Neal Huntington took away any potential Opening Day roster drama surrounding the Pirates pitching staff Friday night by announcing that Tyler Glasnow would start the season in the rotation and Trevor Williams had won the seventh spot in the bullpen. Last week I previewed the position players and the starters. Now let's take a look at the relievers.
The Bullpen (7): Tony Watson (L), Daniel Hudson (R), Felipe Rivero (L), Juan Nicasio (R), Antonio Bastardo (L), Wade LeBlanc (L) and Trevor Williams (R)
Ever since Joel Hanrahan took over as closer in 2011 the Pirates have gotten somewhere between good to dominant work out of the back end of their bullpen. During that time the mantle of closer has been passed fairly consistently. Once the setup guy appears capable of handling the job, invariably at a cheaper cost, the Pirates have moved on from the established closer™. Out of nowhere Jason Grilli emerged as a dominant reliever in 2012 so at season's end the Pirates traded Hanrahan to Boston for a package that included Mark Melancon. Grilli held the closer role for a year as Tony Watson and Melancon developed into a shutdown 7th-8th inning tandem. When Grilli struggled at the start of the 2014 season he was shipped out and Melancon stepped up, with Watson bumped to the 8th. For three seasons the pair was as good a backend bullpen duo as existed in the majors. Last season, with Melancon's impending free agency, the Pirates moved him at the deadline for a package highlighted by Felipe Rivero.
This year Watson inherits the closer role. It's one he took over for two months after the Melancon deal and it's one he'll likely only hold for a year before he becomes a free agent. After three outstanding seasons, Watson took a slight step back last year almost completely due to the long ball. In the previous three seasons the lefthanded Iowan gave up 13 home runs in 235.1 innings. In 2016 he gave up 10 in 67.2 with six coming in just 23.1 innings as closer. Since 2013 Watson has pitched more innings than any reliever in baseball racking up 292.0 frames (Melancon is second), but he only registered 20 saves. Do you believe there are unique attributes to being a closer? If so, Watson's performance at the end of last season probably raised at least a cautionary flag.
Daniel Hudson was one of the Pirates' two notable free agent signings. Hudson's an easy guy to root for gaining notoriety as one of the feature subjects in Jeff Passan's excellent book The Arm. Hudson has undergone two Tommy John surgeries and has transitioned from starter to reliever. His 2016 ERA was an unsightly 5.22 due to a 15 games stretch where he gave up 31 runs in 9.2 innings--downright Hutchisonian. The Pirates have enough confidence in Hudson that they have slotted him as the setup man with the task of getting the ball to Watson.
The most interesting guy in the Pirates bullpen, by far, is Felipe Rivero. If you want over-the-top crazy, wild optimism about what Rivero is going to be, I'm your guy. Rivero is a legit three-pitch pitcher who would be perfect in an Andrew Miller-type role if Hurdle chooses to use him that way. He can work multiple innings and has shown no platoon split. Rivero struck out 28.1% of the batters he faced last season. The concern is free passes. Rivero had an outstanding spring with 13 strikeouts while giving up only one walk and two hits in 10.0 innings. It would not surprise me to see Rivero strike out 35-40% of the batters he faces and approach 100 Ks in 70+ innings. It will be interesting to compare his performance with that of Melancon the next few years.
Juan Nicasio has dynamite stuff. The problem is he is a two-pitch guy who struggled against lefties last season giving up a .934 OPS vs. .638 for righties. It is worth nothing that Nicasio's OPS out of the pen was a solid .715 after posting .827 as a starter. Nicasio was outstanding again this spirng with a 15:0 K:BB ration in only nine innings. The difference is this season the Pirates weren't tempted to move him to the rotation. Last season he struck out 31% of batters faced out of the pen and in 13 of his first 23 relief appearances he went more than an inning before being used more conservatively after rosters expanded in September.
Antonio Bastardo was re-acquired by the Bucs at the trade deadline after signing a 2-yr, $12 million deal with the Mets after a productive 2015 with the Pirates. Bastardo's walk rate of 4.3BB/9 is his achilles heel. But he has an odd career pattern of being much better in odd-year seasons posting an ERA under 3.00 on '11, '13 and '15 while never being below 3.94 in '10, '12, '14 or '16. The Pirates are hoping the pattern continues. In just about 400 career innings the slow-working lefty has shown very little platoon split which should give Hurlde great flexibility.
Wade LeBlanc and Trevor Williams round out the bullpen. LeBlanc gives Hurdle a fourth lefty. Williams, who turns 25 this month, is a converted starter on his first OD roster. He will be the Pirates long-man and mop-up guy. The most interesting thing to watch with Williams is whether the Pirates will try to use him to piggyback Tyler Glasnow's starts. Watch that early on as Glasnow as been inefficient with his pitch counts throughout the spring.
Rule 5 pick Tyler Webb was returned to the Yankees. A.J. Schugel, Pat Light, Dovydas Neverauskas and Edgar Santana are all likely to work out of the pen at some point this season.