By Jason Shetler
The Pirates were a playoff team in 2013, 2014 and 2015. While it sounds obvious, the biggest part of their success was the pitching. As good as the starting rotation was for the Pirates in those three seasons, their bullpen played an even more vital part.
Last offseason, the Pirates bullpen lost some key pieces to free agency with Antonio Bastardo, Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton. To fill those voids, they inked Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz to one-year contracts, while signing Cory Luebke and Eric O’Flaherty on minor league deals.
A few developments that occurred in Spring Training was Nicasio being inserted into the rotation over Ryan Vogelsong, O’Flaherty being dealt to the Atlanta Braves because of Luebke having an opt-out clause in his contract, and Jared Hughes sustaining an injury and having to begin the year on the disabled list.
The first half of the season presented some problems with the bullpen. Ryan Vogelsong wasn’t effective pitching in long relief, Jared Hughes struggled to limit baserunners and couldn’t strand inherited runners as consistently, Arquimedes Caminero had command issues, Kyle Lobstein was subpar for the most part, and Cory Luebke did not pitch well at all. Tony Watson wasn’t great, but wasn’t terrible either. The only two relievers that showed consistency were Mark Melancon and Neftali Feliz. A.J. Schugel performed well when he was called up, but the Pirates made a confounding decision to option Schugel back to Indianapolis as opposed to Hughes, despite the fact that Hughes was struggling and had an option remaining. Juan Nicasio began pitching better when he was moved to the bullpen in June.
The trade deadline saw the Pirates bullpen receive a makeover. Two days prior to the deadline, Mark Melancon was traded to the Washington Nationals for Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn. Rivero has been outstanding since the trade. On the day of the deadline, Jon Niese went back to the New York Mets in a swap for Antonio Bastardo. Just like Rivero, Bastardo is doing solid work. You could argue that he’s looked even better than his first time around in Pittsburgh. Statistically, the bullpen has performed better overall in the second half, and here’s why that could continue heading into next season.
In regards to the left-handers, Rivero and Bastardo are both major upgrades compared to what they had in the first half this year with Luebke and Lobstein. Watson hasn’t been as effective in 2016, but he’s certainly capable of bouncing back next year. The question is whether they want Watson to continue to close out games or place him back in the setup role and have Rivero assume the duties as closer. As mentioned, Nicasio has been superb pitching in relief. He’ll be arbitration eligible for a final time this offseason, and should be brought back to possibly be in a seventh inning role with Bastardo. Hughes will likely get non-tendered. Should that be the case, Schugel might get his opportunity next season to see what he can provide more extensively. At one point, FanGraphs rated Schugel’s changeup as the second best among MLB relievers. The role of long reliever will probably go to one of the young guys who don’t make the rotation out of Spring Training. For example, if Trevor Williams doesn’t win a rotation spot but does pitch well in the Spring, then that’s a nice option to have as a multiple inning arm out of the bullpen. And not to mention that another quality reliever could be added to the mix in the offseason either by trade or free agency. Given those reasons, there’s the potential of the Pirates bullpen being solid again.