Breaking Down the Pittsburgh Pirates Roster Battles in Spring Training

There was a time when Spring Training was pretty much automated analysis for the Pirates.

You knew who was making the team the day the players reported. There were maybe a few minor position battles to follow, but nothing that would change the shape of the upcoming season.

A big reason for the automated analysis is that the Pirates had established trends. Neal Huntington ran the team from the end of 2007 through the end of 2019, which leaves plenty of time to identify his roster trends.

We don’t have that yet with Ben Cherington. His previous work as a General Manager came with the large market Boston Red Sox. His approach with the small market Pirates will probably be different, especially when considering how significantly the game has changed since he was a GM of the Red Sox.

Complicating matters further, the first season under Cherington gave us very few answers on how he plans to build a team and an organization. The roster construction for the majors was chaos in the midst of a global pandemic, and there was no minor league season to worry about.

These days, I often find myself staring into the abyss of a blank Excel sheet, with a list of names on the other screen. Those names will eventually make up the rosters for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Indianapolis Indians, Altoona Curve, Greensboro Grasshoppers, and Bradenton Marauders.

I can tell you where I’d put these guys. I can tell you where I think the Pirates would put these guys, based on what they’ve done in the past. That history became irrelevant when the new front office arrived, leaving all of us guessing and watching.

What I can’t tell you is where Ben Cherington, Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager, will put these guys.

I’ll be honest: I really don’t care about the construct of the Opening Day roster this year. The remaining position battles are largely between guys who would be depth, at best, for their positions on a contending team. My interest in the 2021 Pirates is all about the future. I want to see how the young players perform, which prospects debut, and which veterans build trade value.

My 2021 interest is more on the minor league side organization, as this will hopefully be the first year that we get to see Cherington’s farm system in action.

The minor league side is even crazier than the big league side. MLB restructured the minors, which removed two teams from the Pirates’ system. There was an entire year without games, and I don’t think most people fully understand what that can mean for their favorite prospect who is making $3,000-6,000 per year, with massive doubts about their future in their chosen career, in the midst of a once in a century pandemic.

Before the craziness of the minor league season begins (their Spring Training begins at the end of March), I wanted to create a sort of “baseline” for expectations. Over the next week, I’ll be projecting out the organizational rosters.

They’re probably going to be completely wrong. But that’s the point. No one really knows what to expect from Cherington. We’ll eventually learn his trends by witnessing this process year-after-year.

I’ll be starting with the big league team, just because it’s going to have the biggest impact on the Triple-A roster.

Right now, I see eight spots that are up for grabs on the Major League roster. I have 22 players projected to be competing for those spots. A few of those players I project to make the roster, but the position isn’t clear.

Let’s take a look at who the locks seem to be:

The Position Players

C – Jacob Stallings

1B – Colin Moran

2B – Adam Frazier

SS – Erik Gonzalez

3B – Ke’Bryan Hayes

LF – Bryan Reynolds

CF – Anthony Alford

RF – Gregory Polanco

Bench – Todd Frazier, Kevin Newman

At almost every position, I could see a platoon type situation, or at least a challenge from the outside for playing time. I think this is most likely at first base (Moran vs Todd Frazier), middle infield (working Kevin Newman into the mix), and center field (I think Alford makes the team and gets the bulk of the starting work early in the season).

I’m guessing the Pirates will keep 13 position players, which leaves three spots remaining for the following roster battles.

Position Player Battles (3 spots)

Backup Catcher: Miguel Perez vs Tony Wolters vs Joe Hudson

One of the spots will go to a backup catcher. Perez seemed like the favorite when he was acquired. However, Wolters has received a lot of early time in Spring Training, and Hudson is off to a good start in a limited sample size. Perez has options, so the Pirates could go with one of the other two. However, that would require a 40-man roster spot in either case. That’s not a huge deal, as most teams have three catchers on the 40-man, and the Pirates currently only have two. They’ll inevitably be making the move to add a catcher at some point this season.

Backup Outfield: Dustin Fowler vs Brian Goodwin vs Jared Oliva vs Troy Stokes Jr.

I’d give Fowler the edge here, as he’s out of options. The other three can be stashed in Triple-A to start the year. I think Goodwin has the best chance of cracking the roster right now.

Final Bench Spot: Phillip Evans vs Cole Tucker vs Wilmer Difo vs The Remaining Outfielders

I think Evans has the advantage here, due to his super utility capabilities. At this point, the projected roster has a backup middle infield option, four outfielders, a backup corner infielder, and a backup catcher. The Pirates could get creative with Adam Frazier and move him to the outfield, which would result in the need for an additional infielder.

They could also be set in the infield and opt for an additional outfielder. I think they’re going to need at least five outfielders on the roster, since there are question marks surrounding all three projected starters. My early prediction is that the final spot comes down to Evans vs Tucker, with Fowler getting the outfield role.

Cole Tucker has an inside track here as well, although the Pirates have had some strange usage for him since Cherington arrived.

The Pitchers

SP – Mitch Keller

SP – Tyler Anderson

SP – Steven Brault

SP – ???

SP – ???

RP – Richard Rodriguez

RP – Kyle Crick

RP – Chris Stratton

RP – Michael Feliz

RP – Luis Oviedo

RP – ???

RP – ???

RP – ???

With 13 projected pitchers, I’ve got 5 spots open. I think the rotation battle will impact the bullpen configuration. I’m also projecting Luis Oviedo on the Opening Day roster due to his Rule 5 status.

Pitcher Battles (5 spots)

The Rotation: JT Brubaker (27) vs Chad Kuhl (28) vs Cody Ponce (26) vs Wil Crowe (26) vs Miguel Yajure (22)

I think all five of these guys will start in Pittsburgh at some point this season, which really underscores the pointlessness of Opening Day roster predictions. If all of these guys will make a start, then all we’re doing here is projecting the order of operations. My guess on that order is that Brubaker and Kuhl will get the first crack, with one of Ponce or Crowe pitching out of the bullpen, and the remaining pitcher joining Yajure in the Triple-A rotation.

I added the ages of these pitchers in parentheses above to highlight the sort of “last chance” vibe for these guys in the rotation. I can’t imagine any of these guys are competing for a rotation this year on a contending team. This isn’t to say that these guys can’t one day start for a contending team. My prediction on the early-season roster is that Cherington uses it to find out which of the post-prospects can still help the Pirates in the long-term.

The Bullpen: Geoff Hartlieb vs Edgar Santana vs David Bednar vs Blake Cederlind vs Sean Poppen vs Chasen Shreve vs Sam Howard

I’ve got Brubaker and Kuhl in the rotation above, with Ponce in the bullpen as a swing man. That leaves two remaining spots. I’d project those to go to Hartlieb and Santana. If the Pirates opt for a lefty, Shreve or Howard would battle for a position. This is another case where I think all of these guys will be in Pittsburgh at some point during the 2021 season.

Projected Opening Day Roster

C – Jacob Stallings

1B – Colin Moran

2B – Adam Frazier

SS – Erik Gonzalez

3B – Ke’Bryan Hayes

LF – Bryan Reynolds

CF – Anthony Alford

RF – Gregory Polanco

Bench – Todd Frazier, Kevin Newman, Dustin Fowler, Cole Tucker, Miguel Perez

SP – Mitch Keller

SP – Tyler Anderson

SP – Steven Brault

SP – JT Brubaker

SP – Chad KUhl

RP – Richard Rodriguez

RP – Kyle Crick

RP – Chris Stratton

RP – Michael Feliz

RP – Luis Oviedo

RP – Cody Ponce

RP – Geoff Hartlieb

RP – Edgar Santana

Next up, I’ll project the Triple-A roster.

Analysis

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