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If The Pirates Need Bullpen Help, Look To Oakland

Did the Pirates make a mistake by targeting a guy like Daniel Hudson, or should the Bucs continue down the path Oakland has set?
Photo by Scott Kane/USA Today Sports

The Oakland Athletics and the Pittsburgh Pirates are interleague soulmates. Both overcame minuscule budgets to build teams that made the playoffs multiple seasons, but failed to bring home a title. They did it by poo-pooing over 100 years of baseball tradition and forging a new, analytical path. There are also fantastic books written about them.

It ?s getting to the point that I ?m trying to get an Oscar-contending movie on the 2015 Bucs out of turnaround. If you have $20 million you want to invest, we can get this off the ground. I was thinking of Martin Freeman as Neal Huntington with Lenny Abrahamson directing.

But neither the A ?s or Pirates are perfect. Both are going to miss the playoffs again this year, and most of the blame should go on the GM’s. That type of responsibility comes with the job description. When something doesn’t work, you either have to double down that you were right or abandon ship. The same thing goes when you see something go wrong for another team. Were they right and just unlucky, or was it a terrible idea from the start?

Let ?s take a quick detour to the other subject to today ?s post.

We ?re in an era of baseball history where if you ain ?t got a bullpen, you ain ?t got crap. Kansas City won a pair of pennants with their relievers. The Pirates ? rode the Shark Tank to three straight playoff appearances. The Yankees went from a rebuilding club to a contender this year because of their bullpen. On the other side of the coin, the Giants and Dodgers could chalk up their playoff losses last year to their shaky relief corps. The Tigers probably cost themselves a dynasty because they couldn ?t close games for years.

Ask any Pirate fan and they can point out a game or two or twelve that the bullpen let slip away from them this season. Overall, the relievers were not as sharp this year as they were in 2016, which was also a step back from 2015.

So let ?s make the Pirates ? bullpen great again. First, a roll call of everyone on staff. Felipe Rivero will close. George Kontos will be back and will probably get a chance at a late inning role. Barring an unforeseen trade, Daniel Hudson will be back as well.

There is also an influx of young relievers who should be major league ready. Dovydas Neverauskas seems to have an inside track for a major league job next year. A.J. Schugel has looked good in a variety of roles these last two seasons. Edgar Santana, Clay Holmes and Angel Sanchez could also fill out the bullpen, but there needs to be reinforcements ready in the minors in the event of injury or if somebody is released or optioned. Out of these five, let ?s say two make the opening day roster.

So the Pirates should have five of seven bullpen spots filled already for next season. Let ?s just pencil in either Neverauskas, Kontos or perhaps Hudson as the seventh inning guy. Make Schugel the inning eater, too. That means in an ideal world, those last two spots would go to a legitimate set-up man and a lefty.

Let ?s take another 180 back to the Bay. The Athletics have been short on starting pitching the last couple years, but still had some (perhaps misguided) playoff dreams. Reclamation projects are hovering around $10 million nowadays, so the only way for a five man rotation to come under budget is if some are young, pre-arb guys. This demographic also tends to be the most volatile, which means having good arms ready to bail him out is a must.

And that ?s what Oakland did these last couple offseasons. They couldn ?t afford a Mark Melancon or Kenley Jansen, but they tried to build a bullpen of good, but not great guys. Ryan Madson, John Axford and Santiago Casilla all signed multi-year deals in either the 2015 or 2016 offseason. All three have had bumps in the road recently, but they all have had enough success in their careers that they could garner interest.

They were all boom or bust arms. If they all hit, it ?s the best bullpen in baseball. If they all miss, they have a pillow on the couch that they can scream into.

There ?s just one problem with that strategy: the cost. Axford signed for two years, $10 million. Casilla inked a two year pact worth $11 million as a 36 year old this winter. Madson was the real winner, landing a three year deal valued at $22 million even though he was 35.

Madson has since been traded and Axford released. They got some value out of the three of them, but at $43 million total and nearly $18 million per year, you have to wonder if it was worth it. Would they have just been better off only signing one out of the three and also bringing in someone like Ivan Nova?

Allow me to take one last 180 (because coming up with transitions is hard) back to the ?Burgh. Here we have the Pirates, who need two relievers. Most of their best bullpen arms have come through trades, but they ?ve also plucked some unwanted free agents and waiver claims and made them late inning arms. The only notable exception to this rule has been Daniel Hudson, who signed a very Oakland-like two year, $11 million deal last offseason. He has not lived up to it so far. Like Oakland, so far, it ?s mostly been bust with very little boom.

The Pirates need to address the bullpen this offseason. They could either: A) give up minor league talent for a pitcher who will likely only be there a year or two, B) dive headfirst into a sea of mediocre pitchers to try to find someone who could rise above, or C) double down and try to find that high risk, high reward late inning guy.

They can scour for a lefty reliever or pick one up on the cheap. To get an affordable set-up man, they need to need to either give up a top prospect, or hope that Oakland has the right strategy, even if it hasn ?t worked out so far.

The risky options could include the likes of Jake McGee, Luke Gregerson or Tyler Clippard: veterans who have had some good and bad but have shown for stretches that they can pitch late in the game. They also would probably require a two year deal, which is the maximum we have seen Huntington give a reliever.

The best case scenario is they provide a bridge to Rivero. The worst is they hide him away in middle relief like they did with Hudson. With the majority of the starting rotation pre-arb for two more years, they have wiggle room to take a gamble.

Oakland doubled down that bullpen reclamation projects have a better chance of succeeding than starters and invested more money there than just about any other small market team. So far, there hasn ?t been much of a difference. The Pirates already have one hand in the fire with Hudson. This offseason, they will have to decide if they want to double down and go down the same path with their American League soulmate.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.