The Pirates will be facing a particularly tight roster situation this fall, with more than a few of their prospects becoming eligible for the Rule 5 draft. Of course, that's a ways off and a player's stature can change in a month or two. Willy Garcia, for instance, solidified his claim on a roster spot last season with a strong finish. The situation is relevant now, though, because as Tim Williams pointed out recently at PiratesProspects.com, one way for the team to relieve the pressure is to trade Rule-5-eligible prospects at the deadline.
The crunch facing the team isn't necessarily just a question of space on the 40-man roster. There should be quite a few spaces available, or easily made available, due to free agents and players who are easily replaceable with similar players on minor league contracts. The team can't, however, have 20 non-major-league-ready prospects on the roster because it has to have a major league bench, as well as depth beyond the 25-man roster. That's especially true now with the Pirates in contention. They can't afford to fill holes in the majors with any random minor leaguer. (Of course, you can, and should, question their penchant for zero-offense veteran position players, but that's a different issue.)
Currently, three players -- Brandon Cumpton, Justin Sellers and Andrew Lambo -- are on the 60-day disabled list, which means there are effectively 43 players on the 40-man. I'm not going to get into non-tender issues like Pedro Alvarez or Neil Walker (not that I think either one is going anywhere absent a trade). The following players will be removed, or are candidates to be removed:
Jayson Aquino, LHP: Since the Pirates claimed him off waivers, Aquino's been extremely erratic. He'll have only one option after this year and he hasn't shown any sign of being ready for AA, so it's just about impossible to see how the team can get him to the majors without exposing him to waivers somewhere along the way. If they really do like him, their best chance of retaining him probably is to designate him for assignment and outright him in the likely event he's not claimed.
Antonio Bastardo, LHP: Bastardo will be a free agent for the first time. The Pirates have shown little interest in paying significant money to relievers, so he's unlikely to be extended.
Wilfredo Boscan, RHP: Boscan really isn't very good and was added to the roster strictly to provide emergency depth. He'll have two options left after this season, but shouldn't stand in the way of anybody who needs to be added.
A.J. Burnett, RHP: Burnett will be a free agent and seems firmly set on retiring.
Deolis Guerra, RHP: Guerra has no options left. He's pitched very well for the Pirates so far and will have possibly the rest of the season to make his case.
Bobby LaFromboise, LHP: LaFromboise isn't that good, a proposition the Pirates seem to agree with; they could have called him up instead of Boscan or Guerra, both of whom required a roster move. He has no more options after this year and shouldn't be a candidate to make the major league team next spring, so there's no reason for him to stay on the roster if the space is needed.
Rob Scahill, RHP: Scahill has one option left and, if he gets healthy, the Pirates may have to use it to avoid losing Guerra. I'm not a Scahill fan, but Clint Hurdle evidently is, so I don't see him going anywhere for the time being.
Tony Sanchez, C: It's hard to see how this can go on much longer. Sanchez has had a dismal season both offensively and, at least on the throwing end, defensively. Elias Diaz is probably major-league-ready, at least defensively, and Jacob Stallings is having an excellent season in AA. With Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart looking solidly entrenched, there isn't even likely to be room for Sanchez in AAA next year and he'll be out of options.
Corey Hart, 1B/OF: He'll be a free agent after the season, if he makes it that far. Which he shouldn't.
Travis Ishikawa, 1B/OF: Ishikawa won't be eligible for free agency, but he is eligible for arbitration. It'd make no sense for the Pirates to go that route with him.
Steve Lombardozzi, who can play many positions: Lombardozzi will have an option after this year, which might save his spot on the roster. The Pirates seem to find some value in players like this. Maybe it shows up in their secret proprietary metrics.
Sean Rodriguez, UT: He'll be a free agent.
Justin Sellers, IF: Sellers came into the season with one option left and, due to his abortive rehab attempts, the Pirates haven't yet used it. Like Lombardozzi, he's highly fungible, but that doesn't seem to bother the Pirates. If he gets healthy, he might get called up in September, but it's hard to say what could happen after that.
Jaff Decker, OF: He'll have no more options after this year. The Pirates have passed on obvious opportunities to call him up, so they seem to realize he's not very good.
Gorkys Hernandez, OF: He's still a premium defender, but it's hard to see how he'll get the opportunity to show he's made strides at the plate, as the Pirates believe. He also has no options left.
Andrew Lambo, 1B/OF: Lambo missed his big chance this year due to plantar fasciitis. He still has two options left, so unless the Pirates are convinced he'll never be healthy, they probably won't drop him.
There are quite a few candidates for addition to the roster. This includes a number of players who are eligible for minor league free agency after the season. This is largely the result of the success the Pirates have had this year with their upper-level pitchers.
Jacob Stallings, C: Stallings is easily superior to Tony Sanchez defensively. His offensive improvement this year is probably driven by a .380 BABIP that he's not going to be able to sustain. His BB rate is less than half what it was before this year and his K rate has increased from 20% to over 25%, so there are a lot of reasons to think he won't continue hitting this well. The defense, though, might be enough for the Pirates to prefer him as a depth option in AAA.
Jin-De Jhang, C: I'm not absolutely sure Jhang is eligible for Rule 5, but he may be. He was 18 when he signed in June 2011, but didn't play until 2012. He's had a solid offensive season this year, but he's also had defensive problems and scouts don't like his build. He probably won't be added or selected.
Josh Bell, 1B: This obviously is a no-brainer.
Jose Osuna, 1B/OF: Osuna adapted quickly to AA and he won't turn 23 until after the season. The numbers aren't imposing, though, and he's limited defensively. He already went unselected in the draft and his profile as a prospect hasn't changed. It's unlikely the Pirates would add him to the roster.
Stetson Allie, 1B/OF: Allie's taken a step backward this year, and that's after going unselected lat year. He won't be added to the roster.
Max Moroff, IF: Moroff is eligible because, although he was drafted out of high school, he was 19 when he signed. He's had a breakout season in AA and should be a no-brainer.
Dan Gamache, UT: After hitting very well in limited (due to injury) action in AA last year, Gamache is doing the same this year. His .320 average is a little BABIP-driven (.353), but not entirely, and he's shown solid power with a low K rate. He went unselected last year, but teams have a lot more to go on, including his surprise victory in the Eastern League HR contest. The real question is whether the Pirates are willing to consider one of their own prospects as a bench or depth player rather than bad players with major league experience, like Brent Morel.
Eric Wood, 3B: Wood has struggled at Altoona. It's unlikely he'd be added to the roster.
Gift Ngoepe, IF: Ngoepe has already been passed over twice in the Rule 5 draft. This time he'll be a minor league free agent if the Pirates don't add him to the roster. His hitting has improved, possibly because he stopped switch-hitting, but he still struggles severely with offspeed stuff. The question for the Pirates is whether guys like Sellers and Lombardozzi, who are decent fielders but unlikely to hit, offer more value than one of their own prospects, who's a very good fielder but unlikely to hit.
Keon Broxton, OF: Broxton went unclaimed in the Rule 5 draft last year. He's struggling now in AAA, so there's no reason teams would change their minds about him.
Barrett Barnes, OF: Barnes has spent little time on the field, but the Pirates have to make a call just the same. He's had a solid but not outstanding season, with a .786 OPS through July 15. He'll turn 24 at the end of July, which is a negative. I'm guessing the Pirates will protect him just to ensure they get a chance to see whether he can develop if he gets a couple years without missing a lot of time.
Harold Ramirez, OF: Ramirez is another guy who's missed a lot of time, although not as much as Barnes. His power hasn't developed yet, but he can play center (and probably would if Austin Meadows wasn't on the same team) and he's hitting over .350 in an extreme pitchers league at age 20. He's a no-brainer.
Adrian Sampson, RHP: He's struggled a bit lately, but this is an easy call.
Radhames Liz, RHP: He's been outstanding so far in AAA. He'll be a free agent after the season, rather than Rule 5 eligible, so the Pirates will have to add him to the roster if they want a second look at him in spring training. Of course, he might make sense as a September callup.
Blake Wood, RHP: Wood looked like a strong roster candidate for the first couple months of the season, but he hasn't pitched that well since late May. The Pirates passed him over for Boscan and Guerra, although they still could call him up in September. Like Liz, he'll be a free agent rather than Rule 5 eligible.
Tyler Glasnow, RHP: Duh.
Jason Creasy, RHP: He was eligible last year and wasn't selected, and is having largely the same year this year, with weaker peripherals. I don't see him being added.
Angel Sanchez, RHP: Sanchez turned things around in Altoona this year and has been even better in AAA, with excellent BB and K rates. He even has two options left. I think the Pirates will add him to the roster.
Zack Dodson, LHP: Another player who's eligible for minor league free agency, Dodson's numbers aren't nearly as strong as Sanchez'. He's left-handed and scouts still regard his stuff as good, but I doubt he'll be added to the roster.
Yhonathan Barrios, RHP: Yeah, he throws in the upper-90s, but his command is poor and he lacks a strong secondary pitch. His K rate this year is miniscule. He wasn't selected last year and is still the same pitcher. He'll be a free agent after the season.
Jhondaniel Medina, RHP: He's always had very low ERAs, but this year Medina has walked more than he's struck out. And guys who've been relievers even in the low minors are always highly suspect.
John Kuchno, RHP: Kuchno is a groundball machine, which the Pirates surely like, but he's been just OK in relief this year, with nearly as many walks as Ks. I doubt he'll be added or selected.
Thomas Harlan, LHP: Harlan seemed interesting when he pitched decently as a starter for Altoona last year and the Pirates sent him to the Arizona Fall League, but I can't see any real risk of losing him. Some team might peg him as a LOOGY, but he'd probably need AAA experience (like Scott Sauerbeck had) to interest a team in selecting him.
Jeff Inman, RHP: Yet another player eligible for minor league free agency, the oft-injured Inman is finally missing some bats this year, but opponents are also hitting .290 against him.
Clay Holmes, RHP: This should be an easy call, although I suppose the Pirates could gamble that nobody will select him given the missed time and lack of a substantial track record. He's pitching well since returning, though.
Luis Heredia, RHP: This has to be the toughest call of all. Heredia doesn't even look like a prospect any more and he's only a little young for his current level. Add in his conditioning issues and it's hard to see why another team would want to take the trouble.
As I see it, there are six no-brainers: Bell, Moroff, Ramirez, Sampson, Glasnow and Holmes. Then there are at least seven others who are good candidates to some degree: Stallings, Gamache, Ngoepe, Barnes, Liz, Sanchez and, yeah, Heredia. That's 13, which is a lot, especially when only three have any experience above AA. Good reason to think the Pirates might be looking to use some of these players as trade chips.
UPDATED to add Ramirez, Moroff and Jhang.