The decisions left to be made with less than a week of Spring Training remaining aren't as clearcut as usual. There are still 28, maybe even 29 guys who could potentially make the Opening Day 25-man roster. And, according to GM Neal Huntington, the last few decisions may not actually be made until the morning of the first game--a clear attempt to try and increase the chances that those who have to clear waivers actually do. (While I don't actually believe this makes a difference, the general thought is that with so many players being waived, teams are more likely to stay with their own guys unless there is a clear and obvious upgrade. Toss your guys in with the masses and they are going to be less scrutinized. Like I said, I don't buy it. With the sophistication in today's front offices, nothing slides by, but there is no reason not to do it this way.)
Note: This is how I expect the Pirates to construct their roster on OD.
Position Players (13):
Catchers (2): Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart
Straightforward. Cervelli is the starter, Stewart the backup. Both have a history of injury so Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings are virtually certain to see major league action again this year. Diaz may even start the season with the team with Stewart currently nursing a groin injury.
Infielders (8): Josh Bell, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, David Freese, Adam Frazier, John Jaso, Phil Gosselin, Alen Hanson.
I expect the infield to be influx the entire season. Similar to last year, the Bucs will open the season without Jung Ho Kang. Unlike last year, their is no timetable for his return. Josh Bell will be the first baseman, Jordy Mercer the shortstop. The rest is now up in the air.
Adam Frazier's solid 2016 and torrid spring may cause the team to act more quickly than I ever expected. Flashback to 2014 when Josh Harrison forced his way into the lineup, slashing .315/.347/.490 and finishing with a wRC+ of 137 that was third best on the team and top 20 in the NL. Hurdle had to find a spot in the lineup for Harrison and ended up settling on a rotation of 4 starters for 3 positions. Gregory Polanco was struggling in right field and Harrison ended up playing almost every day bouncing between second, third, and right. Like Harrison, I expect Frazier to force the Pirates hand. In fact, regardless of the Kang situation, I expect Frazier to be an everyday starter by the All-Star break, if not May 1. His defense is still below average, but he is already a better hitter than either Freese or Harrison and he is clearly the team's best option to bat leadoff. Harrison and Freese will end up alternating at third with Freese and Jaso backing up Bell at first.
I expect Phil Gosselin to make the team and play a role like Sean Rodriguez last year. Unfortunately I expect Gosselin to be much more 2014 SRod rather than 2016 SRod. He is probably the backup shortstop when Mercer needs a game off every three weeks, but like SRod, he isn't well-suited to the position. If Mercer were to go down for an extended stretch, Huntington might be actually be forced to turn to Gift Ngoepe or look for help outside the organization. Kang was originally slated to get 20-25 starts at shortstop this year, but that obviously isn't happening.
That leaves the 13th spot to Alen Hanson. If we have learned nothing else during Neal Huntington's tenure as GM, it's that he is very reluctant to willingly give up assets. Hanson is out of options. After a breakout minor league season in 2012, Hanson shot up the prospect rankings. But he has yet to break through. His inconsistent glove forced him off shortstop and now his best opportunity is likely to come with another organization. That this is only his age 24 season still works in his favor, but time is running short. Last week it was reported the Pirates were shopping Hanson, but no team is going to trade anything of value knowing the Pirates predicament. At some point this year, the Pirates are going to DFA Hanson and he probably gets claimed. I just don't think it will happen in the next week. He'll be on his first Opening Day roster on Monday. And I'm guessing it will be his only one with the Pirates. I don't see him getting any meaningful playing time barring multiple injuries.
Jose Osuna is the odd man out here. A bat-first, corner guy (all corner guys are bat-first, right?) Osuna has torn it up for the second straight spring. The schedule makers could have done him a favor by giving the Pirates two days off the opening week. Then the team could have skipped its fifth starter and taken Osuna north to Boston where they will open the season using a DH. Alas it is not to be as the Bucs will need their fifth starter in week one. Two months younger than Hanson and never considered a big-time prospect, Osuna has opened eyes with his bat over the past year. He'll make his major league debut this season, it just won't be on Opening Day.
Outfielders (3): Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen
It's a helluva trio and if all had performed to their ceilings it could have been one of the best outfields the game had ever seen. Alas, that appears wishful thinking as this is almost certainly their last season together. This year the defense has been realigned. I don't see how that can be anything but positive. But it is the trio's offense that will likely determine the Bucs' playoff chances. Polanco was en fuego during the World Baseball Classic and arguably the Dominican's best player, but is currently nursing a shoulder injury. He struggled big-time in the second half last year and has yet to put together a full season. Marte is one of the most athletically-gifted players in the game, but can he take that next step and be the top-5 MVP candidate I've been predicting the past two years? McCutchen's story has been the most-documented in the game the past nine months. His dropoff last year was unprecedented as Dave Schoenfield noted. But Dave's article coincided almost exactly with Cutch's return from a three-day unplugging (benching) Clint Hurdle gave him in Atlanta. From that point on he hit .284/.381/.471, virtually identical to his career numbers. The performance bell curve for this group is flatter than you might think.
My thoughts on Neal Huntington are well-documented. I think he's done an outstanding job overall, particularly with the limited resources he's been allocated. But, this is a spot where I'm sure he'd like to undo a trade he made after the 2015 season. Huntington traded outfielder Keon Broxton and reliever Trey Supak to the Brewers for Jason Rogers. I'm sure the Pirates viewed Rogers as a mix of Jose Osuna and Phil Gosselin. A bat-first player with some major league pedigree who could give them some right-handed power off the bench. It didn't work out. Rogers never did anything with the team last year, was DFA'd and signed with the team on a minor league deal. He's been injured most of the spring. Broxton had a great second half for the Brewers posting a .937 OPS with eight homers and 16 stolen bases in 169 plate appearances before fracturing his right wrist mid-September. He would be the ideal fourth outfielder for this team. Last year Matt Joyce fell into their lap and gave them outstanding, cheap produciton. Now they are going to be throwing utility infielders out there when the Big 3 need a day off. Not ideal.
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