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2021 Spring Training Home Stretch: Pirates Roster Analysis

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MLB: MAR 23 Spring Training - Twins at Pirates Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2/24/21: Traded cash considerations to the Oakland Athletics for OF Dustin Fowler. To make room on the 40-man roster, placed LHP Austin Davis on the 60-day IL (left elbow sprain). 40-man roster still full.

Fowler’s story is an interesting one. He was drafted in the 18th round of the 2013 draft by the Yankees. The club promoted him aggressively, and he made his major league debut in late June of 2017 at age 22. The bad news was that he crashed into the railing chasing a foul ball in Chicago in his very first inning in right field and ruptured his right patellar tendon. He thus got credit for a game played but no plate appearances. While he was on the 60-day disabled list, the Yankees traded him and two other players to the Athletics for Sonny Gray at the 2017 trade deadline. Fowler was considered the best prospect of the lot at the time. Called up in May of 2018, he logged 203 plate appearances, slashing .224/.256/.354, striking out 47 times to 8 walks. He hasn’t been back in the majors since. His last claim to fame was hitting 25 homers for the 2019 AAA Las Vegas club with the rabbit ball in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in the minor leagues. Now out of options, he won’t face the crowded outfield in Pittsburgh that he was up against in Oakland.

3/7/21: Traded 1B Shendrik Apostel to the Chicago Cubs for RHP Duane Underwood, Jr. To make room on the 40-man roster for Underwood, designated RHP Carson Fulmer for assignment. 40-man roster still full.

The Pirates essentially ditched one righty reliever without options for another righty reliever without options. Underwood became available because the Cubs had to make a 40-man move to activate Kyle Ryan from the COVID-19 Related IL, and they couldn’t get rid of their Rule 5 draft choice because it wasn’t within the proper time window. The Pirates figure that Underwood would me a more reliable choice and an upgrade. Judging purely by the peripherals, the Pirates would appear to be correct, as Underwood’s K/BB ratio was double that of Fulmer’s over the past two years.

3/12/21: Signed RHP Trevor Cahill to a 1-year, $1.5 million contract. Placed RHP Blake Cederlind on the 60-day IL (strained right UCL). 40-man still full.

Cahill’s career has taken an interesting trajectory. A 2nd round draft choice by the Athletics out of high school in 2006, he started 32 games for the 2009 club as a 21-year old. After an inconsistent career as a starter where he featured poor peripherals but nice groundball rates, he drifted as a journeyman reliever to five different clubs between 2015 and 2017. He seemed to get it turned around with another tour through Oakland’s rotation in 2018, but regressed in 2019 with the Angels, when he was banished to the bullpen once again.

He started last season on a minor league deal with the Giants to compete for the 5th starter job, but didn’t crack the opening day roster, and went to their ATS instead. But they purchased his contract on August 12th to take the rotation spot of Jeff Samardzija, who went on the injured list. He didn’t last very long in his six starts, exceeding 3.1 IP only twice, and maxing out at 5.1 IP. He finished the rest of the season with 5 outings in the bullpen, and in total. He struck out a career best 29.2% of batters in a small sample of 25 innings pitched, but balanced that out with his career worst walk rate of 13.2%. Cahill used to be a a pitch-to-contact sinker-baller who kept the ball on the ground with extreme prejudice, but he’s now become a changeup and curveball pitcher, throwing the change the most and the curve as much as the sinker. His curve has elite spin and he mixes in a cutter for good measure. He’s getting a very late start to camp, but if he can stick in the rotation, he can earn an additional $1 million in performance bonuses based on innings pitched.

Cederlind has now had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and is done for all of this year and probably the early part of next year. He’s had a tough road the last year, having contracted COVID-19 in Summer Camp, then not being able to debut until two weeks were left in the season.

3/16/21: Optioned RHPs Roansy Contreras, Max Kranick, and RHP Nick Mears, and IFs Rodolfo Castro and Oneil Cruz to the ATS. Re-assigned RHPs Cody Bolton, Jandel Gustave and Quinn Priester, C Jason Delay, IFs Nick Gonzales, Mason Martin, and Liover Peguero, and OFs Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba and Travis Swaggerty to minor league camp. 56 players left in camp (35 40-man roster players + 21 NRIs).

3/17/21: Re-assigned RHP Yerry De Los Santos, LHP Blake Weiman, Cs Christian Kelley and Arden Pabst and IF Ji-Hwan Bae to minor league camp. 51 players left in camp (35 40-man roster players + 16 NRIs).

3/21/21: Signed RHP Steven Wright to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training. 52 players left in camp (35 40-man roster players + 17 NRIs).

Wright was drafted in 2006 by the Indians in the 2nd round, but the knuckleballer didn’t make his major league debut until he was 28 years old with the 2013 Red Sox. He spent parts of 7 seasons in the majors with the Red Sox from 2013 through 2019, and he hit his high water mark in 2016 when he had a 2.18 ERA through 15 starts and made the All-Star team. Since then his career has been marred by injuries and suspensions. He’s lost time due to being hit in the head with a ball while running sprints and hurting his shoulder when diving back to the bag as a pinch-runner. More seriously, he’s had several procedures on his left knee, including a cartilage restoration. In 2017, he was suspended 15 games for violating the Domestic Policy, then got hit with an 80-game PED suspension in 2019. Still under club control, the Red Sox released him after the 2019 season, and he had Tommy John surgery after that. It’s highly unlikely that the 36-year old is more than AAA depth at this point.

3/22/21: Optioned RHP Edgar Santana and OF Jared Oliva to the ATS. Re-assigned RHP Shea Spitzbarth and IF Kevin Kramer to minor league camp. 48 players left in camp (33 40-man roster players + 15 NRIs).

Santana missed all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery and all of last season serving a PED suspension.

3/23/21: Re-assigned RHP James Marvel to minor league camp. 47 players left in camp (33 40-man roster players + 14 NRIs).

3/24/21: Optioned RHP Sean Poppen, RHP Miguel Yajure and IF Cole Tucker to the ATS. Re-assigned LHP Braeden Ogle, Cs Joe Hudson and Andrew Susac, IFs Will Craig and Hunter Owen and OF Troy Stokes, Jr. to minor league camp. 38 players left in camp (30 40-man roster players + 8 NRIs).

Tucker, who was drafted as a shortstop, and had played only 6 games in his minor league career at any other position (which was 2nd base), got 28 starts in the outfield last season with no starts in the infield. He actually got the plurality of starts in center field. The whole episode was ridiculous, because Tucker’s bat has never been strong enough to force his bat into any lineup. Told he would be in the mix for the shortstop job, he was scratched from a March 3rd start with a left thumb contusion, and that cost him over a week.

3/26/21: IF Todd Frazier opted out of his minor league deal and received his unconditional release. 37 players left in camp (30 40-man roster players + 7 NRIs).

Frazier apparently had negotiated an earlier contractual opt-out than the automatic June 1st provision a player in his shoes normally gets. He apparently was unable to beat out Colin Moran for the first base job or Phillip Evans or Wilmer Difo for a backup infielder job. The club wanted someone with more flexibility than the ability to just play the corner infield positions. Frazier had a good camp and understandably wanted to test the waters to see if he could land a spot other than at the Pirates’ ATS.

3/27/21: Optioned RHP Tyler Bashlor to the ATS. 36 players left in camp (29 40-man roster players + 7 NRIs).

3/29/21: Optioned RHP Geoff Hartlieb to the ATS. Re-assigned RHP Steven Wright, IF Wilmer Difo and OF Brian Goodwin to minor league camp. 32 players left in camp (28 40-man roster players + 4 NRIs).

40-MAN ROSTER

PITCHERS (24)

Tyler Anderson (L, N/A), Tyler Bashlor (R, 1), David Bednar (R, 2), Steven Brault (L, 1), JT Brubaker (R, 2), Trevor Cahill (R, N/A), Roansy Contreras (R, 3), Kyle Crick (R, 1), Wil Crowe (R, 2), Michael Feliz (R), Geoff Hartlieb (R, 2), Sam Howard (L, 2), Mitch Keller (R, 2), Max Kranick (R, 3), Chad Kuhl (R, 2), Nick Mears (R, 2), Luis Oviedo (R, N/A, Rule 5), Cody Ponce (R, 2), Sean Poppen (R, 1), Richard Rodriguez (R, 3), Edgar Santana (R, 2), Chris Stratton (R), Duane Underwood, Jr. (R), Miguel Yajure (R, 2)

CATCHERS (2)

Michael Perez (2), Jacob Stallings (1)

INFIELDERS (9)

Rodolfo Castro (3), Oneil Cruz (2), Phillip Evans (2), Adam Frazier (2), Erik Gonzalez, Ke’Bryan Hayes (2), Colin Moran (1), Kevin Newman (3), Cole Tucker (2)

OUTFIELDERS (5)

Anthony Alford, Dustin Fowler, Jared Oliva (3), Gregory Polanco (N/A), Bryan Reynolds (3)

60-DAY IL (3)

Blake Cederlind (R, 2), Austin Davis (L, 2), Jose Soriano (R, N/A, Rule 5)

RESTRICTED LIST (1)

LHP Felipe Vazquez

NON-ROSTER INVITEES (4)

PITCHERS (3)

Chase De Jong (R), Clay Holmes (R), Chasen Shreve (L)

CATCHERS (1)

Tony Wolters

OPENING DAY OUTLOOK AND JOBS

*Rotation: Going into camp, it looked like the front four would be Tyler Anderson, Steven Brault, Mitch Keller and Chad Kuhl. The 5th spot was likely to be contested by Trevor Cahill, Wil Crowe, JT Brubaker, Cody Ponce and Miguel Yajure. Then Brault had to leave his March 19th start early with tightness in his left lat. It turns out that he strained the muscle, won’t throw for a month, and the best case scenario is that he’s back in 10 weeks.

Anderson, Brubaker, Keller, and Kuhl, have four clear spots. The last spot is down Crowe and Cahill but the club has said they might use 6 starters. Whoever doesn’t get the 5th job between Crowe and Cahill will be in the bullpen.

*Bullpen: There are a couple of issues with the bullpen. One is that with Austin Davis on the 60-day IL Sam Howard is the only healthy lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. It might not be that big of a deal, but there does not appear to be a real closer. Blake Cederlind looked primed for that job, but blew out his elbow. Richard Rodriguez finished a plurality of the club’s games last year in addition to securing 4 out of the club’s 6 saves, but manager Derek Shelton has said he feels Rodriguez is better suited to be a setup man. The Pirates’ 3 new acquisitions, Cahill, Duane Underwood, Jr. and Luis Oviedo didn’t debut in a spring game until March 22nd.

Rodriguez, Kyle Crick and Chris Stratton were locks to have jobs going into camp. Michael Feliz and Underwood are out of options. David Bednar has had a fantastic camp with a nasty split-finger, and he’s got the 6th job. With the option of Geoff Hartlieb, which is a mild surprise, there are only 3 other relievers on the 40-man: Cody Ponce, Rule 5 pick Luis Oviedo and lefty Sam Howard. There are only 2 more jobs available. Howard is the only lefty reliever on the 40-man, and lefty NRI Chasen Shreve has had a good camp. Ultimately the final 2 spots will depend on how many lefties the club wants to carry and what it decides to do with Oviedo.

*Backup catcher: There are only two catchers on the 40-man. Jacob Stallings the starter, and Michael Perez. NRI Tony Wolters has lasted the entire camp, and remains a candidate to win the backup job over Perez.

*Infield: Rookie sensation Ke’Bryan Hayes has a firm hold on the third base job and dazzled in his September trial last season. Hayes and the trade of Josh Bell opened the first base job for former 3rd baseman Colin Moran. Moran got 20 starts there last year, so the position is not entirely new. Adam Frazier is the 2nd baseman. Kevin Newman was the club’s primary shortstop in 2019 and for most of 2020, but he found himself moved to 2nd base and eventually to the injured list by the end of the year. Going into camp, he found himself in a competition for the shortstop job with Erik Gonzalez, who started 60% of the club’s games at the position last season, Cole Tucker and NRI Wilmer Difo. Now that Tucker and Difo are out of the mix, Newman and Gonzalez will both get time, with Newman having the edge for now based on his sensational camp. Phillip Evans will be another backup infielder.

*Outfield: Last season, infielder Cole Tucker ended up being the primary center fielder, and the club was using infielders as the backup outfielders. He’s now been optioned, so the club can play some real outfielders out there. Anthony Alford broke his elbow in his 5th game with the club last September when he ran into the center field wall pursuing a home run that he had absolute no chance to get. He had surgery two days after the injury, and the elbow wasn’t 100% at the start of camp. He was looking at competition from NRI Brian Goodwin, but Goodwin didn’t make it. Across the board, you’re looking at Bryan Reynolds in left, Alford in center and Gregory Polanco in right, with Dustin Fowler the backup.

The Pirates used 28 pitchers in a 60-game season last year, 29 if you count the one inning that backup catcher John Ryan Murphy pitched. That was three more than the COVID-wracked Cardinals. Instead of a COVID outbreak, the Pirates suffered injuries to the pitching staff that reached meme-level proportions. When the 2020 season was over, the club had 11 players on the 60-day IL, 8 of whom were pitchers. The club hopes that it can maintain a modicum of health, although they’re already off to a bad start, with their projected opening day starter in the shelf. It looks like the opening day bench will be Evans, Gonzalez, Fowler, and whoever the backup catcher is.