In the last week, the Pirates have made a few minor moves which make the decisions for their final roster spots interesting. Last week they signed two left-handers who will compete for the bullpen — Eric O’Flaherty and Cory Luebke. Today, they signed outfielder Matt Joyce, who is pretty much the only true outfielder who has a shot at the bench.
I’ll start with the bullpen, because I’ve got more to say on Joyce, and the bullpen breakdown is simple. The Pirates have one spot open, with Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, Neftali Feliz, and Juan Nicasio holding the other spots. The final spot could go one of two ways. They could go with a second lefty, or they could go with the best possible reliever, no matter the arm he throws with.
If they go with a lefty, then O’Flaherty and Luebke become the top options in my view, with Kyle Lobstein also having an inside track (although I think he’s more likely to be pitching out of the rotation in Indianapolis as early season depth). If they don’t care about a second left-hander, then someone like John Holdzkom could be a better overall pitcher, or one of the many other hard throwing right-handers who would otherwise be starting the year in Triple-A. I wrote before that the Pirates have a lot of right-handed relievers in their bullpen who do well enough against lefties, which could reduce the need for a second lefty. But that decision will largely shape the final spot.
Then there’s the bench. The first three spots are locked up, with Chris Stewart, Sean Rodriguez, and Michael Morse making the roster. That leaves two spots and a debate as to how much offense the Pirates want, and how much defense they want to sacrifice to get that offense.
Prior to today, I would have said that the best option for the Pirates would have been a combination of Jason Rogers and Pedro Florimon for the final spot. You get another big bat off the bench with Rogers, although you lose out on defense. That is supplemented by Florimon, who is a defense-only guy, and pretty much the only good shortstop option behind Jordy Mercer.
Then the Pirates added Matt Joyce, and that made their final bench spots a bit more interesting. First, I want to say that Joyce was a guy I really liked when he was with the Rays. He was kind of an underrated guy — someone who was good enough to start, but probably best as a really strong fourth outfielder on a team like the Pirates, who have a top outfield trio.
Joyce has slipped the last few years. His slugging percentage has dropped every year since 2011. His isolated power went from .200 and above pre-2012, to the .180-.190 range in 2012-13, down to the .117-.129 range the last two years. And at the age of 31, turning 32 this summer, you have to wonder if this is a decline that he can’t turn around, due to his age.
He has done well getting on base, maintaining a high walk rate. However, that also slipped last year, with the walk rate dropping two percentage points, and the OBP dropping way down due to his average dropping, which was due to his BABIP going down to .215.
But the Pirates only added Joyce on a minor league deal, so there’s no risk here. There’s also a lot of upside if he can show that last year was a fluke, and that he still has something left. At this point, I think it’s less likely that the decline in power is a fluke, since that’s a two-year trend, continuing a bit further back when you consider the slight drop from 2011 to 2012. But I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could still hit for a decent average, get on base, and have a decent amount of power.
If that is the Matt Joyce that shows up for the Pirates, then the final bench spot gets interesting. Do the Pirates go with the super utility approach for their outfield depth? Or do they go with a true outfielder in Joyce, who isn’t the best defender, but not a bad option? If the offense returns, even minus the power, then he could be a good offensive option off the bench. I don’t think he’d be as good as Rogers, but at least he’d have a spot on the team defensively.
The Pirates could go with Joyce, Rogers, and Morse and have a really strong offensive bench. But they’d be sacrificing defense in an alarming way, and they wouldn’t have a shortstop option behind Mercer, unless you’re comfortable with Rodriguez or Josh Harrison as the backup shortstop (or unless Kang can still play the position, which is up in the air and I’d say doubtful at this point). And considering their lineup looks like it could be a great offense this year, I don’t think they’d need to sacrifice that much to get a lot of offense from the bench.
With Joyce signing a minor league deal, it’s also possible that the Pirates could send him to the minors as depth. I’m sure he has some sort of out clause at some point in the season, but if his offense is back, he could provide some early season depth for the outfield, which the Pirates previously didn’t have unless they moved Harrison out of the infield (which wouldn’t be horrible, since they could turn to their Triple-A infield depth).
It will be interesting to see what direction the Pirates go with their final bullpen spot and their final two bench spots. The moves in the last week only make those decisions even more interesting, with more talent thrown into the decision process. That’s never a bad thing.
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**The Pirates announced their new Sunday home uniforms today, and they look pretty awesome. They’re replicas of the 1979 World Series champion jerseys. Check them out:
— Tim Williams (@TimWilliamsPBN) February 18, 2016
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**Doc Emrick Will Call a Pirates Spring Training Game in March. I usually spend at least half of the MLB Spring Training games at Pirate City, where I’m watching the minor leaguers and following the big league game on At-Bat. I may or may not be listening to the audio of this game while watching the minor leaguers. As for the article, there were some interesting Pittsburgh-related stories from Doc Emrick today.
**Pirates Sign Matt Joyce to Minor League Deal. The bench situation gets more interesting.
**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Minor League Spring Training Schedule. The minor leaguers start a bit later again this year. Here are the game schedules and reporting dates.