Abundance of lefty relievers gives Bucs options
Watching incumbents and non-roster invitees, Hurdle pleased with possibilities
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Anyone wishing to say nice things about the Pittsburgh Pirates could start off by paying them a left-handed compliment.
The Bucs are in an enviable position from the port side. Their rotation sets up well enough, particularly if Wandy Rodriguez makes it all the way back to join ace Francisco Liriano and All-Star Jeff Locke. A trio would match the total of projected left-handed starters in the rest of the National League Central.
"In our division, I really like having another left-handed starter in the starting rotation," said manager Clint Hurdle, no doubt mindful that the Cardinals and the Reds had combined to go 46-48 in games started by lefties last season.
However, the bullpen is where the Pirates' lefty load is sick. If left-handed relievers, for their ability to match up against the game-changing lefty sluggers, are big league gold, the Bucs are sitting on a Fort Knox.
The two incumbent left-handed relievers -- Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, who between them made 125 appearances last season and posted an ERA of 2.23 -- made their delayed Grapefruit League debuts in Monday's 7-6 win over Boston in McKechnie Field.
Watson and Wilson may have been itching to be seen, considering a quartet of outside candidates had already caught Hurdle's eye.
Joely Rodriguez and a trio of non-roster invitees -- Yao-Hsun Yang, Daniel Schlereth and Adam Wilk -- had combined to allow one run in eight innings through the weekend.
Watson added a perfect inning to that ledger. Wilson was dirtier, allowing a two-run homer to Bryce Brentz -- Hurdle: "He left one changeup up that was hit for the homer." -- in his two-thirds of an inning.
"It was his first outing," Hurdle said. "We needed to get those guys on the mound. He'll be much more comfortable with a better feel for things next time out."
The Pirates' staff is thrilled by the abundance of credible lefty relief arms, also a huge NL Central asset. Last season, St. Louis hit .140 against left-handed relievers.
"That's why we brought them in," Hurdle said when asked about having a "plethora" of lefty relief options. "We got some people we want to look at."
Yang, from Taiwan, was signed after Spring Training camp had already opened and earned a win (over the Yankees) in the first of his two appearances. Schlereth has the most big league experience (94 appearances with Arizona and Detroit in 2009-12) and has had two scoreless outings. However, Wilk has been the biggest eye-opener.
After four years in the Detroit organization that included a couple of brief trials with the Tigers, Wilk last year joined an expansion team in South Korea in hopes of proving to Major League scouts his ability to take regular turns in a five-man rotation.
Instead, he appealed to the Bucs as a reliever, and has been nearly spotless his first two outings.
"He had to find a way to do some things differently," Hurdle said, "and it could bode very well for him in his future. There's some deception in the delivery. There's a little late movement. He's worked very hard. He wanted to get back to the States and seemed to be a good fit with us. We'll continue to give him the ball and see what he can do."
The competition raises hurdles for Wilk's chances of making a Major League return from his South Korean detour, but even he acknowledges the luxury of the depth.
"Having a myriad of quality lefties, in the long run, is good. It breeds competition," Wilk said. "And if each of us embrace that competition, it'll make everybody better.
"Options are a great thing to have; they really strengthen your team -- as opposed to finding it difficult to pick seven guys to make up the bullpen. Also, they allow you to have some alternative in Triple-A if players don't perform in the big leagues."
"It's not like every time you take the ball, if you don't have a good outing, you're out," Hurdle said. "But we do have depth -- that's the one thing we tried to create. And the guys understand that. We pretty much laid it out for them in our entrance interviews, letting them know where they stand.
"Now it's time for them to go and enjoy the competition, and see where it takes them and us. But the competition is healthy."
It is extremely early in the process, but if enough people do not pitch themselves out of this competition, one of two things is likely to happen.
If general manager Neal Huntington sees a need, and an opportunity, to make a trade to improve another area of the team, his exchange price would come from this stockpile.
Or, the GM will face some tough decisions come March 30. Huntington professed he would relish that.
"We're looking forward to the challenging decision of taking our seven best relievers north," Huntington said. "What does that mean, bigger picture? It will work itself out because of injury and attrition."
Indeed, it always seems to.
"How many pitchers did we use last year?" asked Hurdle, knowing the answer. "Twenty-seven. So if you don't break camp with us on March 30, you want to go down and work yourself into being the next guy up."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.