BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates bench battle got a bit clearer on Saturday, as the Pirates optioned outfielder Jordan Luplow to Triple-A Indianapolis.
Luplow, who was sent down along with catcher Jacob Stallings and relievers Tyler Jones and Richard Rodriguez, was the one of three players still in camp battling for the Pirates final bench spot.
Backup catcher Elias Diaz, infielder David Freese, and utilitymen Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez have four bench spots locked down. With Luplow’s dismissal, it’ll come down to Bryce Brentz and Jose Osuna for the final spot.
“We’re still working through that,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “That’s part of the reason we made the move with Jordan today. We’ve got a couple of other guys that we feel can do a nice job and allow us to continue to develop Jordan.”
Or maybe it won’t. Huntington is still considering starting the season with 13 pitchers and 12 hitters on the roster, which would mean that neither Brentz nor Osuna would make the team. Brentz is out of options and would have to be placed on waivers.
As for Luplow, he’ll go down and be an everyday starter at Triple-A. While he was given the opportunity to make the team, that was probably the most realistic outcome for him this spring. Luplow spent 2017 rocketing through the minors, playing 73 games in Altoona, 44 in Indianapolis, and 27 with Pittsburgh.
That means that he only has 182 at-bats at the Triple-A level, and he could probably use the fine-tuning. He hit .205/.276/.385 (660 OPS) in the majors last year and while he had four home runs this spring to lift his slugging percentage to .579 and OPS to 804, his batting average was .237.
“(He was) a guy that had about 175 plate appearances in Triple-A when we called him to the big leagues last year,” Huntington said. “That’s quick for us, so the opportunity to go play was as important,” Huntington said. “The alternatives we have in camp do help, and we can allow him to go out and continue his growth and development on all areas.”
He hit .277, 264, and .254 in his first three seasons in the minors, so he has the ability to hit for a higher average. But he also hit six, 12, and 10 home runs in those seasons. In 2017, Luplow was able to add power (he hit 23 homers in the minors) without hurting his average (.302). That’s the formula he’s going to need to repeat in order to be successful.
“My goal is to be a good hitter with power,” Luplow said. “We talked about that in the meeting and that’s what I’m going to strive to do.”
IN THE PEN
Jones and Rodriguez were seen as long shots to make the team anyway, so Saturday’s moves don’t really change the complexion of the bullpen battle, but there was some other news that might. Huntington said that left-handed veteran Kevin Siegrist might not be ready for Opening Day after getting a late start on his throwing program.
“We’re just working through how ready he’s going to be on Opening Day to potentially help the Major League team, or is there some more time that he and we could benefit from potentially in Triple-A as he continues to build arm strength and as he continues to refine his weapons?” Huntington said.
If Siegrist doesn’t make the club out of camp, that would seemingly open the door for fellow lefty Josh Smoker. Kyle Crick, Jordan Milbrath, Dovydas Neverauskas and Edgar Santana are battling for a second spot. Huntington said the thing the team is looking for someone who can get them through multiple innings.
“Most of our relievers, their struggles have been when we’ve asked them to go that second inning, which is going to be important for us,” Huntington said.
Huntington said that the team still hasn’t made a decision on Rule 5 pick Milbrath, who also could be an option, especially if the Pirates choose to take 13 pitchers. That would mean that two of the above right-handers could make the club.
With most the entire Triple-A rotation down at Pirate City, it makes sense for Stallings, who will be the primary catcher in Indianapolis, to go down to work with them. But it was an impressive spring for Stallings at the plate. He hit .368/.455/.474 for a 929 OPS and didn’t strike out in 19 at-bats.
“He continues to improve offensively,” Huntington said. “He continues to shine defensively in terms of his blocking, his game-calling. The throwing continues to get better, and we have complete comfort that he can come up and do a job for us if we have a need.”
The Pirates brought Daniel Nava back into camp on a minor-league deal as he rehabs his back injury. Certain minor-league free agents that remain on the roster as of Saturday will be due a $100,000 retention bonus. That won’t include Nava, and is probably one of the reasons the Pirates re-worked his contract.