The Pirates figure to need somewhere from four to eight roster spots to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft or free agency. I doubt it’ll actually be eight; realistically, five or six seems more likely. It shouldn’t be too hard for them to clear that many spots on the 40-man roster.
Free Agents Without Options
Obviously, Nicasio is the only one of these three the team should consider bringing back. It’s likely, though, that he’s pitched his way into a decent-sized, multi-year contract. The Pirates have almost always avoided signing relievers to multi-year deals and their experience with Daniel Hudson won’t likely increase their inclination to do so.
Free Agents With Options
Wade LeBlanc: LeBlanc’s 2018 option is a modest $1.25M. The Pirates probably shouldn’t exercise it, but probably will. He has a 3.94 xFIP that almost certainly represents his maximum level. The Pirates need to be aiming higher than that, but they seem happy carrying lots of adequate middle relievers. EDIT: As battlingbucs points out, LeBlanc doesn’t have enough service time to become a free agent. I’m not sure how much that changes the equation. If the Pirates decline his option, it seems almost certain that they’ll designate him for assignment.
Chris Stewart: The Pirates clearly can’t afford to exercise Stewart’s $1.5M option. He’s a good but not great defensive player who’s a major liability on offense. This year he’s posted a dismal wRC+ of 17 and, despite limited playing time, an fWAR of -0.4. A team with a starting catcher who can’t be counted on to play more than 100 games can’t afford that kind of non-production from the backup. On top of that, Elias Diaz is out of options. Weighing against these factors, though, is the Pirates’ growing obsession with preserving “assets.”
Andrew McCutchen: This is a lot easier than it looked a while ago.
Candidates to Come Off the Roster
Johnny Barbato: Barbato was pretty bad in his 15 games with the Pirates (5.87 xFIP) and hasn’t been anything special in AAA. A.J. Schugel seems to have passed him up on the depth chart and Dovydas Neverauskas got the short-term callups recently. How many middle relievers do the Pirates need?
Daniel Hudson: This won’t happen, but it ought to be considered at least.
Drew Hutchison: Hutchison has spent the season proving that he’s exactly what he looked like when the Pirates acquired him: AAA depth. The Pirates have a lot of starter depth options at the upper levels. They hardly need one on an arbitration salary. And anyway, Hutchison has no options left. We’ll probably get an indication whether the Pirates are inclined to face the inevitable now, or wait until spring, when we see whether he gets a September callup. I’m guessing they’ll drop him during the fall, but then there’s that propensity for clinging to “assets.”
Jacob Stallings: It actually makes a good deal of sense for the Pirates to keep Stallings on the roster because he’s essentially the same player as Stewart and he has options. On the other hand, he wouldn’t get claimed on waivers, although he would have the option to become a free agent. This decision might turn on whether they were confident he’d stay with them.
Chris Bostick: Bostick is another in a long line of AAA utility guys the Pirates have acquired from elsewhere and then shown no interest in. He’s had a good year and probably won’t get better, so it’s hard to see why he’d get any more attractive to the team in the future. It doesn’t help that they seem to regard him primarily as an outfielder, because he doesn’t hit well enough for the position.
Phil Gosselin: Not only did he struggle badly with the Pirates, Gosselin has an OPS in the mid-.600s in AAA. This just didn’t work out and should be an easy call, especially with Sean Rodriguez back.
Gift Ngoepe: Ngoepe is striking out in over 30% of his plate appearances in AAA. He’s just not going to hit enough to be more than a defensive sub. Also, the Pirates will have Rodriguez back next year, and Kevin Newman and probably Max Moroff in AAA, so shortstop depth won’t be an issue. Ngoepe hasn’t been designated for assignment before, but he’d be eligible for minor league free agency if he cleared waivers.
The Pirates shouldn’t have much trouble clearing 5-6 spots, or even 8 for that matter. They’ll get three from free agents and a fourth from Stewart. Barbato and Hutchison shouldn’t be especially painful decisions. LeBlanc shouldn’t, either, although I doubt they’ll do it. They’ll probably remove Stallings as well. Out of Bostick, Gosselin and Ngoepe they shouldn’t have a problem dropping at two, as they’ll still have Newman and Moroff, along with Kevin Kramer and Erich Weiss. It all just depends on their willingness to part with assets of dubious value.