Pirates Clint Hurdle needs to remove Watson from the closer role, that much is obvious.
Who should take over the role is a by more complicated. There’s Juan Nicasio, a starter turned reliever that has hit his stride and strikes out 8.4 batters per nine innings, but he’s never saved before. Felipe Rivero is also an option. He’s the NL leader in ERA (0.60), a flame throwing left hander that strikes out nearly ten batters per nine innings. If you’re feeling experimental you could use Tyler Glasnow in the same way Adam Wainwright was used by the St Louis Cardinals in his rookie year. The Glasnow idea is a little out there but the other two pitchers would be fine options. Which one should Hurdle go with?
Chapman clone: The Pirates could try and emulate one of the greatest closers in the majors. Although Felipe doesn’t throw as fast as Chapman, he is still a fire balling left hander. Rivero can hit triple digits, is young, and has better control than Chapman ever had. The kid is striking out major league hitters left and right (literally).
He has a blazing fastball, a sweeping slider, and a 87 mph changeup that screws up everyone’s timing. He’s also making 84.5 million dollars less than Chapman. He’s only allowed two extra base hits and has a 64% groundball rate. He was acquired in the Melancon trade with the Washington Nationals and was slated to be the future closer. Perhaps the future is now.
The starter turned reliever turned shut down closer: Much like Wade Davis, Juan Nicasio was a failed starter. They were both moved to the bullpen and found success. Wade Davis pitched himself into the closing role of perhaps the greatest bullpen of all time (‘15 and ‘16 Kansas City Royals). He mowed down hitters with a devastating cutter that batters couldn’t touch. Juan hasn’t made his way into the dominant closer role but he is a dominant relief arm. In 26 innings he’s allowed a .204 average, only seven extra base hits (all doubles), and has a 1.35 ERA. Nicasio strikes out 23.4% of batters and only walks 7.5%. He’s got the stuff to be a setup guy at least. Nicasio lacks the devastating pitch of a classic shutdown closer but the Pirates don’t need that, they just need him to be better than Watson.
Rookie Starter: This particular suggestion is on the extreme side but hear me out before you close the tab. The Cardinals won the 2006 World Series due to the efforts of multiple players but the role of Adam Wainwright can not be over stated. He was a rookie pitcher but instead of starting he closed out games in the postseason. He shut down rallies then and the next season he took that experience and became a full time starter. Tyler Glasnow is a rookie pitcher with the Pirates. He’s struggling right now and could use an ego boost.
At the beginning of the season this wouldn’t even be an option but the emergence of Trevor Williams and hopeful return of Jameson Taillon means there are six starters for five spots. Glasnow could be a great reliever, he has a devastating curve and a good fastball. He allows very weak contact and his numbers first time through the order is much better than the second. His future is still in the rotation but if the Pirates aim to compete this could be the play to attain optimal rotation and bullpen success.
The bullpen of the future: Whether you’ve noticed or not, the closer role is dying/becoming obsolete. Sure a bunch of closers got paid this offseason but there is a change in the air. Teams are trying to copy the usage of Andrew Miller from last year’s postseason: Bring in your best reliever in the time of greatest need. The classic tactic is to use the closer in the ninth only, maybe the eighth if there are men on. It doesn’t matter if the hitters in the eighth are two, three, four and the ninth inning hitters are five, six, seven. The eighth inning is going to be a tougher inning, so why use an inferior pitcher? The Pirates have been on the forefront of many statistical innovations and this is one they should utilize immediately.
Here’s how it works: the starter works seven innings and comes out. The best hitters (three, four, and five hitters) are up to hit next in the eighth. Bring in fire breathing Rivero (I’ve used fire so many times to describe Rivero that I now imagine him as Bowser). to keep the best hitters from starting a rally. In the ninth bring in Nicasio, or Watson if he proves himself reliable again, to face the bottom of the order. Nicasio is a great reliever. The point is whoever is up in the lineup should determine the pitcher, not the inning.
It’ll take a manager with some stones to follow this path and some pitchers willing to buy into it. Pittsburgh may be in the perfect situation to shake up the baseball world. Hurdle hasn’t shied away from analytical changes, his Pirates were one of the first teams to utilize the shift multiple times per game. Watson could throw a fit but he has to know his time as a closer is up. Rivero and Nicasio should buy in because it will allow them to tally saves (i.e money in arbitration). It is a bold proposal but the Pirates need wins and it may be the best way to make sure the Pirates no longer blow saves.