After seeing one of their biggest strengths turn into a weakness in 2016, the Pittsburgh Pirates look to build a better bullpen.

After leading the National League with an ERA of 2.67 in 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen took a step back last season as they ended the season with a 3.57 ERA. The bullpen this season will be made up of some familiar faces and some new players, and these are a few points to keep an eye on as the Pirates try to build a better bullpen in 2017.

Watson and the closer role

Tony Watson is the incumbent in the saves department, the first time he’ll enter a season with that distinction. He notched 15 saves in 20 opportunities last year with the majority of those coming after Mark Melancon was traded to Washington.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Watson, especially down the stretch. He gave up four home runs in 10.2 innings during the month of September compared to just two in 12.2 innings in August. However it is worth noting that three of those home runs came in a disastrous outing on September 6th when he lasted just two thirds of an inning against the St. Louis Cardinals. So there is definitely hope that Watson can be the dominant closer that he showed flashes of in his career. He’ll have a long leash this spring and into the season, and it’s important to remember that spring stats should not be weighed too heavily. Perhaps having the closer role all season rather than inheriting it half way through will have a positive impact on Watson in 2017.

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Too many lefties!

The Pirates currently have four left handed relievers on their 40 man roster. This is about one or two too many for a normal bullpen. Besides Watson, they have Antonio Bastardo, Felipe Rivero and Wade LeBlanc all taking up roster space heading into spring training, and this isn’t including Steven Brault who could be a bullpen option if he doesn’t make the rotation. There is also Tyler Webb, who the Pirates claimed in the Rule 5 draft this winter. He has to stay on the MLB roster or be offered back to the New York Yankees. It’s just very hard to fathom that the team will bring more than two or three (at the most) lefties north when camp breaks.

Rivero is by far the most exciting southpaw in the bullpen entering 2017. He throws incredibly hard and last year he averaged 12.8 K/9 after joining Pittsburgh. He won’t hit free agency until 2022 at the earliest, and he very well could take over closer duties for the team. Having Rivero in the bullpen for a full season will definitely make it better than it was last year.

Average bullpen

Righty options

On the other hand (see what I did there), there are plenty of right handed pitchers vying for bullpen slots. Juan Nicasio probably has the edge on the long relief role, but it’s conceivable that whoever loses the competition for the last rotation spot could be used instead. However I think that Nicasio has a strong shot at retaining the role since he performed better as a reliever than as a starter. For instance opponents had a .827 OPS when he started versus a mark of .715 when he came in to games in a relief role. Drew Hutchison will most likely make the team in some capacity given that he is out of options and was the return in the Francisco Liriano trade last summer.

A.J. Schugel and Jared Hughes should assume the roles of middle relief this summer, as both pitched effectively last season. Two other righties that are definitely worth keeping an eye on are Tyler Glasnow and Trevor Williams. More likely than not, those two will find themselves in Indianapolis as rotation options in the event someone gets hurts. Both pitchers were ineffective at the big league level and could use the time in Triple-A to work out some issues before making appearances at some point this summer.

So the Pirates have a nice mix of righties to complement the competition between the lefties for the bullpen spots. They have a number of guys who can work in some capacity in the bullpen if they do not make the rotation, while also bringing back players who produced for them last year.

Hudson and his story

One of the most interesting players that will be in camp this year is Daniel Hudson, who signed a two year, $11 million contract this offseason. Hudson was a very promising starter for the Arizona Diamondbacks before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012 and again in 2013 when his UCL tore again. Hudson’s story is well documented and he rehab and return from the injury is featured heavily in Jeff Passan’s book “The Arm”. He is certainly a guy that fans can root for, as he has worked incredibly hard to get back on the mound.

Hudson only started one game in the last two years, so those days are most likely behind him. He did close a handful of games for the Diamondbacks over the past two years, so if Watson falters or the team decides to move him during the season, Hudson could be in line for some save opportunities. If the Pirates would go an unorthodox route and play the matchups in the ninth, that could also lead to some chances for Hudson.

If fans have concerns about Hudson, it’s easy to see why. On the face of it, his statistics from last season were a far cry from what he compiled when he was younger. His K/9 went down last year and his WHIP went up while his ERA ended at an unsightly 5.22. But what gives me hope is that his FIP last year was 3.81. FIP gives us a better idea of how a pitcher performed with things like the defense behind him and luck being removed. Even in 2015, Hudson’s FIP (3.49) was better than his ERA (3.86). So perhaps the tutelage of Ray Searage and the Pittsburgh defense can help Hudson put up numbers that better reflect his true ability.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a very good chance of building a better bullpen and Hudson especially could be a huge bonus if he returns to anything close to form. But the team is going to have to make some tough decisions especially when it comes to the southpaws they want to bring north, and fans will have a better idea of how the bullpen will take shape as spring training unfolds. At the end of spring training though, I feel fairly confident that this team will have a bullpen that is closer to the league leading collection from 2015 instead of what was assembled in 2016.

Ethan Obstarczyk

Ethan is a lifelong Pirates fan who resides in the east end of Pittsburgh. When not talking about, writing about or watching baseball, he also enjoys watching football and hockey along with movies and listening to some of his favorite bands. He can also be found on Instagram (ethanobstarczyk) and Untappd (Ethan_O).