Jason Grilli (39) celebrates after game three of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
In looking at the 2013 season, one of the key components to the playoff run was the bullpen, or as we Pittsburghers know it as…the SHARK TANK! Mark Melancon brought the nickname to the Pirate’s clubhouse after he literally swam with Great White Sharks off the coast of New Zealand. Not exactly my choice of recreational activities, but clearly he felt that swimming with two-ton, man-eating monstrosities was comparable to sitting in the bullpen in left center at PNC park. Of course he did…who wouldn’t make that connection.
In 2013 the bullpen lived up to the nickname taking bites out of opposing batters on a regular basis. They swam to a brilliant finish, ending up 2nd in the league in runs scored per game, 2nd in saves, and 3rd in holds. And no… I will not stop the shark references. There’s plenty more to come.
Going into 2014, all of the fins will remain the same. The most impressive sharks were arguably Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro, and Tony Watson. All of which will be back in black and gold next year. Those five players averaged a 2.27 ERA with a 8.36 SO per 9 innings ratio. That is downright filthy.
Not one of them had an era over 3.0 and Mark Melancon finished the year with an unreal 1.39 ERA. Although Grilli spent time on the IR and hitters seemed to start to figure out Melancon late in the year, for the entire first half of the season Melancon and Grilli were making shark fin soup out of just about every fish in the sea. (the shark references are getting bad, I know) They were as close to a guarantee to close out the game as any combo in the league. The only negative about them was the nicknames they received. Mark and Cheese is terrible… and “time for some grilled cheese” is only slighter better. In fact, let’s just stop both of those messes right now. Let’s shoot for better nicknames in 2014 for these guys. We’re better then that Pittsburgh.
Grilli is a bit of a question mark coming into 2014 as he suffered a forearm injury that could prove devastating to any pitcher. When he returned late last season his velocity was noticeably lower averaging in the low 90’s compared to the mid to high 90’s where he was when the season started. Melancon would most likely step into the closer role should Grilli falter as he came in second in saves last season with 16 and filled in well in Grilli’s absence. But aside from those two, the Pirates have some serious arms coming off the bench.
Justin Wilson came in as a 25 year old relative unknown last year and fireballed his way to national attention. The lefty can hit 100 on the radar gun with pinpoint control. Add in a nice curveball and you get someone who finished the year with a 2.08 ERA and left bucco fans calling for him to be the closer of the future.
Vin Mazzaro had to be the real surprise of the 2013 bullpen. The career 5+ ERA pitcher wasn’t even expected to make the team let alone become a fixture on the field. But against all odds he appeared in 57 games and finished with a 2.81 ERA. He doesn’t blow you away with his stuff, but he mixed pitches well and lived at the knees. Still for some reason when he was in the game, I was always waiting for the shelling to begin, but hey… it never really happened. So more power to him. Vin earned his fin.
Tony Watson has gotten better in each of his three seasons at the major league level bringing his ERA from 3.95 to 3.38 to 2.38 in respective years. He’s proven tough against both left handed and right handed hitters actually doing better against the righty’s which defies conventional wisdom. He should be a reliable middle inning reliever again this year and should step out of the shadows and start to get the respect he deserves.
In terms of long relief, the Pirates had a few inning eating whale sharks in Jeanmar Gomez and Bryan Morris. Gomez actually started the year in the rotation and filled in admirably as a spot starter and long reliever. Bryan Morris was used early and often throughout the year when they needed someone to give them extra innings, and overall, he finished with some fairly respectable numbers.
The Pirates carried 12 pitchers on their opening day roster in 2013 so even if we ended up with these same 7 sharks patrolling the later innings again you’d have to be happy with that. But don’t count on it. There will be some other fish that will be competing for a spot in bullpen this year. Both new and old.
Players like Jared Hughes are still relevant. Hughes is a crowd favorite and started the season last year as an up and coming member of the shark tank. The intense, crooked hatt-ed, 6”7 maniac who was probably best known for hitting Brandon Phillips in the leg then telling him to shut up as he walked towards first base will still remain a viable option. Man, that was a great moment.
Apr. 10, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jared Hughes against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Stolmy Pimental is a 23 year old prospect out of the Dominican that will really push the others in Spring Training. He was acquired in the trade with Boston that brought himself, Melancon, Ivan DeJesus, and Jerry Sands to the Buccos for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt. (what a trade that was). He’s posted solid numbers in a comeback year in AAA Indy and he put up an impressive 1.93 ERA in very limited action for the Pirates late last year. Stormy has not only a sweet name, but a real chance to break into the majors this season. But really… side note..look at that trade people. Neal made out like a thief in the night.
Duke Welker is another guy to keep your eye on. The 6”7 reliever who the Pirates are high on has serious power. He throws a high 90s fastball and two seamer and if he can develop an out pitch, he could one day be a solid set up man or even closer at the Major League level. The Buccos got him back in the offseason by dealing Kris Johnson, the promising minor league starting pitcher who I still think never got a real shot in the bigs.
Farther down the food chain there is newly acquired Dan Schlereth and a host of other shark wannabe’s that are holding out hope that they can end up being the 2014’s version of Vin Mazzaro. Bottom line, the water is deep off the coast of Pittsburgh and full of predators. And let’s hope the Allegheny river remains dangerous for 2014 because believe me…they’ll need every tooth.