First Pitch: Decision Time For the Pirates

BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates will have a lot of interesting roster decisions to make this week, as they try to set their Opening Day roster before the season begins on Sunday. A lot of the bigger decisions will be made tomorrow, with a few opt-out decisions due, making it a huge transaction day. We’ll have all of that covered throughout the day, but for now, we wanted to give a preview of what to expect.

I’m not going to be making predictions here on what will happen. I’ll give my thoughts in some cases on what should happen. But ultimately, everything is up in the air here. Before getting to the key decisions, here is the breakdown of where the roster stands.

Roster Spots

The biggest issue the Pirates will face will be a lack of roster spots on the 40-man. There is one easy decision they could make, and that is designating Pedro Florimon for assignment. With Gift Ngoepe on the 40-man roster, and eligible to be optioned all year back and forth between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, the Pirates have no real need for Florimon. They can get by without a strong defensive backup shortstop when Jordy Mercer is healthy, and they still have Gift to call up if Mercer goes down.

From here, the decisions get more difficult. If you want to be unrealistic, then you could say that Sean Rodriguez, Jeff Locke, or whatever other player you under-value should go off the roster. But that’s not happening in those cases, and those players are good enough to be on a Major League roster anyway.

The tricky thing here is balancing depth with immediate need. I’ve seen Rob Scahill mentioned as a guy who can go, but Scahill is a guy who hits 98 MPH with his fastball (something that most people pushing him out overlook) and he has an option. Even if he doesn’t make the roster, that’s good bullpen depth. The same goes for Trey Haley and Kyle Lobstein. Those are your depth options for the bullpen if they don’t make the Opening Day roster. And the Pirates will eventually need all three of them.

Then there’s the depth for position players. Jake Goebbert is the guy who stands out here, as he’s not a “prospect” (despite having eligibility). But who else can back up the outfield if the Pirates need depth? Willy Garcia, if he’s ready. Matt Joyce, if he’s still around. Adam Frazier can also join the “if he’s ready” camp. Then there’s Goebbert, who would be ready at the start of the year, before Frazier or Garcia.

In each case, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where you won’t need three bullpen guys out of Triple-A, or an extra outfielder. But that’s not realistic when you get into the season.

The one other guy who might be able to be outrighted would be John Holdzkom. You’d run the risk of another team trying to pick him up, hoping he gets right, and getting a huge value. Then again, teams could see his injury history last year, see his current possible injury status, and balk at claiming him.

Here are the key situations to watch this week. None of them are clear-cut, so I’ll break down the roster situations that might factor in with each player.

Matt Joyce

The Pirates must pay Joyce a $100,000 retention bonus tomorrow, or release him. He’s been hitting well, but the roster is crowded. The bench will have Chris Stewart, Sean Rodriguez, and Michael Morse. Joyce will be going up against Cole Figueroa, Jason Rogers, and Goebbert, who I think will go down and serve as Triple-A depth.

I think you need a second middle infielder in the bench mix, so I’d have Figueroa getting a spot. From there, it really doesn’t matter who you pick, since the other guy would probably be gone in a few weeks when Jung-ho Kang returns and David Freese moves to the bench.

If the Pirates add Joyce, then they’re really adding him for just a few weeks. After that, he can go through waivers and would probably get claimed. Or, they’d be stuck with Sean Rodriguez as their only middle infielder off the bench if they decided to keep Joyce over Figueroa. On the flip side, the Pirates could lose Joyce anyway tomorrow if they don’t add him to the roster. As we saw with Eric O’Flaherty, teams will trade a veteran player who has a big league opportunity, rather than stashing him in the minors. This is a common practice across the league, aimed at keeping good relations with future free agent options. If another team wants Joyce for the majors, the Pirates would be unlikely to block him just to keep him around as depth.

So do the Pirates keep Joyce, and then either lose him or have a bench full of corner infielders and corner outfielders in a few weeks? Or do they let him go and roll the dice with Jason Rogers off the bench in the short-term, with David Freese taking the spot in the long-term?

Cory Luebke

Luebke also has an opt-out tomorrow, and needs to be added to the roster to be protected. I mentioned last week that the Pirates only need to add him to the 40-man roster to protect him. This is true, although he has more than five years of service time, and they would need his consent to send him to the minors. So adding him to the 40-man roster really does nothing in this case, since he could decline to go to the minors either way.

This leaves two scenarios. The easy scenario is that Luebke wants to stick around for a bit, and makes it easy on the Pirates, where they can retain him without using a roster spot. The difficult scenario has Luebke wanting to opt out. With his stuff this spring, and his history, it would be hard to imagine teams passing on him. So the Pirates could either let him walk, or they could add him for a final bullpen spot.

I doubt they let him walk. That would mean they would have gotten rid of two left-handed relievers, leaving Kyle Lobstein as the only top lefty option next to Tony Watson. If Luebke is added to the bullpen, then that would take up the final spot, and settle the question of whether the Pirates will carry two lefties. Also, if Jared Hughes starts the season on the disabled list, it could make it more likely that Luebke makes the team, since they would already be tapping into their reliever depth, and might want more options in the mix.

The biggest question in this situation is whether Luebke wants to stick around, and I think that would be determined by what kind of interest he receives from other clubs.

Juan Nicasio

This isn’t a situation that needs to be resolved tomorrow, but at some point the Pirates need to make a decision on whether Juan Nicasio should be in the rotation. He’s currently going up against Ryan Vogelsong and Jeff Locke for one of the final two spots. If the decision was mine, Nicasio would be in the rotation.

This decision could impact the bullpen decision, especially if Jeff Locke ends up as the odd man out. In that scenario, the Pirates might not need an extra lefty like Luebke, since Locke would take over as the second lefty in the bullpen (but probably more of a long man). No matter who goes to the bullpen, they will pitch in long relief, with the chance to move around in some other roles.

Outside of the final bench spots and the final bullpen spot, this is the only decision the Pirates need to make this week. We’ll see how it all plays out, starting tomorrow.

**We will have coverage from Bradenton of all the moves tomorrow, along with full analysis of each transaction, and comments from Neal Huntington. If you aren’t a subscriber, you don’t want to miss out on this, plus all of our other great reporting and analysis during the spring and throughout the season. Subscribe today to get all of the coverage.

**The Pirates Prospects App is Now Available For Apple Devices on the App Store. Over the weekend we released our app for Apple devices. The Android app is also available on the Play Store. Both are free downloads, and really upgrade the way you can view the site.

**Pirates Notes: Two Trends That Could Signal a Bounce Back For Neftali Feliz. I broke down the end of the 2015 season for Feliz, and some trends he has carried over into camp so far this year.

**Pirates LHP Prospect Stephen Tarpley Will Start the Season on the DL. He’s one of the pitching prospects I was really looking forward to seeing in Bradenton. That will be delayed a bit now.

**Jung-ho Kang Plays at Third Base in a Game For the First Time. I was the only one there covering the game, and talked with Kang after. Get the only first-hand report, along with video of him running the bases after, in the article.

**One of the Many Talented Pitching Prospects Who Gets Lost in the Pirates’ System. A look at a pitching prospect who hits 97 MPH and somehow gets lost in this deep system.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Bryan Reynolds Homers Three Times This Weekend. John Dreker has the latest updates on the players who have been ranked around where the Pirates pick.

**Trevor Williams Looking to Develop His Slider Into an Out Pitch. From Sunday, a look at Trevor Williams’ developmental plans this year.

**Pirates Notes: Juan Nicasio Looks Like He Belongs in the Pirates Rotation. Also from Sunday, breaking down Juan Nicasio’s last outing, and my thoughts on why he should be in the rotation.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    March 29, 2016 11:17 am

    Wow, with a couple of exceptions, the above list of “bubble” players is pretty dismal…how does a team that won 98 games last year find itself contemplating the likes of Goebbert, Figueroa, Scahill, and Florimon to be part of its 25 man roster? Then add in Rodriguez to that mix, as well as Jason Rogers? That sounds like the makings of a AAA roster…
    Luebke should stay, since we can’t have Watson’s arm falling off from over work. We have to have a decent second LH reliever and we gave away one candidate to be good corporate citizens. Joyce is a much better player and hitter than Goebbert, Rogers, or Rodriguez for that matter….he should stay just to have at least one respectable bat on the bench. Scahill may throw 98, but really so what? What has he done with that unique skill to have earned a roster spot? We all know we are stuck with Rogers and Vogelsong – they aren’t going anywhere.
    As opposed to the past 3 -4 seasons, I am not excited about this team…the FO has really weakened this roster overall, and did nothing to fix the rotation. We can only hope that somehow Niese pitches like he did in 2011-2012 and Nicasio has a career year.

  • Any update on the get together in Pgh this weekend?

  • Has there been any updates on polanco

  • I don’t think there is one semi serious pirates fan who is unaware scahill throws 95, this is repeated comstantly in his defense. The fact remains he has been below replacement every year since 2012 and is projected to be below replacement again this year

    • 95 from the right side out of the pen in 2016 means little to nothing. Just not that interesting at this point.

      • My thoughts too. What teams don’t have that type of player already?

        • The option he has is the most attractive piece. Well, that and the GB rate from last year.

  • Is A second middle infield option necessary when Kang comes back? I kind of like an established former All Star veteran off the bench rather than a AAAA guy who has never stuck in Cole F. I would send him to Indy as insurance.

  • I am having trouble with the logic that short stop is completely off limits for Kang when he returns. If he is healthy enough to return, he should be healthy enough to play short, otherwise wait a little longer to come back. The team is so much better if Kang is the starting shortstop (playing it well enough defensively of course) and Mercer is his backup on the bench. This makes it easier to keep Joyce around as well. Even if it makes more sense to start Mercer due to superior defense, let Kang be the backup there and get creative with how you assign rest days.

    • Kang didnt exactly have the range that allows him to lose some and still be average at SS.

      He’s got a fine arm and decent glove, but if he’s lost a degree of range it can alter how effective his overall defense is. I think simplifying things while he returns makes sense and really allows the infield defense to be at its best.

  • domdidominic
    March 29, 2016 6:23 am

    According to Searage, the rotation and probably pen is going to be decided today. After hearing Hurdle yesterday, that does not mean they will release it to the press, but players will know.
    I imagine if Joyce is not making the club, he will be dealt today.

  • pantherfan83
    March 29, 2016 6:00 am

    Time for the usual roster decision injury.

  • HartHighPirate
    March 29, 2016 2:26 am

    Catcher Jacob Stallings father is the new basketball coach at Pitt.

  • I expect them to start the season with Joyce. It will be good to have a left-handed bat to start the season, and if he and/or Morse are hitting to start the season, when Kang gets back, maybe they have one or both of those guys to dangle for small value, like low-level high-risk prospects they think they can turn around or another bullpen arm in case they lose some of their depth somehow.

    Full roster prediction follows:
    Regulars: Cervelli, Jaso, Harrison, Freese, Mercer, Marte, McCutchen, Polanco
    Bench: Stewart, Joyce, Morse, Figueroa, Rodriguez

    Starters: Cole, Liriano, Niese, Vogelsong/Nicasio, Locke
    Bullpen: Melancon, Watson, Feliz, Luebke, Vogelsong/Nicasio, Caminero, Huges/Scahill (depending on Hughes’s health)

    • I don’t disagree…but, with all the redundancy at first base, I think the Pirates would take a Morton-type deal when it comes to Morse…first team that offers to take his contract gets him….

      • This could happen at any time, although it is more likely after Kang comes back.

        Although at this point his bat appears to be much better than Rogers, I’m sure they would move him if they could find a scenario where they didn’t need to eat money. They can wait and hope he gets off to a hot start.

      • Agree. Now that Freese is on the roster, Morse looks to be odd man out.

      • Depends on how he performs i’d think.

        Much as we say he’s redundant, Rogers is no mortal lock to hit well off the bench. With the bench as it is, if Morse hits relatively well to start the year we arent do deep in bench bats that we can salary dump one.

        • Actually, I wasn’t factoring Rogers into the equation.

          I would agree that Morse’s bat has the potential to make him more valuable…I’m just not sure how many PAs he can get before Kang’s return to have that opportunity.

          If the rest of the slotted starters are relatively healthy, I wonder whether Morse and S-Rod might be splitting 1B RH starts. And, if Kang is back in 12-18 games, I could envision Morse being at only 10-20 PAs before Freese becomes the new top option as a backup.

          Morse isn’t a bad guy to have on the team…it’s just the Pirates have a few others like him and he’s the highest paid….I’m still glad he’s wearing the jersey as opposed to Tabata 🙂

    • I agree, With their lineup being so RH heavy, they need two LH bats on the bench. When Kang comes back I think they look to trade Morse.

    • I like it, but what value do you attribute to Sean Rodriguez? OF depth? IF depth? Bench/PH?

    • Well, I was wrong about Scahill it appears.