Spring Training is less than two weeks away, and while it’s possible that the Pirates could still bring in additional help, the odds seem low. By this point last year, they were done adding to their team. Looking at the roster this year, it’s hard to see them adding more than bench or bullpen depth, since the roster looks pretty set. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t add more. I’ve written that having Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation is a problem, and they should look for an upgrade. But the Pirates seem to be set with him as their fifth starter.
Today I put together the 2016 Spring Training tracker, offering predictions for all 60 players who are currently invited to camp. The predictions are color coded, giving the odds of making the team. As you can see on the tracker, a lot of the positions are set, with just a few roster spots available. One of those spots is the third base position, and is largely dependent on whether Jung-ho Kang can be healthy by Opening Day. Right now it’s too early to say he will be healthy, so I’ve got him missing the start of the season and third base up in the air. However, this is really just a short-term issue, as he should be back by mid-April, so this is not a long-term position battle.
If Kang is out, I’ve got Josh Harrison at third base, with Alen Hanson and Cole Figueroa competing for the starting second base job at the start of the year. I would include Jason Rogers as a starting option at third, but I’m not going to go there with a prediction yet until the Pirates indicate they’d make such a bold move (bold because of the lack of defense). Here are the other position battles:
There are two open bench spots, with the backup catcher spot (Chris Stewart), a utility spot (Sean Rodriguez), and Michael Morse taking up the first three spots. To me, the bench makeup will be the most interesting thing about Spring Training, with the Pirates having the ability to go a few different directions with their decisions.
The right-handed side of the first base platoon will influence one of the directions. I’ve got Michael Morse making the roster due to his salary, with Jason Rogers competing for a spot. The Pirates could opt to keep both and go for a lot of offense off the bench, sacrificing defense in the process. This might not be a huge sacrifice, since they have Sean Rodriguez as a utility guy capable of playing all over the field, and only having defensive value. If they kept another strong defender, like Pedro Florimon, it would make it even easier to carry two right-handed, bat-first (bat-only?) options on the bench.
The Pirates haven’t had a great bat off the bench that often in recent years, although this changed a bit last year when their bench got stronger down the stretch with Morse and Aramis Ramirez. They could make the same thing happen this year with Morse and Rogers.
The current bullpen is almost set, with just one open spot remaining. It’s hard to say what the Pirates will do with this spot. Will they go with one of the left-handed non-roster invitees, or go with another hard throwing right-hander?
On the left-handed side, they’ve got Kyle Lobstein, Jim Fuller, Kelvin Marte, and Robert Zarate. Of that group, Lobstein is the only guy on the 40-man roster. That would make him the front-runner as the second lefty, although I think the Pirates would use him as early season rotation depth out of Triple-A. The best of the NRI guys looks to be Robert Zarate, who can touch 94 MPH with his fastball, pairs that with a good slider, and put up strong strikeout and walk numbers in the minors.
The right-handed side has more talent, which could make it appealing for the Pirates to go without two lefties, especially since most of the current bullpen does fine against lefties as full inning relievers. John Holdzkom would be the front-runner for the final spot from the right side, especially if he can show anything close to his performance in late-2014. Rob Scahill and Trey Haley are two other hard throwers who are on the 40-man roster. The Pirates have Guido Knudson, Jorge Rondon, and A.J. Schugel in the minors, although they will probably be bullpen depth out of Triple-A.
The decision could boil down to a need for a second lefty versus going with a better overall pitcher for the final bullpen spot.