The Pittsburgh Pirates enter the 2013 season with more questions at the relief-pitcher position than usual.
Neal Huntington has a penchant for picking up valuable relievers late in the offseason, but the Bucs were awfully quiet on that front this year. As a result of that inactivity and of two recent trades, the Pirates lack the experience they have had at the position in recent years.
But the Bucs may lack experience by design, as several younger relievers have made their way through the farm system and are ready to contribute at the major league level. Though it is less clear who the lynch-pins will be, the Pirates have some reason to remain confident that they can rely on their bullpen.
By definition, members of the bullpen are not "starters," so I will use this section to highlight those pitchers who are likely to pitch the seventh through ninth innings for the Bucs.
The Pirates have undergone a bit of a shakeup in the back of their bullpen over the last six months, with former closer Joel Hanrahan and seventh-inning man Brad Lincoln traded away in separate transactions. Jason Grilli, last year's eighth-inning reliever who posted career-high strikeout rates, will take over the closer role.
Mark Melancon, whom the Pirates acquired as part of their return for Hanrahan, and Jared Hughes will serve as the primary bridges from the rotation to Grilli. Melancon struggled early last season and gave up a ton of home runs, but otherwise he had decent peripherals and was relatively unlucky. Hughes gets a lot of ground balls and is a solid pitcher, but he is by no means a shutdown guy.
Beyond the players mentioned above, the Pirates don't have too many relievers on the Opening Day roster who are capable of maintaining high-leverage roles.
Tony Watson, who will start the season as the Pirates' top left-handed reliever, is probably the best remaining pitcher. He gets a lot of strikeouts, but needs to improve his control.
Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris are two higher-upside options who have made their way through the farm system. Wilson still has control problems, and Morris will likely start the season in Triple-A, but they have the potential to be strong late-inning options.
Chris Leroux and Jeanmar Gomez are both likely to break camp with the team, but given Leroux's recent struggles, neither player is more than a long reliever at this point.
Down on the Farm
Most teams do not have too many relief prospects, as good pitching prospects should be brought through the system as starters and converted to relievers as a last resort. That said, there are a few players in the Bucs' organization worth keeping an eye on.
Vic Black continues to progress nicely through the system, striking out nearly 13 batters per game in 51 Double-A appearances last season. He can improve upon his control, but he looks like a future back-end reliever even without doing so.
Ryan Beckman has not put up numbers that are quite as dominant as Black's, but he was very solid in High-A last season. A promotion to Altoona will represent an important stepping stone for him as he looks to replicate Black's success.
Otherwise, the Pirates' relief "prospects" are mostly comprised of failed starters like Tim Alderson, but relievers can develop quickly at higher levels of the organization, so the Bucs are actually in pretty good shape here.