With a handful of players who are both on the bubble and out of options, the Pirates will be facing some tough roster decisions at the end of March. What follows is a quick rundown of players fighting for roster spots who have no options remaining. I’ve omitted players who are locks to make the team, like James McDonald and Joel Hanrahan. Also, as most of you are probably aware, the Pirates secured an extra option for Steve Pearce, so he’s not on this list. Of course, non-roster invitees who are on minor league contracts, like Tyler Yates and Justin Thomas, can be sent to the minors without being optioned. A rundown of NRIs can be found here.
Charlie Morton – So far this spring, Morton has been one of the team’s best pitchers, posting a 2.25 ERA and allowing just five hits and one walk over eight innings. The team believes he’s benefited from bringing back his sinker, which he scrapped a couple years ago. He’s also benefiting from Neal Huntington’s continued belief that he has the potential to be a good major league starter, despite his disastrous 2010 season. With Scott Olsen only now just getting ready to pitch in games, Morton has a big leg up on the fifth starter’s role. Even if he somehow doesn’t get it, he’ll almost certainly be in the bullpen.
Chris Resop – Resop’s strong showing after the Pirates acquired him on waivers last summer almost guarantees him a bullpen job. With eight strikeouts in six innings, combined with only four hits and one walk, he hasn’t done anything to blow it.
Kevin Hart – Following labrum surgery a year ago, Hart has had a slow recovery. He only began pitching from a mound recently, so there’s no chance he’ll be anywhere near ready to pitch in the majors at the start of the season. He’ll almost certainly open the season on the disabled list, which will allow the Pirates to send him on a minor league rehab for a month. The trouble is, considering the difficulty in returning from shoulder surgery, one month may not be long enough. It’s possible, though, that Hart’s health issues would discourage teams from claiming him on waivers. The Pirates would then be able to outright him to the minors.
Jose Ascanio – Like Hart, Ascanio is coming off labrum surgery, but he’s much farther along in his recovery. He was able to pitch very briefly last summer before a household accident cut short his return. He also pitched in winter ball. He’s been set back temporarily this spring, though, by soreness that the Pirates believe is minor. Before that, he probably had a very good chance of making the team. Ascanio has one of the best arms on the 40-man roster and was pitching very well in AAA when they acquired him. They’ll be very reluctant to lose him. If he isn’t able to make the team, they’re likely to put him on the disabled list to start the season. In his case, unlike Hart’s, a 30-day rehab might be enough to get him ready for the majors.
Jeff Karstens – Karstens is generally considered a lock to make the staff, but he shouldn’t be. His primary attraction to the Pirates is his ability to serve as a swing man. He gives them an emergency starter and long reliever who’ll generally pitch decently, but who isn’t likely ever to do more than that. The biggest drawback with him is that he hasn’t pitched well in relief during his major league career so far, with an ERA of 5.87 and WHIP of 1.5, as opposed to 4.78 and 1.4 as a starter. Depending on how the issues with pitchers like Morton, Olsen, Ascanio and Hart work out, the Pirates could decide to drop Karstens for somebody with more upside. He’s already been designated for assignment once, so he could declare himself a free agent if the Pirates removed him from the 40-man roster again.
John Bowker – This may be the toughest case of all. Bowker’s shown significant power potential in AAA, but he’s 27 and has yet to produce at the major league level. He was limited briefly by a minor injury this spring, but in a small number of at-bats he’s been one of the team’s best hitters. The acquisition of Matt Diaz left possibly only one bench spot available for a 1B/OF bat, although it could be two if the Pirates trade Ryan Doumit and go with only one utility infielder. Bowker faces competition from Steve Pearce, Garrett Atkins, Josh Fields, and Andy Marte, but Pearce, Atkins and Fields have all struggled so far. It’d be unfortunate for the Pirates to lose Bowker, not least because of the risk that Garrett Jones—who’s also struggling this spring—won’t recover from his second half collapse of last year. With power becoming increasingly hard to find, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t clear waivers.