Usually, this is the time of year for the Pirates to load up the 40-man roster with players who'll help the team 2-3 years down the road. But this year is different. The Pirates actually made moves aimed at the short term, adding two pending free agents for, in part, three members of the 40-man roster. With an unusual (for them) number of free agents and a few other players whose presence on the roster probably doesn't serve much purpose, the team should be free to protect whatever number of minor leaguers it believes it needs to protect from the Rule 5 draft.
The Pirates start with 39 players on the roster. They'll also have to return five players to the roster shortly from the 60-day disabled list (Phil Irwin, Jeff Karstens, Kyle McPherson, Wandy Rodriguez and Mike McKenry), raising the total to 44. Not counting Rodriguez, who's widely expected to exercise his player option for 2014, the following players will become free agents after the World Series:
No doubt the Pirates will try to bring some of these players back, but for the time being that reduces the number on the roster to 37.
But wait! There are some other players on the roster whose play has been . . . uh . . . uninspiring. There are also some who contributed this year, but whom the Pirates might view more as organizational depth than as long-term solutions. With all these guys, keep in mind that the Pirates, by November 20, only need to clear however much room they need to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft. They'll undoubtedly hang onto many, probably most, with the view of making further moves as they sign free agents. Here are some possibilities:
Brandon Cumpton: He did an amazing job for the Pirates, but his minor league track record doesn't really support continued major league success of that degree. On the plus side, he has two options left, so he can provide starting depth for two more years without creating roster issues when the Pirates want to send him to AAA.
Jeanmar Gomez: Here's another one where your views are going to depend on how real you think his performance was. His xFIP (3.95) was considerably higher than his ERA (3.35), but still not bad for a sixth starter/long relief type. Gomez has no options left but isn't arbitration eligible yet.
Jared Hughes: Hughes didn't pitch well in 2013, although some of it may have resulted from shoulder problems. On the long relief depth chart he should rank behind Gomez and Vin Mazzaro, but Mazzaro at least will be more expensive. He has two options left.
Kris Johnson: His situation is similar to Cumpton's, except he pitched better than Cumpton in AAA, but not as well in the majors. And he's left-handed. Johnson also has two options left. You have to think the Pirates will hang onto at least one, maybe both.
Vin Mazzaro: Given how well he pitched (although xFIP considers him about equal to Gomez), it's hard to believe the Pirates would non-tender Mazzaro and, as a first time arbitration player, he shouldn't be that expensive.
Andy Oliver: Oliver's control problems actually got worse over the course of the season and he's already been optioned four times, so the Pirates won't be able to get another option for him. They could hang onto him and give him another shot in spring training, but it's hard to see the point.
Ryan Reid: He pitched well during a brief call up, but he fell apart in the second half in AAA. The Pirates didn't call him up in September, which probably doesn't bode well for his roster spot. On the plus side, he has two options left.
Mike McKenry: The Fort is probably eligible for arbitration as a "super two," but shouldn't get a large award. He also has an option left, which would allow the Pirates to keep him as depth in AAA if they do the obviously sensible thing and keep Tony Sanchez as Russell Martin's backup.
Chase d'Arnaud: He hasn't adapted to AAA yet and looked bad in his major league opportunities. He also can't stay healthy. With Barmes becoming a free agent, though, the Pirates may be reluctant to reduce themselves to one shortstop, so they may hang onto d'Arnaud until they acquire one or two more shortstops. Of course, he'd probably clear waivers so they could outright him to AAA, so they may go that route.
Garrett Jones: The only way he's staying is if the team non-tenders him and reaches agreement on a significantly below-arbitration deal.
Gaby Sanchez: Unless the Pirates acquire a full-time first baseman by December 2 (the deadline for tendering arbitration), I have to think Sanchez will be back.
Felix Pie: He's eligible for arbitration and can't hit, so I can't see him returning unless it's on a minor league deal.
Travis Snider: The Pirates could give him a chance to win a bench job in spring training, but he's eligible for arbitration, so it's hard to see that happening. He's also out of options.
Jerry Sands: He's in pretty much the same situation as Snider, except he's not eligible for arbitration. The Pirates could take him to spring training, but as with Andy Oliver, they're likely to find a better use for the roster spot at some point during the off-season.
That's 14 players whose departure (with just 2-3 exceptions) would be unlikely to have a significant impact on the Pirates' fortunes. Some obvious choices to come off the roster, although not necessarily right away, are Oliver, Reid, Jones, d'Arnaud, Pie, Snider and Sands. That would leave 30 spots taken, more than enough to avoid getting Littlefielded in the Rule 5 draft.
Here are the players eligible for the Rule 5 draft who have some remote argument for addition to the roster (meaning, I'm not including Francisco Aponte):
Zack Thornton, RHP: This is my choice for dark horse roster addition. He dominated three levels this year, with a bunch of strikeouts. He does it more with trickiness than stuff, though, so I'm sure the Pirates will pay close attention to their coaches and scouts.
Zack Dodson, LHP: He doesn't seem like much of a risk to get selected. He's coming off two sub-mediocre seasons and a drug suspension.
Zach Fuesser, LHP: He moved to the bullpen this year and didn't dominate. I can't see him getting selected and wouldn't be put out if he was.
Joely Rodriguez, LHP: I think he'll be added. He's a lefty with good stuff who pitched well in high A at age 22 despite having lost a season to injury.
Casey Sadler, RHP: He seems very similar to Brandon Cumpton at the same stage; a RHP converted from relief who pitched well but didn't dominate as a starter. I don't think he has enough of a ceiling to draw interest.
Jarek Cunningham, 2B: His power returned this year, but all the contact issues remain. He's probably topped out at AA.
Matt Hague, 1B: You'll find his photo in the dictionary under "organizational player."
Carlos Paulino, C: He's a terrific defensive player, but can't hit.
Stetson Allie, 1B: We all know the pluses and minuses. Whatever his probability of success may be, power like this is rare. I think he'll be added.
Matt Curry, 1B: He's fallen behind Alex Dickerson on the depth chart. Can't see it.
Justin Howard, 1B/OF: Interesting bat and finally started hitting for some power this year, but he was old for AA, doesn't have a position and doesn't have 1B power.
Gift Ngoepe, SS: Great story, very good glove, but he can't hit. Vlad will remind us all that good-glove, no-hit shortstops are popular Rule 5 picks. It's possible the Pirates will simply substitute Gift for d'Arnaud. I wouldn't, but they very well might.
Gregory Polanco, CF: No-brainer, right Dave? Dave?? Dave???
Alen Hanson, SS: Vlad thinks he's eligible, Tim Williams apparently doesn't. I blame Bud Selig for these things not being clearer, along with the shutdown and the near-default. Obviously, if Hanson's eligible, he's added.
Mel Rojas, Jr., OF: His 2013 season seems to have been scientifically calculated to make this a difficult decision. He made progress and had a decent year, but wasn't great and wasn't young for AA. Ugh. I think they'll add him.
Adalberto Santos, UT: Very interesting bat (his numbers this year seem to have been dragged down by an injury-related slump), but he doesn't have much power and has no position. The fact that the Pirates sent him back to AA this year after he hit .340 last year probably tells us where he stands.
So, assuming I'm right in my guesses (which I never am), Polanco and, if he's eligible, Hanson are automatic. I think they'll also add Rodriguez, Allie and Rojas. Other possibilities would be Thornton and Ngoepe. If all these guys are added, that would mean 37 spots taken without getting to "bubble" type players like Cumpton and Johnson.
But wait again! There are also minor league free agents to consider. Last year, Kris Johnson was due to become a free agent, but re-signed a minor league deal before he gained his freedom. That turned out well, but what if the player isn't willing to sign a minor league deal? The answer is to put him on the 40-man roster. There are a couple players the Pirates might consider doing this with:
Ivan De Jesus, IF: This will probably be my last chance to agitate for IDJ. Maybe I'm wrong about the Pirates' seeming lack of interest in him. One drawback is that he has no options left.
Erik Cordier, RHP: He throws 100 mph and progressed far enough with his control this year that he can hit the broad side of a barn. I guess we'll find out just how much the Pirates like this kind of velocity. He has one option left, so he can spend a year in AAA and maybe get to where he can hit the barn door.