Analyzing the Opening Day Roster

The Opening Day roster is all but set. The Pirates cut nine players this morning, leaving 26 active players in camp. The only question mark remaining is whether Brandon Inge will start the season on the disabled list, which would put Josh Harrison on the bench. At this point it looks likely that Inge will start on the DL.

Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington met with the media this morning to discuss some of the moves. Most of the moves today involved the bench, the bullpen, and the final spot in the rotation. Below is a deeper look at the makeup of the team.

No Lefties on the Bench

The bench really isn’t much of a surprise. For a few weeks it has looked like the Pirates would go with a bench like this, or similar to this one. Coming into camp we knew that Michael McKenry and Gaby Sanchez would be on the bench. We had a good idea that Jose Tabata and Travis Snider would be splitting time in right field, with the other player on the bench. That left a middle infield spot and a utility spot — and not many left-handed options to choose from.

I know the bench isn’t much of a surprise because the “no left-handers” complaint has been around for a few weeks. Huntington talked about that today.

“There will be days where we’ll have a left-hander on the bench, depending on who starts and depending on how the first base/right field situation works out,” Huntington said. “It’s going to be kind of an ever-evolving process there. We ultimately need a right-handed compliment for Garrett [Jones], and with [Jose] Tabata we wanted the right-handed compliment in the outfield as well.”

The team basically has two platoons. They’ve got a platoon at first base, and a platoon in right field. I don’t think right field will be a true platoon, but it all boils down to the team having a left-handed hitter in Travis Snider who won’t be getting all of the playing time.

There isn’t much of a need for a lefty on the bench. When a right-handed pitcher starts, Garrett Jones and Travis Snider will be in the lineup. Pedro Alvarez will also be there, and Neil Walker will be batting left-handed. You’re not pinch-hitting for Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, or Starling Marte. When left-handers are starting, you’ll have Jones and Snider available off the bench later in the game if a right-handed reliever comes in.

So really the only purpose for a lefty bat on the bench is if you’ve got a right-handed reliever coming in late in the game on a day where a right-hander started, and you need to pinch hit for Clint Barmes or the pitcher spot in a big moment. Even if that situation comes up, and you bring in the left-hander, what is to stop the other team from countering with a lefty reliever?

On a normal bench you’d want a left-handed hitter. But having two “platoon” situations doesn’t make this a normal bench. The need for a left-handed hitter off the bench on this team is very small.

 

Does the Bench Signify Depth?

The Pirates cut a few players today who were having good Spring numbers. Felix Pie was hitting for a .318 average and a .991 OPS in 44 at-bats. Alex Presley was batting .304 with a .791 OPS in 46 at-bats. Both were sent to Triple-A, where they will most likely serve as starting outfielders. Both players would have been good options off the bench, had they made the team.

“We told Felix today, he reminds us of Garrett Jones,” Huntington said. “A guy signed as a minor league free agent, had some opportunities earlier in his career. Came into camp with us and had a terrific Spring. In Garrett’s case, we challenged him to keep doing it and he did it. And we created a spot for him on the major league club.”

Huntington talked about some of the tough decisions today. He also mentioned several times that the Opening Day roster was only the Opening Day roster, and that a lot of the players who have been sent down will be options for the Pirates throughout the year.

“One sure sign of an organization that’s moving forward is that you have guys on your bench that can play on a regular basis, and you have guys in Triple-A that can be in the big leagues,” Huntington said. “We sent out a lot of guys today that could be in the big leagues, and will be in the big leagues. We’re not going to go with 25. Opening Day is Opening Day. The third day of the season we might need somebody new because of an injury or because of challenges at some point in April. I understand that everyone wants to look at a roster as if it’s set in stone, and it’s not. It’s an ever-evolving, fluid process. We sent some really good players out of camp today that are going to help us at some point this season.”

Early in camp I talked with an American League scout who started our conversation by saying he was about to jump on board the Pirates’ bandwagon. The reason? Depth. Before most of these players were cut, he talked about guys like Clint Robinson, Jared Goedert, Alex Presley, Ivan De Jesus Jr., and others who would most likely be pushed to Triple-A. He felt that all of those guys had futures as major league players, and could help this year.

There’s no denying that the Pirates have depth. If an outfielder goes down, they’re choosing from Presley, Pie, and Jerry Sands. If a middle infielder goes down, they’re choosing from Jordy Mercer, De Jesus, and Chase d’Arnaud when he returns. If a catcher goes down, they’ve got Tony Sanchez waiting in Triple-A, or Carlos Paulino if they want a strong defensive option. If a pitcher goes down, they’ve got plenty of bullpen options, plus guys like Kyle McPherson, Gerrit Cole, Phil Irwin, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Karstens throughout the year.

As I look at a lot of the complaints about the bench, I don’t think the Pirates have an issue of depth, or finding major leaguers to put on the roster. It seems the main concern is that the Pirates aren’t making the right choices. They brought in John McDonald to be the backup middle infielder. McDonald is a good player, and provides strong defense. However, it’s a move that doesn’t make much sense, as they already had De Jesus and Mercer as options. Brandon Inge doesn’t hit for average, but he still has power. His .165 ISO last year would have ranked sixth on the team last year out of players with 200+ plate appearances. But that’s a case where Inge is older, currently hurt, and wasn’t performing as well as some of the other guys who have been cut in camp.

As it works out, Inge fits more in the “depth” category, rather than a member of the Opening Day roster. He will likely go on the disabled list, giving the Pirates an option later in the month of April, or whenever he returns. They will have to create a roster spot for him, and depending on that move it might not be worth keeping Inge around at $1 M. That’s especially true when Inge’s primary value is replicated by the existing depth. He hits for power, and can play multiple positions — though not very well. The Pirates already have power on their bench. They have utility players in the system. They even have some options who can do both, such as Jared Goedert.

My own concern with the choices made are that the Pirates seem to be going with the comfort of a veteran, rather than the unknown with younger players. That unknown can lead to worse production, but there’s also a chance it could lead to better production and bigger long-term value than McDonald or Inge could provide.

 

Jeff Locke is the number five starter.

Jeff Locke is the number five starter.

Jeff Locke Wins the Fifth Starting Job, McPherson Is Immediate Depth

As expected, Jeff Locke won the fifth starter spot, with Kyle McPherson getting optioned to Triple-A. Locke has had two shots in the majors, although both came at the end of the year. He probably wasn’t ready the first time around, and showed some positive signs the second time. Locke doesn’t have anything to prove in the minors. He’s now to the point where he needs to show what he can do in the majors.

“In Jeff’s case, the body of work, what he did at Triple-A last year, some of the success he had at the big league level in a small sample that doesn’t necessarily show up in ERA,” Huntington said. “His ability to attack hitters. We’re looking forward to Russ Martin helping him out. Using all three pitches, and we felt that he gave us the best chance to win his starts.”

McPherson doesn’t have a lot of experience above the Double-A level. He made three starts in Triple-A, and pitched 26.1 innings in the majors last year. Huntington said that even with the lack of upper level innings, the team would be comfortable turning to McPherson in the early part of the season if an extra pitcher was needed.

“We’re comfortable with what he did in Triple-A, comfortable with what he did in the big leagues, and comfortable with the person and how he goes about it with the professionalism and the confidence that he has, and the ability to have three quality major league pitches,” Huntington said. “So absolutely we’d be comfortable to have him in any role early in the season if needed.”

The right-hander didn’t have the consistency this Spring that Jeff Locke showed, which was one of the key reasons the Pirates went with Locke over McPherson at the start of the year.

“[McPherson] has major league caliber pitches,” Huntington said. “It’s just the consistency and the command. One of the toughest decisions we had, because not only could he help us as a starter, but he could help us out of the bullpen.”

At the start of Spring Training, the expected rotation was expected to have Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke in the final two spots. The only difference now is that Jonathan Sanchez replaces Liriano. That’s not really a huge difference. They’re both left-handers who are still relatively young, had previous success in the majors, and are both coming off down years. They both have control issues, but both could benefit from PNC Park. Either way, the Pirates are going with a bounce back candidate for their fourth starter, and a young, inexperienced player as their fifth starter.

 

A Lot of Question Marks in the Bullpen

One thing that Neal Huntington has done well is take a lot of questionable pitchers and turn them into quality relievers. Whether that’s failed minor league starters (Jared Hughes, Tony Watson), waiver claims (Chris Resop), or low-key free agents (Jose Veras, D.J. Carrasco), the Pirates have had a lot of success stories. This year that strategy will be put to the test.

Most of the question marks in the back of the bullpen are really about comfort. Jason Grilli is a great reliever, but there are those who believe that it takes some special magic to close out games. Mark Melancon is a year removed from being one of the top relievers in the National League. He had a down year last year, although his advanced metrics suggest a comeback in a lot of the same ways that Joel Hanrahan looked like a bounce back candidate when he joined the Pirates in 2009. Hughes and Watson both have experience and success, and will be picking up a bigger role this year.

The guys who were added today are question marks as far as their ability in the majors goes. Chris Leroux was a waiver claim in 2010. Since then the Pirates have adjusted his arm slot and focused on his off-speed pitches. In his limited time with the team he’s posted great ratios.  Through 41 innings he has an 8.8 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and an 0.2 HR/9. Last year the overall numbers were bad, and his velocity was down. That was due to a pectoral strain, which he’s now over. Those ratios are a good indicator that he can be an effective reliever, but now will be the time to show it.

Justin Wilson spent some time in the majors last year, but not a significant amount. He’s mostly been a starter in the minors, dealing with serious control problems. The control problems have been negated because he’s got great stuff, leading to a high strikeout rate and a low batting average against. Wilson is the same as a starter or a reliever. He’s either going to have great results, or his control will be way off one day and he’ll be a disaster. There shouldn’t be any expected improvements with his control by moving him to the bullpen. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective reliever. He just needs to carry that trend of a high strikeout rate and a low batting average against to the majors.

The final bullpen spot went to Jeanmar Gomez, which is a bit of a head scratcher. Gomez is a major league player. He’s a fifth starter and a ground ball machine. His time as a reliever in the majors has been limited to one run in seven innings. This is a situation where a guy could improve by moving to the bullpen. He’s basically the last reliever on the team, so it’s worth a shot to see if he can be this year’s sleeper option. However, the move isn’t really inspiring for two reasons. First, the Pirates have other sleeper candidates, and Gomez gives them a third. Second, you could argue that there were better options who were sent to the minors. At the least you could argue that there were options sent down who are the same, but looked better this Spring. Really what this boils down to is that Gomez is out of options. It looks like the Pirates went with the approach that would allow them to keep everyone.

All three of these pitchers can go multiple innings. Gomez is most likely to fill that long-relief role, although it might be hard for him to jump from the bullpen to the rotation.

“It’s a challenge to keep guys stretched out in the National League,” Huntington said. “So really as your long man you’re looking for a guy who can go two-plus or maybe three. One time through your offensive lineup.”

Wilson and Leroux can also go multiple innings, so expect all three pitchers to be used in more of a utility role, rather than defined middle relief and long relief roles.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

    I don’t get why you continue to belittle this – “So really the only purpose for a lefty bat on the bench is if you’ve got a right-handed reliever coming in late in the game on a day where a right-hander started, and you need to pinch hit for Clint Barmes or the pitcher spot in a big moment.”

    Your scenario describes 90% of the pinch hit situations that a NL club encounters vs RHP. I would much rather have Alex Presley at bat than Brandon Inge in a late game RBI situation or table setting situation.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I would like to see the numbers that say 90% of pinch hit situations come in that scenario. Also, 90% of what?

      • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

        While the percentage is an overstatement (perhaps), I think it’s important to remember that pretty much every closer in the NL is a right-hander, and in a late-game situation…well, best of luck to you if you’re trotting out Harrison or McDonald or Inge in that scenario. There is, as you say, the option of bringing in a left-hander to face an Alex Presley if you send him to the plate–but LaRussa’s retired; how many managers are going to pull their closer for a LOOGY in that situation?

      • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

        OK when do NL teams pinch hit vs RHP? Are you really arguing that the vast majoirty of incidences are not for the pitcher or 8th hitter? How often do teams really pinch hit for a RH bat who is good enough to start against RH starters? Not very often.

      • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

        90% of the incidences of when you would use a LH pinch hitter when the opponent has started a RHP. In that case, you already loaded your lineup with LH so there are few RH to pinch hit for besides the pitcher or black hole 8th hitter, no? In our case it would be Cutch and Marte and then Barmes, pitcher. You doubt taht 90% of the PH chances would be for the pitcher or 8th hitter?

        • bohringer9

          The average NL team had 227 ph abs last year (the same as the Pirates), and although it is tough to track down how many are against rhp, I would assume its close to half. Which means you even if the situations you describe make up an absurd 90% of ph against righties, we would still only be talking about 100 abs. How much better is one of our left handed bench options going to do than our right handed ones in those 100 abs? I would doubt that they would have more than a .050 obp advantage (5 times more on base) and similar numbers for slugging. That’s a couple runs over the course of the year, maybe half a win. And that doesn’t take into account you have less options against lhp, and the fact a left handed ph can only ph once a game. It’s just not that big of deal, and there’s a whole season of injuries and unexpected performances that will change bench up drastically.

      • jg941

        I think he’s just arguing that you’re glossing over the reality that most relief pitchers are right-handed, so the probability is much higher (not 90%, but much higher) in later-inning pinch-hit situations that the relief pitcher on the mound is a righty.

        Given that, it’s hard to understand the argument AGAINST the importance of having at least one lefty bench bat for those situations -same balance you’d wanna have across the rest of your team.

        And, it’s fine if the other team then switches up and brings a RHP right back at you – let ‘em burn one of their pitching options, all part of the dance.

        I think you agree that having the lefty bench bat would have been a smarter move, but when you (over) downplay it, it sounds like you’re downplaying the importance of making the smarter move.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

    Gomez is not a “ground ball machine”, in over 200 MLB innings he is at 49.2%, seven percent less than fly-ball pitcher AJ Burnett got last year.

    Gomez is a hit allowing, HR giving up machine.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      The average ground ball rate for pitchers is around 42%.

      • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

        Yeah I know, but “ground ball machine” is Charlie Morton not a guy at 49%.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

      Over/under on innings Gomez will pitch with the Pirates is what, 10?

      • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

        If there’s a God, it’s the under.

  • leadoff

    I don’t like Leroux at all, Gomez is an okay choice IMO, he might not be a very good starter, but IMO he is going to surprise a lot of people with his bullpen work.
    IMO, the Pirates had to make a choice between Presley and Tabata and they went the option’s route, but made the wrong choice, Presley clearly beat Tabata out for the 4th outfield spot and he is left handed.
    I do disagree with Huntington that a left handed hitter on the bench might not mean much. Moving these pieces around as Huntington suggests to negate the need for another left hander on the bench could work, but we have to remember who is moving these pieces around, Hurdle has no problem managing himself into a corner and in reality Huntington probably looks at it like if I give him 3 more left handers on the bench, he might use them up by the 4th inning.
    I like the Pen except for Leroux
    I like the starting 8 although I think Jones might end up back in right field more than he thinks.
    I think the bench is built for defense and I also do not see the need for McDonald, you have to have someone that can hit a baseball coming off the bench. Sanchez, Jones, Tabata and Snider are not bench players even though they are mentioned a lot by Pirate management as bench players.
    IMO, this team could be a good team with the right guy running it, someone that is very good at mixing and matching, they don’t have that guy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

      Remember last year’s bench players Opening Day were Hague, McLouth, Navarro and McGehee.

      • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

        Yeah and the team couldn’t hit for two months.

        • leadoff

          The main reason they did not hit for the first month or so was because they were up against some of the best pitching in the majors, once they cleared that pitching they became one of the best hitting teams in baseball, sometimes why things happen can be important, especially if someone is calling for changes and most fans are most of time.

          • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

            They did face some good arms, but not for the entire 55-60 games on April-May. Do people already forget how legendarily bad we hit those months?

  • La Pirate

    Presley clearly had the better spring over Snyder and Tabata. Presley is the better choice for the extra outfielder. I do think he is the first one up though Pie did well also. The front office moves were predictable and safe. Huntington is under a lot of pressure this year to produce a winning season. We need to have a good start at the plate and get some decent pitching and then let things settle in .

  • https://profiles.google.com/103930544156489901215 Douglas Byrd

    Thank you for an excellent well thought-out article. I for one can’t wait to see a full season of Marte!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Mike.Adamson75 Mike Adamson

    A couple things that I don’t get is-

    1. Travis Snider I get tired of potential being the reason you earn a job. I think Jones should be in RF and Gaby at 1B. I’m really like Sanchez and expect a big bounce back year.

    2. Why was Justin Wilson not given a shot at a rotation spot? He has awesome stuff. Better than Locke or McPherson from what I’ve seen.

  • bohringer9

    I really couldn’t care less about Spring Training stats. Projection systems are probably be about 100 times more likely to predict regular season performance than using spring training stats. I like Presley, but I like having Presley AND Tabata And Snider. Losing Tabata or Snider at this point would be something the Pirates would be immediately mocked for, and with good reason. I disagree with McDonald or Inge having significantly diminished value because of the bench options. I see it as Harrison not being able to do one thing better than the Inge-JMc combo. If one or both wasn’t here Harrison adds a little value, but those guys can cover his positions as well or better defensively and our similar/better hitters IMO. I don’t see why we sent down Morris so we can keep Gomez, when Morris is definitely a better pitcher and we have other long-relief guys. Then we had to DFA Strickland and Robinson (who may actually contribute) That’s the only move I didn’t like.

    • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

      Morris was sent down so he could get more work on a few things. I still feel like they are hoping to turn him into a closer down the road. I’d rather see him work on things and then come up to stay when he’s fully ready.

  • absolute59

    I don’t know that I consider MI depth the choice of Mercer, Chase or DeJesus. Bodies yes but I don’t see that is depth if Barmes or Walker go down for an extended period.

    same with Catcher. I don’t know that we can say that Sanchez and Paulino provide depth if either Martin or the Fort go down.

  • ianmonk

    Still can’t believe McPherson didn’t grab the bull by the horns and show he’s better than Locke. Then again, I guess the 5th starter won’t really need to be utilized until half way through April. Regardless, I can’t wait for the season to start.