Bob Smizik: Bullpen by Huntington not working


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Fortune is not smiling on the Pirates these days, which is all the more reason the team can no longer afford to compete in the National League Central Division without employing its 25 best players.

No, this isn’t another harangue about the back end of the Pirates’ bench. As much as Michael Martinez and Jayson Nix are MLB lightweights, they at least might qualify, based on positions, as being among the 25 best the Pirates can employ on their active roster.

The same cannot be said for the Pirates’ bullpen where through an obstinance that has marked his tenure as general manager, Neal Huntington is more concerned with controlling assets than he is in winning games. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hang on to good players. But when a team is in a pennant race, that practice must take second place to an all-out attempt to win games.

Alas, on the Pirates it does not.

The Pirates’ bullpen faltered badly again last night and the result was a five-run eighth inning by the Miami Marlins, which led to a 6-3 win at PNC Park. Starter Charlie Morton pitched a good front seven -- one run, six hits. But with Tony Watson unavailable, the eighth became a nightmare as manager Clint Hurdle used Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson, Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel.

It went like this:

• With Hughes pitching: ground out, walk, error by Josh Harrison.

• With Wilson pitching: Single to load the bases; walk to force in a run; walk to force in a run.

• With Gomez pitching: Single to score a run; fielder’s choice to score a run; double to score a run; walk.

• With Pimentel pitching: Strike out.

There’s all kinds of room to criticize Hurdle’s decisions in the inning, particularly replacing Hughes. That will be left to others. The more important issue here is that Hurdle is mixing-and-matching his relievers, which he normally does quite well, with one hand, so to speak, tied behind his back. He does not have the necessary pitchers to utilize the strategies he prefers.

If the Pirates had their best available pitchers in the bullpen that would be too bad. But they don’t.

Despite his success last night, Pimentel does not belong in MLB. He is with the Pirates only because he is out of options. The only way he can get back to the minors, where he could get the work he needs as a possible future starter, is to pass through waivers. Huntington won’t do that for fear of losing him. If Pimentel were, say, Jameson Taillon that strategy might make some sense. He’s not. He has a chance to make the back end of the Pirates’ rotation next year, nothing more.

Is maintaining control over such a player worth losing a game -- or games? It might have been in the early years of Huntington’s tenure. It’s not in 2014.

If Pimentel were the only impostor Hurdle has to deal with, the issue would not be so pronounced. But, as is well known, Ernesto Frieri, he of the 10.12 ERA, is another. Huntington traded Jason Grilli in late June to get Frieri and that and a $3.8 million contract have a lot to do with why he is still on the roster.

Pimentel and Frieri are not among the seven best relievers in the Pirates organization.

Vin Mazzaro had a 2.81 ERA in 55 games with the Pirates last year. He had a 3.48 ERA in five games earlier this year. He has a 2.23 ERA at Indianapolis this season. He’s a phone call away.

The Pirates were believed to be looking for a left-handed reliever at the trade deadline. They have one at Indianapolis -- Andy Oliver with a 2.17 ERA.

This is not to suggest Mazzaro and Oliver are anything special. They’re not. But they would be better pieces in the Pirates’ bullpen than Pimentel and Frieri. Better pieces lead to a greater opportunity for victory. That's what it's about for the Pirates this season.

Better still, veteran left-handed reliever Matt Thornton, who had a 2.55 ERA in 46 games, was acquired on waivers by the Washington Nationals from the New York Yankees yesterday. By virtue of a worse record, the Pirates had to pass on Thornton before Washington could claim him. How did that happen?

Huntington needs to start running the Pirates like they’re in a pennant race and not likes it’s 2008.

•••

The loss to Miami wasn’t the worst news of the night for the Pirates. In a rehab start with Indianapolis, Gerrit Cole gave up five earned runs and 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings to Toledo. He walked one and struck out three. Cole gave up a run in the first and four in the fifth, including the third home run of the season by James McCann.

The Pirates were hopeful Cole would be able to join the rotation after this game, which was his second rehab start. Based on that performance, a quick return is not likely.


First Published August 6, 2014 12:00 AM

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