The Pirates return to action Friday against the Nationals. After having virtually no days off in the two-month run-up to the All-Star Game, the Pirates will have three days off leading up to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, and they will be off that day as well. The schedule and the impending roster crunch provide Neal Huntington opportunities and challenges in dealing with the 25- and 40-man rosters.
Let's speculate about how things may play out over the next 16 days. Here is the Pirates' current active roster, plus players on the disabled list and some others who have been active this year as of Thursday:
Catchers (2): Eric Fryer, Erik Kratz
Infielders (7): John Jaso, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Jung Ho Kang, David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, Josh Bell
Outfielders (5): Gregory Polanco, Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Matt Joyce, Adam Frazier
Starters (4): Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Jon Niese, Chad Kuhl
Relievers (7): Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio, Arquimedes Caminero, A.J. Schugel, Jared Hughes
Disabled List (6): Francisco Cervelli (currently eligible to be activated), Chris Stewart (eligible to return July 18), Elias Diaz eligible to be activated), Gerrit Cole (currently eligible to be activated), Jameson Taillon (eligible to return July 16), Ryan Vogelsong (60-day DL, eligible to return July 23)
In Indianapolis, on 40-man and have played in the big leagues this year (5): Alen Hanson, Jason Rogers, Steven Brault, Wilfredo Boscan, Kyle Lobstein
That's 36 players, and there are hundreds of different scenarios as to how things can play out going into the trade deadline. Let's take a shot. This is not necessarily exactly how I would do things, this is what I expect the Pirates to do.
Thursday the Pirates announced their starting rotation for the weekend series. Liriano will start Friday, Cole will be activated from the disabled list and start Saturday and, in a bit of a surprise, Kuhl will start on Sunday. Kuhl is a complete head-scratcher. He has not been impressive in his first three career starts. The only rationale behind the Pirates' decision that I can come up with is they want to start a righty against the Nationals, who have a team OPS of .835 versus lefties and .732 against righties. Okay, so that rules out Locke/Niese, but why choose Kuhl over Taillon, who is eligible to come off the disabled list Friday? I'm guessing the Pirates don't want Cole and Taillon pitching back-to-back in the rotation. I'll come back to that in a second.
The Pirates will have one important decision to make before playing any games against the Nats. They'll have to determine if Gregory Polanco is able to play or if he needs to go on the 15-day DL retroactive to Saturday, July 9. I'll guess Polanco is refreshed by the week off and remains active and starts in right field over the weekend.
When the Pirates activate Cole Saturday it will get them back to their preferred 12-man pitching staff, meaning a position player will be sent down (if Polanco goes on the DL, Cole will take his spot and the following discussion is moot). There are only two choices here, Bell or Adam Frazier. Bell's weekend debut was the stuff of lore, but my guess is he is sent out Saturday. Frazier has been solid in his time up with the club. It was his eight-pitch walk off Jake Arrieta that preceded Bell's first career hit that ignited the Pirates' winning rally last Friday against the Cubs. Frazier provides more versatility than Bell (although he is an outfielder in name only, probably no better than Bell, but for obvious reasons the Pirates aren't going to use Bell in the outfield after two years away from the position) and can be used as a pinch-runner. I know this will disappoint Pirates fans, but I think that's the likely move.
The next move comes after the Pirates day off on Monday. As mentioned, Taillon is eligible to come off the disabled list Friday, July 15. Taillon, Liriano and Cole are the only three starters virtually guaranteed to be in the Pirates rotation on August 2. I expect the Pirates to activate Taillon Tuesday for the start of the series against Milwaukee. This will then situate Liriano between Taillon and Cole in the rotation, which is the desired alignment, the lefty between two hard-throwing righties. With Taillon active, another pitcher has to go and Chad Kuhl is the obvious answer. Reports suggest the Pirates are actively trying to move both Jeff Locke and Jon Niese, but I don't expect other teams to bite this early for such marginal guys, so Kuhl's gone. Taillon-Liriano-Cole start versus the Brewers.
Now let's look at the position players. Next week is going to be the week of the catcher, with there likely to be a complete shuffling of the depth chart at the top of the organization. Cervelli started a rehab stint at Triple-A Indianapolis Thursday night, going 2-for-4 with a walk and catching seven innings. I would imagine Cervelli will get today off and then catch seven to nine innings on Saturday and then see if he can come back and catch again Sunday. If things go smoothly, expect Cervelli to be activated on or around Tuesday for the Brewers series.
That leads to the easiest of the various roster moves, designating Erik Kratz for assignment. Kratz has had a few good moments during his second stint with the Bucs, but his -27 OPS+ in 50 plate appearances (and also 50 at-bats, since he has no walks) means he's gone, which also opens up a spot on the 40-man roster. With the open spot, the Pirates can activate Diaz, rehabbing with Class-A Bradenton, from the 60-day DL and send him to Indianapolis.
Stewart will also be eligible to come of the DL by the time the Brewers come to town. Stewart's season goes one of two ways: either his knee is good enough that he can play through the pain the rest of the season, or he has season-ending knee surgery. Let's assume Stewart is good to go. My best guess is the Pirates will send Stewart to Indy for his own rehab stint when Cervelli is activated. If Cervelli proves he is healthy and can be the everyday catcher, then the Pirates will activate Stewart sometime between now and the trade deadline. This will lead to the swapping out of the other catcher recently acquired, Eric Fryer. While I'm sure the Pirates would love to somehow keep Fryer in the organization until the rosters expand on September 1, I don't think they will be able to do it. And with Diaz's return, Fryer will become expendable. I also don't think the Bucs will entertain the idea of carrying three catchers when Stewart comes back. So Fryer is the next to go, creating another 40-man roster spot, and the Pirates have their top three catchers back and active for the first time since April.
Back to the pitchers. Now the most difficult decision. Glasnow is scheduled to start in Indianapolis on Monday. I expect him to make that start. At the major league level, the Pirates need a starter not named Taillon, Liriano or Cole for the first two games against the Phillies next Friday and Saturday. If he's still on the roster, I think Jeff Locke gets the ball Friday night. Saturday is the big decision. If no trades or other roster moves have been made to that point, the Pirates will have the option of starting Jon Niese or recalling Tyler Glasnow and making a corresponding roster move. The complicating factor here is the Pirates will only play six games in the following nine days, with days off Monday, Thursday and the following Monday. After the Saturday start they could comfortably operate with a four-man rotation until Saturday, August 6 against the Reds, but they may prefer to give the starters as much rest as possible.
So that becomes the big question. Do the Pirates bring up Glasnow, essentially for good, a week before the deadline and make a corresponding roster move (designating Niese would appear to be the most obvious, although they could option Hughes and put Niese in the pen), or do they give Niese the ball one more time and hope for the best? I'd prefer Glasnow, but I'm guessing it will be Niese, as Huntington tries to manage his assets as aggressively as possible until the deadline without having to give anything away.
If the Pirates were to DFA Niese and he were to clear waivers, the Pirates could outright Niese to Indianapolis and look to recall him September 1 when rosters expand, or earlier if needed. Niese would have the right to refuse the assignment (as Pat corrected me in the comments below) as a 6-year veteran and the Pirates would still be obligated to pay the remainder of his salary.
After that decision it would appear to be relatively smooth sailing until the deadline. Vogelsong will be eligible to come off the 60-day DL on July 23. If Fryer is DFA'd there will be an open 40-man spot for him, but there wouldn't appear to be a spot on the 25-man unless someone goes down with an injury or a trade opens things up. Vogelsong pitched for Altoona on July 10. so the Pirates have 30 days from that date to activate him. I'd expect Huntington to use almost all of that time to make a decision.
The last question is what to do with Josh Bell. If he is sent down on Saturday, he'll be eligible to come back up July 27th. I'll leave that one to you.