Around the Horn: Bullpen

Around the Horn: Bullpen

Around the Horn: Bullpen
Joel Hanrahan hopes to rise above the checkered encore history of the team's few iconic closers. Evan Meek hopes to rebound from his own more-recent injury history.

Slay those two demons, and the Pirates bullpen will again be one of the strongest pillars of contention.

Reassuring Spring Trainings by Hanrahan and Meek to settle the back of the bullpen will allow team brass to spend camp time focused on what should be intense competition for middle-relief jobs, as well as on refining everyone's fundamentals.

Manager Clint Hurdle and his pitching coach, Ray Searage, want less out of the 2012 bullpen.

"Fewer walks ... we had too many walks last season," Searage said. "Fewer deep counts. Fewer stolen bases; we have to control the running game better. We've addressed those things during the offseason and will continue to work on them in Spring Training."

Hanrahan comes off a 40-save season that turned him into an All-Star, and hopes that doesn't become the bad news. It was only the third 40-save season in club history: Mike Williams put up 46 saves in 2002, and was out of the game following a miserable '03 season; Jose Mesa saved 43 in 2004, then totaled 29 with four different teams the next three years on his way out.

Hanrahan doesn't believe in hexes. He believes in lacing it back up in good shape and in a good frame of mind, and in giving Hurdle one less thing to worry about. Yet he does believe in the vagarious track record of closers everywhere, not just in Pittsburgh; so many lightning-in-a-bottle strikes don't flash again.

"I think until you get two or three consistent years of doing it, I can't say I'm at that [elite] level," Hanrahan said earlier in the offseason. "I'm not going to go home and say, 'I made the All-Star team. I had 40 saves as a closer.' There is still work that needs to be done. I can't rest on this year. I have to continue to go out there and be consistent. I want to be successful for a long time."

Meek's own lightning struck in 2010, when he posted a 2.14 ERA in 70 games and before a long list of injuries ruined his 2011. He returned from the last of those, a lingering case of shoulder tendinitis, for eight effective September appearances that provided an optimistic springboard into this season.

"We need to see how Evan bounces back. That will be a big key," said Searage.

The Pirates adjusted well to the absence of their principal setup reliever, allowing only two more eighth-inning runs in 2011 (92) than they had in 2010 (90). A lot of that was due to the work of Jose Veras, who has gone to Milwaukee in the deal that returned infielder Casey McGehee.

Even so, six other relief incumbents who made 20-plus appearances will be in Pirate City. They include Chris Resop, whose 76 outings were second to Veras' 79, veteran Jason Grilli and Daniel McCutchen. Also Chris Leroux, who applied for possibly filling in for Charlie Morton (hip surgery) in the season-opening rotation with some impressive starts in the Dominican Republic Winter League, and lefties Tony Watson and Daniel Moskos.

Still, the composition of the bullpen is so up in the air, a couple of formidable candidates aren't even on the roster: Juan Cruz and Doug Slaten.

Cruz, 33, was used in a mop-up role last season by the Rays, but has handled more critical duties for other clubs during an 11-year career. The lefty Slaten has little to recommend him as a match-up specialist, but could be an important weapon in controlling the running game: No one has even tried to steal against him in 36 straight appearances, reverting to 2010. They will be among the nine non-roster pitchers in camp by invitation.

"There will be a lot of competition in camp," Searage said. "We'll factor in a couple of more lefties (Slaten and Jo-Jo Reyes, another non-roster invitee). Cruz has got a lot of experience and has pitched well for 11 years; he's a guy who could provide valuable experience to our bullpen, and we're excited to have him on board. I want to see better command from Slaten, but he has a good breaking ball and could help."

Overall, nothing could help as much as a longer-lasting rotation. In 2011, the Pirates bullpen had to pick up starters with a Major League-leading 549 relief appearances, 32 more than any other team (Colorado).

Tom Singer is a reporter for Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.