First Pitch: Predicting the Pirates’ Opening Day Roster

BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates started making cuts in the last week, which didn’t really do much to clear up their Opening Day roster picture. Most of the cuts that were made were expected, with 2016 depth options and top prospects being sent down. However, outside of a few spots on the bench and in the bullpen, the roster is pretty cut and dry.

There are about two weeks remaining in Spring Training, and I’d expect more cuts this week, with some of these cuts making the final roster a bit more clear. But before that happens, I figured I’d get my prediction out there for the Opening Day roster, giving an idea of what to expect in the coming weeks.

The Lineup

I’m not about to get into the actual batting order, although I plan to tackle that subject tomorrow. For now, we’ll just keep it simple and look at the normal starters at each position on Opening Day.

C – Francisco Cervelli

1B – John Jaso

2B – Josh Harrison

SS – Jordy Mercer

3B – David Freese

LF – Starling Marte

CF – Andrew McCutchen

RF – Gregory Polanco

The Bench

The lineup is pretty simple, with no real competition. The bench will have some tougher decisions. Chris Stewart, Sean Rodriguez, and Michael Morse are locks right now. That leaves two final spots and a lot of different directions the Pirates could go in.

I think Jason Rogers will get one of those spots at the start of the year, just based on what Neal Huntington said to me after they acquired David Freese:

“Out of the gate, we can absolutely carry [Morse and Rogers], because one can be the right-handed option at first base. And we do like what we’ve seen out of Jason at third base, and feel like he can fill a role there. … Out of the gate, certainly, we feel like both of those guys will make the club. You could still see Goebbert, you could still see Cole Figueroa, Matt Joyce, Florimon.”

I don’t think Huntington was saying Rogers is a lock to make the club, but they definitely seem to like him. He mentioned a few other names there, but I think the final spot really comes down to two guys: Matt Joyce and Cole Figueroa.

The Pirates have the ability to keep Joyce in the system by paying him a $100,000 retention bonus five days before Opening Day, and stashing him in Indianapolis. That makes a lot of sense when Kang returns, which I’ll detail below.

I think this, plus the fact that Cole Figueroa can play a lot of positions, gives Figueroa the edge. You don’t have a true fourth outfielder without Joyce, but you’ve got three guys (Rodriguez, Figueroa, Morse) who can play outfield if needed, and Joyce in Triple-A if there is a long-term need. Without Figueroa, you’ve got one guy who can back up the middle infield spots: Sean Rodriguez.

I think the need for a second backup utility infielder will be much more important than an extra outfielder. So I’m going with Figueroa here.

When Jung-ho Kang Returns

The Pirates’ lineup will change when Jung-ho Kang returns. David Freese will move to the right-handed platoon role at first base, and Michael Morse will move to the bench. That would make Jason Rogers expendable, which means he’d move to Triple-A, assuming he makes the roster on Opening Day.

We once again have the same situation as above, with a bigger need for an infielder than the need for a true fourth outfielder like Joyce. This is the biggest reason I think they’ll go with Cole Figueroa at the start of the year. You might say that Jason Rogers could go down at the start of the year to make room on the roster for Figueroa, but then you’d need to send Joyce down to make room to keep Figueroa once Kang returned. And you can’t send Joyce down and keep him, since he could opt out of his deal by declining to be outrighted, or could be claimed off waivers.

There’s also the fact that Figueroa and Joyce would both require 40-man spots. I can only see one spot being cleared easily, and that would be Pedro Florimon. Any other spots would be difficult, especially when it also makes more sense to keep Joyce as depth in Triple-A.

The Rotation

Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and Jon Niese are locks for the rotation. Yesterday we learned that the final two spots will be a competition between Jeff Locke, Ryan Vogelsong, and Juan Nicasio. There are still two weeks remaining, and I think Locke and Vogelsong still have the inside tracks right now. But if I had to take a wild guess at what will happen over the next two weeks, I’d say that Nicasio and Vogelsong get the remaining spots.

Part of this might be influenced by what I’d do right now. But part of it is seeing Locke struggling with his mechanics early in camp. He’s getting more comfortable with each start, but it’s incredibly difficult to go through the type of overhaul he’s been going through. Likewise, it’s incredibly difficult to ignore the success Nicasio has been having, and the stuff he has. And Vogelsong is starting to show that same success, albeit with much less upside. Right now, I’d project the two right-handers in those final spots.

The Bullpen

Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Neftali Feliz, and Jared Hughes are locks. If Jeff Locke doesn’t make the rotation, then he’s in the bullpen, and that kind of solves the second lefty role, and the need for another long reliever. If Nicasio or Vogelsong don’t make it, then you’ve got another bullpen guy and a long-reliever. So either way, you’re looking for two more spots.

I think that Arquimedes Caminero will get one of the spots, even though he hasn’t had the best Spring Training. His stuff is difficult to cut loose, and the Pirates have to keep him around or risk losing him through waivers. I don’t think they’d take that route based off some struggles during Spring Training.

Since I’m predicting Locke for the bullpen, there’s not a need for a lefty in the final spot. That means my prediction would lean towards Rob Scahill. He’s a hard thrower who can go multiple innings, and he has an option remaining. One of the things with the “multi-inning reliever” approach is that the Pirates might need to have a revolving door for their final spot, in order to always have a fresh bullpen. I could see a scenario where Scahill starts the year in the majors, but the Pirates rotate between him, Trey Haley, and Kyle Lobstein throughout the season, with the tired pitchers going to Triple-A for some rest. For now, I’m going with Scahill as the final guy at the start of the year.

**We had our Bradenton subscriber meetup today at Pirate City and then World of Beer after. There were several subscribers who stopped by Pirate City throughout the day, and only a few were able to go to WOB after, but we had a great time with plenty of baseball discussion. We’ll do this again when I head up to Pittsburgh at the start of the season. It will either be the Saturday before Opening Day, or the Monday after. I’m thinking Saturday would work better.

**If you’re not a subscriber, this is the point in the free article where I make my sales pitch. Tonight it’s going to be this: Today was an off-day, which means there was very little written about the Pirates, and most everyone took the day off. Except us. We don’t have off-days during the season (we might have one or two in the off-season). We also wrote four articles, including this one, which might match the rest of the articles that went up from Spring Training today. And those articles include information that you can’t find anywhere else. So if you’re looking for a site that routinely posts quality Pirates articles, with coverage from the Dominican Summer League to Pittsburgh, and information you can’t find elsewhere, this is the site for you. And getting all of this info will only cost you less than a cup of coffee per month.

**Pirate City Notes: Jordan Luplow Will Be Getting Time in the Outfield in 2016. A lot of prospect notes, with the big news being how the Pirates will split time at third base in Bradenton between Jordan Luplow and Connor Joe. Also, reports on today’s outings from Wilbur Miller, and a World Baseball Classic qualifiers recap from John Dreker.

**Wyatt Mathisen Has a Sore Shoulder, Luis Heredia Moving to the Bullpen. A few minor league injury updates, along with news that Luis Heredia will be a reliever this year.

**The Mystery Surrounding the Ryan Vogelsong Reclamation Project. Not much is known about what Vogelsong is working on with Ray Searage, although he did look good in his last start, and the Pirates believe he can do well in a rotation role, now that he’s not bouncing back and forth between the rotation and bullpen.

**Pirates Prospects Job Openings in Pittsburgh and West Virginia. We’re hiring a West Virginia writer, and an additional Pirates writer.

  • I’m not sure why so many consider Freese to be a lock for the right hand platoon at first base. If Morse gets his stroke back, he’s gotta be the guy, right?

  • Sitting pretty close to first today and I’d say that Jason has looked pretty good in the field for what it’s worth

  • With Locke’s change in mechanics, I’m wondering if they hold him back for extended Spring Training like they did with Morton. That would put Nicasio, RV in the rotation. If one of them falters, Locke can take their spot.

    • Fault me for belaboring the point, but these two situations aren’t close to being the same.

      I think some folks are being far too influenced by spring stats, and attaching the mechanics narrative as an excuse. Charlie Morton’s disastrous spring culminated in that outing against Philly where he *literally* did not know where the ball would end up once it left his hand, admittedly so. Jeff Locke has actually posted WHIP and walk rates *below* his career averages thus far.

      I don’t see any evidence at all that his new mechanics have made him a worse pitcher.

  • Wait wait, Ryan Vogelsong has been worth less than one win over his last 423 innings pitched, Jeff Locke has been touted on this very site as a “good #4” all winter, and *Vogelsong* is the one to make the rotation?

  • After spending a week in Bradenton and catching 3 games, I don’t really care for Figueroa. His defense looked awful in those games and he has no bat. I’m gonna hate seeing him in the Sunday lineups.

    • Yes but he is the most intelligent baseball player I have ever heard speak. The guy is a genius. IDK what that means but he is the smartest guy in the room.

  • Hypothetical Abstract: What happens if Jaso takes to the lead off spot (OPS AND WALK RATE ) and produces but even more importantly becomes a very serviceable DEFENSIVE first-baseman? We have him for two years, does Bell stay down this year and platoon next? What if Jaso becomes the Freddy Sanchez of this team?

    • I asked a similar question awhile back…I didn’t get too many (if any) responses.

      Hopefully, you get more.

    • We have him for 2 years, but there really would be nothing wrong with Bell getting this entire year to become better on defense and well polished on offense.

      You’d have a good problem next year, but you’d likely wait until after Super 2 to bring up a guy like Bell so suddenly it becomes an issue of if you want Bell off the bench his first half season. You’d be able to spell each player to keep them fresh, and a good bench bat never hurts.

    • Easiest answer–the DH is coming with the new CBA, so there will be room for Jaso and Bell. If by some near-miracle we don’t get stuck with the DH in the NL, then one of them could make a nice trade chip in the offseason.

  • My prediction for OD batting order:

    1. Jaso 1B
    2. Cutch CF
    3. Harrison 2B
    4. Marte LF
    5. Polanco RF
    6. Freese 3B
    7. Cervelli C
    8. Mercer SS
    9. Liriano P

    • Looks good, but Clint might bat Liriano 3rd so he can stay with his alternating left/right strategy.

    • Scott: I hope you are wrong with this idea to move ‘Cutch up to #2 in the order. I have heard some of the reasons and do not agree. ‘Cutch has been excellent as our No. 3 hitter – an annual MVP Candidate. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

      Harrison as the #3? Too many swings and misses and too few HR’s – 4 in 2015. And footspeed is not his forte either – 10 SB/ 8 CS in 2015.

      Polanco had over 400 AB’s at leadoff and another 100+ at #2 in 2015. If we want Jaso at leadoff, I follow that with Polanco, ‘Cutch, Marte, Freese, Cervelli, Harrison, Mercer.

      • Cutch will get 20 more at bats at #2. Additionally, he 2nd in the league with at bats with no one on and 2 outs. It’s happening for at least the start of the season.

        • Good points, but let me play devil’s advocate here – if 20 AB’s is that important, would moving him to leadoff be even better? He has been the No. 3 guy in the order since 2012, and our most consistent RBI producer, and now we are going to change something? I wonder the difference in RBI between a #2 and #3 hitter?

          Jaso has been an OB guy of a little less than 36% over the last 2 years of his career, and Polanco in his first two years is near 32%. This seems to be overkill for making a major change involving our best hitter.

          172 days equals a full year of service time. Anyone brought up after April 14 will not get a full year, but could qualify for Super Two Status. There could be some changes made between April 14 and May 1. If we are waving a white flag on Polanco as leadoff or #2, we could see Alen Hanson pretty early.


          • You don’t do that because that basically guarantees Cutch will bat with no one on base 100% of the time to start the game right. One thing I do not understand though is if you go this route with Cutch second (which I am all for), then I think that is when you have to bat the pitcher 8th and put a guy like Cervelli 9th. That way you have 2 OBP guys in front of him for most of the game for more men on base to go along wit hthe more at bats he gets in the second spot.

      • Scott Kliesen
        March 23, 2016 5:12 pm

        I think the Pirates are hitting him 2nd this spring for a reason. Cutch seems to be taking to it pretty well, too.

    • I wouldn’t like to see free swingers Marte/Polanco going back to back and Harrison is not a great OBP guy. So against righties, I would:
      – move Marte to 3
      – move Freese/Kang to 4
      – move Harrison to 6

      Same for lefties but:
      – move Harrison to 1
      – plug Morse/Freese in at 6

    • Might as well put Cervelli 3rd if you arent going to go with Marte. High OBP in front of Cutch, high OBP in front of Marte and Polanco.

    • Need to swap Harrison and Freese in the line-up. No way J-Hay hits 3rd.

    • I believe today’s lineup will be the opening day lineup.


      • That’s what ROOT said, fwiw. I like it. I could see moving Freese, Cevelli, and Polanco around in those three spots but overall it looks good.

      • Yeah, I think so, too, and I think it’s the best lineup, too, until Polanco proves he’s going to be a strong hitter. If he does that, I think he and Freese switch spots.

      • Scott Kliesen
        March 23, 2016 5:14 pm

        I’m really surprised they’ll have Freese hitting 3rd. Actually, beyond surprised.

    • I’d mix up Polanco, J-Hay and Freese.
      1. Jaso
      2. Cutch
      3. El Coffee
      4. Marte
      5. Freese
      6. J-Hay
      7. Bita Vella (or however it’s spelled)
      8. Mercer

      • I kinda like El Coffee third. This may be his break out year and could be good cover for Cutch. And, if Cutch wants to run more, Polanco is pretty selective, giving Andrew more chances to steal. Being left handed also makes for a harder throw by the catcher, unless you have Dale Long catching.

        • I agree that this may be the year Polanco breaks out. If he does, then they can move him up later. OTOH, as it is he is batting behind some good OBP guys so should get plenty of RBI opportunities, and he makes the bottom of the lineup that much more dynamic.

    • I want to get another guy in front of Cutch and put the pitcher 8th. Most teams using the best hitter in the second spot go that route

      1. Jaso
      2. Cutch
      3. Freese
      4. Marte
      5. Harrison
      6. Polanco
      7. Mercer
      8. Liriano
      9. Cervelli

      When Kang gets back you could play around with the order a bit and put him 4th with Marte up to third (or vice versa)

  • Tim … I had Scahill as a player that did not have any options left. Was there a change In his status or was I just wrong?

    • He used an option in 2013 and 2014. Scahill was optioned last year, but for a player to burn an option, he has to spend at least 20 days in the minors and Scahill was recalled after just six days. His other time last year in the minors was on rehab, and that doesn’t count towards those 20 days

  • We have the Dream Outfield trademarked by Tim. Will now have to come up with a name for infield. Once Jung-ho comes back we’ll have all J’s on the infield, maybe the Flying J’s or the D J’s?

  • I like Lobstein over Scahill in my opinion…

    • From what’s been written, Lobstein is struggling. Even he thinks he is going down to work on things. Plus, they will want him stretched out as an emergency starter

    • Keeping Lobstein fully stretched out would have appeal though, in case we get 1.5 months into the year and someone has to miss 1-2 starts and the long reliever isnt stretched out enough to go a full 5-6 innings.

      • Think I’d rather try to make reliever games work, a la Tampa Rays, than get Lisa Loebstein to go six quality innings.

        • As would i, but even Tampa barely experimented with that before stopping.

          We are a few years away from a team actually going with piggy back/pure relief games as a strategy for teams to rely on.

          In an ideal world, you roster all 3 of Vogelsong/Locke/Nicasio and 2 of those 3 go 3-4 innings each every 5th day.

          • But what was the cause of them “stopping”? Honest question.

            Can’t say I followed along closely enough to know last year, but I *thought* they did that intentionally to get them through the last spot in the rotation for a few turns until a starter got healthy again.

            • Im with you in not having followed it close enough to know.

              I like the idea, but right now im more on board with the piggyback idea first. You give me 2 guys who you dont trust to go 6 but feel can be effective for roughly 3 innings each, piggyback. Yeah you use a bullpen spot for mostly that reason, but if its saving enough runs lets do it for a short period of time.

    • No love for O’Flahrety?