I know, I know, I know. Here I am talking about Antonio Bastardo again. Didn’t I just make fun of myself about how often he’s come up in my stories this offseason in my last piece? I’m getting bored of it too, so I’m going to mix it up and talk about him and another lefty in the bullpen.
I’m also going to talk about Wade LeBlanc.
Hello? Anyone still here?
In case you forgot, Bastardo left the ‘Burgh for big money after the 2015 season on a two-year deal with the Mets. After struggling in New York, he was traded back to Pittsburgh at the deadline for Jon Niese. The deal was celebrated because Bastardo is literally anyone else besides Niese.
Later in the year, the Pirates brought in Wade LeBlanc because they needed someone to eat innings and he answered the Craigslist post. After 12 surprisingly solid innings, he signed for a little above the league minimum for 2017 and is competing for a job in the bullpen.
As that bullpen stands now, Watson, Hudson, Rivero and Nicasio are all locks for opening day. Unless a last second trade materializes, Bastardo should also have a spot. Hughes is a safe bet to break camp. That leaves one spot up for grabs, most likely for a long reliever. LeBlanc and A.J. Schugel are the frontrunners.
But should Bastardo and LeBlanc be given such clear paths to the majors?
Look, this argument isn’t about how Bastardo is going to be the second-highest paid pitcher for the Pirates this year. It’s not about his less than inspiring outings this spring or his poor PECOTA projection. It’s not even about his 4.07 quality of pitch average last year, which was the worst on the team and about 11% worse than the league average.
This argument isn’t about how LeBlanc is turning 33 and got a contract because of 12 innings of work. It’s not about how he’s only been worth four-tenths of a win since 2013. It’s not about how his fastball checks in at 88 MPH on a good day.
All in all, they’re both serviceable major leaguers. At his best, Bastardo strikes out a ton of batters, walks too many for comfort and is a stone’s throw of either side of an ERA of 3. At his best, LeBlanc makes batters work every at-bat and does the dirty work. So this conundrum isn’t even really about them.
This argument is about the roster spot. The Pirates have already let go of two promising, young relievers this offseason because they ran out of space on the 40-man roster. The casualties were righties Lisalverto Bonillo and Nefi Ogando. Unless Bastardo or LeBlanc are shipped off or cut, they will lose another: Tyler Webb.
Ogando was an early waiver wire Christmas present for the Bucs. He had only pitched in 19.2 major league innings in his career, and while his strikeouts and walks were basically identical, he had a good ground ball rate and a 95 MPH fastball. When Phil Gosselin was brought in last month, Ogando was let go. Bonilla was let go a day earlier after signing a major league contract earlier in the offseason. They didn’t go far, though; the Pirates will see Ogando and Bonilla plenty this year as members of the Reds.
I liked the idea of Ogando and Bonilla being in the mix. I love the idea of Webb. The only catch with the 26 year old southpaw is he is a Rule V pick and needs to stay in Pittsburgh. If he isn’t a Pirate for even a day in 2017, he’s going back to the Yankees.
Webb’s fastball sits in the low 90s and only has slightly above average offspeed stuff, but he knows how to use what he has. In parts of three seasons in AAA, he’s fanned 10.3 batters per nine innings. That’s better than Bastardo’s rate three of the last four years. He’s also durable, going at least two frames in 19 of his 36 appearances in 2016 (he did start five times).
Webb could fit in nicely as either the inning eater or a lefty specialist.
Some would argue that you could also ditch Hughes to open a spot, but I would disagree. Call it a soft spot in an otherwise exclusively black heart, but I think every bullpen needs a junkballer like him. There are plenty of situations over the course of the year where the bullpen needs to get a ground ball to get out of a jam. Since 2012, Hughes has induced grounders at the 10th best rate among relievers. I don’t know if it was the lat injury or him just hitting a wall that caused his poor 2016, but Hughes showed enough to the front office to warrant a contract.
Plus, a bullpen with LeBlanc, Bastardo and Webb would only leave two righties. Last time I checked, Ryan Braun and Kris Bryant are still in the division, so having more than just two late inning relievers with the hand advantage would be wise.
So it’s between Bastardo, LeBlanc and Webb. My last story was on comparing bullpens from the last few years with this season’s. PECOTA and ZIPS had the three as being fairly equal for 2017, even if they called Webb by the wrong name and made LeBlanc a starter again.
If Webb is as good or at least comparable to either Bastardo or LeBlanc, he has to make the team. He comes with six years of control. Bastardo is under contract for just one more season. LeBlanc is on the books for one campaign with another one as a team option.
So how do they open up a spot for Webb? LeBlanc might sneak through waivers if he’s DFA’d, and it would probably be safe to assume he would take the guaranteed money and pitch in AAA rather than elect free agency. Even if they did theoretically lose him and Webb turns out to be a bust, there are plenty of other guys who should be quality relievers this year who can take his place, like Schugel, Pat Light, Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas.
As for Bastardo (say it with me class) — he could be a good trade candidate. Most bullpens are fairly set right now, but they could unload him if they don’t ask for a lot. Philly’s looking for a lefty reliever. Maybe that could be a happy reunion.
I feel like I should mention again that Bastardo and LeBlanc are not going to cripple the bullpen. They’re legitimate major leaguers. If the Pirates were to trade or DFA one of them, they would find work.
But we’ve seen the Pirates make moves these last few offseasons that focused not only on the year at hand, but also the future. That’s what opening up a bullpen spot for Webb does. It’s like the trivia game at PNC Park: you can either keep the hat (safe, around replacement level reliever), or go for the box of mystery (AAA reliever with a three pitch mix and fantastic strikeout numbers).
Take the box.