2016 Pittsburgh Pirate Position Preview: The Bullpen


Yesterday we began to preview the Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 positional groups here at Rum Bunter by breaking down the Bucs first base situation. Today, we take a look at a group that has been as strong as any in the Major Leagues the past few seasons – the Pirate bullpen.

One of the biggest reasons for the success of the Pirates in recent years has been a solid bullpen. Since the start of the 2013 season the Pirate bullpen ranks second in the Majors in ERA (2.94), fifth in FIP (3.48), sixth in xFIP (3.62), and eighth in WAR (10.7). This season, the Pirates should once again have one the best bullpens in the Majors.

The Bucco pen is anchored by one of the best closers in baseball, two-time All-Star Mark Melancon. There was a lot of speculation that the Pirates might trade Melancon this past offseason, but Neal Huntington made what was in my opinion the smart move and did not trade Melancon.

In his three years as a Pirate Melancon has been one of the best, most dominant relievers in all of baseball. In 218 2/3 innings pitched for the Pirates Melancon has a 1.85 ERA, 2.20 FIP, 2.54 xFIP, a 58.4% groundball rate, a 0.92 WHIP, a .207 batting average against, and he has converted 100 out of 111 save opportunities. Simply put, Melancon has been dominant as a Pirate. Furthermore, Melancon was an All-Star in 2013 and again in 2015 when he led the Majors in saves with 51.

For a second consecutive season Melancon’s setup man will be left hander Tony Watson. Dating back to 2013, Watson has been as good as any left-handed reliever in the game not named Chapman. During the past three seasons Watson has been just as dominant as Melancon having pitched 224 innings posting a 1.97 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 3.38 xFIP, a 0.95 WHIP, and a .208 batting average against. You can make a very strong argument that Watson and Melancon are the best back end duo in the National League, if not all of Major League Baseball.

Jun 14, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Tony Watson (44) looks on from the field prior to the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 14, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Tony Watson (44) looks on from the field prior to the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

What really makes the Pirate bullpen so strong though is slew of relievers they have that pitch in middle relief and are extremely reliable. Most teams have a good closer and usually a good setup man as well. However, many teams have poor middle relief and that hurts the entire bullpen but the Pirates are not one of these teams.

For a lot of teams in the Majors pitchers such as Neftali Feliz, Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, and Eric O’Flaherty would be back end of the bullpen pitchers. For the Pirates though, these are the pitchers that make up the core of their middle relief. That is one heck of a group of middle relievers that the Bucs are able to trot out there.

Neftali Feliz may end up being penciled in as the seventh inning man in the Pirate pen, but he would close for many teams. Feliz struggled between the Rangers and Tigers last season posting an ERA of 6.38, but his 4.04 FIP and .349 BABIP both indicate his ERA was very inflated and that he was victimized by bad luck and poor defense.

From 2011-2014 Feliz was a dominating back end of the bullpen arm for the Texas Rangers. During that time frame he posted a 2.61 ERA, 0.89 HR/9, and 8.39 K/9 in 141 1/3 innings pitched. This spring Feliz’s arm has been as electric as ever, and he has allowed just 1 run, with 0 walks, in 6 innings pitched. It is nice to see Feliz have zero walks this spring as control has always been an issue for him, but Ray Searage has proven to be an expert at fixing pitcher’s control problems.

Speaking of Ray Searage fixing pitchers with control issues, there is the fantastic job he did last season with Arquimedes Caminero. There are few pitchers in the game that possess an arm like Caminero’s, which was evident by his fastball averaging 97.8mph last season and him finishing second to Aroldis Chapman for most pitches thrown at 100mph+.  But before coming to Pittsburgh Caminero could not throw a strike to save his life as he averaged over 5 BB/9 for the Marlins in 2014.

Last season was Caminero’s first full season in the Majors and in 74 2/3 innings pitched he finished with a 3.62 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, 8.80 K/9, and 3.50 BB/9. And just like that, he became Ray Searage’s latest success story. Even though Caminero has struggled this spring, I still expect him to play a large role in the Pirate bullpen once again in 2016.

Jared Hughes has been the Pirate ‘fire man’ the past few seasons. Any time the Pirates have needed a groundball to get out of a tough spot, Hughes has been Clint Hurdle’s go to man. Since debuting in 2011 Hughes has 250 career innings pitched. In those 250 innings Hughes has a 2.77 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 3.39 xFIP, a very good 0.61 HR/9 and 2.88 BB/9, and an outstanding 61.7% groundball rate. This season Hughes will once again be Clint Hurdle’s go to man to get the Pirates out of a mess with a groundball.

One of the few things in the Pirate bullpen that is not decided yet is the second left handed reliever to go along with setup man Tony Watson. This is a two horse race between Eric O’Flaherty and Kyle Lobstein. Both O’Flaherty and Lobstein have been excellent thus far this spring, but O’Flaherty has been the better pitcher in the Majors throughout their careers.

Eric O’Flaherty
Eric O’Flaherty /

O’Flaherty battled injuries and struggled mightily between the A’s and Mets last year, but from 2009-2014 he was one of the best left handed relief pitchers in baseball. In 214 innings pitched during that time period O’Flaherty had a 1.72 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 3.32 xFIP, 2.82 BB/9, 7.40 K/9, 0.50 HR/9, and a strong 58.8% groundball rate.

This spring O’Flaherty has said he feels the healthiest he has in two years and it is showing in the results. In 8 innings pitched O’Flaherty has allowed 2 runs, he’s walked 2 batters, and has struck out 7. For as good as O’Flaherty has been this spring, Lobstein has been even better. Lobstein has pitched 7 scoreless innings, with a 1.00 WHIP and 6 strikeouts.

Lobstein has an advantage over O’Flaherty in that he is currently on the 40-man roster and O’Flaherty is not. O’Flaherty’s advantage is that he has a long track record of Major League success while Lobstein’s career ERA is over 5. While it is possible the Pirates take both players north at the end of camp, I believe they will only take one and I believe that pitcher will be Eric O’Flaherty.

The man who has stolen the spotlight this spring, Juan Nicasio, may also end up in the Pirate bullpen as the long reliever/swing man. However, he has a chance to make the rotation and appears to be pitching his way into making the rotation. If that happens, it will leave either Ryan Volgelsong or Jeff Locke as the long reliever/swing man.

Another big bonus for the Pirate bullpen will be some of the hard throwing options at AAA. Pitchers such as Daniel Bard, Rob Scahill, and Trey Haley are all hard throwers in the Indianapolis bullpen at the start of the season. Also, Bard and Scahill have both had Major League success in the past.

Since the start of the 2013 season the Pirate bullpen has been as good as any in the Major Leagues. That has played a major role in the Bucs making three consecutive postseason appearances, and their bullpen should be lights out once again in 2016.

2016 Pittsburgh Pirates Position Group Previews