The Indians’ lights-out bullpen took Cleveland all the way to the World Series last season. The Royals made back-to-back World Series appearances with lockdown bullpens. Do the Pittsburgh Pirates need a brilliant bullpen to get to the World Series?

Opening Day did not provide the result that the Pittsburgh Pirates wanted, as the Boston Red Sox topped the Pirates 5-3.

While the biggest story from the game was Gerrit Cole’s rough fifth inning, the Pirates did get some positives.

After Cole exited, three relievers combined to shut out the Red Sox for the final three innings. Juan Nicasio, Felipe Rivero and Daniel Hudson all pitched scoreless frames against a Red Sox offense that led MLB in batting average (.282), weighted runs created (893) and on-base percentage (.348) in 2016.

The start of a new trend

After a postseason where Andrew Miller turned the world upside down by pitching 15 scoreless innings before allowing a run as a setup man, the importance of bullpen depth has become a trend in MLB. With Miller and closer Cody Allen, the Cleveland Indians surged to the World Series after sweeping the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.

It wasn’t just the Indians who used a dominant bullpen to make it to the World Series. In 2014 and 2015, the Kansas City Royals made a habit of ending games after six innings.

In 2014, similar to the 2016 Indians, the Royals did not lose a game on the way to the World Series. During that eight-game stretch, the trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland combined to only allow five earned runs across 40.1 innings.

The next year, Kansas City finished the regular season second in MLB in bullpen ERA (2.72), continuing the success from the previous season. In the postseason without Holland, Davis and Herrera only allowed one run over 24.1 innings and delivered a championship.

Seemingly, the route to the World Series lies in strong bullpen pitching.

Not so for the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh led MLB in bullpen ERA (2.67) thanks to strong performances by Mark Melancon (2.23 ERA), Joakim Soria (2.03 ERA) and Tony Watson (1.91 ERA), yet lost to the Chicago Cubs in the Wild Card Game.

This brings us to the counter-argument.

Not so fast, relievers

As good as the Royals and Indians bullpens were, a strong relief corps does not guarantee success. The 2016 Cubs are proof that that strong rotation is just as, if not more, important.

With Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks leading the way, the Cubs led MLB in starting pitcher ERA (2.96) last season. It wasn’t just that the Cubs’ starters pitched well, they went deep into games too; Chicago finished second in MLB in innings pitched by starting pitchers (989).

The Cubs had a stellar bullpen as well (3.56 ERA) but it was not as needed with the effectiveness and durability of its starters. The 2015 Royals finished 24th in MLB with 912.2 innings pitched by starting pitchers. Kansas city needed it bullpen.

This leads us back to the Pittsburgh Pirates: they need their bullpen.

Consider this: four Pirates starters; Gerrit Cole Chad Kuhl, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow; are 26 or younger and only one of them (Taillon) has undergone Tommy John surgery. Prior to the start of the 2015 season, Grantland reported 25-percent of active MLB pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery. MLB reported similar figures, saying that 25-percent of MLB pitcher and 15-percent of minor league pitchers underwent the season-ending surgery between 2012-13.

The reason I bring up Tommy John surgery is because the Pirates last four pitchers to have Tommy John surgery (Angel Sanchez, Casey Sadler, Brandon Cumpton and Nick Kingham) were all 26 or younger.

For Kuhl and Glasnow, 2017 could be an adjustment period with their first full year in the big leagues. Minors included, Kuhl has never pitched more than 155 innings in his professional career. Glasnow has never reached 130 innings. By comparison, Ivan Nova (a former Tommy John surgery survivor) has pitched at least 150 innings in three of the five MLB seasons that he made at least 15 starts.

Weaker rotation

Surgery aside, this rotation is unproven. Taillon, Kuhl and Glasnow all made their major league debuts last season. The frightening “sophomore slump,” is never off the table of possibilities.

Nova produced his best numbers once joining the Pirates, but was far better at PNC Park (2.45 ERA over 40.1 innings in six starts) than on the road (4.07 ERA over 24.1 innings in five starts).

Cole started Opening Day strong but blew up in the fifth. Last season, the fifth was also problematic for Cole as he posted a 5.40 ERA, his second-worst inning only to the seventh (11.57).

If anyone in the rotation goes down, there’s no guarantee that one of the fill-ins will prove much better. Steven Brault pitched six innings or more in only one of seven starts last season. Drew Hutchison gave up at least one run in three of four appearances where he pitched at least two innings. Trevor Williams got one start last year and only went four innings.

Need for 2015-like bullpen

The rotation was not this bad in 2015, but Soria, Melancon and Watson combined for 5.1 wins above replacement. Compare that to Cole’s 4.5 WAR as an everyday pitcher and the fourth-place finalist for the N.L. Cy Young Award.

The seventh, eighth and ninth inning roles will not be as certain for the 2017 Pirates as they were for the 2015 Pirates once Soria was acquired. This year, Watson is the obvious closer, since he was already anointed it last year when Melancon was traded. Watson did blow

Manager Clint Hurdle also declared Hudson the setup man. Hudson’s 5.22 ERA in 2016 looks bad, but he has a career 3.76 ERA in 101 appearances in the eighth inning. He’s set to start there, but if Hudson performs similar to last season, he won’t be pitching the eighth for long.

The general consensus is that Nicasio and Rivero will split the seventh depending on the matchups. This belief works well because Nicasio is a right-hander and Rivero is a left-hander.

For two straight seasons, it’s been obvious that the Pirates depth is inferior to the Cubs. That’s apparent in the starting rotation, but there is potential for the bullpen. Pittsburgh brings back the bulk of its 2016 bullpen that finished 11th in relief pitcher ERA with a 3.57 mark. Now, the key is getting similar performances in 2017 from Nicasio and Rivero and getting bounceback years from Hudson and Watson.

Bullpen success doesn’t guarantee a World Series appearance, but it will be needed to have a prayer at a playoff berth in 2017.

Image Credit – Flickr Creative Commons

Joel Norman

Joel Norman is a journalism major at West Virginia University. In addition to writing for Pirates Breakdown, Joel covers WVU sports for the Daily Athenaeum and writes game recaps and features for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Joel also does play-by-play broadcasts of WVU hockey and baseball for WWVU-FM in Morgantown.