By Jared Lankes
The Pirates situation in the bullpen is potentially the most fascinating of the bunch. They have an array of guys who are capable bullpen pitchers but only seven spots when it comes down to it. This is complicated by the fact that they have five lefties that may all receive spots in the bullpen. Here, I will go through who I expect to get the bullpen spots and will look into each player. Moreover, I will organize this by lefties and righties. I will also look at the main snub(s) from the group.
1) Wade LeBlanc: I was surprised when the Pirates added LeBlanc late last season then was even more surprised when they signed him to a one-year contract as a tender candidate (I didn’t even expect a tender). However, he not only looked good in the limited looks he received last year on the Pirates, but he’s had a strong spring on top of it, and appears ready to prove that he belongs. I feel he’s done more than enough to earn a look in the bullpen to begin the year. Whether he will take that next step is subject to anyone’s best guess.
2) Antonio Bastardo: Pirates aspired to trade Bastardo all offseason but to no avail as there were zero takers for the lefty presumably. Bastardo is in his second stint with the Pirates after being acquired by the Mets in August last season in exchange for Jon Niese. Even though Bastardo had a rough and tumble 2016 season, I believe he could still be effective in a role in the bullpen. While lefty specialist may not fit him best, I think it may be the spot he must take on and embrace. But I doubt he will be used as just that as I expect Clint Hurdle to use the bullpen flexibly.
3) Tony Watson: Watson was another guy the Pirates were trying to unload this offseason, mainly for salary relief and to add extra space to a crowded bullpen. But it looks like the bullpen will have Watson. 2016 was shaky for Watson as the innings workload from all his years caught up to him a bit. People, including me, are now skeptical whether he has anything left in the tank. Well, that’s tough to say. Hopefully Hurdle won’t overwork him because I think Watson can be solid if used an appropriate amount of times. He’s not a guy you can trot out there 4-5 times a week anymore and expect great results.
4) Felipe Rivero: Probably the Pirates best reliever, Felipe Rivero will be the key component of the bullpen this season. This is potentially the year that Rivero lives up to all the hype that he has garnered. With an electric fastball and a devastating changeup, Rivero has all the tools to be absolutely dominant. The main role he will fill is unclear, but he’s the kind of pitcher that can do all sorts of different things in all kinds of situations.
Tyler Webb: I like Tyler Webb, but I don’t believe the Pirates will carry five bullpen lefties and Webb could be the odd man out in that situation. It would be ideal for the Pirates to work out a deal with the Yankees to make him a member of the Pirates that they don’t need to keep on the 25-man because of Rule 5. That way, they can send him to AAA and call him up whenever he is needed. At present moment, however, I would not expect Webb to be in the Pirates’ bullpen to start the season.
1) Daniel Hudson: Pirates took a calculated risk on Daniel Hudson by signing him this past offseason. The oft-injured righty was fairly effective for the Diamondbacks last year outside of one awful stretch that inflated his numbers. The Pirates are hoping Hudson remains healthy and is able to bring his filthiness to the Pirates. He has tools that Searage loves to work with, and there is at least a fair chance that Searage can get Hudson to his very best. Interestingly, Daniel Hudson’s deal has a “games finished” incentive, which could mean nothing or mean that the Pirates may give him some chances to close out games. Stay tuned.
2) Juan Nicasio: After a bumpy ride as a starter last year for the Pirates, Juan Nicasio was great out the bullpen. Now, he’s expected to be an integral piece of the bullpen this season. What his main role will be is undetermined, but I feel a hybrid role could be in play for a guy like Nicasio. In any case, I expect him to be solid as long as he doesn’t need to start games or be exposed to too many lefty hitters.
3) AJ Schugel: AJ Schugel was very effective out of the bullpen for the Pirates in 2016 after being acquired as an afterthought. His changeup is rated amongst one of the league’s most effective, and I think he’s finally found his niche that can turn him into a very solid bullpen pitcher.
Overall, while the bullpen situation can be classified as a mess by many, I think it can be an effective group if not overworked and utilized correctly. The thing this bullpen could show off the most is flexibility. I hope Clint Hurdle is able to tap into this flexibility and isn’t afraid to give the ball to someone that we normally wouldn’t see in such a situation (for example: closer by committee). If Hurdle is able to do that, I think he can find where this bullpen can get ahead, even without the talent that previous Pirates’ bullpens have had.