A lot has been written about the roster crunch the Pirates are going to face in December when a large group of prospects will be have to be protected on the team's 40-man roster or become subject to the Rule 5 draft. It is a new problem, and a good one, as it shows the increasing organizational depth the Pirates have developed during Neal Huntington's stewardship.
But the Pirates face a much more immediate roster crunch, and it is also one the team hasn't faced in years. During the second half of July as many as seven veteran major leaguers are going to come off the team's disabled lists and be ready to return to the 25-man roster. Some decisions will be easy. Some will be very difficult. How those decisions play out will go a long way in determining how long the Pirates stay in the playoff picture.
The First Arrivals
It is possible, even perhaps likely, that Ronny Cedeno, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Joe Beimel will be ready to be activated July 15, the first day back from the All-Star break. The three position players made up 3/8 of the team's opening-day lineup, and Beimel is a veteran lefty who Clint Hurdle told me he is looking forward to having back. Let's look at each player and a possible corresponding move.
Ronny Cedeno (7-day DL July 2, concussion): This should be pretty straightforward. Cedeno is the team's starting shortstop. While his bat has been erratic, his glove has been excellent, and if others in the lineup continue to hit, the team can play Ronny even if he slumps. It is worth nothing that Cedeno hit .455/.511/.576 in the 11 games before he was hurt.
Corresponding Move: Option Pedro Ciriaco. Ciriaco doesn't get to play when he's up. He's filling a bench role in case of emergency. He won't be needed.
Pedro Alvarez (15-day DL retroactive to May 20, quadriceps strain): Again, a straightforward move. Various people have been calling for the Pirates to go out and trade for a "bat." Here it is. Alvarez didn't hit the first six weeks of the season, but he has far more upside than anyone available on the trade market and at no cost. He will be plugged back into the starting role at third base and play virtually every day the first few weeks in order to give him ample opportunity to get comfortable. If he performs like he did in September of last year this team's playoff chances go up dramatically.
Corresponding Move: Option Josh Harrison. Harrison is a utility guy who plays hard, but he doesn't project to be much more due to a lack of patience at the plate and a lack of power.
Jose Tabata (15-day DL retroactive to June 27, right hand contusion): Tabata probably needed the time on the DL for a variety of reasons--wrist and hand problems, leg problems. While he has struggled since mid-April, he will be plugged right back in as the starting left fielder. The more interesting question is where he hits in the lineup. My guess is he gets dropped to the No. 2 slot.
Corresponding Move: DFA Xavier Paul. This isn't an easy move, but it is the right one. Paul is a solid late-inning defensive replacement, but with Presley on the roster his skills are duplicated. He has a .663 OPS and has struck out 29 times in 109 at bats. There is a chance he will get through waivers, but the Pirates could certainly lose him.
Joe Beimel (15-day DL, May 28, left elbow soreness): I asked Hurdle about "handedness" in the bullpen and if there were any advantages or disadvantages to having three lefties in the pen. He said management would have a discussion, but he left no doubt that Beimel would be part of it by saying he was looking forward to having Beimel's "veteran experience."
Corresponding Move: Option Chris Leroux. This one is open to debate. If the team wants to have a mop-up guy on the roster, Leroux is the right guy for that role, and they could send down either Dan Moskos or Tony Watson, who started well, but have been a little shaky of late. It's just a question of carrying two or three lefties. The good thing here is all three pitchers can be optioned, so the team can mix and match as they move forward as needed.
The Second Wave
This group is harder to project because the updates have been less detailed in terms of rehab, so there is a good deal of speculation on my part.
Ryan Doumit (15-day DL, May 30, left ankle sprain/non-displaced fracture): The question here is just when will Doumit be ready. The initial target date was about two months and everything appears to generally be on schedule. Look for him to begin a rehab assignment around the end of the all-star break and, if all goes smoothly, join the team around August 1.
Corresponding Move: Option Eric Fryer. He gets to go back to Indy, play everyday and try to put himself in the mix for one of the jobs next year.
Steve Pearce (15-day DL, retroactive May 29, right calf strain): The classic reason you never ask a player to diagnose his own injury. When hurt, Pearce said he would be out for a day. Instead, for the second year in a row, he has missed a great opportunity to get significant playing time. Pearce's righthanded bat and ability to play first base will be a welcome addition back to the ball club. I expect him back around the first of August as well.
Corresponding Move: This one gets harder and will depend on performance over the next month. If Cedeno is settled in and playing well, I would expect the Pirates to option Chase d'Arnaud. Two reasons for this: first, d'Arnaud would benefit more from playing everyday in Indianapolis, and second, rosters expand September 1 and d'Arnaud will be recalled at that time. Certainly the team could DFA Brandon Wood, but for the occasional spot start and pinch-hit role, I'd rather keep Wood in the organization and move d'Arnaud.
Ross Ohlendorf (60-day DL, April 9, Right Shoulder strain): When Ohlendorf went down I suggested we may never see him pitch for the Pirates again. I still think that is possible, but he pitched a 45-pitch simulated game yesterday and may finally be making progress. I'm guessing Ohlendorf begins an official rehab assignment on August 1. A pitcher is allowed to rehab for 30 days. If Ohlendorf progresses and is needed he can be recalled earlier, otherwise he can be added to the roster when they expand September 1. I don't see him playing a significant role down the stretch. Brad Lincoln will be first in line to get any spot starts. If he comes back he will be a long man in the bullpen.
Corresponding Move: None needed.
Evan Meek: (15-DL, June 13, Right Shoulder tendenitis): Meek is a bit of a wildcard. He hasn't appeared health all year, but two months off may do the trick. I think he will be back with the club by September 1, but speculating on arm injuries from afar is pretty much guess work. Adding a healthy Meek to a bullpen of Hanrahan, Veras and Resop should make any Pirates fan smile.
Chris Snyder: (60-DL, June 9, Herniated Disc Lower Back): Anything the team gets from Snyder this season is gravy. Because he is a free agent after the year he does have a fair bit of incentive to get back and play before the season is over, but expecting him to do much more than join the expanded roster in September is probably unwise.
The Pirates will go into the all-star break on Sunday with 72 games remaining on the schedule. If they win one of their remaining four games they will have a winning record going into the break for the first time since 1992. If they win all four they will be eight games over .500 and stand a very good chance of being in first place in the National League Central.
44 different players have played for the Pirates this season, which makes the team's mid-season success even more remarkable. The team is likely to add seven players to the 25-man roster over the course of the next 30 days which should greatly improve its depth. Questions about playing time in right and left field, first and third base will likely shake out based on performance over the next couple weeks. A roster crunch in late July. An interesting problem for the Pirates to have and certainly one they haven't seen in many years.