Welcome to Bradenton, Florida for Pirates Spring Training 2013.
I've been checking out the newest edition of the Bucs for the past week and conducting numerous interviews; Ill be posting a series of notes and observations from what I've seen and heard around the team coming up here in the next few days.
First topic up is the Pirates bullpen, which lost its' All-Star closer to trade in the offseason as Joel Hanrahan is now in Boston.
Last year with Hanrahan anchoring the back-end the Pirates 'pen finished 7th in the National League in ERA at 3.36 just two years (2010) after they finished dead last in the category. They converted 45 of 59 save opportunities last year, 3rd best in the NL.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington has largely been solid during his tenure of assembling quality bullpens, and he's hoping to do so again by promoting 36-year old Jason Grilli from set-up man to closer, and likely using trade-return Mark Melancon as his new 8th-inning man with Jared Hughes and Tony Watson matching to silence the 7th inning.
"Well, now that you've jinxed us," Huntington began as I complemented his bullpen track record. "It's a good spot to build around Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes and what they did a year ago. We have really strong indicators on Melancon, who had a strong September; a guy with two quality major league pitches and has had success in the National League Central before as a closer. And then we've got three spots that are going to be competed for aggressively here in Spring Training. Clint [Hurdle] has been very open about ideally having two left-handers, maybe in a perfect world getting three out there. We've gone out aggressively and tried to add some left-handed depth whether it's from within our system with Justin Wilson or Kris Johnson or outside the system with a guy like Mike Zagurski or Andy Oliver. We've got some good left-handed depth. The goal is to take one of them north to complement Tony Watson and we'll see where it plays out."
Melancon threw a perfect inning on Saturday in Lakeland, Florida against the top of the Detroit lineup, including retiring Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera on a groundout to third-base. Hurdle liked what he saw from the man that Grilli has named 'The Silent Assassin.'
"He had a clean inning," Hurdle said of Melancon on Saturday. "He was ahead, down, threw some change-ups to some right handed hitters. We like him. We're glad he's with us. Every club down here tries to get their back inning leverage guys in [the game] a little bit sooner than later."
Melancon agreed that facing the top of the Tigers' lineup was a good early guage for him.
"Obviously they're working on things, I'm working on things," Melancon said of the Spring Training sample. "At least you kind of know where you stand. Not that [facing] three hitters is going to give you a great indicator but at least it's better than nothing. I've faced Cabrera a few times. Got him on a change-up. I was just trying to work on my change-up and fastball down-and-away. I know my fastball is going to be there, and getting location down is always a task. It's like a hose, there's always a leak somewhere it seems like so you try to patch one hole and the next hole pops open. It'll be like that for the rest of my career and probably everybody else's. You have an idea on what's going on with all four [pitches] but rarely are they working perfectly at all times."
Pirates catcher Michael McKenry caught Melancon for the first time on Saturday, and raved about his four-pitch repertoire.
"He's got four plus pitches," McKenry said of Melancon. "He's a special dude with a competitive nature that can really help us. He's got four pitches he can strike you out on and he's got some ground ball pitches, as well. I think he's going to pitch very well to the situation and the guy that's up there. His curveball is definitely his power-out pitch but I would would say his cutter, fastball, and change-up could all be an out pitch. I'm excited about getting to know him and work with him. That's the biggest thing about Spring Training is just to get in rhythm with guys and know what they like to do in certain situations."
Melancon had a terrible start to his 2011 season with the Red Sox, and was demoted to AAA until he was re-called in June to much better results.
"A lot like Joel [Hanrahan] when we acquired him, he had some struggles in Washington and he lost his closer's job," Huntington said. "He was in the middle of a pretty tough season with his ERA well over 6 when we traded for him. Sometimes a change of scenery and a fresh start; and also ERA is the worst way to try to evaluate a reliever in baseball. But there are some good things there, it's a hard breaking ball and a good fastball when it's where it's capable of being in the mid-to-low 90s with velocity, a change-up that can keep hitters honest. And he's a strike thrower. He had some early struggles [in 2012] and gave up some home-runs and his ERA was toast for the year, a little bit like we experienced with Clint Barmes on the offensive side a year ago; you have two months like he had and it's tough to overcome it."
As for Grilli, he departed Sunday for the World Baseball Classic and Team Italy after a scoreless inning of work that day against Houston. Grilli, whose grandparents grew up outside of Rome and emigrated to the United States, said he thinks the competition at the WBC will be good for him.
"I'm very excited," Grilli said. "I'm going out to Phoenix. I know some of the guys from previous Classics. I'm making a habit of it, if I can play like Jose Contreras, who is here, get to to his age I could get to four of these things. It's a good time. The intensity level is awesome. I know it breaks up Spring Training a little bit but every time I've played in it it's definitely gotten me a little bit more prepared a lot quicker for the season. We all have it in there, we're all ready. It's not like years past where if you didn't do anything during the offseason then it would make it tougher. But everybody around here knows what their responsibilities are. You sure don't go there with the intentions of playing easy. These are fun games but they're meaningful games. It gives you a glimpse of what the season is going to be like."
Hurdle had no issue with his closer departing Pirates camp for a while.
"I was happy he got out of here healthy," Hurdle said Sunday. "He faced four hitters [today], ticked [hit batsman] one of them but got the strikeout at the end so he's ready to go. He says Italy is going to shock the world so we'll see. We've got constant communication, our pitching coach, our general manager, all our of us have the [phone] numbers for our guys that are going out. All of that's in a good place. That was one of the staples that was put into place in the beginning because everybody understands the bigger role to play after the Classic is over. I don't think it's anything we can't work around and work through. Hopefully it'll be a good experience for everybody involved."