Bucs GM exploring relief options
Huntington eyeing deals that would improve Pittsburgh bullpen
BRADENTON, Fla. -- After the first two weeks of Grapefruit League games, it looked like the only problem that Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was going to have with his bullpen was finding a way to tell relievers that their stellar springs weren't enough to earn them a spot on the Opening Day roster.
That's how good it looked like for the Pirates' relief options at that point.
But now, as the Pirates sit two weeks out from Opening Day, Huntington can only hope that some of those relievers who looked so sharp early can step out from a collectively struggling pack.
"We really need some guys to go out and show us why they should be on this Major League team," Huntington said. "I think the reality is based on what we've seen here this spring, only three are set. There are guys who have pitched their way into the lead at certain games. There are guys who have pitched their way out of that at certain times."
Those three who are set, of course, are closer Matt Capps and setup men John Grabow and Tyler Yates. From there, the potential combinations of seven are numerous.
Huntington said that in addition to the eight other relievers remaining in camp, the organization will continue to look externally for potential bullpen acquisitions. That really isn't any sort of new revelation by Huntington, who has reiterated all spring that he hasn't stopped exploring external pitching or hitting options.
The difference now, however, is that there may be a new wave of available arms. With less than two weeks remaining in Spring Training, teams are being forced to make tough roster decisions, which can lead to the availability of some intriguing players.
Huntington said that making a free-agent acquisition remains "very unlikely," suggesting that the Pirates are more likely to benefit from a player being squeezed out of a roster spot.
Remember, the Pirates benefited from this last year when, just five days before their season opener, they acquired Yates from Atlanta. At the time, the Braves were blessed with too many bullpen arms, making Yates expendable. Yates then played a significant role in the back end of the Pirates' pen last year.
"Maybe we come across another Tyler Yates," Huntington said. "If not, then we need some guys to step forward."
There is still quantity in those internal options, but the question is whether enough quality is there.
Coming into camp, both Sean Burnett and Craig Hansen were seen as strong bullpen candidates, if for no other reason than that both are out of options this year. That means the Pirates would risk losing either if they aren't on the Opening Day roster.
Burnett established himself as a Major League reliever in 2008, making 58 appearances and posting a 4.76 ERA with 42 strikeouts and 34 walks. He became nearly unhittable against left-handed hitters and had a strong second half thanks to a position adjustment he made.
The lefty looked to be solidifying his spot early this month with a strong Grapefruit League start. Since then, though, Burnett has allowed 11 earned runs and 14 hits 5 2/3 innings. He hasn't shown the same dominance against left-handed hitters and there are still questions regarding his effectiveness against right-handed hitters.
The story with Hansen is much the same. Though he struggled last year after joining the Pirates for at the end of July, some work with this offseason looked to have his mechanical problems remedied. But in his last 3 1/3 innings, Hansen's control problems have resurfaced at a concerning rate. Hansen has issued eight walks and allowed five runs in that span.
As a result, neither Burnett nor Hansen is in the bullpen just yet. However, the risk of losing the two pitchers is likely going to be too great for the Pirates to keep both off the 25-man roster.
"We'd rather have guys perform their way onto the club," Huntington said. "We may be in the situation again where the business side rears its ugly head and you have to take into consideration roster status."
That business side also will play into the team's decision with left-hander Donnie Veal, the team's Rule 5 Draft pick. Veal would have to be offered back to the Cubs if he does not make the team out of camp. The concern with him continues to be his control.
After making five consecutive scoreless appearances early, Veal has had a handful of outings late where he struggled mightily in finding the plate. He's walked 10 hitters in his last five outings.
"Donnie Veal at times flashes why we feel we may have found something pretty good as a Rule 5," Huntington said. "At times he flashes why we were able to get him in the Rule 5."
The Pirates intend to give the hard-throwing lefty every opportunity to make the team. However, as the team saw with Evan Meek last season, it's impossible to hide a Rule 5 Draft pick on the Major League roster if he isn't Major League-ready.
Other bullpen options include Denny Bautista, Meek, Chris Bootcheck, Jason Davis and Jesse Chavez.
Meek won't throw this week because of a tired shoulder, though Huntington said that won't take him out of contention for an Opening Day spot. Davis would be the best option for a long-relief candidate, but Huntington said that the team might not open the year with a prototypical long reliever. The rest of the pitchers in that group have all had their ups and downs all spring.
With two weeks remaining, the Pirates are now craving some consistency to come from somewhere.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.