While the big boys stage their playoffs, the Pirates soon will be facing some 40-man roster decisions. Counting the many players on the 45-day injured list, they have 51 spots occupied. Once the playoffs end, then, they’ll have to activate the extra players and pare the roster down by 11. There are only two pending free agents, plus one option that’s a lock to be declined, so that’s a lot of space to clear. Here’s the full list, with comments:
Chris Archer: Given the dismal track record of pitchers coming back from thoracic outlet surgery, there’s no way the Pirates exercise Archer’s 2021 option. In 6-8 years we may be calculating whether this was the worst trade in franchise history. At least the Pirates’ half of it has come to an end. An especially pitiful end.
Tyler Bashlor: Bashlor was pretty bad in his limited chances with the Pirates. His chances of staying probably hinge on the staff’s assessment of their chances of helping him find the plate. He certainly seems like a guy you’d try to sneak through waivers, although he has an option left.
Steven Brault: Staying.
JT Brubaker: Staying.
Nick Burdi: This has to be the first case of a guy becoming eligible for arbitration while still not satisfying the Rule 5 requirement for sticking in the majors. Burdi still needs roughly three weeks in the majors before he can be optioned, although that’s not exactly the issue. I have no idea what his medical prognosis is, but with his electrifying stuff it’d have to be mighty bad to justify giving up hope that he can stay healthy.
Blake Cederlind: Staying.
Kyle Crick: Staying.
Austin Davis: Davis actually did pretty well with the handful of batters he faced after the Pirates got him. I imagine he’ll be back.
Michael Feliz: Yeah, he strikes out some guys in between gopher balls, but the results have never been there. He won’t be an early cut, though, I’d guess.
Carson Fulmer: He’s a pretty good bet to get dragmired some more.
Geoff Hartlieb: The metrics don’t buy the ERA, but he’s got two options left and certainly deserves a shot at a job out of spring training.
Derek Holland: Bye.
Clay Holmes: Holmes was everybody’s top choice for new-regime-turnaround, then he got hurt. He’s out of options but I’m sure he’ll be back.
Sam Howard: Howard wasn’t great, thanks to gopher balls, but he was OK, and the bar is very low for Pirates’ left-handed relievers.
Keone Kela: Bye.
Mitch Keller: Staying.
Chad Kuhl: Staying.
Nick Mears: Staying.
Joe Musgrove: Staying.
Dovydas Neverauskas: This is another one that’s really getting old. The Pirates seem to think so, seeing as how he pitched only once in the season’s last two weeks. And he’s out of options.
Cody Ponce: Staying.
Sean Poppen: There’s nothing especially promising in his background, so he could be a candidate for Dragmire Bingo.
Yacksel Ríos: They already dfa’d him once, so I imagine he’ll be one of the first to go.
Richard Rodríguez: Staying.
Edgar Santana: Staying. Jason Mackey of the PG thinks Santana’s 80-game PED suspension will be satisfied by him missing the entire COVID-shortened season. Mackey said he didn’t have official word, but the Pirates activated Santana from the restricted list on September 28, so it appears he’s done with the suspension.
Chris Stratton: Staying.
Jameson Taillon: Staying.
Nick Tropeano: If you think he got hit hard, you weren’t imagining it. His average opponents’ exit velocity of 92.3 mph was nearly identical to Holland’s. His analytics didn’t match the ERA, either. And he’s eligible for arbitration. Hard to say on this one, although he could stick around into the off-season as they wait to see what other ultra-cheap options become available.
Nik Turley: Turley didn’t pitch very well (5.60 xFIP) and didn’t seem to improve over the two months, but the Pirates might still cut him some slack after he missed nearly three years.
Brandon Waddell: I think the Pirates could sneak Waddell through waivers pretty easily. He was added because they needed an arm, not because he’s considered a prospect right now.
Trevor Williams: I don’t think they’ll give up on Williams, but I’m pretty sure you can find a 6.00-ERA pitcher without paying an arbitration salary.
Luke Maile: It’s not like good-field, zero-bat catchers grow on trees. Oh . . . wait . . . yes, they do.
John Ryan Murphy: If you can find a Luke Maile available any time you want, you can probably find a backup Maile available any time you want.
Jacob Stallings: Staying.
Josh Bell: Staying.
Will Craig: Staying.
Oneil Cruz: Staying.
Phillip Evans: He certainly should be staying, but he’ll have to overcome the Pirates’ prejudice against utility players who can hit.
Adam Frazier: Staying.
Erik González: Staying.
Ke’Bryan Hayes: Staying.
Colin Moran: Staying.
Kevin Newman: Staying.
José Osuna: Osuna’s a corner player with an OPS+ of 86 over the equivalent of a full major league season. Yet the Pirates are so incredibly weak in potential bench players who can hit at anything remotely approaching a major league level that it makes sense to hang on to Osuna (especially since he has an option left) unless they acquire some more talent.
Cole Tucker: Staying.
Anthony Alford: Probably the center fielder at the start of 2021.
Kevin Kramer: I thought Kramer would be a candidate to be dfa’d last year, but he wasn’t. He’s a bat-first player who was a below-average hitter in AAA in 2019 and hasn’t hit at all in the majors, and now he’s 27.
Jason Martin: Martin’s had the equivalent of a full season in AAA and has been a below-average hitter. The Pirates showed no interest in getting a look at him this year, instead loading the outfield with anemic-hitting middle infielders and veterans. It seems like his roster spot would be in jeopardy, but the Pirates have no outfield depth at all and aren’t going to add anything worthwhile in the off-season, and Martin has an option left.
Jared Oliva: Staying.
Gregory Polanco: I have no doubt the Pirates would love to dump Polanco on anybody who’d take even a third of his guaranteed 2021 contract, but I doubt they’ll find anybody. They won’t release him.
Bryan Reynolds: Staying.
So, with Archer, Holland and Kela certain to leave, the Pirates will need to clear eight spots from the above. There are a few I think are very likely: Neverauskas, Rios, Waddell. There are also the catchers. Andrew Susac is already gone. Personally, given the ease of finding depth-type catchers, I’d remove both Maile and Murphy. On the latter, I don’t see how a guy who strikes out in half his at-bats can stay on a 40-man roster, although if anybody can find a way it’s the Pirates. Still, I imagine they’ll remove him and not Maile. They’ll still need a season to evaluate whether Maile is going to continue being the player he’s always been.
That would leave four spots to be cleared. Where to start? Wait, I know . . . relievers!
Even with Kela, Neverauskas, Waddell and Rios gone, there are still 18 relievers on the roster. The fact that there are so many relievers on the roster — there aren’t even that many who profile as starters — is a dismal commentary on the talent in the system. All of the relievers in MLB this year totaled 38.3 fWAR. That compares to 120.8 by starters and 210.6 by position players. Does having half your 40-man roster occupied by relievers seem like a sensible allocation of resources? It showed in the results, too. The Pirates got 1.1 fWAR from position players (-0.6 from ones not named Hayes), 1.2 from starters and 2.7 from relievers. So they got more productivity from relievers than all their other players, while everybody else in MLB got over eight times the production from their non-relievers as from their relievers.
It’s not too hard to explain this. First, the Pirates’ farm system hasn’t produced much talent and Neal Huntington frittered away a chunk of what it did. Second, their financial constraints have gotten so suffocating that castoff relievers are the only outside acquisitions they can afford. They can’t fill holes with legitimate renovation projects like they used to do (Martin, Burnett, Liriano, etc.) or modestly priced veterans with some ability (Miami got a 120 OPS+ from Jesus Aguilar for $2.5M and Oakland got a 130 OPS+ from Robbie Grossman for $3.7M). Instead, they’re limited to players who’ll make barely over the minimum. In most cases, that means relievers, so a remarkable portion of their personnel activity consists of sorting through random guys on waivers who’ve been able to get AAA hitters out at a decent rate with mid-90s fastballs, or get them to chase sliders.
The Pirates have some non-reliever candidates to be dfa’d, like Osuna, Kramer and Martin. They have so few non-relievers on the roster, though, that it makes no sense to dfa any of them until they find other guys who might be better, which judging from the last off-season isn’t likely to happen. So relievers it is! It doesn’t matter much which, but the logical candidates are Bashlor, Fulmer, Poppen and Tropeano. There’s a good chance of any or all of them getting through waivers anyway. Then the next step will be clearing space for Rule 5 purposes.