BRADENTON, Fla. – The Opening Day roster for the Pirates is starting to take shape, after the team made five more cuts today. All of the cuts were expected, however the moves did indicate the Pirates had set their bullpen. That was somewhat confirmed later, when Neal Huntington announced that Cory Luebke had made the Opening Day roster.
“Much like Matt Joyce, we’ve told Cory that we intend to add him to our roster Sunday,” Huntington said. “We’re working through the details of specific timing, but Cory will make the club.”
Luebke had an opt-out on his deal yesterday, meaning the Pirates had to make a decision on his status today, or risk losing him. That created a tough situation for them. Luebke showed great stuff, hitting 94 MPH with his fastball, and 87 MPH with his slider. He also didn’t have much playing time, due to a hamstring that delayed his start in camp, and didn’t let him get his stuff fully ready for the beginning of the year.
“It was a challenge,” Huntington said of evaluating Luebke. “And truth be told, a testament to him that he was able to work through the hamstring injury and come back and put himself in a position to make this club. It’s a left-hander with a quality arm, quality stuff. Still a little bit of rust there, but we believe we can knock it off early and put him in a position to play a meaningful role with us out of that bullpen.”
Luebke’s addition to the bullpen almost sets things. The Pirates will place Jared Hughes on the disabled list at the start of the year, which means they have one more open spot. Kyle Lobstein is the only pitcher remaining in camp without a spot, but Huntington said he hasn’t made the team yet.
“In Cory’s case, we’ve committed to him and feel like he can help us out of the bullpen,” Huntington said. “I know we’re down to 12. We save the ability to make a late adjustment. Clint’s been that guy before, that essentially looks like he’s making a club, has actually been told he’s making a club, and so in Kyle’s case, he’s lined up to make the club but we reserve the right to make a different move late.
The only way Lobstein could miss making the roster would be through a late waiver claim or a small trade, although Huntington said that nothing was imminent on either front. He also noted that Lobstein’s outing today will have no impact either way on him making the club. Unless there is an outside addition, the Pirates will go with three left-handers in their bullpen to start the year.
“This is a really tough spot for Kyle,” Huntington said. “He’s kind of in limbo. We didn’t want to tell him he’s kind of made the team. Process of elimination, it looks good for him, but we hold the right to make a different move. I think in my first or second year here we had a waiver claim land the day before opening day. It’s nothing imminent, but we need to leave that flexibility.”
Lobstein might not last long on the roster, as he looks like the first guy down when Hughes returns. However, the Pirates saw a lot that they liked in him this spring, enough for him to be in position to make the team, as well as serving as a depth starter throughout the year.
“His strength is they don’t seem to see the fastball,” Huntington said. “They don’t seem to get good swings off it. He has made a nice adjustment. The velocity has ticked back up to where it was in ’14. He seems healthy. He commands the ball. He can throw three pitches for strikes in any count. They just don’t seem to get good rips at it and there’s something to be said for that.”
If Lobstein does make the team, the Pirates would have their sixth and seventh starters in the majors as multi-inning relievers. That might make things difficult to keep them both stretched out and fresh. Although it might not be as big of a problem early in the season, as the Pirates go more conservative with their starters.
“With two off-days the first five days of the season, it will be interesting to see how Clint and Ray keep these guys sharp and keep these guys active,” Huntington said. “They’ve done a great job with that. Our pitchers and our history has shown that if you’re throwing the ball well, you get innings and you get reps. Especially early in the season when starters aren’t stretched out yet, we don’t run these guys too far out, so the ability to have multiple guys go multiple innings — especially in April — is going to be a benefit.”
Juan Nicasio Reacts to Making the Rotation
Yesterday, Clint Hurdle announced that Juan Nicasio made the rotation over Ryan Vogelsong. It was a big of a surprise move, considering the Pirates had said all off-season that Vogelsong was signed to be a starter, and Nicasio was the sixth man.
Nicasio met with the media today, and said that he found out yesterday about the move. Like everyone else, he was originally planning for a bullpen spot, but worked hard for a chance at starting. That paid off.
“I’m happy to be part of the rotation,” Nicasio said. “I worked hard everyday, and every five days I try to be the best. … When you work hard, you make it happen. When you’re working hard, you make it happen in the game. I’m working hard with my breaking ball, and my command of the fastball, so I’m pitching really good this spring.”
One of the things that has been said all spring about Nicasio is that a short memory span would help him in the rotation. He had a lot of success in the bullpen last year, focusing on making a big pitch in high leverage situations, rather than focusing on going six innings and facing guys two or three times through the lineup. Nicasio said a short memory was the key to his success this year.
It’s helping me a lot,” Nicasio said of the approach. “Not thinking too much when I go to the game. One pitch at a time. One hitter at a time. One inning at a time. I’m not thinking about the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. Only one pitch at a time, one hitter at a time. It’s simple.”
It also helps that the slider has improved in the last year. He worked a lot on the pitch last year, throwing it more often as a reliever. He carried that over to the Dominican, where he played catch with his cousin two or three times a week, focusing on improving the pitch.
“I threw too many,” Nicasio joked about the work.
The changeup is also coming along, and that will be a key pitch as Nicasio moves back to the rotation. Typically when struggling starters make that move to the bullpen and have success, they don’t make it back to the rotation. So it’s a great feeling for Nicasio to get this opportunity again.
“When you’ve been a starter in the past, and you move to the bullpen — in my heart, I think I can be a starter again,” Nicasio said. “I prayed to God to give me the opportunity to be a starter, because I think I can pitch as a starter.”
**Neal Huntington confirmed that Jung-ho Kang, Jared Hughes, and Elias Diaz will all start the season on the disabled list. No one will go to the 60-day DL.
**Huntington on the decision to go with Nicasio over Vogelsong: “The best way we can put it is this is where we felt we were the strongest. In our minds, it gave us the strongest alignment of our 12 pitchers. It was the most intense conversation we’ve had, making the decision between Nicasio and Vogelsong in the rotation. There were strong convictions on both sides, but at the end of the day, we felt like this was the opportunity to capitalize on some momentum that Juan has created here in Spring Training. Spring Training evaluations are what they are, but you can’t ignore some of the things that he’s done and we feel like this is the strongest alignment of this pitching staff going forward.”
**The Pirates have three guys fighting for one final bench spot in Jason Rogers, Cole Figueroa, and Pedro Florimon. One factor that could impact that race is whether Michael Morse needs to start the season on the disabled list. Morse is dealing with a minor hamstring issue, although it’s not enough to keep him out of the lineup today.
“Mike Morse, are we sure he’s ready to go and ready to be active? It looks like he is, but we need to make sure we get to whatever the deadline is to submit the rosters and make sure that he is ready to go and he is ready to contribute. If he’s not, there’s a different configuration of the bench.”
Huntington noted that, like Lobstein, no one can do anything today to change their mind on the final bench configuration. The only impact here could be with injuries.
**With Lobstein potentially in the bullpen to start the year, the Triple-A rotation could be opened up for all of the prospects to start the season in Indianapolis. However, that could be short-lived, with Lobstein returning to the rotation when Hughes returns.
“We like that Triple-A rotation, excited about what that can become,” Huntington said. “We may get to a point in April or May where we may need to reconsider some things, but to have your sixth and seventh starters ready to go right out of the gate on your Major League club is a good thing.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilfredo Boscan gets a starting role, with one of Steven Brault or Trevor Williams going to Triple-A. Then, I’d predict that Lobstein would take that starting role from Boscan. This seems likely, as the Pirates don’t like bringing a guy up to a new level unless he is there to stay. Unless they go with some version of a six-man rotation, I could see one spot being held open for Lobstein when he returns.