First Pitch: Traditional Bullpens Versus Modern Bullpens

The Pirates don’t have a closer for the 2021 season. They don’t have a clear-cut closer for the future, although there are several candidates, including some that we saw in the majors during the 2020 season.

For years, this was an organization that was blessed with some of the best relievers in the game anchoring their bullpen.

Joel Hanrahan.

Jason Grilli.

Mark Melancon.

Tony Watson.

Felipe Vazquez.

In a way, they’ve almost been cursed at times by having this type of talent. The Pirates haven’t made the playoffs since 2015, and yet they’ve had Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Felipe Vazquez as closers during that time.

I think I asked Clint Hurdle the same type of question every year, wondering why the Pirates couldn’t switch to a more modern type of bullpen usage, especially with the closing role. The smartest teams in baseball were starting to use their best relievers in the highest leverage situations, regardless of the inning, right around the time the Pirates were starting to decline.

I started asking this question when Melancon was the closer. The common response was that players get into a routine, and it’s hard to break that routine. Hurdle also would honestly point out that there’s financial gain to be had pitching in the closer’s role, and it’s difficult to get someone like Melancon to go from being a top closer getting high dollar saves to a part of a system bullpen where he adds more value, but in an overall quiet manner.

Then Melancon was traded, and the Pirates had their opportunity. They had Tony Watson and Felipe Vazquez, neither of which had been in a closer role. At that point, the Pirates could have abolished the closer role completely in their organization. They could have started down the path the Rays went down, which led to Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo pitching in the middle innings of seemingly every playoff game this year when things threatened to go south for the Rays.

Instead, the Pirates went with Watson in the traditional closer’s role, and Vazquez as his set-up man. That worked well, as it boosted Watson’s trade value, which led to them getting Oneil Cruz at the trade deadline that year. So you can forgive them for not changing everything up right away.

But then Vazquez took over. I cringe writing about him now, but at the time he was a young reliever who looked like one of the best in the game. He ascended to the traditional closer role when Watson was traded, thus continuing the cycle that the Pirates were on.

Prior to the 2018 season, the Pirates extended Vazquez, which would have kept a dynamic young reliever under team control through the 2023 season. More importantly, it would have guaranteed his salary structure for the next six seasons, allowing you to transition to a new bullpen system led by Vazquez. Obviously we know now that this wouldn’t have worked out.

Maybe the Pirates under Neal Huntington were never really interested in abandoning the traditional bullpen structure.

Perhaps there was value to be had with that structure. After all, Oneil Cruz is in the system because the Pirates didn’t abandon the traditional bullpen. They even tried to trade Vazquez, a year and a half after his extension, but months before his rape charges came to light. Maybe their plan was to help rebuild this system by trading traditional relievers (aka, trading saves). It’s not a bad plan.

I don’t think it’s a good plan going forward.

The Rays just showed a modern bullpen approach in the World Series as one of the lowest payroll teams in the league. That will lead to more teams adopting this strategy going forward, trying to get the same edge.

The Pirates, now under Ben Cherington, can continue with the traditional bullpen approach. It could get them a good, affordable reliever for 2021 by floating the closer’s role, and maybe a chance at another Oneil Cruz at the deadline. Or, as we saw more often with Huntington’s reliever trades, you’ll get the same quality of reliever with more years of control and less of an assurance that they can get saves.

Because what did the Pirates really get from their trades of relievers?

Hanrahan landed Melancon, along with Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel, and Ivan De Jesus. None of the other guys worked out, and it’s hard to say where the blame lies for that.

Melancon landed Vazquez and Taylor Hearn. Hearn was later packaged for Keone Kela.

Tony Watson landed Cruz, although that was one of the rare deals where Huntington went to the lower levels for the trade return of a reliever, rather than trying to get an MLB ready arm in the deal.

The best thing the Pirates did with these trades is manage to perpetuate the traditional bullpen system in Pittsburgh without having to pay the premium prices for the late inning production they got from the above relievers — who were all some of the best in the game when they were with the Pirates.

With the showcase of the Rays, there are now going to be fewer teams to feast on when you’re ready to trade a Melancon or Watson.

With the demolition of the minors, there are fewer lower level prospects and teams, making it less likely to find a Cruz hidden away in some large market team’s system.

The Pirates would be better off transitioning to a modern bullpen, and spending their time trying to figure out the next edge in this area of the game. My opinion on that next edge? No positions and no bullpen designation. Just 12 pitchers, ready to throw for as long as they’re effective on any given night.

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First Pitch