With the Pirates in the thick of the playoff chase, it might be a little premature to be looking at the Rule 5 draft. One thing that's striking about their current 40-man roster, though, is how different it is from the way it typically looked two years and more ago. They won't be facing the sort of numbers crunch they used to face. Instead of hoarding borderline talent -- the kind of guys who had a longshot chance of turning into useful players farther down the road -- they've loaded the roster with players who might provide limited, short-term help but who don't figure to be around long. How much short-term help Josh Wall and Brent Morel might provide is another question; the point here is that different priorities are driving roster decisions now that the Pirates are an actual, good baseball team.
This means a much more fluid roster, as I think the following list will show. Some things will no doubt change between now and the end of the season, but I'll run through the possibilities as they stand now.
CANDIDATES TO COME OFF THE CURRENT ROSTER
Pending Free Agents
Francisco Liriano, LHP -- It’s not implausible that the Pirates would re-sign him, because he’s depressed his own value with a disappointing season. There's nothing in the way he's pitched this year to show that he's not a good candidate to bounce back again next year. His ERA is 4.43, but his xFIP is 3.68.
Edinson Volquez, RHP – He’s been a lot better than the suppositions of the fans who started screaming for his head about two minutes after he was signed, but I don’t think he’s pitched well enough that it’d make sense to bring him back next year.
Russell Martin, C – Unfortunately, I think the odds of the Pirates re-signing Martin are close to non-existent.
Clint Barmes, IF – Barmes is headed for free agency but the reasons for bringing him back will be exactly the same as they were a year ago. He’s even hit better this year.
Wirfin Obispo, RHP – Despite being 29, Obispo has two options left. He’s pitched well at Indianapolis. Don’t be surprised to see him up in September and still around next spring.
Josh Wall, RHP – He’s pitched just like he has since he turned pro in 2005: poorly. He has no options and it’s inconceivable that he could make the roster next spring, so he seems a lock to come off the roster. But then, I can’t fathom why he’s on it in the first place.
Dean Anna, IF – Anna is a stathead favorite who might strike the Pirates as having meaningful upside, so it's possible they see him as more than short-term depth. The fact is, though, that they chose to
keep an empty roster spot call up Michael Martinez rather than promote Anna to replace the injured Clint Barmes. I’m guessing they’ll try to get Anna through waivers.
Matt Hague, 1B/3B – Hague will probably be dfa’d again in the off-season.
Michael Martinez, IF – Martinez will be dfa’d and replaced by another zero-bat depth infielder.
Chris McGuiness, 1B – McGuiness is a first baseman with the bat of an up-the-middle player. There’s no reason for him to return.
Brent Morel, 3B – He’s completely collapsed this year. If the Pirates just have to keep a depth corner guy on the roster, it should be Hague and not Morel.
Jaff Decker, OF – After struggling early in the year, Decker has turned things around somewhat, but he still doesn’t look like anything special. With Gregory Polanco established and Andrew Lambo hopefully getting healthy, Decker doesn’t really serve a purpose, but he's hit just well enough that he might have a better chance of staying around than anybody in this category apart from Obispo, and he has an option left. Or, he very well might clear waivers.
Brandon Cumpton, RHP – He still has an option left, so he can continue in the very useful role of sixth starter for another year. I only include him here because I could see him getting included in a trade with a non-contender that was jettisoning veterans and wanted a younger guy to plug into a rotation opening as a flier.
Ernesto Frieri, RHP – I don’t imagine the Pirates are likely just to ditch Frieri, but they need bullpen help and the only way they can clear a space without losing a player is by optioning Justin Wilson or Jared Hughes (or Tony Watson, but that’s not happening). Wilson has shown he’s capable of dominating in the majors, so I don’t see him going anywhere, and Hughes has been possibly the team’s third best reliever. Also, Frieri will make big reliever bucks if they retain him. The other alternative for clearing a space is to dfa Stolmy Pimentel, but he has far too much potential for that to be an option. If Frieri survives the season on the roster, though, I doubt he'll be leaving.
Jeanmar Gomez, RHP – Gomez will be eligible for arbitration after the season. He’s regressed to largely the pitcher he was before last year. He hasn’t served as an emergency starter this year; his success in that role is what separated him from the Vin Mazzaros of the world. Unless he re-signs at a bargain rate, I don’t see him returning.
Jared Hughes, RHP – The Pirates are overstocked with middle relievers, but Hughes has had a good year and figures to be the keeper of the bunch. The Pirates love them some groundballs and Hughes throws huge numbers of them.
Stolmy Pimentel, RHP – He's become a target for some frustrated fans, but I can’t imagine he’s going anywhere. His velocity was down early in the year when he was having shoulder issues, but it's back now to where it was late last year, when he looked like a potential late-inning reliever. It'd be foolish to give up on him because of a few weak outings since he came back and there's no way he'd clear waivers.
Joely Rodriguez, LHP – Rodriguez has put up unimpressive numbers in AA and didn’t impress me either of the two times I saw him pitch. I could see him coming off the roster, but it might make more sense to try him in the bullpen, where he might have more velocity. Apparently that's what the Pirates have decided, since they moved him to relief right after I originially drafted this.
Casey Sadler, RHP – Remarkably similar to Cumpton. I don’t see him getting dfa’d because he has options, but I could see him getting thrown into a trade.
Vance Worley, RHP – With Volquez and Liriano headed for free agency, the Pirates will almost certainly want Worley available as a rotation option next year, although I think they should be wary about his ceiling. Like Cumpton and Sadler, I could see him departing in a trade with a non-contender looking for somebody to plug into a rotation opening for the rest of the year.
Chris Stewart, C – It’s highly debatable whether Stewart is worth what he’s going to cost as an arb-2 player, but with Martin set to leave and Tony Sanchez having a dismal season in AAA, they’ll have little choice but to keep him.
Ike Davis, 1B – If Davis doesn’t start hitting, the Pirates will absolutely have to look for another solution at first, whether it's a short-term upgrade for the playoff chase or an off-season acquisition. They won’t, however, do anything with Davis until they find one.
Gaby Sanchez, 1B – Sanchez stopped hitting at the end of May and has thoroughly disproved the Pirates’ puzzling, off-season notion that he could handle first base full-time. He could still be useful as the short half of a platoon, but at an arb-3 salary?
Travis Snider, OF – Snider still hasn’t shown any sign of turning into Brandon Moss, although he does have the habit of coming up with a big hit or a big game just when you can't stand to see any more of him. It was surprising when the Pirates kept him last year. At an arb-2 salary, with another bad year behind him, it’ll be even more so if they do it again.
This is a long list -- well over half the roster -- but it's what I think we should expect going forward. That's how it has to work with contending teams, especially lower revenue ones. It's certainly how it works in Tampa Bay. Ideally, a team like the Pirates will have a core of good to outstanding players -- like McCutchen, Marte, Polanco, Cole, Melancon, Walker, Morton, Watson, etc. -- and fill in around them as needed without making long-term commitments. I could easily see a third or more of the roster changing by the end of the year, and I could see it being that way every year as long as the Pirates stay in contention.
CANDIDATES TO BE ADDED TO THE ROSTER
Elias Diaz, C -- Maybe I'm missing something, but he sure seems like a no-brainer to me. Carlos Garcia certainly agrees.
Jameson Taillon, RHP
Nick Kingham, RHP
UPDATE: Contrary to what I thought, Luis Heredia won't be eligible for the Rule 5 draft until after the 2015 season. According to Tim Williams, this is because the Pirates signed Heredia just after the end of the DSL season, so that first year doesn't count.
Carlos Paulino, C – Paulino was eligible the last two years and wasn’t selected. The difference this year is that he’ll be a minor league free agent. With Elias Diaz emerging, there’s little reason to add Paulino to the roster.
Stetson Allie, 1B – Nothing has changed from last year, when Allie was first eligible. He still has huge raw power and huge holes in his swing that he shows no sign of closing. I don’t see him being added.
Gift Ngoepe, SS – Like Allie, Ngoepe still presents the same issues he did last year, when he wasn’t selected. He hasn’t made more than marginal progress at the plate and, thus, doesn’t project as more than a depth guy. I don’t see him being added. As Vlad has pointed out, he does fall into a demographic --slick-fielding, light-hitting middle infielders -- that often gets targeted in the Rule 5 draft, so it's possible the Pirates could lose Ngoepe. That doesn't, however, mean it makes sense to put guys like that on your roster. You can always stash Michael Martinez in AAA.
Mel Rojas, OF – Rojas’ development has been painfully slow and he’s 24 now. He’s picked up the pace this year, but something about the way the Pirates have handled him – like batting him at the bottom of the order in AAA while automatic outs like Chase d’Arnaud and Robert "Happyface" Andino hit at the top of the order – makes me suspicious that the Pirates aren’t sold on him having more than a AAAA ceiling. I’d rather see Rojas on the roster than Jaff Decker, but I’m doubtful the Pirates will add him.
Keon Broxton, OF – Broxton provided some interest early in the year when he was hot, but a .370 OPS in June put a crimp in his numbers and his K rate remains scary. He’s hot again now in July and if he stays that way maybe things will change, but most likely he’ll be back next year without being on the roster. He’s not eligible for minor league free agency for another year.
Willy Garcia, OF – Garcia’s (abysmal) walk and K rates are amazingly consistent. So’s his OBP: .286, .294, and .286 (as I write this) over the last three years. His power is gradually increasing, but he’s striking out in over a third of his ABs and over 30% of his plate appearances, and he’s not Ryan Howard. Garcia is very toolsy, but I can’t see anybody taking a shot with him.
A.J. Morris, RHP -- Morris has made great strides this year after making little progress elsewhere (hoka hey!!), but he's very similar to Crumpton and Sadler, so I'm not sure I'd want to take up a roster spot with him. Things could change depending on how he does once he's off the disabled list, which is expected to happen very soon.
Jason Creasy, RHP -- Creasy doesn't have a high ceiling and doesn't miss a lot of bats, but he keeps improving and walks almost nobody. I think the Pirates will probably protect him. A good indication will be whether they move him up to AA late in the season.
Orlando Castro, LHP -- A lot will depend on how Castro does in AA the rest of the season. He got bombed his first time out, but settled down after a bad first inning his second time. He's a small lefty with possibly a low ceiling, but . . . he's a lefty.
Andy Oliver, LHP -- Oliver's made a lot of progress as a reliever and he can certainly miss bats. There are some pitchers, though, who can get AAA hitters to chase just enough pitches out of the strike zone but can't get major league hitters to do it. Mike Zagurski springs to mind. (Well, maybe not "springs" . . . .) If the Pirates are thinking of adding him back to the roster, there's a good possibility it'll happen in September or not at all.
Vin Mazzaro, RHP -- There's a reasonable chance Mazzaro will be up in September, but I think the Pirates regard him strictly as a depth guy. They're not likely to go to arbitration with him.
John Holdzkom, RHP -- He'd be a great story. He never got above high A before, mainly due to injuries, but there he was blowing hitters away in AA (and AAA until his last game). There's so little track record to go on, this will depend very heavily on the internal evaluations the Pirates get from their coaches.
Yhonathan Barrios, RHP -- This is another one that'll depend on the coaches. Barrios just moved to the mound and throws in the upper-90s, but pitched very poorly in low A. As Vlad suggested, the Pirates probably moved him up to high A to help in their evaluation for Rule 5.