Two legitimate candidates -- Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek -- stand in waiting for one closer's job next season. It's a dilemma the Pirates are pleased to face. But also know that it is not a dilemma that the club plans to carry to Bradenton, Fla., for the start of Spring Training.
Evaluations are already under way to determine which of the two power right-handers is best suited to take over as the team's full-time closer in 2011. Those evaluations began during the final two months of the regular season and have continued as the Pirates delve into more numbers this offseason. The team's next manager will also have some input once he is in place.
"That is one of about 104 questions for us to answer internally this offseason," general manager Neal Huntington said. "I'm not a big fan of Spring Training competitions, because it's so difficult to make an even playing field. So to make it a Spring Training competition, in our minds, is probably not the best way to go about it.
"It's a tremendous situation to be in, because we feel comfortable with both guys coming back and closing games for us," Huntington added. "Both deserve to close games for us. It's certainly something that we'll talk about a lot this offseason and work to come to the best answer that we can."
Meek and Hanrahan thrived in setup roles in 2010, and both got a taste of closing late in the year after Pittsburgh dealt Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers at the Trade Deadline. Hanrahan converted six of eight save opportunities after Dotel's departure. Meek went 3-for-3 in such ninth-inning opportunities.
The fact that Hanrahan received the majority of the late-season save opportunities may hint at the Pirates' future plans. However, both relievers certainly have credible credentials.
Each has plus fastball velocity and an above-average complementary pitch. Hanrahan's slider is a tremendous weapon against right-handed batters, while Meek has a cut fastball with a tendency to run in on the hands of left-handed hitters. The two show signs of having a closer's mentality, and neither is prone to many control issues.
So what is going to tip the scale in favor of one over the other? That question appears unanswered at the moment.
"Really, it's going to come down to who we want to give the ball to in the ninth inning," Huntington said, noting the characteristics of both candidates. "There's really not a huge separator that puts one guy over or under the other. We have two guys who are very capable."
Hanrahan has more experience as a closer, though that can be viewed in one of two ways. The fact that he closed games for the Nationals in parts of 2008 and '09 could give the 29-year-old an experience advantage. However, Hanrahan was not reliable in that role and eventually lost the job.
Still, it's unlikely that those past struggles will factor much into the Pirates' decision, given that Hanrahan has shown no such late-inning issues since being acquired by the Pirates in June 2009.
One thing seems certain -- whichever right-hander is passed over for the closer's spot will become the Pirates' primary eighth-inning option. The rest of the makeup of the bullpen will come into focus over the next few months.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less