This has been a pretty weird baseball season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The offense is producing oodles of baserunners, but like Tantalus reaching for a glass of water, runs sometimes are just out of reach. The pitching, on a macro level, has not been great. The starting pitching, though, seems to be coming around during the last two rotations through the order. The bullpen remains a case study in dancing through the raindrops and occasionally getting drenched by a deluge.
There are three avenues that I’m proposing for how the Pirates can rectify some of their bullpen woes. These avenues can be selected singularly or in conjunction with each other.
HOLD TIGHT FOR INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS
Pretty much no pitcher in the bullpen has been immune to a bad outing (or stretch of outings) so far this year. However, the crux of the bullpen was intended to be Feliz in the 7th, Watson in the 8th, and Melancon in the 9th. Melancon has been OK, certainly not his ground ball machine self, but I’m going to set him aside for right now.
Tony Watson’s worst month in his entire career is typically April. For his career, Watson’s April ERA is 3.70. The rest of the months in his career have produced an ERA of 2.22. So, theoretically, Watson is out of the woods and smooth(er) sailing should be ahead. So far in May, using a nano-sized sample of three games, Watson has only allowed 1 hit, 1 walk, and no runs in those games. His velocity has been fine; it’s his control that’s been the problem. I’m thinking that Watson has fixed whatever mechanical flaw was troubling him.
Neftali Feliz has been a head scratcher, too. He’s made a staggering 16 appearances so far this year, albeit some of them for only one out, and has only been scored upon in three of them. But when you give up two runs in each of those three occurrences, that raises the ol’ ERA up quickly. Feliz’s peripherals and velocity have both been good. He just needs to stop serving up gopher balls. To me, this is a correctable issue and one that has resulted in three straight scoreless appearances.
Arquimedes Caminero? I don’t know. He’s maddening. The arm is too good to give up on, but he’s just not getting the job done right now. I wouldn’t say he’s the first person I’d demote when needed, but he’s certainly not immune. With no remaining options, he would potentially be lost on waivers, so I’m sure that calculus is in play by the front office.
LOOK FOR HELP FROM WITHIN THE SYSTEM
Cory Luebke is on injury rehab down in Triple A Indianapolis. His first appearance was April 21st, so going by the 21-day rehab clock, the Pirates may have to make a decision on him today. He wasn’t great in his short time in Pittsburgh before straining his hamstring, but he’s been solid in Indy with 11.2 IP, 4 ER, 3 BB, and 17 K’s. If Luebke returns, the Pirates could option A.J. Schugel back to Triple A.
The other option would be to promote Chad Kuhl from Triple A. I’m starting to get some real Jared Hughes vibes with Kuhl, thanks to his power sinker, even though he has been an outstanding starter this year for Indy (26 IP, 17 H, 5 BB, 21 K, 1.35 ERA). Kuhl would need to be added to the 40-man roster, but the Pirates could easily Designate For Assignment pitcher Trey Haley, who’s been awful in Triple A this year. If Schugel wasn’t sent out during the Luebke promotion, he would be the target, otherwise I would option Kyle Lobstein back to Triple A.
Kuhl isn’t a guy you worry about Super Two. He could help bolster the bullpen for a month or so and then optioned back. Or even if he does achieve Super Two, it would probably be in the same vein as Jared Hughes has and not be too costly.
SEEK REINFORCEMENTS FROM OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM VIA TRADE
It’s not even mid-May and not many trades happen until after the front office’s are done with the June draft, but lesser deals still occur. There are a couple of teams in the Atlanta Braves (8-24) and the Minnesota Twins (8-25) that can already pack it up for 2016 and look to the future.
There’s no one in the Braves’ bullpen that tickles my fancy (yes, Jason Grilli is persona non grata for the Pirates at this point), but one player caught my eye on the Twins. Fernando Abad is off to a fantastic start of the season. In 14 innings, he has an 8.79 K/9, 2.51 BB/9 and an eye-popping 57.1% groundball rate that is far above his career average of 40.3%. This has led to a 0.63 ERA/1.98 FIP.
Abad has changed his pitch mix drastically from last year with the A’s. He’s essentially dropped his cutter and is “pitching backwards” by bringing his 4-seam fastball usage under 50%. He’s replaced the fastball with drastically more curves (12.2% in 2015 to 28.6% in 2016) and changeups (13.4% to 18.1%) with outstanding results. Abad signed on a minor league deal this offseason and is making just $1.25M this year. Maybe the Pirates can float a Jason Creasy-type to the Twins in exchange for the 30-year old reliever.
I have confidence that whatever course of action the Pirates take, they’ll get the bullpen straightened out. Typically, bullpens are one of the easiest things to fix on the fly in a season and Neal Huntington has built a bullpen or two in his day.