Meek eyes setup role after efficient offseason
Righty healthy, strong after numerous setbacks last spring
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirate City teems with strong, young arms. You can't swing a fungo bat without hitting a candidate to be in the Bucs' bullpen.Manager Clint Hurdle faces some tough decisions on how to fill the chambers of his relief revolver, but it's the kind of problem managers love. "We have six openings and a volume of pitchers, a lot of men who can make that bullpen," Hurdle said. "We've brought people in and created very good depth there. Some guys have the inside tracks. They're in the position of having opportunities to lose." Evan Meek knows that position too well, because he played it a year ago. Coming off a breakthrough 2010 season in which he had become an All-Star at just about the most competitive league-wide position to earn those stripes -- long relief -- he tripped on the doorsill to Spring Training and never recovered.
By this time last year, the 28-year-old righty was already inhibited by tightness in his right calf, which kept him out of action until the second week of exhibition play. Next, a virus sapped his strength, then came the shoulder tendinitis that proved most enduring. Bottom line, between disabled-list stints and rehab, the guy who had been brilliant in 70 games the previous season had only 17 appearances by Labor Day.Meek, who had been eager to build on his 2010 success and "set my sights high," thus could have blamed the fates. Instead, he blamed himself. "Getting hurt kicks you in the butt, shows you that if you relax for just a second, it will come back to haunt you," Meek said. "You go through something like that, you want to make sure it never happens again. You do everything you possibly can to be ready and healthy. "I had worked hard the previous offseason, but this was just different," he added, detailing his preventative agenda. "I worked more efficiently, focused on getting my arm in shape, losing weight, and getting into overall better health to last a full season." The diligence is paying off. "I feel healthy. I feel strong. I feel like I'm where I should be at this point," Meek said. "I feel very good." That makes two of them. Hurdle had been very anxious to see Meek throw, to begin getting a sense of whether he was up to regaining his eighth-inning setup role. In 2010, nearly half of his outings had come in that penultimate inning, setting up closer Octavio Dotel. After Dotel went to the Dodgers in a Trade Deadline deal, Meek and Joel Hanrahan shared closing duties for manager John Russell. Both fared well in that extended audition and were poised to compete for the full-time job in the ensuing spring. However, Hurdle, in his first camp as Pirates manager, quickly decided that the harder-throwing Hanrahan was better suited to close and that Meek was too valuable in his setup niche. The Hanrahan part at least worked out, as he took over as Pittsburgh's All-Star reliever in the middle of his 40-save season. "[Hanrahan] was handed the job and did great with it. Me, I never really got going," said Meek. "My progression slowed in the spring, that led into the season, and I never got my feet under me." Hurdle's early call on the closing situation at least saved Meek from the frustration of feeling he had missed out on a chance to vie for that role. "Everyone in the back end of the bullpen wants to hold that job, but that's something you have to earn. All in good time," Meek said. "I'm happy and grateful just to have that jersey on my back." The closer might have the last word. In today's game, however, multiple relief pitchers have a voice in victory. "It's important to have everyone in your bullpen healthy and strong. That's a given," Meek said. "The sixth-through-eighth innings are just as important as the ninth. With Joel at the back end, we know that if we get the ball to him, it's going to be tough to beat us. "I want us to have that feeling in the eighth or seventh inning, too. I want our starters to know that, hey, go all nine if you can, but if you end up going only five or six, you can relax. We have a rock-solid bullpen and we're gonna go out there and finish the game for you. We all take pride in that." The race to Hanrahan is on. Only guys such as Daniel McCutchen and Jason Grilli may not be in line for eighth-inning specialization because they've "shown great versatility for being able to pitch multiple innings [as long relievers]," Hurdle said. Otherwise ... "We don't know," Meek said. "My focus is only on preparing and getting all my pitches ready, working on keeping the fastball down and throwing the breaking ball for strikes. Just getting hitters out." And keeping himself in. On that count, he's already ahead of 2011.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.