Among the players who began their career in the farm system, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a small group of upcoming free agents at the end of the season. For those players, this season becomes a chance to try to earn a contract for next year, or possibly get added to the 40-man roster to avoid free agency. In the last two off-seasons, the Pirates added Gift Ngoepe, Dovydas Neverauskas and Jose Osuna to the 40-man roster to avoid those players from becoming minor league free agents and possibly going elsewhere. They also re-signed Jared Lakind, who will once again be hoping for a 40-man spot or another minor league free agent contract.
I wanted to take a look at the first-time free agents this upcoming off-season and where they stand now. I’m not going to include Casey Sadler and Brandon Cumpton for two reasons. One is that they were already in the majors and re-signed to minor league deals, so it’s a different scenario for them than the other players. The other reason would be just pure speculation, since neither is playing yet. I gave updates on both (sort of for Sadler) in the Pirate City post on Monday. There are six other players who fall into the first-time free agent category.
The most noteworthy one would be Luis Heredia, who debuted with Altoona last week and has thrown a shutout inning in each of his two appearances. Heredia was throwing well down in Extended Spring Training and he has shown nice 93-95 MPH velocity with Altoona. He’s in a similar spot to where Dovydas Neverauskas was last year at this time, but there’s a big difference between the two pitchers. Neverauskas throws harder and has better breaking pitches, with somewhat better control of his pitches. It’s hard to see Heredia getting a 40-man spot even if he performs well, but I could see them trying to re-sign him. I think he would be better off signing elsewhere for his career, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea to bring him back. A big 22-year-old who throws 93-95 MPH will get chances.
I say Heredia is the most noteworthy, but I think Edwin Espinal has the best chance at a 40-man spot. Sean McCool wrote about his off-season changes and how they are currently leading to success. Espinal has always seemed like he is ready to breakout and he has looked like that was about happen numerous times. He has a strong approach at the plate, doesn’t strikeout much and makes a lot of solid contact. Now that he is in better shape, we could see a breakout season from him, similar to Jose Osuna last year. The fact that Espinal has third base experience to go with first base, helps his case.
The other four players are a step down from the previous mentioned pair. None of them have a shot at the 40-man roster, but I could see a couple returning. I’ll start with Tomas Morales, since he is at Altoona and all of the others are lower in the system. He’s splitting the catching duties, playing solid defense while struggling on offense. I could see him re-signed due to his defense, but he falls short of a future Major League player at this point. He doesn’t have the Jacob Stallings resume that got him (Stallings) two stints with the Pirates last year and has him as an emergency option again this season. You need catchers though and Morales works well with pitchers and controls the running game, so there’s a spot for him if they/he wants to return.
Next up would be Danny Arribas, who has been seeing semi-regular playing time in Bradenton lately. He’s a poor man’s version of Espinal in that he always seemed to have more potential than results, though you would see glimpses of that potential from time-to-time. Arribas is a very athletic player who can play all over the field. He’s someone who I think they should bring back, but like Heredia, I also believe he would be better off elsewhere so he can get more of a chance to play.
We used to talk about the plate approach of Carlos Munoz and how unique it was in the system, and no one paid attention because he never had strong results and we never rated him highly. That was until he destroyed baseballs at Bristol in 2015, and then everyone seemed to go overboard on him. Then we had to pull back on the reins a little and mention his flaws to try to keep his bandwagon from overflowing. Munoz is back in West Virginia this season and wasn’t even on the Opening Day roster, joining the club after they had a couple injuries. I can’t imagine he will be back next year. The repeated level this year points to him looking elsewhere next season. He never embraced the conditioning aspect of baseball and that led to extended slumps at every level he played, even winter ball the last two seasons.
The final player is the only draft pick remaining from 2011 who isn’t on the 40-man roster already. That’s Jonathan Schwind and he’s currently injured. If I had to guess right now, I’d say that he will be back with the Pirates next year, but it could be as a coach. I could see them wanting to keep him around in that role, though he may not be ready to give up his dreams as a player just yet.
From our side of things, it’s a group of players we have covered for seven seasons here, so there is a lot of familiarity with their careers. Espinal seems the most likely to be with the Pirates next year, possibly on the 40-man roster, so he is one to watch closely this season. Most people will be watching Heredia anyway, mostly because of his prospect status for the first four seasons of his career. I’m sure the Pirates would like to get something out of their biggest international amateur investment, so it will be interesting to see how he performs this season. He will need a promotion to Indianapolis at some point to really have a strong shot at sticking around.
** Forgot to mention it yesterday, so this seems like a good place. When Brandon Waddell was activated from the disabled list, the Altoona Curve placed JT Brubaker on the DL to open up a roster spot. It sounds like it’s a minor issue and Brubaker should return soon. The official reason given for the DL trip is that it was due to a blister on his right index finger.
PIRATES GAME GRAPH
Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates lost 4-2 to the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday afternoon. The Pirates now return home for three games against the Milwaukee Brewers. Chad Kuhl gets the ball today, making his sixth start. He left his last start early after getting hit on the knee with a line drive. The Brewers will counter with 27-year-old right-hander Jimmy Nelson, who has a 5.34 ERA in 28.2 innings.
In the minors, Indianapolis was rained out yesterday, so Steven Brault will try again to make his sixth start. In 4.2 innings during his last outing, he gave up season-highs with four runs, seven hits and four walks. Altoona starter Yeudy Garcia threw 5.2 innings without an earned run in his last start, despite coming into the game with a 10.80 ERA. Mitch Keller threw seven shutout innings in his last start, striking out nine batters. He has gone at least six innings in each of his last four starts.
MLB: Pittsburgh (12-16) vs Brewers (15-14) 7:05 PM
Probable starter: Chad Kuhl (6.23 ERA, 12:19 BB/SO, 23.0 IP)
AAA: Indianapolis (8-16) @ Columbus (11-15) 6:15 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Steven Brault (3.86 ERA, 13:24 BB/SO, 25.2 IP)
AA: Altoona (15-10) @ Akron (11-14) 6:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Yeudy Garcia (6.43 ERA, 9:18 BB/SO, 14.0 IP)
High-A: Bradenton (16-12) vs Dunedin (16-12) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Mitch Keller (3.62 ERA, 5:25 BB/SO, 27.1 IP)
Low-A: West Virginia (13-15) vs Lexington (11-17) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Oddy Nunez (5.29 ERA, 4:13 BB/SO, 17.0 IP)
While he will never be confused for a Gold Glove third baseman, here is a great player from Hunter Owen to end Wednesday’s West Virginia game.
5/4: Brandon Waddell activated from disabled list. JT Brubaker placed on disabled list.
5/3: Jordan George activated from Bradenton disabled list.
5/2: Jackson Williams promoted to Indianapolis. Justin Maffei assigned to Morgantown.
5/2: Zane Chavez assigned to Altoona.
5/1: Pirates recall Elias Diaz. Option John Bormann to Bradenton.
5/1: Pirates release Greg Williams, Holden Helmink and Julian Villamar.
4/30: Pirates option Danny Ortiz to Indianapolis. John Bormann promoted to Pittsburgh.
4/30: Pirates release Trace Tam Sing.
4/29: Pirates place David Freese on disabled list. Danny Ortiz promoted to Pittsburgh.
4/29: Justin Maffei added to Indianapolis roster.
4/28: Luis Heredia assigned to Altoona. Pirates release John Kuchno
4/28: Jackson Williams added to Altoona roster. Zane Chavez assigned to Morgantown.
4/28: Brett McKinney added to Indianapolis roster.
4/27: Eury Perez added to Indianapolis roster.
4/27: Jess Amedee placed on the disabled list. Trace Tam Sing added to Bradenton roster.
4/26: Pirates recall Gift Ngoepe. Dovydas Neverauskas optioned to Indianapolis.
4/25: Hector Garcia placed on disabled list. Mike Wallace added to West Virginia roster.
4/25: Jerrick Suiter added to Bradenton roster. Trace Tam Sing assigned to Extended Spring Training.
4/25: Antonio Bastardo placed on disabled list. Pirates recall Johnny Barbato.
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
Three former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, including two that played for Pirates teams that went to the World Series. The most recent player born on this date was Tommy Helms, a seldom used infielder for the 1976-77 teams. He joined the Pirates at the end of a career that included winning the 1966 Rookie of the Year award, two Gold Gloves and he was a two-time All-Star.
Gene Curtis played left field for a short time for the 1903 Pirates. It’s the second day in a row that a 1903 outfielder was mentioned, as yesterday was the birth date of Lou Gertenrich, who lasted just one game with the team. Curtis played the last five games of the regular season, while the Pirates rested their regulars in advance of the first World Series. It was his only time in the majors.
Jose Pagan was born on this date in 1935. He played eight years in Pittsburgh from 1965 until 1972. Pagan was mostly a third baseman with the Pirates, although he played every spot but center field and pitcher during his time. In 625 regular season games, he had a .690 OPS. He had a .267 average in four games during the 1971 World Series. He played third base and started all of the odd number games during that series.
On this date in 1987, Rafael Belliard hits the first of two home runs he hit during his 17-year career. He went to the plate 1,171 times with the Pirates and 1,353 times with the Braves, the only two teams he played for during his career. His second homer came ten years later. You can read more about the game in which he homered for the Pirates in the link above. You can find the boxscore here.