BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates' bullpen in 2016 could be powerful, full of hard-throwing relievers. It could be deep, with former setup men pitching in the middle innings. But the key attribute the Bucs sought this offseason was versatility.
Pittsburgh has invested heavily in its 2016 bullpen, and there's a reason the Bucs have been so acutely focused on fortifying that part of their club. Gerrit Cole is the only member of the Pirates' projected Opening Day rotation who has pitched 200 innings in a season. Pittsburgh will need innings from pitchers other than Cole and Francisco Liriano, and it might have to get them from its bullpen.
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"If the remaining three [starters] can give us a legitimate chance to win every time they take the ball, and our bullpen can carry the multiple innings -- because we've constructed it as multiple guys who can give multiple innings -- it gives [manager Clint Hurdle] the ability to use his bullpen how he wants," general manager Neal Huntington said last week at Pirate City, "not because he has to."
That strategy helped the Pirates get the most out of lefty J.A. Happ down the stretch last year, for example. Happ was incredibly effective when he was on the mound, but he only pitched more than six innings once in 11 starts for Pittsburgh.
If the Bucs can get five or six quality innings per start out of Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong and Jeff Locke, their bullpen may be deep and versatile enough to pick up the slack. Last year, Pirates relievers threw 522 1/3 innings -- 10th most in the Majors -- while posting an MLB-best 2.67 ERA.
The core of that group -- closer Mark Melancon, setup man Tony Watson, ground-ball specialist Jared Hughes and flame-throwing righty Arquimedes Caminero -- should be back, as should right-handers Rob Scahill and John Holdzkom. To bolster their bullpen, the Pirates have signed free-agent relievers Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio and Trey Haley and added depth by acquiring lefty Kyle Lobstein from the Tigers.
"We have a lot of weapons," Hughes said. "We probably have more weapons than they can use, honestly, which is a good problem to have. It's good to have different guys there to where it doesn't have to be the same guy every single time. There are a lot of us who can pick each other up and get it done."
Hughes is just one example of the Pirates' versatility. He's a ground-ball pitcher, an arm Hurdle can employ to get another pitcher out of a jam at any point in the game. He's also posted a 2.12 ERA over the past two seasons, preventing runs as well as some setup men and closers. He recorded at least four outs in 13 of his career-high 76 appearances last season.
The Bucs would prefer to use Hughes as a fireman, getting them out of tight spots with a ground-ball double play. But he could pitch multiple innings or settle into the seventh, in front of Watson and Melancon. Or perhaps that inning will belong to Feliz, a former closer. Or maybe it'll be Caminero, who worked there at times last year.
Or it could be Nicasio, who adds several wrinkles to Pittsburgh's bullpen plan. He will be stretched out like a starter in Spring Training, but he'll likely settle into a spot in the bullpen. Huntington listed about a half-dozen roles that Nicasio could play this year. He could be anything from a traditional long man, picking up innings after a short start, to a ninth-inning option when Melancon and Watson are unavailable.
Pitching out of the Dodgers' bullpen last season, Nicasio saw his fastball touch 98 mph. The Pirates seek that kind of high-octane fastball because it gives a pitcher more margin for error. But they also like Nicasio's history as a starter, as someone who can pitch multiple innings without losing velocity, because it makes him an asset in a number of different situations.
"We'd like to give Clint versatility, so there's not pure roles of, 'It's the fourth inning, so this is the guy we're going to go to,'" Huntington said. "We like the versatility of being able to go to multiple guys in multiple situations."
Such a plan wouldn't be possible if the Pirates or their pitchers didn't fully trust Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas to carefully manage the bullpen's workload. Clearly, they do. But they still wouldn't mind seeing more than one 200-inning season out of their rotation, either.
"The idea is to give Clint the ability to get our starters [out of the game] a little bit earlier if need be," Huntington said. "But if our starters can go deeper, if our offense allows them to go deeper, that would be ideal, as well."