary. That would allow Lincoln to go to the rotation in Indy until needed in Pittsburgh and it would keep the club from using a spot on McCutchen, who’s almost certainly the weakest right-handed reliever in camp. 

Now we’ve got three spots left. I wouldn’t use one of them on Meek until I’m sure his arm is healthy. I don’t think it is and there’s a chance he’d be a disaster out of the pen. Assuming the Pirates can demote Igarashi, I’d expect them to do so until they’re certain he can throw strikes regularly. If the Pirates demote McCutchen and Lincoln as well, that makes things a little clearer. Cruz and Grilli will probably both get spots, because it’s hard to believe the Pirates would bring someone like Cruz in with no intention of giving him a roster spot and it’s hard to believe that the club would tender Grilli an arbitration-level contract if they didn’t like him enough to give him a spot. 

That leaves us with one spot. Conventional wisdom says the club needs two lefties, and I think Wilson makes the most sense if the team doesn’t decide to use him as a starter to open the season. Depending on what Neal Huntington wants in his Triple-A rotation, though, it might make sense to just send Wilson to the bullpen from the start of the season. It seems like a pretty safe assumption that Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, and Kyle McPherson will all start the year out in Indy’s rotation and Lincoln will likely be there, too. That makes four starters and only one big league option. If the Pirates want more depth in the case of, say, a Charlie Morton or AJ Burnett set-back or something, there’s a chance that either Reyes or Martis will start the year out in Indy’s rotation in the Brian Burres role. That could, in theory, make the club more willing to go north with Wilson in the ‘pen (it could also make the club more likely to take Lincoln north as a long reliever). 

The other option is Jared Hughes. If you follow the WHYGAVS twitter account, you know that I like Hughes quite a bit. On merit alone, I think he should start the year out with the Pirates, though the option situations with guys like Resop and Leroux and the fact that Hughes has only been a reliever for about a year now certainly make him starting the year out in Triple-A understandable. The big question may be how many lefties the Pirates want to carry; they don’t really have two good options (they might not even have one, really, though I do think Watson will be fine) and so if they don’t want to force a second lefty on to the club, that might make room for someone more deserving like Hughes. 

Of course, this is something that will be pretty fluid throughout the year and we’ll likely see most of these guys in Pirate uniforms at one point or another. And having to pick between deserving relievers isn’t a bad problem to have, of course. The Pirates have certainly been on the other end of this problem in the past and that side is no fun at all. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.