The Pittsburgh Pirates have been playing with a short bench for the last week, thanks to injuries to their MVP, Andrew McCutchen, and their starting second baseman, Neil Walker. The injuries remove two of their most productive hitters, and as a result, the Pirates have waited to put both players on the disabled list, in hopes that they can come back earlier than 15 days.
The Pirates added one more player to their bench over the weekend by shortening up their bullpen. They activated Pedro Alvarez from the bereavement list, and designated Ernesto Frieri for assignment. The pair of moves leaves them one player short on the bench, and one player short in the bullpen. Yesterday, Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said that they hope they can continue to avoid a roster move with good pitching from the rotation.
“Hopefully our starters continue to give us seven solid innings and that allows us to carry one less reliever than most people in baseball carry,” Huntington said. “There will come a point in time when we’ll need to rebalance it. We’ll have to weigh where Neil Walker is and how far away he is and what’s the best thing for him with what’s the best thing for Andrew McCutchen and how far away we think he is. Add all that up and make what we think is the right decision for the organization.”
The comment by Huntington was made before yesterday’s game, when the Pirates were coming off five straight games where their starters lasted seven innings. That streak was broken when Morton only lasted five innings on Sunday.
The approach to hold Walker and McCutchen back from the disabled list is questionable, and one that the Pirates have taken in the past. The goal is to avoid losing one or both of their top performers longer than they have to. They want to avoid a situation where they send a player to the disabled list, then see him healthy with several games remaining on his DL stint. The downside to this is that it provides a guarantee that you’re going to be playing a man short somewhere, with only a chance that it will pay off in the end. In this case, the Pirates have been playing with a 23-man roster for a week, and it doesn’t look like that is paying off for them.
What makes the situation worse is that Walker tried to come back with a pinch hit appearance on Saturday, then saw a setback and was scratched from the lineup on Sunday. Huntington noted that Walker’s back has felt good at times, but not all the time, as we saw on Sunday.
“At times it’s felt really good,” Huntington said of Walker’s back. “Good enough that he felt he was ready to go [Saturday] night. Woke up today not feeling quite as good. And now we’ve got to take a step back and make sure that we don’t allow this to regress, and don’t put ourselves in a position to have him miss a lot more time when we could be aggressive with this up front and just miss a few more games or a little bit longer.”
The problem here is that the Pirates have now created a situation where Walker could be out longer than necessary. If he would have gone on the disabled list the day after his injury, he would have been eligible to come off the disabled list the 20th. Because of the pinch hit appearance, the Pirates can’t backdate the injury to last week. They’d have to start a trip to the DL on Sunday, which would put Walker out until the 24th. And they’re now in another situation where they are holding Walker back from the DL, hoping to avoid losing him for the better part of 15 days. Had he gone on the disabled list when he was first eligible, they’d only be waiting ten more days.
McCutchen is in the same situation, minus the pinch hitting experience. He has been out since August 4th, meaning that today would be day 8 of a 15-day DL trip. Huntington said that the Pirates have been surprised by McCutchen’s progress with the injury, noting that the progress has been “remarkable.”
“He’s been so positive, he’s been aggressive,” Huntington said. “He’s been uninhibited in his attempt to work through this. The challenge becomes to go from everyday living to some level activity, to a more aggressive level of activity. We still have to get a point of swing a bat a hundred percent, running the bases at a hundred percent, playing fearless in the outfield at 100 percent. To this point in time he’s passed every barrier we’ve thrown at him with flying colors. But to be back at a 100 percent baseball player and the player that Andrew McCutchen can be that’s the next one, the next set of challenges we’ll put him through.”
While McCutchen might be showing improvements, none of this signals that he’s close to a return. And as with Walker, there’s the risk that McCutchen could come back early, then suffer a setback and potentially be out longer. Huntington noted this risk with McCutchen on Sunday.
“This is one a little bit like a hamstring injury, where you play to tolerance but there is the threat of regression and there is the threat of re-injury,” Huntington said. “That’s a part of our thought process as we try to thoughtfully progress it so that we don’t re-aggravate it, or worse. And that’s been part of the challenge. It’s an injury that has been atypical to baseball. It is a torque based injury and he obviously creates a ton of torque when he swings the bat, so we still got a big hurdle to clear but we are optimistic and I’m not sure anybody could work any harder, or be any more positive about the process than Andrew’s been so far.”
Huntington also spoke to the potential benefits of keeping McCutchen and Walker off the disabled list, while also noting the balance of not playing short for too long.
“We’re trying to make sure we don’t put ourselves in harm’s way by playing short for too long but at the same time if we get Andrew McCutchen back at Day 11 instead of Day 16, that’s five games where he has a chance to make an impact and the same thing with Neil Walker. So it’s a real interesting challenge right now. Other than having our pitchers hit a couple times the other night in situations they really wouldn’t have hit in, and we still won the game, Clint really hasn’t been pinched that much. But there’s always the next day that could force our hand.”
I’m not sure if the shortage on the bench or in the bullpen has really cost the Pirates much. They’ve gone 3-3 since McCutchen has gone down, and only one of the losses was really close. You could argue that Saturday’s 2-1 loss might have been better with an extra guy off the bench. However, they had two opportunities with guys off the bench and runners on base. Neither Pedro Alvarez nor Ike Davis came up in those situations. I don’t think the extra bench player would be getting an opportunity over those guys, so you’re probably looking at the same result.
The focus on the short bullpen and bench is an obvious thing to point out here. There are potential risks involved with having a 23-man roster. There are also potential rewards by having McCutchen and/or Walker back early. But I think the focus of a short roster vs getting those players back early misses the bigger issue here. The bigger issue is that this is a situation where the Pirates are hoping to get their guys back early, taking an aggressive approach rather than a conservative approach, and potentially risking a much bigger absence for either player.
McCutchen is important to this team. Getting him back for five additional games would be a big thing (and at this point, that assumes he’s back by Thursday). If the Pirates placed him on the disabled list and missed out on five games where he could have played, then that would be a slight blow to their season. The bigger thing here isn’t the five game stretch at the end of McCutchen’s potential DL trip. It’s the 37 game stretch to end the season after McCutchen would come off the disabled list. Having McCutchen healthy for that stretch is a much bigger benefit than pushing to get him back for five additional games. And it’s the same situation with Walker.
Every game counts when you’re in a playoff race. So I can understand why the Pirates want to try and get McCutchen or Walker back early. But the last month and a half of the season is far more important than a few extra games you could gain by holding McCutchen and Walker off the disabled list. Trying to get those two players back early comes with the risk of aggravating the injuries further, which could put them out slightly longer than originally anticipated, or affect how they play for the remainder of the season when they do return. This is a case where the Pirates need to be conservative and focus on the larger sample of games, rather than being aggressive to try and get one or both of these guys back for a small handful of games.