Pirates Bullpen: Depth Chart Discussions

Pittsburgh has one of the younger bullpens in the league… outside of their newly-anointed closer, of course. There isn’t a ton of fantasy upside beyond the ninth, but pitching in the National League for a team that may be able to hang out in the middle of the pack means there should be some nice rates/holds plays from a few up-and-comers if you are so inclined.

The closer:
Jason Grilli

With the departure of Joel Hanrahan for Boston, recently-resigned Jason Grilli will take over the ninth inning for the Buccos to start 2013. Grilli was a Bullpen Report favorite last year, thriving in a late inning setup role for the surprisingly¬†competitive¬†(for a few months at least) Pirates. His 36.9% K% ranked fourth in all of baseball last year, only trailing fellow reliever luminaries Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen (how is that for company?). While there is inherent risk in a guy who is 36 and, despite making his big league debut over a decade ago (2000), only has 448 innings on his career ledger, Jack Moore discussed reasons to believe in Grilli’s transformation. His velocity and strike percentage ticked up and his one-two fastball/slider punch has the potential to be as devastating as any in the late innings. While slowly gaining momentum in mock drafts, he still is being selected well after other guys who are in his tier from a peripherals standpoint, so he could be a nice low-risk, high-reward snag once the big names come off the board.

The setup guys:
Mark Melancon
Tony Watson (L)

Melancon moves back to the National League after a one-year junket in Boston. Melancon began 2012 as a candidate to rack up saves for the Sox, but was demoted after a couple abysmal outings during the first few weeks of the season. He eventually made his way back to Fenway and pitched solidly the remainder of the season, albeit in low-leverage situations. His 3.45 xFIP was almost as good as his breakout 2011, in large part thanks to an increase/decrease in K%/BB%. His Achille’s heel was the gopherball, as his HR/FB% was a sky-high 22.2% but figures to come back down to Earth in 2013. His drop in GB% to 50% is somewhat concerning for a guy with a worm-burning reputation, but he’s a good bet for a solid bounceback season as an eighth-inning guy (and next-in-line-closer should something happen to Grilli) this year.

27-year-old Tony Watson is also coming off a year (like Melancon) where he saw improvements in both strikeouts and walks. The southpaw features a mostly fastball/slider repertoire and should be a nice option against lefties late in games given his career .276 LHH wOBA against. He has a decided platoon split, so he’s unlikely to find a permanent home in the ninth should there be a lot of bullpen turnover, but Watson will be a good source of rates, holds, and a possible vulture save now and then.

Middle relief:
Bryan Morris
Justin Wilson (L)
Jared Hughes
Jose Contreras
Chris Leroux

Former top-prospect Morris has shown tantalizing stuff in the minors, but injuries appear to have derailed his path to a big league starting rotation. Last year was his first full season in relief and he pitched well, putting up a 3.16 FIP to go along with a 30% K% and a 10% BB% in Triple-A. His brief taste of the big leagues was satisfactory as well, so he should be able to break camp with the team. Of the guys in this group, he probably has the most upside to push his way into the late innings if he can improve on his rates.

Wilson is also one of Pittsburgh’s top prospects, coming in at number 14 on Mark Hulet’s offseason ranking of Pirates minor leaguers. A converted starter, he offers a mid-90’s fastball in addition to a curveball and slider. Control has been an issue throughout his minor league career, but if he can get those under control, him and his mid-20%’s K% also have the potential to move up in the pecking order.

Hughes has a career 3.75 xFIP — a solid mark. His lack of swing-and-miss stuff caps his ceiling, but he has shown good enough control at the major league level that he should have a relatively high floor going forward. Contreras chose to forgo Tommy John surgery at 41 and is attempting to make his way back to the majors on a minor league contract with tears in both his ulnar collateral ligament and flexor pronator. His rates weren’t terrible in limited action with the Phillies last year (26.8% K%, 5.4% BB%) and his fastball still sat in the low-90’s, so he could provide some quality innings if his elbow doesn’t fly off, although that seems to be a risky proposition. Leroux’s ugly 2012 5.56 ERA can be somewhat mitigated by acknowledging a laughably bad 39.7% LOB%. He is probably one of the few long guys with enough swing-and-miss stuff to make it onto some super-deep fantasy rosters, although he’s not a middle reliever who is also the de facto “sixth starter” like other guys on some other teams.

Looking up the totem pole:
Kyle McPherson
Vin Mazzaro
Jeanmar Gomez

McPherson offers some interesting potential should he miss out a rotation spot but there is an outside shot the Pirates still carry him as a reliever after spring cuts. His 93 mph fastball would likely play up even more in the pen and he has shown excellent control at all levels of the minors. He has enough real-life upside that he should go back to the minors if he doesn’t crack the starting five but don’t be afraid to pounce in deep leagues or dynasties if that plan changes.

Mazarro and Gomez were acquired over the last year for not a whole lot more than a bag of peanuts. Both may compete for a back-of-the-rotation spot in March, but seem likely to be headed to Indianapolis to function as minor league depth. Neither are anything more than a desperation streamer play if they end up getting a few starts, and if either of them end up in the pen, they can be safely ignored.

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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

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Solid analysis. Lines up pretty much with what us Pirate fans are thinking.

Leroux is someone to watch, though. McPherson/Locke are probably either in the rotation or next to be (if Karstens and Liriano injure or fade), but Leroux would probably be next. He’s useful, has solid swing/miss potential, and gives both innings and effectiveness in one-inning outings.

Good stuff, Colin.