Versatile middle relievers should improve 'pen

Huntington: Multiple-inning guys will help 'protect' young rotation

Versatile middle relievers should improve 'pen

PITTSBURGH -- Last year, the Pirates sought to build a bullpen that would "protect" their rotation, gathering a handful of long relievers behind the back-end trio of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz. The plan was solid in theory but flawed in execution.

"It just didn't work very well," general manager Neal Huntington said recently.

Pittsburgh's rotation faltered from the start and exposed what turned out to be a weak middle-relief corps. The Pirates' bullpen posted a 4.36 ERA and totaled minus-0.7 Wins Above Replacement in April, both second-worst in the Majors' according to FanGraphs.

This year, the Pirates are putting together a similar plan and expecting better results. Pittsburgh will enter the season with questions in the back of the bullpen: Can Watson bounce back as the closer? Will Felipe Rivero take a step forward? How will Daniel Hudson fit in? The difference this year is the more capable, versatile group the Bucs will have in front of the late-inning guys.

Hudson's possible role with Bucs

"I would anticipate putting multiple multiple-inning guys in our bullpen again this year to protect our young starters or whatever we're able to do to put this rotation together," Huntington said.

It would help if the rotation holds up its end of the bargain and pitches deep into games, one of the factors that led to a reunion with Ivan Nova. The Pirates got 130 2/3 innings out of their rotation last April, so their relievers had to pick up 88 2/3 innings, third-most in the Majors.

2016 Opening Day bullpen: Melancon, Watson, Feliz, Arquimedes Caminero, Ryan Vogelsong, Cory Luebke, Kyle Lobstein (Jared Hughes on disabled list)

Projected 2017 bullpen: Watson, Hudson, Rivero, Juan Nicasio, Antonio Bastardo, Hughes, Wade LeBlanc/Tyler Webb/A.J. Schugel

Nicasio is crucial to the front-end of this year's bullpen, where he arguably should have opened last season. After permanently leaving the rotation in late June, Nicasio posted a 2.96 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings, pitching everywhere from the third inning to extras.

Nicasio's immaculate inning

Seventeen of Nicasio's last 39 outings were more than one inning. With Hudson signed to be the right-handed setup man, manager Clint Hurdle can remain flexible with Nicasio's usage.

"He showed the ability to do for us what some of those guys were doing in the postseason, to come in and stop a big leverage situation in the sixth inning, pitch the seventh, pitch the eighth, pitch multiple innings, some setup innings late in the game," Hurdle said. "The numbers out of the bullpen catch your eye, get your attention."

Hurdle on Nicasio's role

Bastardo has been valuable in a middle-relief role. He struggled with the Mets to start last season, but he's posted a 3.32 ERA for the Pirates in 94 appearances since 2015. Hughes, the ground-ball specialist looking to return to his 2014-15 form, may be asked more often to pitch multiple innings.

While the Pirates occasionally scrambled to fill holes in the bullpen last year, they appear to have more depth heading into next season.

LeBlanc, who will be stretched out this spring, pitched well for the Pirates in September. Webb, a Rule 5 Draft pick, thrived as a multi-inning swingman in the Yankees' system last year. Schugel dealt with injuries at the end of the season but quietly posted a 3.63 ERA -- 16 percent better than league average when adjusted to account for ballparks -- in a long-relief role.

They added more relief depth this offseason in right-handers Lisalverto Bonilla and Nefi Ogando. Triple-A right-handers Dovydas Neverauskas and Edgar Santana won't crack the Opening Day bullpen, but they could contribute later this year.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.