How is the Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen taking shape?
By Chris Hodgen
As spring training enters its home stretch, it’s difficult to pinpoint any true weaknesses on the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates club. A bold prediction earlier today by ESPN’s Buster Olney further exemplifies the potential of this year’s club. But what has long been a strong suit of Neal Huntington constructed teams could be one of the team’s few inadequacies in the upcoming season.
Yes, the beloved Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen will have to swim through some choppier waters this season, as the right-handed options behind closer Mark Melancon might not be as fierce as they have been in the past. Sure, Lefty Tony Watson will return as his formidable self and join with new-comer Antonio Bastardo as Clint Hurdle‘s primary southpaw options. However, besides the inconsistent Jared Hughes, the Pirates right-handed options feature many unknowns.
On the surface it would appear that Hughes is the most likely to claim the top right-handed spot behind Melancon. With the implosion of Jason Grilli and the failed mid-season experiments of Ernesto Frieri and John Axford, Hughes was thrust into making 63 appearances last season. Troubled with inconsistency throughout his young career, Hughes ended last season with an ERA of just 1.97, but also allowed a walk or a hit in 39 of his 63 outings. More worrisome is that Hughes showed a dip in strikeouts while also recording a less than stellar FIP of 3.99.
His 6’7 frame goes well with the larger than life story from last season of John Holdzkom. Because of his late season effectiveness it would seem he would be a front-runner for the top right-handed setup option. Not so fast. While certainly intimidating enough to be one of the Sharks, Holdzkom could benefit from some additional seasoning at the AAA level after making just 22 minor league appearances last season after being signed from the Independent leagues and with all three of his options remaining he is a prime candidate to begin the year in Triple-A.
Standing at 6’4 and 250lbs, Caminero has been clocked at 101 mph and was rated to have the best fastball in the Marlins system prior to the 2014 campaign
Enter Radhames Liz and Arquimedes Caminero. If I’m not mistaken, I just heard Pirates Nation let out a collective, “Who?”
The Pirates thought highly enough of both Liz and Caminero to have them on the 40-man roster after signing Liz as a free agent in December and acquiring Caminero in a low-key trade with the Miami Marlins last month. However, while both players have their share of upside, the fact that neither has any remaining minor league options could put the Pirates into a corner when making their final roster decisions.
So far this spring, Caminero has set himself ahead of the competition. In eight innings Caminero has recorded 12 strikeouts and allowed just one walk. Standing at 6’4 and 250lbs, Caminero has been clocked at 101 mph and was rated to have the best fastball in the Marlins system prior to the 2014 campaign.
Plagued with control problems throughout his career, Caminero spent most of 2014 at the AAA level and recorded an eye-popping 79 strikeouts in 63 innings while slightly reducing his walk totals to an average of 4.3 per 9 innings. Caminero relies heavily on his fastball while also mixing in a below average curveball and change-up. If Caminero continues to show improvement in his command, then he could soon become a fixture in the bullpen.
While Liz has been a starter to this point of his career, the Pirates are hoping he can flourish in a relief role. Liz last pitched in the major leagues in 2009 with the Orioles. After a successful three-year stint in the Korean Leagues (KBO), Liz signed a minor league contract with the Blue Jays last season and started 12 games in the minors and finished the year with 44 strikeouts in 61 innings.
Known for having a propensity to rack up strikeouts, Liz is being converted from starter to reliever this season where his upper 90’s fastball can be better utilized. While also possessing a slider and change-up in his arsenal, Liz has a track record of trusting all of his pitches and is capable of keeping hitters guessing which should bode well for him in converting into his new role. While Liz hasn’t dominated the way Caminero has this spring, he still has allowed just two runs in seven innings.
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Where things get interesting in this battle is when factoring in players with options remaining. Charlie Morton is expected to be healthy enough to begin the season in the rotation and Vance Worley seems to have the inside track on the last open spot which would bump Jeff Locke into the bullpen. Melancon, Watson and Bastardo are locks to make the team which leaves three open spots in the bullpen. Both Hughes and Holdzkom have options remaining and can be sent to the minors to start the season.
The Pirates are high enough on Liz that he was signed to a one-year 1 million dollar major league contract which should end Stolmy Pimentel‘s tenure after a rough spring despite his raw potential. Caminero has forced his way onto the roster and neither player has any remaining options and the Pirates would risk allowing their investments to be claimed by other teams.
Hughes is the safe bet to head north with the club and serve as the top right-handed option out of the pen with Holdzkom returning to the minors for some more experience.
If Hughes can finally take a big step forward he could go along way in easing my anxiety about the bullpen. Although Caminero and Liz both
have a high ceiling as relievers with the Pirates, their rocky track records and lack of success at the major league level could lead to some early season indigestion for Pirates enthusiasts. For a team with World Series aspirations, such a thing could be a recipe for disaster. The history of Huntington’s ability to concoct an effective bullpen is the only thing that bodes well for this situation and earns him the benefit of the doubt. I think I’ll keep the Tums close, just to be safe.