A sad reality of professional baseball, and one that Pittsburgh Pirate fans know all too well, is illustrated well in the blockbuster film Bull Durham. For every Nuke LaLoosh there are ten Crash Davises. While in the end Davis gets the girl, he also spends his career as a proverbial Quad A player. The Pirates have a glut of these types of assets. Choices the Bucs make on free agent signings, trades and the new player evaluation system will cause some to, at least for now, miss out on their dream. Some may never be able to get a foothold in the league and will become another Steve Pearce story.
Today, let’s examine some players who are riding the fence and the factors they must overcome to make the club in 2020. Some will have options, others are beyond that and they either make the club or face the waiver wire. I’m going to address some players that could make a push.
Contract Status: Arb Eligible 2020 (Free Agent 2023)
Position(s): 3B, SS, 2B, Utility
Players Involved: Colin Moran, Jose Osuna, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Kevin Kramer, Pablo Reyes, Cole Tucker
Erik was injured early in the 2019 campaign after winning the competition to start at short stop for the Pirates in the Spring. Upon his return to the lineup at-bats were hard to come by as Kevin Newman had put a strangle hold on the position. Late in the season the Pirates started giving Erik starts at third and as a defensive replacement for Colin Moran. There is a chance that he could be a nice option in a platoon with Moran if the hot bat he showed in the last three weeks was more than an illusion created by facing inferior, September call-up pitching. There is a significant power drop off, however, and for a corner position it might just be too big.
Prediction: Erik’s lack of options, years of control and position flexibility make him impossible to cut loose without at least giving him a real chance. I don’t think he is a big contributor to the cause in 2020 but, I also don’t see him clearing waivers. I believe the Pirates will at least enter next season with Erik as the ‘super utility’ guy. Trading him would be tough. If I can see the Bucs are in this position on the player, so do other teams. Why trade when you can get him for free?
Contract Status: Pre-Arb Eligible (Free Agent 2024)
Position(s): 1B, 3B, RF, LF
Players Involved: Colin Moran, Erik Gonzalez, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Kevin Kramer, Pablo Reyes, Jason Martin, Gregory Polanco
Jose has been a solid option off the bench for much of the last two seasons. Providing power and an uncanny ability to pinch hit. He is the team’s best defensive first baseman and handled the hot corner well also. His outfield options are limited by his lack of range, but he is a capable fielder with an underrated arm. The cavernous dimensions of left field at PNC Park give me pause to expose him at the position for long. As Starling Marte is a potential trade chip it’s important to keep in mind how much territory he covers in the gaps. If Marte is moved and Bryan Reynolds replaces him in center it will become harder to hide marginal fielders in the corners.
Prediction: Jose will make the club, no matter who is moved or signed. I see him as a virtual lock and, the question marks Polanco will enter next season facing will only entrench me further in that belief. His power is promising and if the Pirates can ever find a place for him to contribute more frequently it’s not inconceivable to see him as a 20-25 home run contributor. A team starved for power is not going to expose a player like this.
Contract Status: Arb Eligible 2022 (Free Agent 2025)
Players Involved: Jose Osuna, Kevin Kramer, Pablo Reyes, Gregory Polanco
Jason flashed some interesting skills and production early in his first call up to the show. When you consider the Pirates had him rated above Bryan Reynolds when 2019 started, one would tend to hope he is somewhere near that level. If he is, we haven’t seen it and with as many players as there are to jump, he could have a hard time making the club. As with Osuna, Marte’s status on the club will affect him greatly, as will questions with Polanco. Jason is a better defender than anyone on the roster aside from Reynolds and Marte so at the very least he would provide some solid play in the field if called upon.
Prediction: This is as 50/50 as it gets, but I’m leaning toward a AAA start to 2020 for Martin. He is a talented player and his late season injury in 2019 did him no favors in getting his footing on the club.
Contract Status: Arb Eligible 2022 (Free Agent 2025)
Position(s): 2B, SS, LF, RF
Players Involved: Jose Osuna, Jason Martin, Pablo Reyes, Erik Gonzalez, Cole Tucker
Visions of Kramer and Newman as the double play partner since they started developing chemistry together in Altoona, but Cole Tucker and Newman both jumped in front of the promising rookie. Kevin tried his hand in the outfield in 2019 as a September call up and, at times, looked exactly how you’d imagine an infielder playing left field. Given time he could develop into a capable corner outfielder, but it would be best if that didn’t happen at the MLB level.
Prediction: Kramer is a solid prospect and very capable middle infielder, but I don’t see him making the club without some big subtractions from the roster via trade or injury. He will definitely start in AAA and I don’t even see him as the first call up option. This should in no way reflect on his talent, but it’s a numbers game. If I put him next to Gonzalez, I’d pick Kramer every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Contract Status: No MLB Clock
Players Involved: Colin Moran, Erik Gonzalez, Kevin Kramer, Pablo Reyes, Jose Osuna
The Pirates number one prospect is probably also the most interesting question they face this Spring. Hayes is an immediate upgrade over every option on the roster at the hot corner. He won a gold glove last season for his defensive prowess and his bat is finally coming along as well. He is the future at the position but Colin Moran, like it or not, has contributed mightily to the offensive attack and the Pirates might be loathed to move on from him even given his defensive deficiencies. They could decide the future is now and muscle out Moran who could be attractive in a trade as he once was to Pittsburgh.
Prediction: I think the Pirates will let Ke’Bryan start in AAA next season. It won’t have anything to do with Super 2 status, but it will feel that way as I see him forcing his way onto the club at some point with a little help from Moran’s glove.
Contract Status: Pre-Arb Eligible
Position(s): SS, 2B
Players Involved: Erik Gonzalez, Kevin Kramer, Pablo Reyes
Cole Tucker showed some flashes in 2019. Defensively he is every bit the player his pedigree would lead you to expect. A switch hitter, Cole is versatile and will help this team in 2020. He’s just too developed to spend an entire season at AAA. Again, a numbers game is at play and Cole needs some dominoes to fall his way to make the club straight out of Spring. That said, I think the opportunity is there for him to grab a spot.
Prediction: I believe Cole will start in AAA unless Erik Gonzalez has a disastrous Spring. I do believe he has a chance by simply outplaying Gonzalez, but it needs to be a wide enough margin that the decision makes itself.
Contract Status: Pre-Arb Eligible
Position(s): Super Utility
Players Involved: Erik Gonzalez, Kevin Kramer, Cole Tucker, Jason Martin, Jose Osuna
Pablo has been a fun story. Exciting at times but primarily exactly what he profiles as, a capable fielder with the ability to steal you a base and get a knock often enough to keep getting chances. Problem is, he isn’t elite in any one area. For every place you can name on the field the Pirates, prior to making any moves, have at least two stronger options.
Prediction: Well, no sense in dancing around it, I don’t see Pablo as having a snowball’s chance on the beach in Bradenton of making the club in 2020. Of course, the Bucs could clean house and he becomes a necessity.
Player decisions are never as easy. The business side of the game comes into play in a very visible way when determining the future of these players. For the Pirates, many choices will need to be made on a purely baseball basis - a luxury not many clubs share. Everyone wants to see players ready to contribute get the opportunity at the big-league level but, sometimes fortune only shines on those who go and get it.
Of the players we covered today I give Cole Tucker and Ke’Bryan Hayes the best chance of doing exactly that. Improvement can come from developing the skill sets of a player, but far more often, it comes from an infusion of superior talent. When the time comes to choose keeping a player like Erik Gonzalez over giving Hayes a chance, the Pirates should not allow team control to make up the lion’s share of the decision.
A team that lost 93 games and finished dead last in its division should not enter the following year with the same roster and expect different results. The Pirates would do well to be bold and if someone more equipped to help the team win is currently in AAA, correct the situation no matter the cost.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007