First Pitch: More Roster-Trimming Decisions Loom for Pirates Tomorrow

The deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration-eligible players in MLB is tomorrow.  The Pirates have a long list of players up for arbitration.  It started off even longer, but they removed Luke Maile and John Ryan Murphy from the roster early on, and more recently removed Trevor Williams and Jose Osuna.  That leaves the following:

Josh Bell, 1B
Steven Brault, LHP
Kyle Crick, RHP
Michael Feliz, RHP
Adam Frazier, 2B
Erik Gonzalez, SS
Chad Kuhl, RHP
Colin Moran, DH
Joe Musgrove, RHP
Richard Rodriguez, RHP
Jacob Stallings, C
Chris Stratton, RHP
Jameson Taillon, RHP

There probably isn’t much issue about any of these guys except Gonzalez and Feliz.  Yeah, this is an incredibly odd and unpredictable offseason.  Maybe Bob Nutting will get so worried about the payments on his hybrid moped that the Pirates will non-tender Frazier and Musgrove, or something.  But it’s hard to see it.

Gonzalez and Feliz, on the other hand . . . . .  It’s still unpredictable.  I got so used to Neal Huntington’s obsession with retaining totally fungible “assets” that I’ve operated, for a long time, on the assumption that the Pirates won’t let go of any replacement or sub-replacement player who isn’t making at least a few million.  But we don’t know yet whether Ben Cherington shares that particular fetish, so it’s possible he’ll at least consider ditching one or both of these two.

It’s hard to get terribly interested in whether Feliz stays or goes.  The Pirates already appear destined to carry out a season-long bullpen tryout camp.  If you’re already going to give tryouts to Tyler Bashlor, Austin Davis, Carson Fulmer, Ashton Goudeau, Sam Howard, Sean Poppen and Nik Turley, why not throw Feliz in there, too?  And there are those neat-o K rates.  On the other hand, unlike all the others, Feliz has had extensive major league opportunities.  After 206 major league games, how much is going to change?

Gonzalez is the more interesting case.  Given the serious and legitimate doubts about Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, Gonzalez may actually be the Pirates’ best shortstop at this exact moment.  The fact remains, though, that he’s as good as he’s going to get.

The supposition has been that, because Gonzalez hits the ball hard a lot (although his exit velocity is actually below average), he could suddenly become a lot better if he’d stop hitting the ball on the ground so much.  So in 2020 he reduced his groundball rate from 58.7% in 2019 to 47.8%, replacing those grounders with line drives.  As a result, his OPS+ went all the way from 64 to . . . . . . 66.  What’s more, his OPS+ during his Cleveland years was 80, so he’s getting worse, not better.

Newman and Tucker may be far from sure things, either, but they’re two and six years younger than Gonzalez, respectively.  So the question is whether the Pirates will settle for guaranteed sub-mediocrity, or take a chance (although a very small one) on somebody who could be slightly worse but could be meaningfully better.  It’s very likely that the Pirates’ long term future at short lies with somebody like Liover Peguero or even Oneil Cruz, or maybe somebody further back like Juan Jerez or Dariel Lopez.  Why not see whether Tucker or Newman can provide some upside in the meantime?

Another reason to divest themselves of Gonzalez is to make sure the Pirates keep Adam Frazier at second (as well as remove the possibility of Gonzalez filling the nerf-bat infielder-in-the-outfield role that the team has bizarrely created).  The idea of turning a good secondbaseman into a weak-hitting outfielder is impossible to understand.  And assuming Frazier isn’t traded before the season, keeping him at by far his best position is the best way to enhance his value going forward.

For all these reasons, the Pirates’ decision on Gonzalez will be a good indicator of their willingness to depart from Huntington’s fanatical devotion to maintaining the status quo.

IN OTHER NEWS:  MLB has announced that it’s establishing a wood-bat league for draft-eligible players.  It’ll be a six-team league, largely made up of the remains of the New York-Penn League.  Five teams have been determined, one of which is the West Virginia Black Bears, so they’re officially no longer a Pirates affiliate.

The league is intended for college players who’ve finished their junior or senior seasons in college, although prep players supposedly will be eligible.  BA has talked to player agents who’ve said they won’t likely let potential first-rounders play in the league, for fear of hurting their draft status.  Apart from that, the league could host a pretty good concentration of talent.  Play will start before the NCAA post-season ends, though, so that could eliminate some talent.  The schedule also will continue until well after the draft; it’s questionable whether teams will want their draftees playing and risking injury.