Spring training: Meek, Bootcheck on pen perimeter
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- With the majority of the Pirates' bullpen still unsettled, it is easy to envision a scenario in which the final spot comes down to Evan Meek and Chris Bootcheck.
Matt Capps, John Grabow and Tyler Yates are locks, with Sean Burnett a virtual lock.
Two others come with contractual issues: Craig Hansen, part of the Jason Bay trade, is out of options. And Rule 5 draft pick Donnie Veal would have to be returned to the Chicago Cubs if left off the roster. On top of that each has pitched mostly well.
That would make six and, assuming a starter is not kept for long relief, that would leave one opening.
"It's not going to be easy for anyone, from the way it looks," Meek said.
To this point, though, Meek and Bootcheck have stood out among those on the perimeter.
Meek, 25, surely is remembered in Pittsburgh as the Rule 5 pick the previous year who walked five batters in one inning of the home opener, then fell apart for a 6.92 ERA before being offered back to Tampa Bay in early May.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington liked Meek enough to offer cash to the Rays to get Meek back and send him into the minors, and he now sounds glad he did.
"Evan really came through, every step of the way," Huntington said.
That began with Class AA Altoona and a 2.81 ERA in nine appearances, continued to Class AAA Indianapolis and a 2.40 ERA in 23 appearances and, according to some in management, skyrocketed in a Mexican winter session that included a 2.93 ERA and 13 saves in 18 appearances.
What happened to that nervous, no-control kid seen at PNC Park last year?
"It's all kind of black-and-white since then," Meek said. "After being sent all the way down to Altoona, I looked it as just a chance to start over."
It has not stopped this spring: He has a 0.00 ERA in seven appearances -- including a scoreless ninth inning yesterday in the 2-2 tie with the Toronto Blue Jays at Dunedin Stadium -- with two hits, five strikeouts and still no walks. All while showing off a hefty repertoire for a reliever, with a blazing fastball -- the kind he was too erratic to show in Pittsburgh -- as well as a cutter, splitter and slider.
"He's kept up what we've seen for a while now," Huntington said.
"It's just confidence," Meek said. "In Mexico, I think, I really zeroed in on the type of pitcher I should be, and now, it's just strike one, strike two and so on. I feel like I can make my pitch in any situation."
Bootcheck, 30, has four pitches, too, a fastball, cutter, changeup and a trademark curve he deploys as an out pitch, something not seen much in baseball anymore.
"It's a beauty," senior adviser Chuck Tanner said.
Far from beautiful are Bootcheck's statistics in spending parts of the past five season with the Los Angeles Angels -- 6.04 ERA in 77 appearances -- which likely explains why he never had a stay longer than 10 games with the exception of 2007, when he made 51 appearances with a 4.77 ERA.
He might finally have gained a toehold after 2007 except that the following spring and summer were derailed by a strained oblique and sore arm.
"It was always tough, anyway, because the Angels have had one of the deepest bullpens in the majors for years, but those injuries really hurt," Bootcheck said. "I never really settled into a comfort zone."
So, he looked elsewhere for the first time and chose the Pirates.
"I had other teams interested, but I'm looking for opportunity," he said.
He has made the most of it this spring: He has a 3.86 ERA with five hits, eight strikeouts and three walks in six appearances, and all three runs allowed came in mopping up Tom Gorzelanny's mess Monday against the Boston Red Sox. Even there, he did some of his most impressive work, striking out three batters in a row to escape the inning.
"Chris has done a good job finishing off innings, and he's shown a good variety of pitches," Huntington said. "He's been intriguing."
First Published March 12, 2009 12:00 am