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Pirates look for repeat performance of cost-efficient bullpen

| Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 9:50 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates closer Jason Grilli (right) talks with reliever Mark Melancon on reporting day Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. The first workout of spring training for pitchers and catchers will be at noon Thursday.

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 (545 23) 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 rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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