As September 1st approaches, the Pirates organization is currently in a position unlike they have seen in the past. The club sits eight games over .500 and three games back of St. Louis for the second Wild Card Spot. When looking at which players to bring up to join the club in Pittsburgh, instead of just bringing up prospects to take a look at them, they could still possibly be in midst of a pennant race.
“The past decisions on who to call up on September 1st [was] who do we want to get a look at, who do we want to reward for being with us,” General Manager Neal Huntington said. “Is the guy ready to come up? Is he going to play? And now, it’s who’s going to help us win? Who gives us an extra weapon for Clint [Hurdle] to try and win a game late. Whether it’s a set of legs off the bench, a bat off the bench, it’s multiple arms that he can match up a couple times, length so we can go get a starter quickly that doesn’t have it that day. It’s about helping, who can help us win from September 1st through October 3rd? It’s a very different look.”
With Triple-A Indianapolis heading to the playoffs, there will likely be waves of recalls until their season ends. Their regular season ends on September 3rd, with playoffs kicking off two days later. Huntington said that he planned on being careful with whom to call up, and to not rid their club of players, which could hurt their chances in the post season.
“The challenges is that we need to bring up players that we believe can help us win,” Huntington said. “But at the same time, we need to keep players playing in case of injury. So it’s that double edge sword, do we want to run up every starting pitcher, then have them sit for two weeks and not be able to give you innings? Or do you leave some starting pitching to stay stretched out? Do you leave a position player playing regularly versus having him come up and be your fifth option? It is a challenge.”
“I would expect we’ll have a good number on September 1st, and then if we have a need, we may pull a guy. If we have an injury, we may pull a guy. Or we may wait and maybe pull up two or three other guys after the end of the Indianapolis season. It is a challenge. But we’ve got to make sure we bring up the right guys to help us win, at the same time, we still need to win games on September 14th, and September 20th, and we need to keep guys as sharp as long as we can.”
With just four days until the Pirates could call up some reinforcements, Huntington said what they are looking for has started to become more clear. So what are they looking for?
“We’ve got a real good feel for the weapons that we can add to this club to help Clint be able to have more options to win games,” Huntington said. “Whether it’s a set of legs off the bench, a bat off the bench, defensive help off the bench, length out of the bullpen, specialist out of the bullpen, a guy that can come in to get a groundball, a guy that can come in to get a strikeout, a guy to come in and eat up innings if need-be. We’ve got a real good feel with where we’re going to go with it.”
Last season Pittsburgh had eight September callups, so they could see around the same number again this season. Here’s a look at some of the possible callups the Pirates could promote whether in the first wave on September 1st, or after the playoffs:
— Chris Leroux (Not on 40-man) started the season on the disabled list after straining a pectoral muscle during spring training. After working his way through rehab, the club designated the right-hander for assignment. He cleared waivers, and has been impressive at Triple-A. Over seven starts, Leroux has posted a 3.00 ERA with 38 strikeouts in 42.0 innings.
— Jeff Locke has had his best year to date since being drafted by Atlanta in the second round in 2006. The left-hander has posted a 2.56 ERA over 23 starts at Triple-A. Locke has notched 124 strikeouts over 134.0 frames. He also made two appearances in the Majors this season in relief tossing 4.1 innings allowing just one hit.
— Daniel McCutchen has spent most of the season at Triple-A after spending the majority of 2011 in the big leagues. McCutchen has posted a 3.03 ERA over 59.1 innings in Indy this year. The right-hander was recalled three times, but only made one appearance. He allowed a two runs on a walk and a hit without retiring a batter.
— Kyle McPherson was named the Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2011 after posting a combined 2.96 ERA with High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona. The right-hander battled a shoulder injury in spring training, which forced him to miss the first two months of the season. McPherson has been impressive at Triple-A. He’s allowed just two earned runs over 18.1 innings. McPherson made his Major League debut this season allowing a hit and struck out one over two scoreless innings in relief.
— Evan Meek has posted good numbers while with Triple-A this season, but has struggled in the majors. Meek hasn’t been able to get back his velocity from when he was the Pirates All-Star representative in 2010. He’s posted a 2.84 ERA while with Triple-A, and a 6.75 ERA over 12 frames in Pittsburgh this season.
—Bryan Morris has posted a 2.56 ERA over 77.1 frames with Indianapolis this season. The right-hander has walked just 16 batters while striking out 73. Morris was promoted to Pittsburgh earlier this season, but did not make an appearance. Morris is out of options after this season, and pitched in the later innings with Triple-A.
— Justin Wilson was recently moved into the bullpen after spending the season as a starter. The club has said they want to use Wilson as the second left-hander down the stretch. Wilson has a combined 3.82 ERA over 134.1 innings this season in starting and relief. He made his Major League debut in San Diego and allowed two hits while striking out the side over a frame.
— Eric Fryer will likely fill the void as the clubs third catcher in September. Fryer has hit just .199 over 63 games with Triple-A this season. He spent the first half of the year as the starting catcher, but was moved to backup when prospect Tony Sanchez was promoted. Fryer appeared in four games in Pittsburgh this season, where he hit .333.
— Chase d’Arnaud spent parts of the 2011 season in the Majors with Pittsburgh, but was sent to Triple-A after spring training broke camp. After missing time with a hand injury, d’Arnaud has hit much better at the plate. He hit .278 in July and 272 so far in August. d’Arnaud could serve as a pinch runner for the club having swiped 33 bags.
— Matt Hague broke camp with Pittsburgh after an impressive spring training. The first baseman has spent parts of the season in the Majors, hitting .229 over 30 games. Hague has hit for a .284 clip over 85 games with Triple-A.
— Yamaico Navarro also broke camp with the Pirates out of spring training, but has been up and down between the Majors and Triple-A this season. The utility man hit just .160 in the Majors, while hitting for a .281 clip over 61 games in Indy.
— Alex Presley has had a down year in the Majors this season, after being named the club’s starting left fielder out of spring training. Presley hit just .234 in the Majors, and has been optioned to Triple-A several times to get back on track. Presley is hitting .306 over 38 games with Indy.
— Drew Sutton (not on 40-man) was claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays and played in 42 games with the Pirates before being designated for assignment after hitting .254. Sutton has hit just .048 over 12 games in Triple-A since clearing waivers.
— Gustavo Nunez (60-day DL) was the Pirates Rule 5 pick in December, but has missed the season due to ankle surgery. The infielder recently started his rehab assignment with Double-A Altoona. Nunez’s rehab assignment will end on September 1st.
Top catching prospect Tony Sanchez, Huntington said, would not likely be a September callup this season. Sanchez is hitting for a combined .249/.331/.389 line with Double-A Altoona this season and Triple-A Indianapolis. The catcher has hit seven home runs this season, all coming at Triple-A, which ties his career-high.
“The challenge there is the 40-man roster. We’re back at 40 now,” Huntington said on Sunday, prior to the team releasing Erik Bedard. “We’re going to have some other guys off the roster that we’re considering adding. Tony has certainly had a very good developmental year. It may not show it in his batting average, but he’s continued to get better at game calling. His catching and throwing continues to improve. His offense is getting more consistent.”
What the Pirates may do instead is bring up Sanchez, along with several other players to “observe” with the big league club. They’ve done it in years past. Most notably last season when Matt Hague, Gorkys Hernandez, Kyle McPherson, Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson did so for a series.
“They can work out,” Huntington said. “They can’t be in uniform during the game so they lose that experience, but they can work out and try and eliminate some of the awe factor of where’s Pittsburgh? And how do I get from the airport? How do I get around the clubhouse? Who are you? We try to eliminate that as much as we can.”
“Let them see the environment so they know their way around. They see the city, they can eliminate some of the a-ha factors the first time they get called up. But no, I would not expect Tony would a September callup at this point.”
Some other possible observation guys could be: Phil Irwin, Brock Holt, Duke Welker, Vic Black, Matt Curry.
Irwin was a 21 round draft pick out of the University of Mississippi in 2009, but has quietly put together impressive numbers throughout his professional career. After posting a combined 3.14 ERA with High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona last season, the right-hander posted a 2.93 ERA over 16 starts with Altoona before being promoted to Triple-A. In his two starts, Irwin has a 2.70 ERA while whiffing 17 batters over 10 frames.
“It’s a guy with a good frame, a good mix of pitches, a very good breaking ball,” Huntington said on Irwin. “He throws strikes. He can get groundballs. Another guy like Kyle, who’s not afraid. He’s gone to Triple-A and stepped in there for them, and helped them continue their playoff run. He’s a guy that we do believe will help us in Pittsburgh at some point in time. He’s gone out and attacked the zone and used all his pitches for strikes, kept hitters off-balance. He’s got a very good breaking ball that should play at any level.”