Around the Horn: Bullpen

Coming off career years, Melancon, Watson headline Pirates 'pen

Around the Horn: Bullpen

With Spring Training starting next week, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' 2016 roster. This is the final installment of a six-part series checking in on each position. We've covered their catchers, first basemen, infielders, outfielders and rotation. Last, but not least: the bullpen.

PITTSBURGH -- All offseason, general manager Neal Huntington held his ground: The Pirates don't have to trade closer Mark Melancon, he'd say, no matter what people think about his salary or the value of a one-inning reliever.

Sure enough, as pitchers and catchers pack for Florida, Melancon is still a Pirate. Last year's Major League saves leader will headline a deep, versatile Bucs bullpen -- a group made more imposing by his return.

• Around the Horn: Catcher | First base | Infield | Outfield | Rotation

Melancon will earn $9.65 million in his final season before free agency, about a tenth of the Pirates' projected payroll. It's a steep price for a small-market team, particularly for a soon-to-be 31-year-old pitcher who won't eclipse 80 innings. But Melancon has proven his value over the last three years as an uncommonly stable presence in a role often known for its volatility.

Melancon was named an All-Star and finished eighth in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2015. He saved 51 games, posting a 2.23 ERA over a career-high 78 appearances. His strikeout rate declined, but he continued to induce weak contact.

Outlook: Melancon, RP, PIT

Traditional statistics don't even do Melancon justice. Based on Win Probability Added, Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta were the only pitchers to improve their club's odds of winning more than Melancon (5.19 WPA) last year, according to FanGraphs.

Not far behind Melancon was setup man Tony Watson, whose 4.13 WPA was the Majors' eighth-highest mark. Watson's presence allowed the Pirates to consider parting with Melancon if the right deal came along. Instead, they kept both.

Like Melancon, Watson has performed with metronomic consistency. He recorded a 1.91 ERA in 77 appearances in 2015, his third straight year with a sub-2.50 ERA and 70-plus innings.

Watson's quick pick

Led by Melancon and Watson, the Pirates' bullpen posted a Major League-best 2.67 ERA last season. The Pirates essentially replaced Trade Deadline rentals Joe Blanton and Joakim Soria with hard-throwing right-handers Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz. They will join groundball-machine Jared Hughes and flame-throwing Arquimedes Caminero in front of Watson and Melancon.

Coming off a rough year, Feliz is not far removed from being a lights-out closer for the Rangers. Nicasio will be stretched out in Spring Training, so he could serve as a long reliever, a one-inning option or a mix of both.

Feliz notches the save

The lack of clearly defined roles following Melancon and Watson is by design, Huntington has said. The Pirates want to give manager Clint Hurdle a number of options, a group of versatile arms rather than a set of specialists.

The last spot in the bullpen appears to be up for grabs.

If the Pirates want another left-hander to replace Antonio Bastardo, their only option on the 40-man roster is Kyle Lobstein, who could work multiple innings in relief or provide rotation depth. Recently signed non-roster invitees Cory Luebke and Eric O'Flaherty are more likely candidates for the spot if they return to form this spring. Other lefties in the mix include Jim Fuller, Kelvin Marte and Robert Zarate.

Several right-handers figure to compete for that job, including Rob Scahill, John Holdzkom, Trey Haley, Guido Knudson, Jorge Rondon and A.J. Schugel.

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.