The Opening Day roster is all but set. The Pirates cut nine players this morning, leaving 26 active players in camp. The only question mark remaining is whether Brandon Inge will start the season on the disabled list, which would put Josh Harrison on the bench. At this point it looks likely that Inge will start on the DL.
Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington met with the media this morning to discuss some of the moves. Most of the moves today involved the bench, the bullpen, and the final spot in the rotation. Below is a deeper look at the makeup of the team.
No Lefties on the Bench
The bench really isn’t much of a surprise. For a few weeks it has looked like the Pirates would go with a bench like this, or similar to this one. Coming into camp we knew that Michael McKenry and Gaby Sanchez would be on the bench. We had a good idea that Jose Tabata and Travis Snider would be splitting time in right field, with the other player on the bench. That left a middle infield spot and a utility spot — and not many left-handed options to choose from.
I know the bench isn’t much of a surprise because the “no left-handers” complaint has been around for a few weeks. Huntington talked about that today.
“There will be days where we’ll have a left-hander on the bench, depending on who starts and depending on how the first base/right field situation works out,” Huntington said. “It’s going to be kind of an ever-evolving process there. We ultimately need a right-handed compliment for Garrett [Jones], and with [Jose] Tabata we wanted the right-handed compliment in the outfield as well.”
The team basically has two platoons. They’ve got a platoon at first base, and a platoon in right field. I don’t think right field will be a true platoon, but it all boils down to the team having a left-handed hitter in Travis Snider who won’t be getting all of the playing time.
There isn’t much of a need for a lefty on the bench. When a right-handed pitcher starts, Garrett Jones and Travis Snider will be in the lineup. Pedro Alvarez will also be there, and Neil Walker will be batting left-handed. You’re not pinch-hitting for Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, or Starling Marte. When left-handers are starting, you’ll have Jones and Snider available off the bench later in the game if a right-handed reliever comes in.
So really the only purpose for a lefty bat on the bench is if you’ve got a right-handed reliever coming in late in the game on a day where a right-hander started, and you need to pinch hit for Clint Barmes or the pitcher spot in a big moment. Even if that situation comes up, and you bring in the left-hander, what is to stop the other team from countering with a lefty reliever?
On a normal bench you’d want a left-handed hitter. But having two “platoon” situations doesn’t make this a normal bench. The need for a left-handed hitter off the bench on this team is very small.
Does the Bench Signify Depth?
The Pirates cut a few players today who were having good Spring numbers. Felix Pie was hitting for a .318 average and a .991 OPS in 44 at-bats. Alex Presley was batting .304 with a .791 OPS in 46 at-bats. Both were sent to Triple-A, where they will most likely serve as starting outfielders. Both players would have been good options off the bench, had they made the team.
“We told Felix today, he reminds us of Garrett Jones,” Huntington said. “A guy signed as a minor league free agent, had some opportunities earlier in his career. Came into camp with us and had a terrific Spring. In Garrett’s case, we challenged him to keep doing it and he did it. And we created a spot for him on the major league club.”
Huntington talked about some of the tough decisions today. He also mentioned several times that the Opening Day roster was only the Opening Day roster, and that a lot of the players who have been sent down will be options for the Pirates throughout the year.
“One sure sign of an organization that’s moving forward is that you have guys on your bench that can play on a regular basis, and you have guys in Triple-A that can be in the big leagues,” Huntington said. “We sent out a lot of guys today that could be in the big leagues, and will be in the big leagues. We’re not going to go with 25. Opening Day is Opening Day. The third day of the season we might need somebody new because of an injury or because of challenges at some point in April. I understand that everyone wants to look at a roster as if it’s set in stone, and it’s not. It’s an ever-evolving, fluid process. We sent some really good players out of camp today that are going to help us at some point this season.”
Early in camp I talked with an American League scout who started our conversation by saying he was about to jump on board the Pirates’ bandwagon. The reason? Depth. Before most of these players were cut, he talked about guys like Clint Robinson, Jared Goedert, Alex Presley, Ivan De Jesus Jr., and others who would most likely be pushed to Triple-A. He felt that all of those guys had futures as major league players, and could help this year.
There’s no denying that the Pirates have depth. If an outfielder goes down, they’re choosing from Presley, Pie, and Jerry Sands. If a middle infielder goes down, they’re choosing from Jordy Mercer, De Jesus, and Chase d’Arnaud when he returns. If a catcher goes down, they’ve got Tony Sanchez waiting in Triple-A, or Carlos Paulino if they want a strong defensive option. If a pitcher goes down, they’ve got plenty of bullpen options, plus guys like Kyle McPherson, Gerrit Cole, Phil Irwin, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Karstens throughout the year.
As I look at a lot of the complaints about the bench, I don’t think the Pirates have an issue of depth, or finding major leaguers to put on the roster. It seems the main concern is that the Pirates aren’t making the right choices. They brought in John McDonald to be the backup middle infielder. McDonald is a good player, and provides strong defense. However, it’s a move that doesn’t make much sense, as they already had De Jesus and Mercer as options. Brandon Inge doesn’t hit for average, but he still has power. His .165 ISO last year would have ranked sixth on the team last year out of players with 200+ plate appearances. But that’s a case where Inge is older, currently hurt, and wasn’t performing as well as some of the other guys who have been cut in camp.
As it works out, Inge fits more in the “depth” category, rather than a member of the Opening Day roster. He will likely go on the disabled list, giving the Pirates an option later in the month of April, or whenever he returns. They will have to create a roster spot for him, and depending on that move it might not be worth keeping Inge around at $1 M. That’s especially true when Inge’s primary value is replicated by the existing depth. He hits for power, and can play multiple positions — though not very well. The Pirates already have power on their bench. They have utility players in the system. They even have some options who can do both, such as Jared Goedert.
My own concern with the choices made are that the Pirates seem to be going with the comfort of a veteran, rather than the unknown with younger players. That unknown can lead to worse production, but there’s also a chance it could lead to better production and bigger long-term value than McDonald or Inge could provide.
Jeff Locke is the number five starter.
Jeff Locke Wins the Fifth Starting Job, McPherson Is Immediate Depth
As expected, Jeff Locke won the fifth starter spot, with Kyle McPherson getting optioned to Triple-A. Locke has had two shots in the majors, although both came at the end of the year. He probably wasn’t ready the first time around, and showed some positive signs the second time. Locke doesn’t have anything to prove in the minors. He’s now to the point where he needs to show what he can do in the majors.
“In Jeff’s case, the body of work, what he did at Triple-A last year, some of the success he had at the big league level in a small sample that doesn’t necessarily show up in ERA,” Huntington said. “His ability to attack hitters. We’re looking forward to Russ Martin helping him out. Using all three pitches, and we felt that he gave us the best chance to win his starts.”
McPherson doesn’t have a lot of experience above the Double-A level. He made three starts in Triple-A, and pitched 26.1 innings in the majors last year. Huntington said that even with the lack of upper level innings, the team would be comfortable turning to McPherson in the early part of the season if an extra pitcher was needed.
“We’re comfortable with what he did in Triple-A, comfortable with what he did in the big leagues, and comfortable with the person and how he goes about it with the professionalism and the confidence that he has, and the ability to have three quality major league pitches,” Huntington said. “So absolutely we’d be comfortable to have him in any role early in the season if needed.”
The right-hander didn’t have the consistency this Spring that Jeff Locke showed, which was one of the key reasons the Pirates went with Locke over McPherson at the start of the year.
“[McPherson] has major league caliber pitches,” Huntington said. “It’s just the consistency and the command. One of the toughest decisions we had, because not only could he help us as a starter, but he could help us out of the bullpen.”
At the start of Spring Training, the expected rotation was expected to have Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke in the final two spots. The only difference now is that Jonathan Sanchez replaces Liriano. That’s not really a huge difference. They’re both left-handers who are still relatively young, had previous success in the majors, and are both coming off down years. They both have control issues, but both could benefit from PNC Park. Either way, the Pirates are going with a bounce back candidate for their fourth starter, and a young, inexperienced player as their fifth starter.
A Lot of Question Marks in the Bullpen
One thing that Neal Huntington has done well is take a lot of questionable pitchers and turn them into quality relievers. Whether that’s failed minor league starters (Jared Hughes, Tony Watson), waiver claims (Chris Resop), or low-key free agents (Jose Veras, D.J. Carrasco), the Pirates have had a lot of success stories. This year that strategy will be put to the test.
Most of the question marks in the back of the bullpen are really about comfort. Jason Grilli is a great reliever, but there are those who believe that it takes some special magic to close out games. Mark Melancon is a year removed from being one of the top relievers in the National League. He had a down year last year, although his advanced metrics suggest a comeback in a lot of the same ways that Joel Hanrahan looked like a bounce back candidate when he joined the Pirates in 2009. Hughes and Watson both have experience and success, and will be picking up a bigger role this year.
The guys who were added today are question marks as far as their ability in the majors goes. Chris Leroux was a waiver claim in 2010. Since then the Pirates have adjusted his arm slot and focused on his off-speed pitches. In his limited time with the team he’s posted great ratios. Through 41 innings he has an 8.8 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and an 0.2 HR/9. Last year the overall numbers were bad, and his velocity was down. That was due to a pectoral strain, which he’s now over. Those ratios are a good indicator that he can be an effective reliever, but now will be the time to show it.
Justin Wilson spent some time in the majors last year, but not a significant amount. He’s mostly been a starter in the minors, dealing with serious control problems. The control problems have been negated because he’s got great stuff, leading to a high strikeout rate and a low batting average against. Wilson is the same as a starter or a reliever. He’s either going to have great results, or his control will be way off one day and he’ll be a disaster. There shouldn’t be any expected improvements with his control by moving him to the bullpen. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective reliever. He just needs to carry that trend of a high strikeout rate and a low batting average against to the majors.
The final bullpen spot went to Jeanmar Gomez, which is a bit of a head scratcher. Gomez is a major league player. He’s a fifth starter and a ground ball machine. His time as a reliever in the majors has been limited to one run in seven innings. This is a situation where a guy could improve by moving to the bullpen. He’s basically the last reliever on the team, so it’s worth a shot to see if he can be this year’s sleeper option. However, the move isn’t really inspiring for two reasons. First, the Pirates have other sleeper candidates, and Gomez gives them a third. Second, you could argue that there were better options who were sent to the minors. At the least you could argue that there were options sent down who are the same, but looked better this Spring. Really what this boils down to is that Gomez is out of options. It looks like the Pirates went with the approach that would allow them to keep everyone.
All three of these pitchers can go multiple innings. Gomez is most likely to fill that long-relief role, although it might be hard for him to jump from the bullpen to the rotation.
“It’s a challenge to keep guys stretched out in the National League,” Huntington said. “So really as your long man you’re looking for a guy who can go two-plus or maybe three. One time through your offensive lineup.”
Wilson and Leroux can also go multiple innings, so expect all three pitchers to be used in more of a utility role, rather than defined middle relief and long relief roles.