Around the Horn: Late-inning trio key to Bucs' bullpen

Watson, Hudson and Rivero must prove ready for prime time for relief corps to succeed

Around the Horn: Late-inning trio key to Bucs' bullpen

With Spring Training less than two weeks away, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' 2017 roster. This is the final installment of an eight-part series checking in on Pittsburgh's current and future options at each position. Last but not least: the bullpen.

Around the Horn: Catcher | First base | Second base | Shortstop | Third base | Outfield | Rotation

Big question: Is the back end ready?

The Pirates made one major change to their bullpen this offseason: Out went free agent Neftali Feliz, and in came Daniel Hudson as the new right-handed setup man. The Bucs are bringing back most of last year's group, with only a few spots to settle this spring.

For the group to succeed, its late-inning trio must prove ready for prime time. Can closer Tony Watson rebound from a shaky debut in the ninth? How will Hudson fit in? Can lefty setup man Felipe Rivero take a step forward after his first Spring Training with the Pirates' staff?

The late innings: Watson, Hudson, Rivero

Watson struggled to keep the ball in the park last year, allowing 10 homers after surrendering eight over the previous two seasons combined. Three of those home runs were clustered in a Sept. 6 meltdown that skewed his numbers and came to represent the narrative that Watson couldn't handle the ninth inning.

Watson took over as the closer when Mark Melancon was dealt at last year's non-waiver Trade Deadline, and he logged 15 saves while blowing three. The Bucs believe the 31-year-old lefty, one of the Majors' best setup men from 2013-15, is up to the task. Watson has been durable in a volatile profession, having averaged 72 appearances with a 2.40 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over the past five seasons.

Watson gets the save

Hudson, signed to a two-year, $11 million deal, was better than his 5.22 ERA last season might indicate. His first 30 appearances were brilliant, as were his last 25. But his 24.21 ERA in the 15 outings sandwiched between those spans marred his overall numbers. Hudson throws hard and misses bats, making him a fitting replacement for Feliz.

Rivero, half of Pittsburgh's return for Melancon, whiffed 39 in 27 1/3 innings for the Pirates last season. The flame-throwing 25-year-old must improve his control -- he walked 18 batters in 28 appearances with the Bucs -- but he clearly possesses strikeout stuff and closer potential. A full spring with pitching coach Ray Searage and Co. should help.

The middle relief: Juan Nicasio, Antonio Bastardo, Jared Hughes

The Pirates have reportedly looked to deal Bastardo this offseason, but for now, he's set to join Nicasio in the bullpen. Given their lefty logjam, Bastardo is the most reasonable trade candidate. But if he stays, he'll help bolster a middle relief corps that struggled early last season.

With a Minor League option remaining, Hughes must prove he's healthy and returning to 2014-15 (or second-half-of-2016) form as a ground-ball machine. If he shows that in Spring Training, erasing any doubts about last year's shaky first half, he'll lock down a spot.

The competition: Wade LeBlanc, Tyler Webb, A.J. Schugel, Nefi Ogando, Lisalverto Bonilla, non-roster invitees

LeBlanc pitched well enough in September to earn a non-guaranteed deal with an option for 2018. He'll be stretched out this spring, so he could pitch in short relief or in multiple-inning stints, seemingly a prerequisite to win the final spot. That makes the versatile Webb, a Rule 5 Draft pick, another intriguing lefty option to watch.

Schugel, Ogando and Bonilla have options remaining, but they could earn a job in camp. Schugel's time with Pittsburgh last year -- when he notched a 3.63 ERA in 36 appearances -- might give him a leg up on the competition. Those who don't break with the team will serve as depth at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Schugel Ks Davis

Non-roster invitees Josh Lindblom, Dan Runzler and Jason Stoffel also merit a mention. Stoffel, 28, had a 2.44 ERA and struck out 11.9 batters per nine innings in the Orioles' system last year.

Next up: Dovydas Neverauskas, Edgar Santana

These two righties, potential late-inning arms, could help the Pirates this year. Neverauskas, their No. 22 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, will be the first born-and-raised Lithuanian in the Majors. He was added to Pittsburgh's 40-man roster after posting a 3.10 ERA with 56 strikeouts over 58 innings between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A.

Santana, the Bucs' No. 28 prospect, flew through three levels in the Minors with a 2.71 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings over 43 appearances. The 25-year-old further impressed in the Arizona Fall League, striking out 18 with two walks in 13 2/3 scoreless innings.

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.