BRADENTON, Fla. — For quite some time now, the typical Major League roster has including five starting pitchers, eight starting position players, a five-man bench and seven relief pitchers.
But recently, some teams have bucked that trend, running one bench player short in exchange for an extra relief pitcher.
The Miami Marlins broke camp with 13 pitchers in 2017. At one point last season, the Chicago Cubs played a weekend with 14 pitchers on the roster. The Los Angeles Dodgers are openly toying with the idea of starting with 13 this season, and apparently, so are the Pirates, as general manager Neal Huntington laid out on Tuesday at LECOM Park.
The Pirates have four locks for their bench in Elias Diaz, Adam Frazier, David Freese and Sean Rodriguez. There has been an ongoing battle for the fifth spot that has included Jake Brentz, Jordan Luplow, Max Moroff, and Jose Osuna, at least until Tuesday, when Moroff was optioned and that list was cut from four to three. But the idea that none of those three could make the team is also under consideration.
“It’s still being kicked back and forth,” Huntington said. “With what Osuna has done, the inability to option Brentz and the reason we got him is still there, and the threat Jordan brings, but also where does the rotation end up? Where do our relievers end up this final week?”
The bullpen battle is much more complicated, with Michael Feliz, George Kontos, and Felipe Rivero locking down spots at the back-end, and Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow pitching as long men. In between, Kyle Crick, Rule 5 pick Jordan Milbrath, Dovydas Neverauskas, Edgar Santana, and lefties Kevin Siegrist and Josh Smoker seemed to be the most likely options battling for two spots.
But now there may be three spots, at least to start out with. The Pirates open the season against the Detroit Tigers, meaning there will be less of a premium on having extra position players to use as pinch hitters while playing under American League rules.
“As we’ve talked about several times, the opening day roster may change very quickly,” Huntington said. “It’s not going to be the same on May 1 and because of the flexibility we have in a variety of spots, it may be an evolving process.”
One trap the Pirates don’t want to fall into is yo-yoing players back and forth all season long.
“We also understand how hard it is for players to come up and go back,” Huntington said. “It’s easy in a vacuum to say we’ll just bring a guy up and back every fifth day. It’s hard to be the guy who comes up and back every 10th day or 11th day. We’ve had a handful of conversations with guys who have been in that role before and we do want to respect that’s not an easy role to be in.”
The reason the Pirates feel they can afford to get by one bench bat short is the flexibility they have in their existing options. Freese can play both corner infield spots. Frazier can play second, third and all three outfield positions. Rodriguez would probably pitch and catch in addition to playing all seven other spots, if they’d let him. Also, starting second baseman Josh Harrison can play all over the diamond and Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have each played all three outfield spots.
“Adam’s versatility allows us to potentially go a player short on the bench to have the extra arm in the pen,” Huntington said. “The ultimate question is what has the biggest impact? That extra ability to pinch-hit in Osuna, Brentz, or Luplow, or the ability to maybe give us another inning in the middle or allow Clint to go get a starter earlier or to get a reliever earlier if we’re struggling or to protect guys early as we’re coming out of the gate?”
WHAT THAT MEANS FOR BRENTZ
Of the players battling for the final bench spot, only Brentz is out of options, meaning that if the Pirates choose not to include him on the Opening Day roster, he’ll have to be placed on waivers.
The fact that Huntington is openly discussing making such a move says more about Brentz’s chances than anything else, but his .216/.327/.297 line this spring hasn’t inspired, either.
“We want players to make decisions for us because of how they play,” Huntington said. “We don’t want tiebreakers. Out of options status is a tiebreaker. We still like the power, but with the camp that Osuna is having and his ability to play third, first, and right, with the camp that Jordan is now starting to have — he struggled a little bit early but is now showing the signs that we’ve seen — we’re going to have an interesting decision.”
GETTING THE WORK IN
As Huntington said above, one of the reasons they don’t want to do a ton of bouncing around with young players is that they then lose the ability to get consistent at-bats. Moroff was in an up-and-down role in 2017 and Huntington said that was one of the reasons he was sent down early this year, to get things established at the level he was probably going to end up at anyway.
“With younger players that are getting ready for their seasons, we’re starting to run out of at-bats as the regulars are going deeper into games,” Huntington said. “Rather than carry too many guys and give them one inning here or three innings there or one at-bat, we wanted to get some guys out. In Max’s case, we’ve got some other guys we feel bring a different element, mostly offensive, mostly power off the bench. We like Max a lot and feel he might help this Major League team sooner than later. … With Jordan and Max on the major league club last year as much as they were, you run the risk of stunting a young player’s growth if he’s not getting at-bats.”
KINGHAM STILL A DEPTH OPTION
Nick Kingham was sent down Tuesday after a rough outing Monday, but he’s still in consideration for a role on the team down the road. With the Pirates using Brault and Glasnow out of the bullpen, he’ll likely be the first man recalled in case of a starting pitcher injury.
“We’re pleased with some of the lessons Nick learned this year and how he’s building off some of the things he did a year ago,” Huntington said. “The changeup and curveball are weapons for him. We have an understanding as to why maybe the fastball didn’t play as well yesterday and he’s going to be able to rectify that. He has major league weapons and is a guy we have confidence in to make major league starts or come out of the bullpen if we move one of our young starters who might begin the season in the bullpen into the rotation.”
A BURDI TOLD ME
Injured pitcher Nick Burdi is already on the 60-day disabled list, so he won’t be officially sent down at any point. He’s planning on remaining with the club throughout camp, and then heading over to Pirate City when the big club goes north. That should also coincide with when he starts his mound progression. Right now, he’s just throwing off flat ground.