The moves the Pirates made today were all of the minor league variety. First they signed five minor league free agents — all right-handed pitchers. They followed that up with the expected Rule 5 roster moves, protecting four prospects from the draft on December 12th. While all of these moves involved minor league players, it’s very likely that today’s additions will lead to MLB production at some point during the 2014 season.
During the off-season, the main focus is on the Opening Day roster, and who will be starting at each spot. As we saw in 2013, depth is important. The Pirates wouldn’t have made the playoffs without the depth of their rotation, or the mid-season additions of guys like Gerrit Cole or Jordy Mercer. The moves today won’t add to the Opening Day roster, but they will definitely add to the depth throughout the season.
Three of the minor league free agents were invited to Spring Training. Jake Brigham, Jay Jackson, and Josh Kinney all profile as relief pitching depth at best, and all three bring something interesting to the table. Brigham throws a 94-97 MPH fastball and a mid-80s slider that acts like a cutter. He has worked as a starter in the past, and it could be interesting to see how he does as a full-time reliever. Jackson hits 93 MPH with his four-seam fastball, and has a power curve that has been inconsistent. He could be a candidate to switch back to his two-seam fastball to generate more ground balls, which has worked for a lot of Pirates pitchers.
The first two players are 26-years-old, while Kinney is 35. His advantage is that he has previous MLB experience, with some dominant strikeout ratios. That includes a 3.94 ERA in 32 innings, along with a 10.1 K/9 and a 4.2 BB/9 in 2012 with Seattle. He’s gone from an extreme ground ball pitcher to a below average ground ball pitcher in two years, so perhaps an adjustment could get him back to the heavy ground ball approach.
Individually, the chances for each of those players reaching the majors is small. However, minor league free agency is a game of quantity. Together, the Pirates might get one Ryan Reid type reliever out of that group, possibly giving them a month or two of key depth innings out of the bullpen. That’s also assuming the bullpen remains as healthy as it was in 2013. The rotation suffered a ton of injuries last year, but the bullpen was a bit lucky when it came to health. That might not be the case in 2014, and if it isn’t, then the Pirates would be more likely to have to dip into their relief pitching depth and turn to guys like Brigham, Jackson, and Kinney.
The bigger impact in 2014 will come from the Rule 5 additions. They aren’t additions to the system like the free agents, but the addition to the 40-man roster gives us a chance to highlight these players. The Pirates added Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Joely Rodriguez, and Casey Sadler to the 40-man roster today, although only two of those players have a shot at helping the Pirates in 2014.
Gregory Polanco could provide the biggest impact in 2014. The Pirates have a hole in right field which they could address via free agency. However, they could also go with Andrew Lambo and Jose Tabata to hold down the fort until Polanco is ready, which could be by the end of July. Polanco has the potential to be an impact talent, and is the future third outfielder next to Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. It’s hard to tell how rookies will perform when they first come up. Marte posted a .737 OPS in his rookie season over two months of games. McCutchen had an .836 OPS in almost four months during his rookie season. Polanco’s advanced plate patience should give him a shot of putting up offensive numbers closer to McCutchen’s once he’s ready. His speed and defense should also provide enough value to make him worth at least 1.5-2 wins above replacement over half a season.
Casey Sadler is the other player who could help in 2014. The Pirates could go one of two ways with Sadler. They could keep him as a starter and use him as starting pitching depth. He would likely start back in Altoona in that scenario, since the Indianapolis rotation would be full with other MLB depth options. There have been players who have made it from Double-A to the majors in one season, such as Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson, but that would limit Sadler to a late season option. The other alternative is moving him to relief and sending him to Indianapolis. His long-term spot would be as a reliever in the Pirates’ system. He’s got the upside to be a back of the rotation starter in the majors, but the Pirates have better options in the long-term for the rotation. Sadler throws a very good sinker which led to an extreme ground ball ratio in 2013. He pairs that with a good curveball, although he mostly works off the sinker and pitches to contact. That approach has worked well in Pittsburgh. He has a better chance of reaching Pittsburgh as relief pitching depth out of Triple-A, but the Pirates might want to keep him as a starter for one more year to provide extra depth.
Again, none of these guys will help the Opening Day roster. The Pirates still have moves to make in that regard. But the MLB season is long, and you’re going to need more than just the 25 guys who break camp. Polanco will almost certainly play in the majors in 2014, while Sadler and the minor league free agents could also factor in to the pitching depth throughout the year.
Links and Notes