Pirates Playoff Roster Projection: Choosing a Champion

McCutchen and Marte

We know Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen are in, but not every roster spot is easy to suss out. (Photo by: David Hague)

This is not a jinx.

On this day last year, the Pirates’ playoff odds were hovering around 50 percent. Their chances to make the postseason this year are above 98 percent. Starting to think about what the 25-man playoff roster will look like is not counting chickens before they hatch. These are the same conversations the Bucs’ front office people are having.

Two points of order: the Wild Card Playoff acts as a separate round in terms of roster construction. If you want to carry only one starting pitcher, eight relievers and 16 position players for every in-game situation imaginable, go nuts! It would not affect your team for the Division Series.

The other point: to participate in the playoffs, a player must either be on the 25-man roster or disabled list on August 31. Teams don’t have their full slate of 4o guys to pick from. There is an exception: while a player on the Aug. 31 disabled list is eligible for the postseason, if he is still on the DL when the playoffs start, he can be replaced for a round by anyone who was in the organization on Aug. 31.

Let’s get rostering!

Tier 1: Automatic Choices

1. C Russell Martin
2. 2B Neil Walker
3. 3B Pedro Alvarez
4. LF Starling Marte
5. CF Andrew McCutchen
6. SP A.J. Burnett
7. SP Francisco Liriano
8. RP Mark Melancon
9. RP Justin Wilson

We do not need to spend much time on this group of nine. Every player is either a regular starter, an All-Star or otherwise a player we can place on any playoff roster without giving it a second thought. (But if you do have a second thought, feel free to put it in the comments!)

Tier 2: Yep, You’re In

10. C Tony Sanchez

Tony Sanchez

Tony Sanchez could be a trump card against left-handed pitchers. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Unless the Pirates swing an August trade for a catcher who has more Major League experience, which is a very unlikely scenario, Tony Sanchez slides in as the backup catcher. Even though he would be unlikely to start a playoff game, Tony provides gap power off the bench and the ability to mash left-handed pitching (.865 OPS in 136 Triple-A plate appearances last year, .919 OPS in 82 this year). There is a reason he made his Pirates debut at designated hitter.

11. 1B Gaby Sanchez

What you have seen from Gaby in the regular season is what you will get in the playoffs: a lefty killer who can replace Garrett Jones at first base late in games. From his .893 career OPS versus left-handers to his 1.019 OPS this year against southpaws, Gaby remains a clear-cut platoon player.

12. 1B Garrett Jones

His offensive numbers are decidedly down this year, putting him on pace for 15 home runs after last year’s 27 and dropping his ISO from .242 to .174. Even so, Jones is still liable to have a power breakout at a moment’s notice; he posted a stellar .323/.376/.625 triple-slash last August. Seeing that the Pirates did not make an upgrade at first or right, Jones is a lock.

13. 2B/SS Jordy Mercer

Mercer has cooled off from his hot start, but continues to show ability to get on-base (.335 OBP) and knock extra-base hits (.735 OPS) pretty well for a middle infielder, enough to even get some starts as a No. 2 hitter. He is fielding the shortstop position adequately in his first full Major League season, and remains the likely starting shortstop in the playoffs.

14. SS Clint Barmes

Don’t look now, but Barmes is swinging the bat well since his return to regular playing time on July 8, posting a .291/.361/.400 triple-slash after starting the year .200/.232/.271. Those good numbers are due for some ball-in-play regression, but Barmes’ leg kick at the plate is getting results and he is drawing more walks. He remains a slick fielder at short and has playoff experience from 2009.

15. OF Jose Tabata

Like Barmes, Tabata has improved at the plate, even getting his slugging percentage up to a career-high .401 on the season. He is drawing praise from manager Clint Hurdle for his effort and hustle over the last month, and there is no reason not to pencil Tabata in as starting right fielder for the playoffs.

16. RP Tony Watson

Watson remains an odd duck in a bullpen of sharks. He appears to not be much better than replacement level (3.98 FIP, 4.08 xFIP and 22% strikeout percentage over his career), but he generates weak contact (.244 career BABIP) and is an effective left-hander against hitters on both sides of the plate. The biggest reason Watson will be on the roster is because he is a Hurdle favorite: second among Pirates pitchers in appearances after entering a staff-high 68 games last year.

Tier 3: If You’re Healthy, Grab A Spot!

One major lesson we can learn from the first four months of the Pirates’ 2013 season is that “pitcher health” is an oxymoron. The team has now seen 24 pitchers take the mound, third-most in the National League. From certified innings eaters like Wandy Rodriguez to young bucks like James McDonald and Jared Hughes, no pitcher has been safe from injuries.

That said, if these three pitchers are both healthy and tapped to keep throwing past September, they will have a spot.

17. SP Wandy Rodriguez

Wandy Rodriguez

If Wandy Rodriguez returns, the Pirates will have three starting pitchers with playoff experience. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

This should not require much explanation, because Rodriguez has been a good veteran pitcher, but if you need one: he remains effective even with a reduced strikeout rate, has pitched in the World Series and would be a steady No. 3 starter (especially at PNC Park) behind Burnett and Liriano. Rodriguez continues to throw on flat ground as he works for a September return.

18. RP Jason Grilli

If he is ready to pitch, he is the closer. No questions asked.

19. SP Jeff Locke

Locke has been healthy all year long with the exception of one skipped start before the All-Star Break nursing a sore back. Here’s the rub, and this time it is not about his looming regression that began appearing in his last start: Locke pitched 176 innings over Triple-A and the Majors last year and is now on pace for 190 this season unless the Pirates skip some of his scheduled starts or limit him to five innings over some outings. While an increase of 14 innings is far from a major red flag, keep an eye on Locke’s usage.

Also, given his youth and left-handedness, I slot Locke as the No. 4 starter but would only start him at home.

What We Have So Far

Now the Pirates have 11 position players and 8 pitchers that we can pretty confidently say will be on the playoff roster if all are healthy.

Just based on those 19 players, the Pirates can fill out a starting lineup with three bench players in a National League ballpark, use four starting pitchers and have four solid relievers. Now we are getting to the difficult part and the judgment calls. Plus, we do not know if general manager Neal Huntington will use the standard 13 hitters/12 pitchers setup for every series. Even he doesn’t know.

“We haven’t seen the schedule. We haven’t seen our opponent… We can then mix and match depending upon whether Clint feels an extra position player would help him win a game or an extra pitcher will help him win a game. Do you go with a four-man rotation? Do you go with a three-man rotation? There’s a lot of variables to that question that will be answered as we get closer.”

Let’s see if we can divvy it up. The “Team of 19″ includes eight right-handed hitters and three left-handed hitters (including switch-hitter Neil Walker who is, for all intents and purposes, a left-handed hitter only), and the staff is composed of three right-handed pitchers and five left-handed pitchers. Time to get to the tough questions:

The Gerrit Cole Question

Gerrit Cole Pirates

Gerrit Cole says “I almost don’t want to know” about an innings limit if the Pirates have one for him. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

It is easy to see the fourth right-handed pitcher as rookie Gerrit Cole. Put aside his high-90’s fastball and sharp breaking pitches for a moment and look at Cole’s production over his first 10 Major League starts: 3.69 ERA, 3.53 FIP and a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That is a very impressive debut, and one can easily envision better numbers if Cole unleashed his full arsenal and full effort over two innings as opposed to six.

Here are some of the factors at play regarding whether or not Cole would be on the Pirates’ October roster:

  • Cole is on pace for 180 regular season innings after pitching 132 last year, and that is not even including March instructional league games.
  • His innings have been more efficient at the Major League level, as Cole’s 14.6 pitches per inning would be tied for 5th in the NL among qualified starters. Fewer pitches? Less stress? Both good things.
  • The front office trusts Hurdle to “watch what his eyes are telling him” about the crispness of Cole’s stuff, sharpness and command of pitches and his energy level.
  • Huntington is comfortable giving any pitcher either a short outing, allowing an extra day of rest or skipping a start over the last two months.

Ultimately, Huntington says there is a “red line” for every pitcher in terms of workload and innings pitched. The GM was asked, straight up, does he think Cole will be available to pitch in the postseason?

“Sure. Yes,” Huntington said. “Our belief is yes.”

Okay, put him in.

20. SP/RP Gerrit Cole

“We’re confident that Gerrit is going to be able to sustain a workload throughout,” Huntington said.

To recap the 20 players:

  • 8 right-handed hitters
  • 3 left-handed hitters
  • 4 right-handed pitchers
  • 5 left-handed pitchers
  • 2 catchers
  • 6 infielders
  • 3 outfielders (not including Garrett Jones)

The Left-Handed Outfielder

Alex Presley Pirates

Alex Presley may be the best all-around option as 4th outfielder. (Photo by: David Hague)

The most glaring need is a left-handed hitting corner outfielder. Because the Pirates did not acquire one at the trade deadline, that leaves them with four internal candidates. Here are their résumés:

  • Travis Snider – .230/.300/.324 triple-slash and four home runs in 410 Pittsburgh plate appearances since joining the Pirates last year. He grades as an average corner outfielder with a good arm. Not much speed to speak of.
  • Alex Presley – .245/.281/.411 triple-slash over 428 MLB plate appearances the last two years. His .768 Triple-A OPS this season is not much better. Another average defensive outfielder, but can play all spots, steal bases and bunt for hits.
  • Andrew Lambo – No Major League experience and not great defensively, but Lambo is going through power surge in his age-24 season. He has hit .280/.342/.563, 28 home runs and 22 doubles over 459 plate appearances in making the Lambo Leap from Double-A to Triple-A.
  • Felix Pie – He owns a .249/.298/.374 triple-slash over his five-year Major League career but has not played in the Bigs the last two years. Call him a dark horse if the Pirates want some speed.

Picking today, Presley provides the best combination of gap power, speed and versatility the Bucs would want from the 4th outfielder. Snider can get him if his power shows up over the final two months. Lambo will likely be given an opportunity, but he would have to hit his way into October.

“I don’t know that we’ll be auditioning players in September, because we’ll still be playing meaningful games,” Huntington said. “It’s about guys who can help us win games and put us stronger in a playoff hunt if not in a playoff spot.”

21. OF Alex Presley

Put him on the board.

Two Right-Handed Relievers

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton is much better in his career the first time through a lineup, including holding hitters to a .471 OPS this year.

Basically every one of these pitcher can give you multiple innings, so there is not much difference there except for starters like Charlie Morton and James McDonald. Our candidates, in no particular order, please…

  • Vin Mazzaro – 2.92 ERA and 3.34 FIP in 49.1 innings, a successful transition to the bullpen that is seeing his sinker lead to a 50% ground-ball rate.
  • Bryan Morris – 2.68 ERA and 4.95 FIP in 47 innings during his rookie season and a 58% ground-ball rates, taking on a variety of roles from mop-up guy to late-inning high-leverage.
  • Jeanmar Gomez – 3.26 ERA and 4.19 FIP in 58 innings. Despite few strikeouts, Gomez has been bona fide in spot starts and generates 57% ground balls.
  • Jared Hughes – 3.19 ERA and 4.22 FIP in 93 innings over the last two seasons. Hughes is another ground-ball sinker pitcher (58% GB rate) who does not get many strikeouts.
  • Charlie Morton – 4.07 ERA and 4.17 FIP in 48.2 innings as a starter. He continues to flash electric stuff in his return from Tommy John surgery and generates 63% ground balls.
  • Ryan Reid – 4.07 ERA and 4.17 FIP over 48.2 innings. Reid looked good in his 11 Major League innings this season but has no prior MLB experience.
  • James McDonald – 4.44 ERA and 4.19 FIP over 200.2 starter’s innings the last two seasons. J-Mac has great stuff, but remains a Wild Card. “We’re looking for James to be able to help us at some point again this season,” Huntington said.
  • Brandon Cumpton – 3.69 ERA in 92.2 Triple-A innings this year plus four successful MLB spot starts in which he generated 58% groundballs and flashed his mid-90’s velocity.
  • Vic Black – 2.31 ERA in 35 Triple-A innings plus 51 strikeouts as Indianapolis’ closer. His high-90’s fastball and sharp breaking ball are almost unmatched in terms of pure stuff on this list.
  • Duke Welker – 3.66 ERA in 51.2 Triple-A innings plus 55 strikeouts. Like Black, Welker is another guy who possesses great stuff but not much MLB experience.
  • Stolmy Pimentel – 3.20 ERA in 64.2 Triple-A innings as a starter, including 51 strikeouts. Pimentel’s stuff is also a knockout.
  • Jameson Taillon – 3.67 ERA in 110.1 Double-A innings, including 106 strikeouts. Taillon’s pedigree and fastball-curveball combination is enough to merit inclusion in the Francisco Rodriguez/David Price “young dark horse” category.

My inclination is to take one pitcher from the Proven Major League Experience side and one guy from the Ground-Ball Ability side. So let’s do that:

22. RP Vin Mazzaro
23. SP/RP Charlie Morton

Your choices may vary.

The Final Two Spots

Josh Harrison Pirates

A strong August could be the key for Josh Harrison to earn a playoff roster spot. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Now we have 12 position players and 11 pitchers, which is really all the Pirates would need to get through a Wild Card Playoff or five-game division series. Those last two choices are flex spots for Huntington to use depending on the matchups. Here are the candidates we can lay out to use as needed:

  • IF Josh Harrison – He can hit lefties well with power, provide a utility role and enter as a pinch-runner.
  • IF Russ Canzler – If the Pirates face a team that features a lot of left-handed pitching, don’t be surprised if Canzler is used.
  • 1B/RF Andrew Lambo – If a lot of RHPs are coming up, Lambo could find a spot.
  • OF Travis Snider – Same goes for Snider.
  • 1B Matt Hague – Same goes for the Hit Collector.
  • IF Ivan De Jesus – He could find a spot if the Pirates feel a need for an extra infielder.
  • Pitchers Vic Black, Jameson Taillon, Jared Hughes, Jeanmar Gomez, Bryan Morris – Each has his merits: Black and Taillon providing the power arms and the other three having a knack for the ground ball. You really can’t go wrong with any of them.

If I had to choose the last two for a five-game division series, I am perfectly comfortable sticking with 11 pitchers, especially since seven have made Major League starts as recently as last season. Let’s go with righty and lefty, speed and power to complete the NLDS roster:

24. IF Josh Harrison
25. 1B/RF Andrew Lambo

Hurdle will have many options on his bench.

Our NLDS Squad

Pirates NLDS Roster

We do encourage you to submit your thoughts in the comments. Huntington himself probably put it best:

“There are a million variables to how do you put the roster together. [They are] fun conversations we are working hard to have or make public as we go forward.”

Who is on your Pirates playoff roster?

Author: James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as NBCOlympics.com, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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