The Pittsburgh Pirates set their 40-man roster on Friday, adding just four prospects to the list, and leaving Clay Holmes and Barrett Barnes as two of the unprotected prospects. They also left two roster spots open, which raised questions about why they didn’t protect Holmes and Barnes, and what their plans are for those spots.
One thing we do know is that the open spots have nothing to do with the upcoming Rule 5 draft and the Pirates’ plans on taking a player. They might take a player in the draft and they might not. Last year they didn’t take a player, but they’ve taken plenty of guys in previous years. But they don’t need open spots right now to take a guy. They can clear a roster spot right before the Rule 5 draft if they want to take a player. They wouldn’t have even known which players were left unprotected for the Rule 5 draft when they set their 40-man roster, so there’s no way the decision was based on that aspect.
There are guys on the current 40-man roster with lower upsides than Holmes or Barnes, such as Guido Knudson and Jorge Rondon, who were both waiver claims and added to the 40-man roster this off-season. But neither of these guys, nor anyone else who might be a risk of being removed from the 40-man this off-season, impacted the decision. To think that would assume the Pirates only plan on adding two more players to the 40-man roster this off-season, and won’t need any additional spots. Guys like Knudson and Rondon will probably be waived later in the off-season to create room. They were added at the time to get them in the system, with the hope that they remain in the system as an option next year.
Looking ahead to the off-season, the Pirates have several moves to make. They need at least one starting pitching option. They might trade Mark Melancon, Neil Walker, and/or Pedro Alvarez. They’ll need some bench and bullpen options as well. And you can expect more waiver claims in the future. All of these moves will have an impact on the 40-man roster.
The most complicated aspect here is the Melancon/Walker/Alvarez situation. Trading those guys would clear up spaces on the 40-man, although those exact same spots would be needed for their replacements. The Pirates would also need spots for the guys they got back in those trades, assuming they deal for guys on the 40-man roster. That’s not a guarantee. They traded Travis Snider last year for Steven Brault/Stephen Tarpley, who were both non 40-man guys. But back when they dealt Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to the Red Sox, they landed four guys who were on the 40-man roster. Granted, one of those guys was Hanrahan’s replacement, Melancon, so they didn’t need any additional moves to replace Hanrahan.
As for the other additions, we know that the Pirates need a starting pitcher, and they will probably need some additional bullpen and bench help. There are probably at least 2-3 spots needed on the 40-man for those spots.
A quick look at the expected moves this off-season shows why the Pirates might have needed those two 40-man spots more than they needed to protect Holmes and Barnes. It’s also possible that the injury histories with both players made it so that they aren’t as big of a risk of being drafted. I think both have the upside for consideration, and the skills to stick in the majors as role players for now, with teams sacrificing that roster spot to try and get their upside in the system long-term.
One thing I’ve been saying since mid-season in regards to this Rule 5 crunch is that the Pirates were set to have way too many guys on the 40-man who couldn’t help in April. They already had Alen Hanson, Elias Diaz, Keon Broxton, John Holdzkom, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, Willy Garcia, and Gift Ngoepe. Some of those guys might help out in April, and a few have the chance to make the opening day roster (mainly Broxton, Holdzkom, and Ngoepe as bench/bullpen guys). When you add the new prospects to the 40-man, you get 12 spots taken by guys who seem to be locks to remain on the 40-man roster all off-season. That doesn’t leave a lot of flexibility to make moves.
It’s entirely possible that leaving Holmes and Barnes could end up a mistake. Maybe the Pirates don’t need the roster spots for trades. Maybe someone like Tony Sanchez remains on the 40-man all off-season, only to be let go in Spring Training. If that happens and Holmes or Barnes are lost, then it would look like a bad move. But right now it’s easy to see why the Pirates might prefer to keep two open spaces for a busy off-season, and why they might be willing to gamble that two guys with injury histories who haven’t had success above A-ball might not be a risk to be lost.