Pirates crafting bullpen bridge to Hanrahan

Pirates crafting bullpen bridge to Hanrahan

Pirates crafting bullpen bridge to Hanrahan
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Baseball is life, its devotees insist. But there are differences. In life, the saying is, "We'll cross that bridge if we get to it." In baseball, you look at the closer on the other side and know that you will have to cross that bridge regularly.

Which Pirates will be on the span to Joel Hanrahan? Most of the links are clear with five days to go in Florida, but not all, leaving a mad scramble for the last two seats in the seven-man bullpen.

Jason Grilli, Evan Meek, Chris Resop and one left-hander -- Tony Watson is more likely, for a couple of reasons -- have seats with their names on them. That leaves Chris Leroux, Jared Hughes, lefty Daniel Moskos, team elder Daniel McCutchen and a pair of non-roster righties, Juan Cruz and Ryota Igarashi, circling the other chairs.

"We knew we would have some good competition for the bullpen," said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. "Some guys have thrown well; others haven't thrown as a well as we expected. We still intend to take the seven best north -- the right six in front of Joel to get him the baseball in a winning situation."

Preseason officially runs through Tuesday night's final exhibition game in Philadelphia, but Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has indicated the club will make its final roster cuts before leaving Florida, following Sunday afternoon's Grapefruit League finale against Toronto. So between now and then, four will have to be trimmed from the 11 relievers in camp.

One decision will not wait that long: Cruz is likely to be added to the 25-man roster by Thursday; since he was invited to camp and is not even on the current 40-man roster, that would necessitate another move to create a spot for him. Not making the move by then will cost the Pirates either $100,000 or Cruz himself.

The 33-year-old right-hander is among several veterans granted special consideration by the sport's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, calling for him to either be placed on the 25-man roster by March 29 or be given a $100,000 "retainer." Otherwise, Cruz returns to the open market; however, even the $100,000 would hold Cruz only until June 15, when he could claim free agency if not on the big league roster.

Cruz has shown plenty this spring to establish his value to the Pirates or another team. In seven appearances and eight innings, the lithe righty has given up only five hits and one walk. He will make his next appearance on Wednesday night, against his former Tampa Bay teammates in Port Charlotte, a well-timed outing that could nail down Huntington's decision.

The effectiveness Cruz showed last season against left-handed hitters could influence Hurdle's call on how many lefty relievers to carry, thus being one of the sidebars of the bullpen story.

The leading bullpen subplot actually involves two players who won't pitch in relief: Charlie Morton and A.J. Burnett. Morton, openly, and Burnett, more stealthily, are both gearing up to merge into the starting rotation. One will be needed mid-April to fill the No. 5 spot, but both could be available by early May.

At that point, the Pirates would have six starters, none with options that would allow the team to squirrel someone away in the Minors until a future need arose. The Pirates would then have to either explore a trade or -- depending on how the bullpen is clicking -- reassign someone to relief.

The latter is looming like the least likely option. Jeff Karstens, the pitcher with the most bullpen experience, has been one of the spring's most impressive performers, continuing his strong second-half showing. Although out of the Grapefruit League spotlight, Karstens was solid in a Tuesday start against Toronto's Triple-A players, fanning 10 in 7 1/3 in innings while throwing three-hit shutout ball.

Hurdle, like any manager, would love the flexibility afforded by having two left-handers in his bullpen. But he might settle for one actual left-hander, and another arm who merely pitches as effectively as a southpaw.

That would be Cruz. Although it has not been his 11-year career trend, adjustments in repertoire and style made Cruz extremely tough on left-handed hitters last season with the Rays. He held them to a .171 average and one home run in 70 at-bats. That compared favorably to top National League matchup lefties such as Atlanta's Jonny Venters (.127; 1 in 79 at-bats) and Philadelphia's Antonio Bastardo (.145; 2 in 69).

"We were aware of that when we were looking at him," said Hurdle, meaning before the club signed Cruz to a Minor League deal that came with a camp invitation. "Yes, he could be used in a role like that, if we take only one left-hander."

The lone lefty could be Watson, because he established a track record in 43 appearances as a rookie last season and Moskos has an option.

Moskos has the superior Spring Training card -- allowing his first earned run in eight appearances Tuesday on Scott Podsednik's walk-off homer with two outs in the ninth for the Phillies' 5-4 win -- but the Pirates are known to not make decisions based on spring statistics. They could also rally around the fact Watson has followed up a few ragged outings with three consecutive appearances without an earned run.

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.