The Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen Needs Help, But Is It Available?


Through the first 32 games of their 2016 campaign, the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has been the team’s biggest weakness. But is there any help on the horizon?

The Pittsburgh Pirates are now 32 games into the 2016 Major League Baseball season and they are battling an issue that they have not had in quite a few years, a bad bullpen. The past three seasons the Pirate bullpen has been arguably the best in all of baseball and that is a big reason why they have made the postseason in three consecutive seasons.

However, so far in 2016 the bullpen has really struggled. From 2013-2015 the Pittsburgh Pirates ranked second in the Majors in bullpen ERA (2.94), fifth in FIP (3.48), sixth in xFIP (3.62), and eighth in WAR (10.8). This season however they have fallen to 24th in ERA (4.33), 26th in FIP (4.77), 29th in xFIP (4.69), and 28th in WAR (-0.8).

Before we look at some possible bullpen help for the Bucs, we will examine the current state of the bullpen. Buckle up though because, as I am sure you would imagine, it is not pretty.

Closer Mark Melancon (3.07 FIP), setup man Neftali Feliz (3.18 FIP), and middle reliever A.J. Schugel (3.56 FIP) have all been reliable for the Pirates this season. But the rest of the Pirate bullpen has been a real mess. 

Long man Ryan Vogelsong and middle relievers Kyle Lobstein and Arquimedes Caminero have all been flat out bad, and none of them really have any business being on a Major League roster. Albeit he has only pitched 3 2/3 innings since coming off the disabled list, Jared Hughes has struggled this season too.

Despite a 3.24 ERA, Vogelsong has not been a good pitcher this season. His 5.71 FIP, 5.05 xFIP, and .250 BABIP all indicate he is due for some serious regression. Also, his 4.86 BB/9 and 1.62 HR/9 are both the worst of his career.

After a strong rookie campaign in 2015, Arquimedes Caminero has been a disaster in 2016. In 13 2/3 innings pitched he has a 5.27 ERA, 5.70 FIP, 5.40 xFIP, -0.3 WAR, and his walk rate has spiked to a disgusting 7.24 BB/9.

As for Lobstein, he has a 4.79 ERA, 4.57 FIP, 4.52 xFIP, 3.92 BB/9, and 6.10 K/9 in 20 2/3 innings pitched. Lobstein has given the Pirates some solid work in long relief, especially in extra innings where he has a 0.00 ERA in six innings pitched, but overall Lobstein has not been good.

Another major issue in the Pirate bullpen is that setup man Tony Watson has not been his normal dominant self. Watson has a solid 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings pitched this season, but his 5.43 FIP, 4.63 xFIP, and .195 BABIP indicate that his 2.87 ERA is not sustainable.

Apr 24, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Tony Watson against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 24, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Tony Watson against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

On Sunday Watson retired the Cardinals in order in the 8th inning, this was Watson’s first 1-2-3 inning since Opening Day. Also, Watson’s 4.02 BB/9 is nearly double the 2.17 BB/9 he averaged from 2012-2015. There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Watson so far this season, with his control issues being the biggest.

So now the question becomes, where can the Pittsburgh Pirates get bullpen help at? Well, unfortunately, there is not a clear cut answer to that question. When looking at AAA Indianapolis the options for bullpen help are essentially three players in Trey Haley, Cory Luebke, and Rob Scahill.

Ever since beginning a ‘rehab’ stint with AAA last month Luebke has been been solid for Indianapolis. In 11 innings pitched he is averaging 12.27 K/9, only 1.64 BB/9, and he has a strong 2.45 ERA. Prior to going on the disabled list Luebke had a 8.10 ERA, 10.27 FIP, and was averaging 13.5 BB/9 for the Pirates in 3 2/3 innings pitched. However, Luebke missed most of Spring Training due to a hamstring issue so this rehab stint has essentially been his Spring Training.

Luebke showed in Spring Training that he has very good stuff still. His fastball averaged 93.1 miles per hour, and that was accompanied by a slider that averaged 83.4 miles per hour with great bite. If healthy, I believe Cory Luebke could help the Pirates bullpen and I’d like to see him replace Lobstein or Caminero in the bullpen.

Trey Haley is an intriguing arm at AAA due to the fact his fastball regularly sits at 95+ miles per hour. However, control has always been a major issue for Haley and it has continued at AAA this season. In 12 1/3 innings pitched for Indianapolis Haley is averaging 6.57 BB/9 and only 5.57 K/9, these two things are a big reason why his ERA is 10.95 and FIP is 5.25. So, Haley is not much of an option right now.

That brings us to right-hander Rob Scahill. Scahill spent some time on the Pirates roster earlier in the season and pitched six innings out of the bullpen. In those six innings pitched Scahill allowed six hits, he walked three batters, he struck out five batters, and his FIP was a solid 3.40.

For AAA Indianapolis this season Scahill has allowed four hits, zero walks, and has struck out three batters in four innings pitched. Scahill has allowed one run in those four innings, and has a 2.47 FIP.

The most encouraging thing about Scahill, in my opinion at least, is that he showed increased velocity during his time in the Majors this season. For the first time in his career his average fastball velocity was over 94 miles per hour, and his slider checked in at a career best 88.8 miles per hour. Scahill was also a ground ball machine generating a 58.8 percent ground ball rate.

I know I am in the minority here, but I do like Rob Scahill and I believe he could be a welcomed addition to the Pirate bullpen. I feel the same way about Cory Luebke, assuming he is healthy, now that he has had time in the Minors to work on things. Other than that, unfortunately, there are not a lot of options to try and improve the Pittsburgh Pirates struggling bullpen.

Once Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow arrive in the Majors the Pirate bullpen will get a shot in the arm from the addition of Juan Nicasio, but they need help before that. The Pirates would really benefit from Tony Watson returning to his dominant form, as well as Jared Hughes getting straightened out. However, I would also like to see the Pirates recall Cory Luebke and Rob Scahill from AAA while optioning Kyle Lobstein to the Minors and designating Arquimedes Caminero for assignment.