First Pitch: Breaking Down the Decisions For the Final Pirates Roster Spots

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.

**The Pirates Prospects App is Now Available on Android. Download the app to get notifications whenever we post an article, along with the best way to view the site on your mobile device. The iOS version for Apple devices will be out soon.

**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:

**A Breakout Season Has Put Steven Brault in the Pirates’ Future Rotation Plans. Brault has to be one of my favorite players to interview, just because his responses are so insightful and honest. I’ve only been covering him for a year now, but with all of the information I’ve got on his game and development, I feel like I’ve been covering him as long as someone like Jameson Taillon. This is the latest update in his series of development, and once again, some good input from him.

**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.

  • Remember when we signed Brad Hawpe and invited him to spring training? That’s about as excited as I am about Matt Joyce right now. Maybe I’ll be wrong.

  • What if Hanson has an absolutely lights out spring? Could he win the second base job and free Jhay to be super U guy?

  • This bench really is a bit of a mess…

    In John Jaso, you have a righty killer who also happens to be a massive liability against LHP. Hurdle either must do a hell of a job protecting him with righties, or essentially keep Morse/Rogers available specifically for Jaso’s spot in a leverage situation. Functionally removes one bench bat from any situation *but* that one.

    Joyce, even in his best years, was also heavily platooned and has always been a bit of a defensive liability. He may be a better fit as depth in Indianapolis in case one of the starting outfielders gets injured than a day-to-day weapon on the bench.

    Then again, leaving him off the roster puts the club in a position of having *nobody* on the bench who could reasonably be considered a pinch hit threat against RHP unless you double up on positional inflexibility and go with Rogers.

    Florimon almost has to be rostered in order to replace Mercer when he’s inevitably lifted in leverage situations due to, once again, an inability to hit same-handed pitching.

    I’ve frankly lost track of how many spots there are and players to fill them at this point…

    • Jaso actually said in an interview that he concentrates only on his hitting against RHP, and does not expect to bat against LHP. So. ….are we going to see three first baseman in a game because of leverage situations and defense? Don’t forget Hurdle’s crush on Serpico, which makes four available. You have to wonder if they will keep trying to dump Morse if Jaso, Rogers show they can field at first.

      • Honest question…has there been any actual indication that they in fact are trying to dump Morse?

        I don’t see how that’s even possible if they honestly want to keep a wild card contending team this year. When you don’t have one good option at a position, the last thing you should do is get rid of depth.

    • If Morse hits, they can use him early and leave him out there, because he doesn’t really have a platoon issue for his career. I think that helps a lot. Yes, Jaso is pretty useless against lefties, but he mashes righties, and that’s most starting pitchers, so he should still get at least two, and probably three at bats every game he starts, because how many teams are going to lift their starter early *just* to get a platoon edge on him? And even if we knock the starter out early, most long men are righties, too.

      I really do think Rogers starts in AAA if Kang is healthy. That will give them a chance to give Morse a real look as a bounceback candidate, and then call up Rogers if Morse doesn’t rebound. (I expect him to rebound, though. He’ll get regular at bats because of Jaso’s platoon role, if he’s used as the primary platoon partner and first pinch hitter, and I think the lack of rhythm, as well as the injuries, are why he had such a rough season last year.)

      This will also give them a chance to see how Rogers handles third with regularity, to assess whether or not he’s a viable option at both corners. That’s not an experiment I would guess they want to carry out in the Majors.

  • For what the Pirates gave up for Rogers, is he really nothing more than a bench player????

    • peanutbutterguts
      February 19, 2016 4:44 pm

      The guy they gave up would be a bench player too, if he were on the team. A bench player that has two career plate appearances to boot. I’ll take Rogers.

  • Morse is a lock. Joyce is a lock if he shows anything at all this Spring, because Hurdle loves him some veteran bench players.

  • I am very much hoping that Bell, Hanson, Glasnow, and Taillon all make strong contributions in meaningful games this year. That being said, I’d prefer them prioritize offense over defense for the bench and I’d love to Hanson come north with the team out of spring training. A bench of Rogers, Morse, Rodriguez, Stewart, and Hanson would be ideal IMO.

  • I just can’t get a grip around how it keeps, being said this offense will be better.
    1.Just from an offensive perspective alone there is very little power, which will show up to hurt against those better pitchers with a low whip.
    2. Compared to last year our bench stinks! Think that 2/3 of your starters where benchplayers at times kang, harrison, mercer.
    So for comparison the middle that will be getting those bench at bats instead of them are florimon and serpico. Ouch
    Pedro offensively made an impact and was a weapon off bench when you needed a bomb. No player on bench has that ability.
    3. We play in the NL the bench will get alot of at bats no matter what as a result.
    On a side note it gets a little old that it is assumed we can make up the offense with our defense. First of all,first base you have another who never played it. It couldn’t be worse but not improved enough to make up for offensive losses. Plus the bench is minus florimon very below average defensively. Also with the significant downgrade in rotation does it matter who is playing def when your 3 through 5 pitchers are consistently giving up rockets to the gap.
    I was typically the positive one prior to this year but I can’t understand how others are overlooking these things
    For your royals argument against power look at how many dominant pitchers in their division they had to go against regularly that don’t allow lineups to roll regulary. VERY FEW. The pirates will face a bunch. The singles station to station won’t work in this league especially when you are giving an out with the pitcher and the royals were not

    • 1. The power is down but the OBP is way up.
      2. Kang was only a bench player the first month of the season. Mercer wasn’t really a bench player at all. Harrison is the only guy who you could consider a bench player last year, just because he went back to the utility role when Kang became a starter. The bench was strong at the end of last year. It had Stewart, Rodriguez, and Morse, which the current bench also has. They also had Harrison and Aramis Ramirez. This year’s group will probably have someone like Rogers, who gives you better offense than either of those guys. I’m guessing the final spot would give defensive flexibility. So you’re kind of splitting Harrison/Ramirez up into two players — one with all of the offense and the other with all of the defense and flexibility. The bench hardly stinks.
      3. First base could be a liability again, but that would put it on par with last year. Florimon has a real shot to make the bench.

      • Tim but don’t you agree that based on the consistent better pitching the Pirates will face that dont give up multiple hits/walks in an inning needed to score that way compared to the Royals in their division and beyond plus they will usually will be giving up two more outs a game due to pitcher, that the strategy in their situation isn’t as ideal or comparable to royals success.

        • I think there’s an argument that could be made that high OBP guys are better to put up against top pitchers than guys who just hit for power. I know there have been some studies about that recently, but I’m about to head out to the field for the day, so I can’t look them up.

          • The trick is actually fielding a lineup of high OBP guys that can repeatedly sequence positive events together…

            Right now the club overall projects out to something like a .330 OBP, with a huge boost from Cutch up around .400. Depending on order, you could see the 6-9 spots all coming in around league-average or lower. The Pirates will find it difficult to produce offense if they’re settling on moderate OBP, low power position players and anchored by the pitcher’s spot.

            • I think there is no question that the Pirates need a power hitter or two. The real question is whether Polanco and Bell can alter their swings enough to become the power hitters that the Pirates need.

              • Couldn’t agree more!

              • Also, this is the point in Cutch’s career where he’ll probably stop adding much value on the bases and the defense isn’t getting better. Getting him back to the 30 homerun version will be how he maintains value individually and compliments the lineup best.

                • True. I think the key to Cutch’s power is whether he focuses on hitting to the right centerfield gap. When he gets pull happy and rolls his wrists over it seems to hurt his power. If he could only lay back on the pitch more, and avoid grounding the ball to the left side so much I think he could get back to the 30+ HR range.

    • I think once bell is starting at first It puts jaso on the bench and could eliminate srod. Hanson at super utility like kang last year. These moves would give the team incredible depth. You cannot be afraid of rookies even on a play-off team. You must continue to develop your replacement players.

      • That is a good point but that is a midseason scenario at best. Can’t expect to make playoffs on only half a season.

      • Jaso was signed for two years. He is being handed first base against right handed pitching. Bell has to prove he can play first base in the majors and he hasn’t. He may come up this year but he won’t be named the starting first base until he proves himself. The FO is sending signals they don’t want another Pedro mistake….too early promotion.

    • 1. Marte, Kang, Cutch are all still ~20 homer guys. Polanco has the potential for that. I think Jaso will be an improvement over Pedro at the plate even without the long ball.

      2. Pedro has exactly 0 HRs as a PH in 50ish PAs going back to ’13.Rogers had 2 in 58, last year.

      3. Sean Rod is very below average defensively?

    • The Royals had “very few” dominant pitchers in their division?? They’re still in the AL Central, right? Chris Sale and Jose Quintana (with Rondon coming along) from the White Sox; Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar from the Indians; David Price (for half a season at least) from the Tigers.
      By my count, that’s more “dominant” pitchers than the Pirates will face in the NL Central this year (Arrieta, Lester, and maybe Wainwright if he comes back fully healthy). Might want to rethink that statement…

      • My point was related to whip in regards to pitchers not allowing the baserunners to string hits together to be able to score in that way. Despite the fact your examples are good pitchers all with the exception of sale and price did not have a great whip and did allow guys on base. Most of those were able to do so by striking out alot of guys and getting away with it. And aside from our division the nl in general has way better pitching overall according to all the rankings we hear about.
        So I think your missing my point when I talk about what kind of pitchers they face.

        • Also gotta watch mixing narratives…

          Some guy brings up the Royals every time this discussion of offense comes up, yet how many times last fall did we hear many of the same people saying the Royals simply got “lucky”? That their bats just so happened to get hot at the right time?

          Which is it?

          • I agree I used the royals case they are thrown out as an excuse or qualifier. I’m not one of those folks that think they got lucky. They are obviously good. My points are related to why that model has less of a chance to work for pirates because of pitcher batting and the kind of pitchers they will face in comparison plus as you said about the overall 6 thru 9 in lineup. I believe outside factors matter. Like parks, what league your in, where you hit in the order, bench for nl meaning more then al etc.

            • Less of a chance working for this 2016 squad, absolutely, but I do think they could put a really interesting lineup together in a few years if some of these recent drafts develop.

              You don’t get much compounding benefit out of being an average contact team, but if they were able to put together a lineup of guys striking out between 10-15% of time, not only would they set modern day records, but they also might just be able to make this sequencing thing somewhat sustainable.

              • Using the Royals again as an example, I think the “sequencing thing” falls away as noise when there’s just a ton of density. Take any situation with an uncommon outcome, do it a whole bunch, and you’ll get a lot of that uncommon outcome. Flip a coin a billion times, and odds are good you’ll get a run of 1000 or so same results in a row.

                Basically, I agree. You put together a team that puts the ball in play and gets on base that much, favorable sequencing stops being luck and starts being an expected result, because you’re just giving yourself so many opportunities for a favorable sequence, even if it is unlikely.

          • The answer concerning the Royals is pretty clear. They’re an elite contact and baserunning team. If they weren’t an elite contact and baserunning team, their lack of power would have been a problem.

            The Pirates could be that this year, though, if Harrison hits like he did in the second half, Polanco progresses at all, Mercer isn’t a black hole, and everyone else is typical. And those if’s aren’t absurd, either.

        • Now you’re moving the goalposts. Your point was that there very few “dominant” pitchers in the Royals division as compared to the Pirates and that’s simply not true. The NL does have some very good pitching if you expand outside of the Central division, but it’s hyperbolic to say its “way better pitching overall” when it comes to dominant pitchers.

          Other dominant pitchers in the NL include Kershaw, Greinke, Bumgardner, the Harvery/Thor/DeGrom trio, Scherzer, and Jose Fernandez (if healthy). But outside the Central, the AL also has Price, Archer, Keuchel, Cole Hamels, Sonny Gray, Felix Hernandez, and Garrett Richards is close – not many of those pitchers allow line-ups to role regularly either. Hell, the Yankees bullpen is going to be damn near impossible to hit the last 3 innings of any given game. Throw in the advantage the pitchers in the AL Central have when compared to the NL central, and its essentially a wash.

          The Royals are clearly an outlier in a lot of ways, but this argument about the pitchers they faced vs. those the Bucs are going to face is nonsense.

          • I didn’t switch my point when I talked about rolling lineups my point was related to baserunners. And 8 of top ten whip leaders were in nl last year.
            And still not acknowledging having the pitcher hit

    • They’re not going to be great, but they’re gonna be pretty good. I am not worried about our offense.

    • Pedro Alvarez has zero career pinch hit home runs. What bombs off the bench are you talking about in point 2? He only has one PH extra base hit in his career. A double in 2014. Last year he slugged .318 as a pinch hitter. Ironically all his value as a PH last year came from OBP which you seem to discount as offensive value.

      Fwiw John Jaso has been a much better PH than Pedro, including for power.

  • The new Sunday unis were hideous in 1979 and are no less hideous today.

    But, if they bring wins, I don’t care if they wear the “future” unis from the failed 90s MLB promo.

  • Here’s my thought. If there is an injury, kang could play a few games at short. Harrison can play every position except short for an extended period of time. Same with srod. Rogers can play first and fake it in right. So, imo, you don’t need to worry about versatility on the bench. The only reason you would need a ss or of is if someone spends time on the dl. I think we could get by a few games here or there when starters need a break until injury

    • Agree. Florimon should not beat out Rodgers – period. He should basically be competing with both Joyce and Hanson and perhaps even Ngope and another outfield option is Goeddel. Probably hacked that spelling, but his k/bb and other projections look like a capable competition with what Joyce put up. That’s what you want – competition.
      Nicasio should be competing with Vogelsong and Lobstein for a starting role – and just my opinion Taillion.

    • I maintain that Florimon is a virtual lock for the Opening Day roster. NH likes to maintain depth, so with Florimon out of options it is likely we would lose him if we tried to stash him at AAA. In this scenario, you have Florimon on the bench and Gift/Hanson as depth in AAA.

  • I gotta say I’d be pretty shocked if Florimon wasn’t on the team, but then again I couldn’t believe they picked Locke over Worley last yr so maybe I shouldn’t even put any thought into it.

    • They made the right choice in picking Locke over Vanimal too. I love Vanimal but Locke, as much as we like to hate on him, really is the better pitcher.

  • I wouldnt rule Nicasio getting every opportunity to crack the rotation!!!

  • Bring Hanson north & you don’t need Florimon or Rodriguez.

    • Nice thought except they paid a fair amount of money for Rodriguez to stick around so he’s a given.

    • Well since Hanson isnt a great option at SS, it seems likely you still need another IF option. Even if Kang was the backup SS, it seems unlikely they want him getting all the backup starts at SS and little rest.

      • We’re not talking Hanson every day at SS.

        • But you are talking him getting him starts there, something he stopped doing in the minors.

          You likely have 1 day a week where the backup starts. Kang isn’t taking the entire backup workload unless he plays 158 games, so you will rely on Hanson for more than a handful of starts at SS.

          Since this is a management team that clearly emphasizes defense first at SS, no reason to think they’ll roll without a backup SS on the roster.

          • He’s still getting starts at short. He was getting starts at 2B, SS, and 3B last year. He has the range and the arm for short. It’s just mental lapses. He’s like Ronny Cedeno with a better bat.

            • He does not have the arm for short. Its a fringe arm at best at short.

              Its not purely mental lapses magically happening, his arm is far from ideal for that spot. He can play there, but my point is he’s far from what the team looks for in the primary backup to that spot. And its far from a guarantee he’ll hit well that quickly, he could easily be Ronny Cedeno with fringe defense at SS.

              • Okay, well with the less optimistic standpoint I can see that. I recall reading on this site many times that his main issue with sticking at short has been mental lapses. He makes the tough plays but boots routine grounders.

              • Keith Law and others think that is arm is just fine.

                Tell Tim Foli about supposedly not having the arm for SS.

          • are you Florimon or his cousin/wife? Florimon is barely replacement level. The big league club needs to start graduating prospects and Hanson would do well to gain some experience in the show. His arm is certainly capable for short… is it plus, no but certainly capable. Florimon shouldn’t see a roster spot on any contending team.

            • We are all now magically saying the rookie is capable at SS while also ignoring that his bat is no guarantee to be ML ready on OD.

              Im not arguing Florimon is good, but that Hanson is not a lock to be a great SS depth option and that Florimon is a non terrible option for this roster. S Rod is a terrible option.

              • We need to stop with coddling here. We left open a 5th starter spot to wait on TG or JT. We didn’t really address 1b to wait on Bell… we have options but none are great out of the box, more hope than expectation. Hanson provides flexibility, speed, potential with the bat and youth. Florimon brings none of that… maybe some speed but you have to get on to utilize that which he has never shown an ability to do. If Hanson performs in ST we should absolutely bring him north… he also have Polanco and Marte to help keep him grounded.

              • Whether or not Hanson can handle a backup SS role is kind of moot. There’s no way you have a top prospect and possible future star sitting on the bench 6 days a week in Pittsburgh instead of playing everyday in Indy- at least, not a top prospect that still has things to work on. When he comes up it should be because he is ready to be a MLB starter.

      • Hanson, not a great option? Did you get a load of Hurdle’s favorite pet at SS in the playoff race last year.

  • mike_carlini66
    February 19, 2016 1:37 am

    I have long been a fan of bringing back these uniforms. Love them!

  • HartHighPirate
    February 19, 2016 1:20 am

    Uniforms beautiful, with stirrups too. Tim will these be worn at home every Sunday throughout the season or just Spring Training Sundays?