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Constructing the Pirates’ Bullpen

There are no shortage of viable candidates for the Pirate bullpen

If Holdzkom can re-capture 2014's magic, the Pirate bullpen will be quite deep. Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

If Holdzkom can re-capture 2014’s magic, the Pirate bullpen will be quite deep.
Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Going into Spring Training, there aren’t many potential battles for spots on the Opening Day 25-man roster. The only place where there could be an interesting scrum is for the final spot in the bullpen. Let’s start with some basic assumptions. The Pirates will have a 7 man bullpen. In my eyes, there are four stone cold locks:

  • Mark Melancon — the de facto closer, making $5.4M this year, known commodity
  • Tony Watson — a perfect alignment would install Watson as closer with Melancon as setup
  • Antonio Bastardo — lefty obtained from the Phillies, should be the co-setup or primary 7th inning guy
  • Jared Hughes — he’s become a dependable “fireman” when there is a hairy situation, making $1.075M after 1st time in arbitration

That leaves three spots open. The way I see it, there are four candidates with the inside track on these three spots.

  • Radhames Liz — the failed Orioles’ prospect went over to Korea and got noticed enough by the Pirates that they were willing to offer him a 2 year/$3M deal. Shoulder concerns in his medical exam forced both parties to revise it to a 1 year/$1M deal. It’s still a major league deal for a non-minimum scale amount.
  • John Holdzkom — everyone’s favorite Cinderella story from 2014. If the magic pixie dust is still sprinkled on him, then Holdzkom is a lock for the bullpen to share the 7th inning role. Since Holdzkom debuted in the Majors just last year, he still has 3 options remaining. Options are an important consideration in roster construction.
  • Stolmy Pimentel — he’s out of options, which could affect how the Opening Day roster is constructed, at least. The Pirates treated Pimentel like a Rule 5 draft pick last year — he would pitch very infrequently, they put him in the minors after a “shoulder soreness” bout, and seemed to forget about him. But they did keep him around and Hurdle seems to like his potential. I still say he’s a potential #4 starter, but I feel like I’m the last guy holding that flag aloft.
  • Bobby LaFromboise — ah, The Raspberry! Got a little work last year after being claimed on waivers from the Padres in August. With Watson and Bastardo as left-handed locks, it’s very difficult for me to see LaFromboise as a 3rd lefty. He also has an option, which seems to me to say he’ll be starting 2015 in Triple A.

So it appears (to me, at least) that Liz, Holdzkom, and Pimentel will be in the bullpen to start the year. Other relievers on the 40-man roster include Arquimedes Caminero (which would be entertaining to hear John Wehner butcher his name a few times) and Rob Scahill, but it’s hard to envision either one leaping over players that already cut their teeth with the big club in 2014.

But hold the bullpen phone for one second! There’s a wrinkle that hasn’t been discussed yet. If Charlie Morton is indeed healthy enough to start the season in Pittsburgh after his latest hip surgery, that would give the Pirates six potential starting pitchers.

Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and A.J. Burnett are locks for the first three spots. Morton, Jeff Locke, and Vance Worley would potentially be squaring off for the last two spots. If healthy (always a big ‘if’ with Chaz), Morton would get the 4th spot due to his contract ($8M in 2015) and past work resume.

Both Locke and Worley are out of options, which eliminates the possibility of either starting in Triple A, as both would be snatched up before they cleared waivers. As I mentioned with Bobby LaFromboise, it would be difficult to see a 3rd lefty in the bullpen, which means that I think Locke would have the inside track on the final rotation spot.

Yes, Worley was better statistically last year, but there was a potential element of luck to his year, as well. His ERA may have been 2.85, but his FIP of 3.44 suggested his defense helped him out a bit. If the Pirates didn’t believe in Worley, they wouldn’t have tendered him a contract and gone to arbitration with him — where he received a 2015 salary of $2.4M.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to stash Worley in the bullpen as the long man. No team only uses five starters over the course of the year; in recent years, the Pirates have been averaging eight per year. Each member of the potential rotation either dealt with injuries or dead arm in 2014, so having a relatively fresh Worley ready to step in would be a plus. It’s possible that a late Spring Training trade could occur, but it would be against the grain of Neal Huntington to give up an asset like a viable starting pitcher when he could just re-arrange some things until that pitcher is needed.

But what would Worley’s arrival to the pen do to the group outlined above? Who would get the boot out of Liz, Holdzkom, or Pimentel? This is where I honestly don’t know because it may come down to pure performance in Spring Training. If Holdzkom is dominant and has no command issues (which is what derailed his career up to this point…well, that and a love of sushi), it would be hard to option him to Indianapolis. If Hurdle and the Pirates truly believe in Pimentel and are not just blowing sunshine over us, then he would stay too. That leaves Liz, potentially, as the odd man out. The Pirates owe him $1M, but even though it’s not minimum-scale, it’s not that much to warrant keeping a roster spot open for him. They have no past allegiance to him and he could do his thing in Triple A until called up.

This whole exercise has demonstrated to me even further just how much depth the Pirates have in pitching this year. All of this discussion about the bullpen didn’t even touch on spot starter/long relief guys like Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler. It also didn’t take into account starting pitching prospects in Triple A like Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and Adrian Sampson.

Not all of the bullpen options will work out. Relievers’ year-to-year performances are volatile by nature. And injuries will crop up, of course. But it’s good to know that there are a myriad of choices at Hurdle and Huntington’s fingertips to backfill the bullpen, if needed.


Kevin Creagh is the author of the sci-fi novel Creating Christ, available now on Amazon

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.