Defying all baseball convention, the Pirates currently have more southpaws than righties as would-be bullpen contenders. From the left side, they have Tony Watson, Felipe Rivero, Antonio Bastardo, Wade LeBlanc and this offseason’s tribute from the Yankees, Tyler Webb. Juan Nicasio, Jared Hughes, AJ Schugel and Lisalverto Bonilla make up the less exciting group who scarily top the list of right-handed reliever candidates. Not only is it weird to have more lefties, but the 7th to the 9th inning as the bullpen is currently composed would all throw from the sinister side. Of course, it’s December 14th so it probably doesn’t matter how it’s currently composed.
There is a long way to go this offseason and the balance of power could easily shift around. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I think Watson is highly unlikely to return to the Pirates next year. Having already missed out on the opportunity to turn a major league asset into future investment when Andrew McCutchen to Washington fizzled, Neal Huntington could easily move Tony Watson to one of the losers of the Aroldis Chapman sweepstakes. Watson likely wouldn’t yield a ton, maybe not even as much as Mark Melancon did at the trade deadline, but closers in their final year of team control seem like marked men with the current front office. Not a criticism, mind you, as I think it has ended up as the right move in case of both Melancon and Joel Hanrahan.
Rivero becomes the logical replacement to close and the logical next shoe to drop would be signing a 7th or 8th inning guy with the money saved on Watson. In all likelihood, this will be a right-hander. Watson could also yield a more controllable reliever, as was the case in the the Melancon and Hanrahan deals. Again this would flip the balance of power back to the right.
Watson leaving is one of a number of moves that could be made. Antonio Bastardo was linked to a move out of the town with Bill Brink even suggesting he’d be the Pirates choice to move rather than Watson. While I don’t think the Pirates would get enough return to entice a move, even if they ate salary, it’s not out of the question that a deal for both could happen. Barring injury or a surprise trade, Rivero and Nicasio are locks. Hughes will likely make the club out of spring training, but another poor start could send him packing. Having signed a two year deal, you’d think Wade The White is a pretty safe bet to head north as well. The rest are a crap shoot. Schugel was one of the team’s most consistent relievers in 2016, but he always seemed like an afterthought. Webb could get tossed aside like the Rule 5 pick he is at any time. Of course, he could also stub his toe the last day in Bradenton and end up on the DL till mid-June, after aggravating the injury while on a phantom rehab assignment in Altoona. In truth, I’d be surprised if Webb’s handedness played into the Pirates decision to select him at all. They saw either saw him as an inexpensive risk that could pan out with big returns or as an overage prospect who could consume a 40-man roster spot for most of the offseason, only to be released at a later date. Lisalverto Bonilla will make less than Bobby Bonilla this year. Major league deal or not, he could get released faster than you can Google spell check Radhames Liz.
I feel like the group think interpretation of the current bullpen composition hints at future moves to come. While I think this is extremely likely, let’s look at an alternative, though less probable, theory I have. The Pirates are simply trying to compose the best bullpen available to them without regard for what arm their pitchers throw with.
In general, the Pirates and (more importantly) Clint Hurdle’s philosophy seems to revolve around getting your key relievers an entire inning of clean work. As a result, opposing managers can pinch hit against the Bucs relievers at will to get their preferred matchup without fear of a relief pitching counter punch to come in. See the chart below of the percentages that prominent Pirates relievers faced a left or right handed batter during the 2016 season.
|% vs L||% vs R|
|Melancon – R||44.2%||55.8%|
|Watson – L||28.3%||71.7%|
|Rivero – L||26.6%||73.4%|
|Hughes – R||42.4%||57.6%|
|Feliz – R||45.0%||55.0%|
|Bastardo – L – Pirates||28.4%||71.6%|
|Bastardo – Mets||36.7%||63.3%|
That’s a pretty telling grouping for both lefties and righties. Even a more situational guy like Hughes only saw right handed hitters 57.6% of the time. What’s also interesting is that the exact same pitcher Antonio Bastardo saw 8.3% more favorable left handed batters in New York than in Pittsburgh. Of course, his performance also improved coming to the Pirates so it didn’t seem matching up really mattered much.
Point being, the Pirates seem to care much less about who’s facing them at the plate as they are with who’s on the mound in relief sessions. If the best three relievers already under team control and who won’t break the bank are all left handed, it’s not the worst use of assets just to have them just go get three outs. If the Pirates are simply assembling the best pen they can with the resources available to them, this might be their core.
All that devil’s advocacy aside, I do think the Pirates could do better than what they have and a little more balance wouldn’t be the worst thing. I’d love to see them tap into this deep relief free agent market adding one, maybe two cheaper back end guys depending on what happens to Watson. Possibly another rebound candidate alá Neftali Feliz, like Greg Holland or Daniel Hudson.
Through all the above, the most important point may have been that there is a long way to go. All we can do at this point is speculate. Moves are likely forthcoming, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they decided to defy convention.