With the first month of the season almost in the books, the Pirates are left with more questions than they started with when they headed north at the end of Spring Training in late March. The absence of two of their best players has led to inconsistent hitting and some of the worst defense in franchise history, looking like clueless Little Leaguers picking daises in the outfield. Despite these woes, the Pirates have been in a majority of their games thanks to a seemingly rejuvenated pitching staff, especially Ivan Nova. The former Yankee has had the same number of complete games as walks since being traded to Pittsburgh last August. Gerrit Cole looks to be returning to his old form while Jameson Taillon has shown all the makings of an ace in the near future. Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow have some work to do to solidify the rotation at the back end, mainly Glasnow, who needs to find more confidence on the mound and get movement on his 94 mph fastball instead of throwing it right in a guy’s wheelhouse.
Speaking of back end, the 7-8-9 pitchers in the Pirates bullpen have had a similar roller coaster ride to the beginning of the season as the rest of the club. Felipe Rivero has been the best of the bunch in the early goings, showing the upside that was promised when the team acquired him in the Mark Melancon deal with the Nationals at last year’s trade deadline. He leads the Pirates in both ERA at 0.66 and appearances with 14. On top of that, Rivero has struck out 12 while hitters have hit only .212 in 52 at-bats. Though he has appeared in a few games in the 8th and 9th inning, the left hander has been Clint Hurdle’s 7th inning work horse.
But as Rivero continues to dominate with almost unhittable stuff, Daniel Hudson has faced a rockier road to the start of his 2017 season. After not allowing a run over his first three appearances, the right hander’s ERA has ballooned to 5.59 with opponents hitting .310 against him. Though he has thrown 10 strikeouts already in 11 appearances, Hudson has struggled with his pitching efficiency, throwing over 20 pitches in 5 of his 11 games. Rivero on the other hand has only thrown over 20 pitches in 3 of his 14 appearances. Many with the Pirates figured Hudson would come out the gate on his game this year after finishing strong with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. Unlike this season, the right hander found a lot of success in the beginning of 2016 before having his ERA shoot to the moon at over 7.00. Even with the writing on the wall that Hudson may not work as the 8th inning guy or in the bullpen, the Pirates are stuck with him through next season unless some team is crazy enough to take on his $5.5 million a year contract. Not to get off track, but how in the world did/how Neal Huntington justify not only signing a pitcher like Hudson but doubling his salary in the process? The Pirates could have had Chris Carter, a power bat off the bench that this team really needs now, for only $3.5 million a year. Don’t be surprised if Huntington has to dump Hudson’s salary on a team like he did with Francisco Liriano.
Rivero may be hot and Hudson may be cold, but as far as Tony Watson goes, it has not been as elementary as many Pirates fans would expect. Yes, he is a perfect 7 for 7 in save situations while sporting an ERA under 1 at 0.96, but the veteran left hander’s control has been all over the place. In nine appearances so far this season, Watson has walked five and hit three batters while striking out only five. Over the last 2 seasons, the Pirates closer struck out batters roughly 21% of the time in his role as set up. So far in 2017, he’s only striking batters out at just under an 11% clip. In his major league career, he has struck out batters under 20% only once in his career in 2013 when it was only 19.3%. Without getting too deep into the percentages, the fact is Watson has looked as shaky as any closer I have seen who has an ERA under 1. That being said, in my opinion, Hurdle needs to reshuffle these three guys before the bottom actually falls out.
I understand the philosophy of not having lefties pitch in back-to-back innings to close out the game, but when your buffer right-handed pitcher is not reliable and known to get knocked around you need to put the lefty in that spot. Frankly I wouldn’t even put Hudson as the 7th inning, though they are playing him $5.5 million, so it is almost a given that he has to pitch in a significant role in the bullpen. Now this leaves Rivero and Watson left for the 8th and 9th inning, and honestly, Watson is better served for the 8th inning. I have watched closers come and go for the Pirates over the last 15 years with the last 5 years being the most successful. But from Mike Fetters to Jose Mesa, Mike Gonzalez to Joel Hanrahan, Watson is the first guy that I truly think is not right for the position. Going back to last season when he took over for Melancon, he just does not seem comfortable closing out ball games. Moving Watson back to the setup role will not only put the 8th inning on lock again, but it will help his trade value if the Pirates chose to deal him at the deadline this year. This opens the door for Rivero, who is going to be the closer at some point with this team if it does not happen soon. An arm as live as this kid’s does not belong in the 7th inning, he needs to be closing out games, throwing gas past the best in the National League. Granted, the order Hurdle assembled to be begin the year has done a good group overall, but if he wants this team to stay hanging around the top-half of the league, a new order of Hudson-Watson-Rivero is what is best for business.