When I first started writing this, I felt safe in saying that there would at least be some kind of baseball season, mostly because I thought if nothing else one was going to be implemented. Then Monday evening happened, and can we really say with any kind of certainly there will be? With so many dueling offers, letters, and apparent support emails, it is hard to keep everything straight. But one aspect of an eventual baseball season that has had my attention since the beginning is the idea of a taxi squad, so I want to forget about all the acrimony and focus on this baseball topic for a moment.
From the start, implementing a taxi squad—essentially a group of extra players to pull from in case a roster need arises—for this season has been assumed, for several reasons. One, players have been idle since baseball came to a standstill, so more players will need to be available to compensate. Also, with the 99.9% chance that minor league games will be cancelled this season—see, I know how to use percentages Rob—and the need to keep as many available players in one place due to health concerns, a taxi squad certainly makes the most sense.
For a while, nothing concrete was presented. Active rosters of thirty with an extra twenty players available was floated for a time, but it wasn’t until MLB’s most recent 72-game proposal that ESPN’s Jeff Passan came out with the most specific structure yet:
Under MLB’s proposal, rosters would expand to 30 for the first two weeks, 28 for the two weeks thereafter and 26 for the remainder of the season. Each team would keep a group of 60 players to use throughout the season — the majority forming the so-called taxi squad.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 12, 2020
I had already thought a lot about this—who makes the squad, what is the makeup like, what rules affect it, etc.?—but Baseball America’s recent story really got me into the idea of building a taxi squad for the (presumed) Pittsburgh Pirates’ season.
First, I had to build a 30-man roster to meet Passan’s first criterion, as this would affect the makeup of the rest of the 40-man roster and subsequently the additional twenty entrants of the practice squad. My roster is as follows:
Catchers (3): Luke Maile, John Ryan Murphy, Jacob Stallings
Infielders (8): Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, Erik González, Colin Moran, Kevin Newman, José Osuna, JT Riddle, Cole Tucker
Outfielders (4): Jarrod Dyson, Guillermo Heredia, Gregory Polanco, Bryan Reynolds
Pitchers (15): Steven Brault, Nick Burdi, Kyle Crick, Robbie Erlin, Michael Feliz, Derek Holland, Clay Holmes, Keone Kela, Mitch Keller, Chad Kuhl, Joe Musgrove, Richard Rodríguez, Edgar Santana, Chris Stratton, Trevor Williams
After this, four players in total would need optioned after a month, so I worked off that and assumed a taxi squad of 34 players. I broke them into three categories:
Tier 1 – Ready to recall: These would be players who would be readily available and called up first, either because they’ve been there before, they are ready to go, there’s not much development left, and the team just knows what they have.
Tier 2 – Projects, but could be ready to recall eventually: This is a group that still needs some seasoning, but it wouldn’t hurt to call them up in a pinch, or when the team simply feels they are ready—even though with no games going on, it’s unclear how that would become apparent.
Tier 3 – Projects, don’t activate for any reason: When some first started ruminating over who would be included on a theoretical taxi squad, they included top-level prospects who simply needed crucial development time that would be lost in 2020. I never saw that, mostly because fifty was too small a number and service time could potentially be an issue. Then, Baseball America described in the aforementioned piece what was basically an environment where simulated games would “provide an outlet for top prospects to continue playing while giving MLB teams a source to call players up from during the season.” Basically, the best of both worlds—a group of players to pick from when a need at the Major League level arises, as well as a development opportunity for top prospects that aren’t to that point yet. Therefore, they wouldn’t see the active roster at all; they would simply be around for development purposes, as moving up to the bigs would likely be too much too quickly.
Of course, there are rules we don’t know that would affect the make-up of the group: options, service-time, outright assignments, pay, etc. For this exercise, I assumed that the remaining 40-man roster would automatically make the taxi squad, with players not on the active roster needing to have options to be “sent down”. All other players would need their contracts selected in order to be added to the active roster, starting/continuing service time clocks in the process.
After scouring the organizational depth-chart, here is what I came up with. Players denoted with an asterisk are on the 40-man roster in this scenario. Feel free to react in the comments, letting me know what you think, as well as who you would have left off or included. It’s a fun exercise to undertake and many could use that with baseball right now.
Tier 1 (12): Socrates Brito, Montana DuRapau, Phillip Evans, Ke’Bryan Hayes*, Sam Howard*, Williams Jerez, Kuhl*, Maile*, Hector Noesí, Yacksel Ríos*, Santana*, Andrew Susac
This group includes three of the four players—Kuhl, Maile, and Santana—optioned to meet the eventual 26-man requirement. I chose Kuhl and Santana due to easing them back from Tommy John, as well as because they are the ones with options remaining, which is the same reason Maile will be the catcher shuttled up and down if need be. It was clear Hayes wasn’t starting the season in Pittsburgh before the stoppage in play, and I don’t foresee him making the roster as an extra player either, mostly because of service time—however that plays out.
All of the remaining players the Pirates brought in on minor league contracts over the offseason—save for one—are included here, as they survived the roster exodus for a reason.
This group includes two catchers, three infielders/outfielders, and seven pitchers.
Tier 2 (12): JT Brubaker*, Blake Cederlind*, Will Craig*, Miguel Del Pozo, Geoff Hartlieb*, Jason Martin*, James Marvel, Jared Oliva, Cody Ponce*, Tucker*, Nik Turley, Blake Weiman
Tucker is the final extra player to be optioned down in this scenario. Six players here already have seen limited major league action, while the likes of Brubaker, Cederlind, and Craig were likely to get looks at some point this season. Turley received some positive looks in Spring Training and the Pirates have stuck with him the past two seasons through injury and suspension, which is why I included him here.
I recently named Oliva and Weiman as the two players I saw being added to the roster to protect in the theoretical 2020 Rule 5 Draft, so their inclusion here seemed reasonable as well.
This group includes four infielders/outfielders and eight pitchers.
Tier 3 (10): Cody Bolton, Oneil Cruz*, Christian Kelley, Brennan Malone, Nick Mears, Arden Pabst/Jason Delay, Liover Peguero, Quinn Priester, Travis Swaggerty, and Tahnaj Thomas
The easy names here were obviously Cruz—as he’s on the 40-man—as well as Mears and the two catchers. Kelley was still in camp when it was suspended, and I couldn’t pick between Pabst and Delay, so choose your favorite for yourself. Mears was making a strong impression in camp this season, which is why I included him.
The presence of Cruz in this tier may rankle some, but I personally think he’s too far away to be considered at the moment. All the talk about him making the majors in 2020 seemed too much for me during Spring Training, but with even less chance for much needed at bats and development I don’t see a need to rush anything in whatever truncated, crazy season ends up happening.
The rest is where it got difficult; I was essentially left to pick from a group of prospects to try and get some development time, as there wasn’t much left to choose from in the organizational depth chart. I started my way up the top prospect lists, focusing on who had yet to be included. Pitching mostly won out, with Bolton being the closest to the majors, as well as including much of the likely ballyhooed Greensboro rotation. It would be nice to see these pitchers get some simulated innings, and I jumped a couple spots to include Swaggerty, partly to even out the position player/pitcher mix a bit. In total, thirteen of the top sixteen prospects from the preseason 2020 Prospect Guide ended up among the sixty available players, so at least it could result in some fashion of baseball for top prospects in 2020.
This group includes two catchers, three infielders/outfielders, and five pitchers.
In total, the balance seems solid. Twenty-four of the thirty-four players are in Tiers 1 and 2, meaning fifty players would be available for the regular season. By my count, the Pirates used fifty-seven players during an injury-riddled 2019, so this mostly checks out.
Twenty of the thirty-four are pitchers, with the position player group made up of four catchers—or one for every five pitchers—and ten infielders/outfielders. If anything, there may be too many pitchers, with Tiers 1 and 2 having fifteen versus nine position players; however, there wasn’t much left to choose from, with Hunter Owen and Stephen Alemais being the only position players remaining from the likely Indianapolis roster.
Call me crazy, but the potential taxi squad would be one of my favorite Pirates’ storylines in 2020, not only to see their strategy, but because now I have pride and bragging rights on the line.