BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates had one of the most reliable bullpens in baseball in 2013 and are bursting at the seams with depth.
The evaluation process will reach its apex the last week of March, but is progressing as pitchers get their fourth and fifth appearances this week.
“There’s going to be tough decisions. But we’re going to give those guys every opportunity to show what they’ve got,” said pitching coach Ray Searage. “We’ve got time to refine everything. They’re doing really well in that aspect. Probably [next] week. Let’s see what we’ve got. Let’s see that good stuff that we had last year.”
Four spots in the bullpen are a virtual lock for closer Jason Grilli, setup man Mark Melancon, and left-handed relievers Tony Watson and Justin Wilson.
From there, it gets cloudier.
There are long relievers Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel, the frontrunners for two spots, and middle relievers Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris — who are both out of minor league options — and right-hander Jared Hughes, who is healthy this year after spending some time on the disabled list last season.
Throw in left-handers Adam Wilk, and Dan Schlereth, right-hander Cody Eppley and prospects such as Casey Sadler and Zach Thornton who all have had some good outings this spring, and it’s a good problem to have, said Searage.
“I want to see the velocity of the fastball. I want to see the command of the fastball to both sides of the plate and I also want to see the sharpness of the breaking pitch,” said Searage. “It’s hard just to flip it on March 31.”
Hughes said he is feeling really good this spring.
“I’m happy with my sinker right now. I’m really just trusting it, working on trusting who I am and going out there and staying focused, because I do get amped up sometimes,” he said. “I need to just not go too far and stay focused, get that sinker down in the zone at the same time stay really aggressive.”
Morris, who has been primarily a four-seam fastball thrower, is in the process of adding a two-seam fastball to his arsenal — a pitch he worked on sparingly down the stretch last year.
“This pitch just allows me to not have to be so fine in the zone. It’s not about hitting corners, just more about just getting down in the zone, and let the pitch do what it does,” said Morris, who pitched an inning Monday.
Manager Clint Hurdle said he doesn’t pay much attention to the first outing by each reliever and then throws the next one to the curb.
“By the third outing, you like to see them fall in the glove. There still might be some more velocity left, there’s still going to be some sharpness and some crispness,” said Hurdle. “But you like to see the command, you’d like to see the spin develop, the shaping of the pitches and you like to see some downhill play.”
Things are heating up.
“The competition level is starting to kick in,” said Morris. “You can be spot on in the bullpen all you want but, when you add that extra energy, you’ve got to find that release point.”
First exposure to replay
The Pirates will get a first crack at Major League Baseball’s expanded instant replay today at the Minnesota Twins complex in Fort Myers, Fla.
“We’ve been talking about some things, watching some of the other ones that have gone on,” said Hurdle. “I’m anxious to get it started. We’re still sitting on our hands here every day. You hear about two more, three more, and we’ve still got nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Managers get one challenge in the first six innings under the new system, but can earn a second challenge if their first challenge leads to an overturned call. The crew chief can call for a challenge after the sixth inning.
After today, the Pirates will get access to instant replay in three more spring training games: March 17 at McKechnie Field against the New York Yankees, March 19 at Boston, and March 26 at the Twins. The Pirates also will have access to replay in two exhibitions against the Phillies March 28 and 29 at Citizens Bank Park.
Finally, a day off
The Pirates had their first day off Tuesday and will return to exhibition games today against the Twins in Fort Myers and Thursday against the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte.
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com and Twitter @JennMenendez. First Published March 11, 2014 9:03 PM