Pirates' relief specialists aim for something special

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Specialization rules in modern bullpens.

The most prominent role belongs to the closer, the pitcher designated to retire the game's final three batters. Some left-handers serve as matchup guys, entering the game to deal with an opposing left-handed batter. Then there is the setup man, a closer before the closer, used to work through the eighth inning.

The Pirates had one of the best setup men in baseball last season in Jason Grilli, but he has graduated to the closer's role, leaving an opening multiple relievers could fill. Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes lead the pack of late-inning options that manager Clint Hurdle could use to bridge the gap to Grilli.

"There's experience there with Melancon," Hurdle said. "We love the development of Hughes, we love the development of Watson."

Roles change frequently in bullpens, often with good results.

The Detroit Tigers' Phil Coke replaced Jose Valverde without missing a beat in the playoffs last year, saving two games in four American League Championship Series appearances.

Jonathan Broxton, a former closer with the Los Angeles Dodgers, twice returned to that role last season after being a setup man. He replaced Joakim Soria with the Kansas City Royals, and temporarily took over for Aroldis Chapman after being traded to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Tampa Bay Rays' Joel Peralta started serving as a setup man in 2011 at age 35 and had two exceptional seasons there.

Though one of the Pirates might perform well enough to make the setup job his own, the team may choose to employ multiple pitchers in the role. Hurdle also said there could be other pitchers under consideration.

"It's exciting," Melancon said. "It's fun. That's what you want, a great bullpen."

Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage saw firsthand last season what Watson and Hughes are capable of. Watson, a 27-year-oldleft-hander, struck out 53 batters in 531/3 innings and allowed 20 earned runs.

"Jared and myself, we've been doing it the last year now," Watson said. "It's been a lot of fun."

The relative lack of a significant platoon split allows Hurdle to use Watson against both left-handed hitters and right-handed ones. That frees Watson to enter the game in more situations.

"I like to pitch in[side] to right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters," Watson said. "It's huge for me because it opens up the whole outer half of the plate on both sides."

Hughes, a 27-year-old right-hander with an excellent sinker, does not strike out as many batters as Watson but instead uses his defense. Hughes' 59.6 percent ground-ball rate ranked second in the majors among relievers who pitched at least 70 innings last season.

"We do have a lot of talented young pitchers, a lot of guys with good stuff who can really just throw strikes and attack hitters," Hughes said. "We're all going to be able to do the job."

Melancon, 27, joined the Pirates from the Boston Red Sox in the Joel Hanrahan trade. The right-hander, a ninth-round draft pick by the New York Yankees in 2006, saved 20 games with Houston in 2011. Last season, Melancon allowed 31 earned runs in 45 innings for Boston and made 21 appearances for Class AAA Pawtucket.

"He's been a great addition," Hughes said. "He's been very welcoming and just a great guy to have around. We'll be excited to get going."

Grilli will set the tone, Hughes said.

"If you see Grilli pitch, look at that passion," he said. "You got a guy out there who just wants it. We feed off that. We see Grilli do it. We saw Hanrahan do it last year. Us young guys, we see it, we feed off it and we go out there and compete."

Hughes worked out with Hanrahan in Dallas over the winter. Both he and Watson said the possibility for more eighth-inning opportunities did not alter their preparation. Watson also noted the game situation, not necessarily the inning, dictated the difficulty of the appearance.

"You still got to go out there and get three outs no matter what inning," he said. "You can have a lead in the sixth inning when you come in. It's not the same as closing, but you still got to go out there, do your job, get your three outs and keep the lead."

• ON THE WEB Look for the Pirates video report from camp in Bradenton. Today: pitcher Tony Watson gives an update at www.post-gazette.com.

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The setup men

Pirates pitchers competing for the eighth-inning slot (statistics from last season):

Tony Watson

Innings pitched53.1

Hits 37

Runs 21

Earned runs 20

Strikeouts 53

ERA 3.38

Jared Hughes

Innings pitched75.2

Hits 65

Runs 30

Earned runs 24

Strikeouts 50

ERA 3.01

Mark Melancon

Innings pitched45

Hits 45

Runs 31

Earned runs 31

Strikeouts 41

ERA 6.20

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.


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