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The Pirates' off-season roster issues

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I started off writing a Rule 5 article, but it struck me that the Pirates will have a staggering number of roster issues facing them once the season ends.  The Rule 5 issues are still there, as always, but thanks to injuries and late additions the Pirates have 45 players on the 40-man roster, five of them (obviously) on the 60-day disabled list.  Between the 40-man excess and the fringy players the team added, there figure to be a lot of decisions to be made.  Or maybe there aren't; it could be the team already plans to remove most of the non-prospect, September additions.

Of course, there are still some Rule 5 issues, but some of the more obvious ones, like Trevor Williams and Steven Brault, have already been resolved.  A lot of the remaining ones are very tough.  Altoona had an amazing number of players, mostly hitters and relievers, who suddenly picked up their games this year, in some cases late in the season.  As a result, there are quite a few players on the bubble, more than appeared likely a couple months ago.  There are also at least a couple good candidates who are eligible for minor league free agency.  If they not added to the Pirates' 40-man roster, they'll be lost without some team having to carry them in the majors all year.

Anyway, instead of starting with players who might be candidates for addition to the roster, I'll start with the ones who should or might be candidates to come off.


Free Agents

Sean Rodriguez, UT -- Rodriguez' sudden success has almost certainly come about because he's greatly reduced the percentage of pitches he's swinging at, especially outside the strike zone.  It seems possible, then, that his career year is at least partly for real.  The Pirates have said they'd like to bring Rodriguez back, but they always say that.  Rodriguez will probably be out of their price range and may even be able to find an everyday role, because the metrics still like his defense at second.

Matt Joyce, OF -- Joyce completely collapsed after the beginning of August.  He reverted to the hitter he was last year, which is why the Pirates were able to get him on a minor league deal.  The Pirates should just declare victory and move on.

Phil Coke, LHP -- I can't imagine the Pirates would consider bringing Coke back.  He's one of those guys who just makes you wonder how he hung around so long.  In five years as a mainstay in the Tigers' bullpen, he had an xFIP below 4.40 just twice and never below 3.65.  His lowest WHIP in those years was 1.44.  On the other hand, they could save money by using Gerrit Cole's jerseys and just changing one letter.

Ivan Nova, RHP -- I doubt the Pirates can fit Nova into their every-contract-must-be-a-bargain philosophy, but we'll see.  I'm not at all sure signing him would be a good thing.

Neftali Feliz, RHP -- He's pitched pretty well, even increasing his velocity back to his pre-Tommy John level of 96 mph on average.  But his FIP (4.51) and xFIP (3.71) aren't that good, as he's been helped by a low, .240 BABIP.  The Pirates really should move on.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP -- I'm glad he recovered well from the scary injury, but retirement beckons.


Eric Fryer, C -- The Pirates have to be concerned about the fragility of their top three catchers, but they ought to be able to find somebody better on a minor league deal in the off-season.  It just stands to reason, considering that they found Fryer himself on short notice during the season.

Jacob Stallings, C -- The team already designated him for assignment once this year.  This time he'll be eligible to declare free agency.  He might not do it, as he'll just be moving to another situation that's, at best, the same as the one he has with the Pirates.  Plus, with the Pirates there'd be those three injury-prone guys ahead of him.

Jason Rogers, 1B -- Rogers saw his hitting, and especially his power, decline significantly in AAA and, other than drawing some walks, has mostly just struck out a lot in his limited major league chances this year.  Plus, he has no options left and would have to make the team out of camp and stay with them all year.

Pedro Florimon, SS -- He'll probably be dfa'd, just as he was last year, although then it wasn't done until the beginning of the season.  I suppose the Pirates could retain him until spring again, hoping to get him through waivers and that he won't elect free agency.  He has no options left and would make no sense at all on the opening day roster, barring injury.  How the team handles him, though, may be influenced by their handling of . . .

Gift Ngoepe, SS -- Ngoepe's arrest in Toledo ruined what would have been a great story.  The fact is, though, that Ngoepe was overmatched at the plate this year, more so than Florimon has ever been.  Then again, Ngoepe has options left.  A lot may depend on how the team feels about the arrest, as well as how the legal proceedings turn out.

John Jaso, 1B -- I'm listing him here because it's possible the team could try to unload him in a trade.  Of course, they'd have to pick up part of his salary.  His improvement late in the year, after about ten weeks of awfulness, might have convinced the team that he can be useful off the bench.  With Joyce almost certainly gone and with Jaso and Josh Bell both capable of standing in an outfield corner, Jaso could be useful as a bench player and as insurance for Bell (which essentially means Clint Hurdle will start him over Bell a lot).

Alen Hanson, IF -- Per David Manel, Neal Huntington has said has said he views Hanson as a utility player rather than as a starter.  Huntington seemed to think he'd be useful in that role, but the Pirates haven't seemed very interested in playing Hanson in September.  Hanson has no options left, so he'll have to make the team next spring.  In the very unlikely event that the Pirates bring Rodriguez back, or the much more plausible event that they sign some other veteran bench player, Hanson will almost certainly be traded.  I don't think the acquisition of Chris Bostick impacts Hanson, because Bostick has options and has yet to have any success in AAA.

Chris Bostick, IF -- I suppose the Pirates could try to get him through waivers at some point.  They have a history of picking up mildly interesting infielders as depth and then showing no interest in them, like Dean Anna and Jake Elmore.  When a need arises, they'll instead acquire an older, sub-replacement veteran like Michael Martinez or Jayson Nix.  Maybe Adam Frazier has changed their minds . . . .

Willy Garcia, OF -- Garcia improved his walk rate a little this year, but the very high strikeout rate remained and his power disappeared.  He also hasn't gotten a callup in one and a half years in AAA.  There's little reason for him to remain on the roster, especially given that there are some right-handed hitters who've done more to merit being on the roster.

Wade LeBlanc, LHP -- He's actually pitched very well in relief, but he has a long history of being not very good.  There is the risk that the Pirates will see him as a long relief/starting depth guy, as he's alarmingly similar to Kyle Lobstein.  Unlike Lobstein, though, he has no options left and is eligible for arbitration, which reduces his usefulness as depth.

Jeff Locke, LHP -- I seem to remember him being discussed here once or twice.

Zach Phillips, LHP -- This was a puzzling pickup.  The Pirates don't like LOOGYs and Phillips seems to be better against right-handed hitters anyway.  He's put up mediocre numbers in a long minor league career, but the Pirates sometimes get fixated on relievers who've washed out of other systems (multiple ones, in Phillips' case).  As with Coke and LeBlanc, he can't be optioned and might make some sense in AAA on a minor league contract, but not on the 40-man roster.  He's pitched fairly well in his brief trial with the Pirates, but that's a handful of innings compared to 11 years of being not very good in the minors.

A.J. Schugel, RHP -- He shouldn't be in any jeopardy unless his shoulder problem is serious.  He also has an option left.

Jared Hughes, RHP -- Hughes throughout 2016 wasn't remotely the pitcher he was in 2014-15.  His control has gotten very poor, he's very hittable, and he's not an extreme groundball pitcher any more.  He's eligible for arbitration for the second time, which means he'll get a very undeserved raise.  Schugel looks like a better bet now, but the Pirates already sent him down rather than option Hughes when Schugel was pitching about as well as anybody in their bullpen.

One thing that's pretty obvious here is that the roster is extremely fluid right now.  The Pirates could easily remove 15 players without suffering an overall loss of talent.  Five players will have to come off the roster immediately after the season ends, as the 60-day DL becomes inoperative.  If they decide to keep any of the players eligible for minor league free agency (see below), they'll have to remove an equivalent, additional number.  No doubt some of these players, though, will stay on the roster for a while, in some cases possibly through spring training, as Florimon did this year.  They can be removed, and possibly sneaked through waivers, as the Pirates make other moves, like signing free agents or acquiring players in trades or off waivers.  Some players, like Florimon and possibly Phillips, appear to be fairly likely candidates to stick around for a while.  LeBlanc might be, too, although his arbitration eligibility is a complicating factor.


On the Bubble

Jose Osuna, 1B/OF -- The Pirates under their current FO have a long history of preferring veterans for their bench, a philosophy that, until this year, was an utter disaster.  (This being more or less a PG-rated blog, I won't go into the horror-show list of names.)  This tendency to prefer veterans over their own prospects has extended to depth-type guys, which has led to some bad, albeit minor, decisions.  For instance, the Pirates traded Alex Dickerson for Jaff Decker and Miles Mikolas, whom they immediately flipped for Chris McGuiness.  Neither Decker nor McGuiness contributed anything to the Pirates; in fact, they didn't even hit well in AAA.  Dickerson, by contrast, has been a very solid hitter for the Padres and would make a nice replacement for Matt Joyce.  Then there was the trade of Trey Supak and Keon Broxton for Jason Rogers.  Broxton at this point looks like a much more useful player than Rogers, without accounting for Supak.

The point here is that, after they called up Rogers over Osuna, I'm concerned that the Pirates will retain Rogers and let Osuna walk -- he'll be a free agent after the season -- even though Osuna is nearly five years younger and hit much better than Rogers in AAA this year.  Of course, you can argue that neither should be on the 40-man roster, especially given that Osuna has already been passed over twice in the Rule 5 draft.  I'm not necessarily saying the Pirates should ignore six and a half years of Osuna not establishing himself as a prospect just because of a nice, two-month stretch.  But he's solid defensively at first and really mashed lefties this year.  And he'd have three options, while Rogers now has none.  If they keep one, it should be Osuna.

Erich Weiss, 2B -- Weiss got off to a very good start, but tailed off after May.  He still had good numbers for a second baseman, he hits left-handed and he's good defensively, but he's 25 now, doesn't profile as a starter and doesn't play short.  The acquisition of Bostick probably wasn't a vote of confidence, either.  I doubt Weiss is that likely to be selected in the draft.

Eric Wood, 3B -- Wood has always been regarded as having some raw power, but it never showed up in games until this year.  He hit 16 HRs and improved in just about every phase of the game, drawing a lot more walks, cutting his K rate, cutting his error rate about in half and generally looking much better in the field.  He's not quite 24, which isn't great but not a terrible age for a guy who should open next year in AAA.  Wood should be an easy decision for addition to the roster.

Barrett Barnes, OF -- Barnes had a huge breakout in the season's last two months:  he batted .404 in July, then hit eight of his season's total of nine HRs and slugged .709 in August.  The down side is that he's 25; he doesn't run that well any more and doesn't throw well, so he's limited to left field; and he struck out better than once every four ABs even in those two huge months.  It's quite possible his numbers had more to do with being old for a prospect in AA.  I think this is a closer call than it seems, but with Garcia going nowhere it'd make sense to see whether Barnes can repeat his success in AAA.

Dovydas Neverauskas, RHP -- Neal Huntington made it clear that the Pirates really like Neverauskas and that they think he'll get better.  Of course, that was before his arrest in Toledo, which cost him a spot in the Arizona Fall League.  Neverauskas will become a free agent if he's not added to the roster, so this technically isn't a Rule 5 decision.  He didn't pitch well after his promotion to AAA, but he's come a long ways with his command and he's regularly getting into the upper-90s.  It's hard to believe the Pirates would let him get away.

Clay Holmes, RHP -- Holmes has always been more potential than performance and he threw only 36 innings combined in 2014-15.  He struggled early this season, then had a couple very strong stretches in the second half.  There always seems to be a down side, though; while he was doing a much better job of keeping the ball down and avoiding extra base hits in the second half, he also saw his BB/9 increase to a very troublesome 4.9.  I imagine the Pirates' decision with Holmes will depend heavily on what their coaches and scouts are telling them.

Jared Lakind, LHP -- A converted first baseman who's also missed time with injuries, Lakind has very limited experience on the mound, but he had a good season in AA despite never having pitched above low A before.  He's a lefty who's not dominant, but gets his share of swings and misses, and pitches well against hitters from both sides.  He's somewhat similar to Zach Phillips, except he throws a little harder and he hasn't spent six years in AAA putting up a 1.42 WHIP.  He'll be lost as a free agent if the Pirates don't add him to the roster.

Not Likely

Jin-De Jhang, C -- Jhang is doing pretty much as expected, making contact and hitting for average, plus he's a left-handed hitting catcher.  It's hard to get a read on his defense.  His arm is fine, but if his defense was average, you'd think the bat would make him fairly attractive despite the lack of power.  Instead, he was passed over in the Rule 5 draft last year.  Scouts no doubt are turned off by the bad body.  I doubt he'll be added, but I hope the team doesn't lose him.

Edwin Espinal, 1B/3B -- The Pirates obviously have always believed in Espinal's bat, as they've kept pushing him upward despite mediocre results and less-than-ideal conditioning.  He batted .289 for Altoona this year, but with very few walks and an ISO of just .122.  Defensively, he's essentially identical to Jason Rogers; he's OK at first and can fake it at third.  The bat just isn't enough given his other limitations.

Wyatt Mathisen, 3B -- Mathisen has never put it together at the plate, which he needs to do after switching from catcher to third.  He missed most of the first half of this season with shoulder trouble, then went to Bradenton and played only sporadically due to Connor Joe's presence at third.  He had a .763 OPS, which is good for the offense-starved FSL and easily a career best, but it was only in 36 games.

Pablo Reyes, IF -- At Bradenton, Reyes was stuck behind a bunch of other players and ended up getting semi-regular time in a utility role.  He posted a .727 OPS, which is good for the Florida State League, he has good speed, and he can play anywhere in the infield, but I doubt he'll be added to the roster.

Cody Dickson, LHP -- Dickson's never quite put it together; this year he walked nearly as many as he struck out.  He's very similar to Zack Dodson, another lefty with good stuff but inadequate command.

Miguel Rosario, RHP -- Rosario was just muddling along in the low minors until he dropped down to a sidearm angle a year or two ago.  Then he advanced quickly to AA.  The Pirates often seem to like to get Rule 5-eligible relievers to AA for at least half a season, which I've always assumed was intended to help with the roster decision.  Rosario pitched well in AA without dominating, mainly due to an unsustainable BABIP.  He doesn't have a huge platoon split and he's a flyball pitcher, both of which are odd for a sidearm thrower.  I don't know whether the organization regards him as a significant prospect or not, but I can't see them putting him on the roster and I doubt he has the ceiling to get selected in the draft.  Somebody, though, I think Vlad, has pointed out that sidearm throwers are a demographic that sometimes attracts interest in the draft.

Luis Heredia, RHP -- He was finally looking interesting during a good first half, but he fell apart in the second half.  He's now just a year away from free agency.

It's very unlikely that the Rule 5 draft and minor league free agency will cause a roster crunch this year.  Given how many (at best) replacement-level players the Pirates have on the 40-man roster now, and the small number of significant prospect-related roster decisions they have to make, finding room on the roster shouldn't be difficult for whichever players they believe are worth a spot.  As to how many that is . . . .  I don't see any no-brainers, although Wood and Neverauskas are close.  Of the others, I think Holmes and Barnes are the best bets, especially if the team decides it's seen enough of Willy Garcia.