Versatile middle relievers should improve ‘pen

PITTSBURGH — Last year, the Pirates sought to build a bullpen that would “protect” their rotation, gathering a handful of long relievers behind the back-end trio of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz. The plan was solid in theory but flawed in execution.

“It just didn’t work very well,” general manager Neal Huntington said recently.

Pittsburgh’s rotation faltered from the start and exposed what turned out to be a weak middle-relief corps. The Pirates’ bullpen posted a 4.36 ERA and totaled minus-0.7 Wins Above Replacement in April, both second-worst in the Majors’ according to FanGraphs.

This year, the Pirates are putting together a similar plan and expecting better results. Pittsburgh will enter the season with questions in the back of the bullpen: Can Watson bounce back as the closer? Will Felipe Rivero take a step forward? How will Daniel Hudson fit in? The difference this year is the more capable, versatile group the Bucs will have in front of the late-inning guys.

“I would anticipate putting multiple multiple-inning guys in our bullpen again this year to protect our young starters or whatever we’re able to do to put this rotation together,” Huntington said.

It would help if the rotation holds up its end of the bargain and pitches deep into games, one of the factors that led to a reunion with Ivan …

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