The Pirates have what seems like half of their roster on the Injured List, including starters Gregory Polanco, Corey Dickerson, and key bench players Elias Diaz, Kevin Newman, and Lonnie Chisenhall.
Several of those players are close to a return to the big leagues, currently on rehab assignments. That rehab list now includes Chisenhall, who joined the Indianapolis roster today. Chisenhall joins Polanco and Diaz on the Triple-A roster, putting all three of those players a step away. They could be joined by Newman and Dickerson not long after their returns.
All of this raises the question as to what will happen with the MLB roster when these players return. Inevitably, there will be more injuries in the future, which will answer these questions. But let’s take a look at who would be in line to go down to Triple-A if all of the above players returned and everyone on the big league roster was healthy.
The Easy Decisions
The Pirates would need five roster spots, and only three decisions stand out as easy ones right now: Pablo Reyes, Jason Martin, and Steven Brault.
Pablo Reyes is struggling at the plate, and his versatility is his key asset to the team right now. However, Newman’s return would take away his value in the middle infield spots, and the return of the outfielders would remove his need at those spots. Without the offense he showed last year, he would be an easy decision for a guy to send down.
Likewise, it would be an easy decision to send Jason Martin down, due to all of the outfield options the Pirates would have.
Finally, Steven Brault would be an easy decision from the pitching staff, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go down when Chris Archer returns, keeping the pitching staff at 12 guys.
This leaves three more spots needed for the returning players.
The Difficult Decisions
One of the more exciting parts about the Pirates this year is that they’re off to a 10-6 start, first place in the NL Central, and this all has come without guys who were expected to be some of their best position players.
The other part of that is they have several guys on the bench who are producing and/or have value to the team who would be difficult decisions to send down. This is a good problem to have.
The easiest of the difficult decisions would be sending down JB Shuck. He’s productive off the bench so far, with a .762 OPS that is fueled by a .429 OBP. He’s drawn a lot of walks, but it’s hard to see him keeping that pace, and his overall value will be low without power or a high average to complement the lack of walks when he sees an eventual decline. Even if the decline in walks doesn’t happen, the Pirates would have Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Corey Dickerson, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Melky Cabrera ahead of him, making him the sixth best outfielder.
Shuck is out of options, but perhaps the Pirates could keep him around in Triple-A if no other team wanted to take on his $700,000 salary. That doesn’t seem like much, but it happens pretty frequently that a salary a bit above the league minimum would be prohibitive for a bench guy like Shuck.
The next decision would focus on Jung Ho Kang. He’s not off to a good start, and Colin Moran is off to a good start. The Pirates would have Lonnie Chisenhall as a backup option at third base if Moran needs a break, and would allow Kang to work on his game in the minors, trying to cut down on the strikeouts and improve his average without sacrificing his power.
I think many would say that Erik Gonzalez should go down. The key difference here is that Gonzalez is out of options, so sending him down would risk losing him. Kang has options remaining, so the Pirates could keep him around. And while neither player is hitting, Gonzalez has a higher OPS than Kang, showing why Kang makes more sense as the guy on the outside of this equation.
The final spot needed would ultimately come down to what the Pirates were going to do at the catcher position. They’ve got Jacob Stallings as their backup right now, although he’s the number three catcher behind Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz. He’s in line to be the backup to Diaz after the 2019 season, and is the best depth option for the Pirates this year.
The problem is that he’s out of options, and could be at risk of being lost on waivers if the Pirates let him go. The difficult decision here is that if you keep three catchers, you’d have to make a decision on one of your other bench players. The only ones who would make sense would be either Gonzalez or Newman, with the other player remaining in the majors as the regular starter. That would also leave the Pirates without a backup middle infielder.
It might make sense to risk Stallings here, with the hope that his poor offense this year turns teams off enough to allow him to pass through waivers and be kept around in Triple-A.