Going into 2014, there was ample doubt that the cold-blooded hurlers in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ shark tank could duplicate the success they had in 2013. In fact, the only commentary offered by Pittsburgh’s ever-so-prestigious radio personalities about the bullpen last year was exclusively related to just how far the sharks’ performance would fall.
Fortunately for Pirates fans, it was baseless accusations that were made without any merit whatsoever. Nonetheless, the overwhelming consensus poisoning the airwaves in the spring was that the bullpen was doomed for failure. To their credit, they had it right for about a month, which is more than usual.
The sharks were basically toothless in April last year, combining to blow half a dozen saves in the month. Three of those were hand delivered by the pitcher/author Jason Grilli. His performance, or lack thereof, largely contributed to the poor start for the bullpen and to some degree, for the Pittsburgh Pirates in general.
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However, just like the Pirates themselves, the sharks eventually righted the ship and began patrolling the rivers of the Allegheny with bad intent just like they did the year before. The 2014 Pirates bullpen ended up finishing first in the National League in wins, fifth in ERA (3.28) and third in saves (48). Granted, the group was not as dominant as they were a year ago, but were still arguably a top three bullpen in the entire league.
Moving into 2015, the tank has gotten deeper and the sharks have gotten more dangerous. In fact, the shark tank is downright crowded at this point with capable predators. The main problem as I see it is who stays in and who gets set free?
Let’s take a look at the candidates as we near the break of Spring Training.
You will still have the Great Whites in place, which consist of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. This one-two punch has been giving opposing batters next to nothing in the eighth and ninth innings and should be in the conversation for the most dominant set up-closer duo in the league this preseason. These sharks are keepers.
Holdzkom seemingly came out of nowhere last year and pitched extremely well late in the season. He started the year in Double-A Altoona but after not yielding a run in six appearances, he was quickly promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis, where he looked increasingly sharp in the 21 innings he pitched.
The call up to the bigs didn’t intimidate Holdzkom either as he struck out 14 batters in only nine innings of work and he gave up a piddly two earned runs on just four hits. His role heading into 2015 was discussed recently at-length by one of our writers – and it’s worth checking out.
But for me, his limited action still makes him a question mark in my mind, but that œthird shark in charge role vacated by Justin Wilson is his to lose at this point.
Crowd favorite Jared Hughes is coming off a major bounceback year in the pen. He was relegated to the minors after his shaky 2013 (4.78 ERA) but Hughes stormed back into the scene posting the third-best ERA (1.96) in the third-most appearances (63) for the shark tank in 2014.
He will likely be in the bullpen starting the season and Pirates fans have to love the additional intimidation factor both he and Holdzkom bring to the table. Both stand at 6’7″ and neither are in a particularly good mood when they take the mound. That is Pittsburgh sports at its finest.
Bastardo has spent the last five Major League seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies to mixed results. In his best year, 2013, he posted a solid 2.32 ERA but he seems to have “Liriano Syndrome” that has him up one year and down the next in terms of performance. He will still be a valuable left-handed arm out of the tank and being that the Pirates gave him $3-plus million to come onboard, expect him to see plenty of action.
After those five sharks, the waters gets somewhat murky. The Pirates will most likely start Opening Day with 12 pitchers. If you include Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton (pending how fast he recovers from hip surgery), that leaves only three slots left.
Both Jeff Locke and Vance Worley are out of options and neither would come close to clearing waivers so they need to be on the 25-man roster. That leaves one fish out of water. When you look at who is left, you just have to feel good about the depth Huntington has created for us.
Newly-acquired reclamation project Arquimedes Caminero fires a fastball that can touch 100, Brandon Cumpton could be a reliable middle reliever ala 2013 Vin Mazzaro. Recent acquisition Rob Scahill posted a respectable 4.42 ERA in three seasons as a reliever in Colorado, Casey Sadler and sidewinder Bobby LaFromboise both gained valuable big league experience last year and Stolmy Pimentel has one more Spring to prove he can throw strikes.
You will still have the Great Whites in place in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. This one-two punch has been giving opposing batters next to nothing in the late innings.
My best guess is after Pimentel’s abysmal performance last season that included an unsightly 5.23 ERA, the Pirates finally cut bait and let another team cross their fingers with him. Caminero takes the final spot in the bullpen and the rest of the want-to-be sharks once again wait their turn in the aquarium down in Triple-A.
Regardless of how the last spots are handed out and regardless of what the rest of the National League thinks about the Allegheny River at this point I am absolutely sure about one thing.
I wouldn’t stick my toes in the water if I were them.