Being a relief pitcher in the minor leagues is not sexy. It is different than being a major league reliever. Starters are on shorter limits in the minors so relievers have to go 2-3 innings per outing. As a result they might only pitch every 3 days.
This year, the unsung heroes of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans are the pitchers in the bullpen. The Pelicans captured the Southern Division first half title with a 41-28 record, but the starters on the team struggled quite a bit moving up from low-A Kane County this spring. That meant the bullpen had to step it to hold the opposition down. And in doing so, the bullpen had to transform itself during the first half.
At the beginning of the year, the bullpen consisted of returning high-A veterans Tayler Scott (who started in 2014), Starling Peralta, Michael Heesch, Juan Paniagua (who also started a little at Daytona in 2014) and Gerardo Concepcion. Matt Brazis, who came over in the Justin Ruggiano trade, lead the newcomers. He was joined by James Pugliese, who came from Kane County, and Josh Conway, who started in small stints at Boise in 2014 after missing two years from injuries.
It was thought that the amazing group of six starters that came from and dominated at Kane County in 2014 would do the same at high-A in 2015. Yeah, that didn’t happen. From the get-go, the starters struggled (save for Duane Underwood) and this bullpen group was tested early. They were asked to enter games early, often in the third or fourth inning, and hold the opponent scoreless until the offense got back in the game. They all adjusted to their new roles with ease.
Scott, Paniagua, and Heesch were all very good. Starling Peralta and Brazis were only in town a few weeks before they were promoted to Tennessee. In their stead came Jasvir Rakkar from South Bend. Zach Cates and Fernando Cruz came from Tennessee in early May as Tayler Scott earned a promotion to AA, deservedly so for his sub-2 ERA.
May saw the bullpen at its finest. Heesch, Pugliese, Cates, and Rakkar were dominant in the month and Conway struggled in his new role, but Cruz adjusted to his reassignment. The Pelicans offense hummed along, the starting pitching began to improve adjusting to a new level, and the bullpen just kept going.
Zach Cates had taken the place of Scott and the pen didn’t skip a beat. Cates put up a 1.50 ERA in 12 appearances. When June came, so did some trouble as the team began to stumble. They limped to the finish line but won the first half and secured a spot in the playoffs in September.
June saw the emergence of Josh Conway in the bullpen, and it’s a good story. Conway was drafted out of Coastal Carolina in the fourth round in 2012. He didn’t see a mound as a Cub until last year due to a series of injuries, including Tommy John surgery and an elbow stress fracture. All of last year he was limited to three-inning starts at Boise, but he compiled a 1.96 ERA over 36 innings.
When 2015 began, Conway skipped low-A and came to Myrtle Beach as a reliever. April was not kind as he struggled skipping a level, posting an ERA of 6.00 in 9 innings. May was not much better as he had a 5.00 ERA in 9 innings. But June came and Conway began to put it together. His low-to-mid-90’s fastball meshed with a solid curve to produce an ERA of 1.54 in 11 innings.
Conway still has trouble with walks, but it is getting better. He has yet to allow a run in July and his ERA has dropped 2.30 since May 1.
Here are some stats for the current bullpen members through last Friday.
The two main constants this year are Pugliese, a righty, and Heesch, a lefty. Paniagua has been up and down; after a brilliant April and May, he struggled in June. Jasvir Rakkar has been pretty steady in his time and acclimated well to the closing role at this level.
Pugliese, the righty out of Mercer County CC, was a 2011 draft pick of the Jim Hendry era. The Cubs completely rebuilt his delivery after the 2013 season, when he was a starter with poor results, and transformed him into a stud reliever. In 2014 at Kane County, he adjusted easily to his new role with a 1.66 ERA in 54+ innings. He flashes a mid-90’s fastball with a 12-6 nasty curve.
As for Heesch, originally from Crystal Lake and Prairie Ridge High School and drafted by the Cubs in the eighth round in 2012, pitching for his hometown Cubs has been his dream. The 6-5, 265 lb lefty is a huge presence on the mound and is known to be quite fierce, as he is not afraid to pitch inside, a valuable skill for a reliever. Like Pugliese, Heesch was a starter through 2013. He morphed into a reliever last year, going 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA in 45 innings at Kane County. This year is even better.
It’s unlikely that either pitcher will be long for Myrtle Beach. Late Sunday, it was announced Heesch would be heading to Iowa, skipping AA Tennessee. He will likely be filling in for a couple of weeks and then returning to the Pelicans.
— MyrtleBeachPelicans (@Pelicanbaseball) July 5, 2015
I asked Pelican’s announcer Nathan Barnett to come up with one word to describe each of these relievers.
Heesch: Left Handed – In a system short on lefties, especially left-handed relievers, Heesch’s success stands out at Myrtle Beach as he is the only lefty on the roster.
Rakkar: Cool – You have to be cool to be a closer. For Rakkar, he has come on strong in the last year. First at Kane County down the stretch in August last year and in the playoffs, and now at Myrtle Beach.
Pugliese: Fearless – Pugliese’s attitude on the mound is that he attacks hitters and gets ahead in the count. He is not afraid to throw any pitch in any count.
Conway: Fighter – after overcoming two injuries and a poor start, Conway’s hard work is paying off.
Paniagua: Electric – The former starter does have electric stuff. He went through a rough patch but appears to have righted himself.
Cruz: Mature – At 25, the former 3B has had a rough year but still takes the ball, now as a starter, to help improve his chances of getting back to Tennessee.
After the All-Star break, the Pelican bats went cold as Skulina, Underwood, and Blackburn all went on the DL within a week of each other. Cruz was pressed into service as a starter and Cates was promoted back to Tennessee. There were a lot in a short period of time.
New blood came to the bullpen from South Bend in the form of David Garner and James Farris. As players worked to acclimate to new roles and environments, the Pelicans limped out to a 3-6 second-half start.
With everyone gunning for the Pelicans in the second half, not to mention the inevitable promotions, the Pelicans’ bullpen will be tested again. With the injuries to the starters, the pen will be essential for the Pelicans moving forward. They’ve done it all year long, they will do it again. While the starters may get the headlines, the pen has held up their end.