Pirates look for repeat performance of cost-efficient bullpen
By Rob Biertempfel
Published: Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 9:50 p.m.
BRADENTON, Fla. — Of all the ingredients that combined to finally make the Pirates winners last season, none was more cost efficient than the bullpen.
The Pirates had the third-best bullpen ERA (2.89) and walks plus hits per inning pitched (1.17) in the majors. They also ranked third in opponents' on-base plus slugging percentage (.621), fourth in innings pitched (5452⁄3) and fifth in batting average against (.229).
Fourteen pitchers made at least one relief appearance. But for the seven mainstays who composed the bullpen in the playoffs, the total cost was $5.56 million.
Closer Jason Grilli made $2.5 million. Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Jeanmar Gomez and Bryan Morris each made a salary that was at or near the major league minimum of $490,000.
“It's one way you can stay competitive and still prioritize the dollars in areas where you have need,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “By no means do we think it's the cheapest component of what we do, but I don't think you've got to maximize your dollars there. Why overpay?”
For many clubs, keeping bullpen costs low is a counterbalance to the skyrocketing salaries for starting pitchers, especially in an era when relievers are throwing more innings than ever. Yet the price of building a dominant bullpen is increasing, even for the cost-conscious Pirates.
The same seven relievers who were on the Pirates roster for the 2013 National League Division Series will cost about $9.8 million on Opening Day this season.
Grilli will get $4.25 million in the final year of his contract. Melancon ($2.595 million) and Mazzaro ($950,000) were arbitration eligible for the first time. The rest are still pre-arbitration, but all will get at least modest raises, as the major league minimum rises to $500,000.
The marketplace, driven by a few free-spending teams, also is kicking up relievers' salaries. The Washington Nationals might have five millionaires among their seven relievers.
Kenley Jansen will make $4.3 million as the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer this year. His supporting cast will include at least three former closers: Brian Wilson ($10 million), Chris Perez ($2.3 million) and Brandon League ($7.5 million). Overall, the Dodgers will spend around $30 million on their bullpen.
The Oakland A's, typically a low-spending club, might end up devoting up to 30 percent of their payroll — potentially the highest rate in the majors — on relief pitchers. Offseason acquisitions Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson will make a combined $15 million.
Compared to that, the $9.8 million bullpen in Pittsburgh could be one of the biggest bargains in the game.
“It comes back to each club and its circumstances, how can it best add (players) and what it thinks is its probability of winning,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “It will be really interesting to see how it plays out.”
Huntington said he's not tempted to get caught up in a bullpen shopping spree, even if rivals are throwing around more money than before.
“The players who got $3 million before and who are now getting $5 million, they really weren't on our radar anyway because of how we need to allocate our resources,” Huntington said. “We've stayed away from multiyear deals and big dollars in the bullpen. That doesn't mean it's right, but it's worked for us.”
Huntington's bullpen-building philosophy often means taking chances. Trusting Grilli, a 36-year-old journeyman, with the closer's job was a smash success. Signing Jose Contreras, who was 41 and coming off multiple surgeries, was a bust.
Watson, a ninth-round pick, is blossoming into one of the best left-handed relievers in the league. Mazzaro, cast aside by the Kansas City Royals, emerged as a steady middle-innings man. Wilson's stuff got nastier after he was switched from a starter to a reliever.
“As you go into a season, you're always uneasy about your bullpen,” Huntington said. “It's the most difficult, most challenging and most unpredictable part of a club. I wish I could sit here and tell you we have a magic formula, but we don't.
“Our scouts do a great job of identifying guys with good stuff, and our (analysts) do a great job of identifying guys who have a chance to bounce back. We're not perfect, but we've had success to this point.”
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Can Pirates star outfielder McCutchen be even better in 2014?
- Top pitching prospect Taillon’s time with Pirates must wait a bit
- Pirates notebook: Martin finding power stroke
- Pirates notebook: Volquez, Morton struggle
- Pirates’ big risk with pitch-heavy draft focus might soon pay off
- Pirates reserve outfielder Dickerson is also at home on soccer pitch
- Volquez is Pirates’ latest reclamation project
- Pirates seek to tap Alvarez’s remaining upside
- Spring training breakdown: Orioles 7, Pirates 6
- Healthy Pirates closer Grilli ready for encore
- Stats Corner: McCutchen’s contract extension brings huge cost savings