The Pittsburgh Pirates could look to these three options to serve as a potential ’26th man.’
Like many teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates are awaiting the new Collective Bargaining Agreement currently being squabbled over by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Player’s Association.
Numerous reports have indicated that one of the measures most likely to be adopted would be the expansion of rosters by one player in 2017. This would bring the current everyday total roster sizes to 26, up from 25. From Ken Rosenthal’s original report:
The players and owners are discussing the expansion of rosters from 25 players to 26 in exchange for September roster limits, according to sources familiar with the collective-bargaining negotiations. Under the current rules, teams on Sept. 1 increase their 25-man active roster to the entire 40-man roster. The new limit likely would be 28, and the rules would permit teams to swap out players, though not on a daily basis, one source said.
How would the Pirates utilize the extra spot should it come to fruition? Here is a look at several possibilities.
A Sixth Starter
It has become a well known axiom in baseball that a quality starting rotation is not strictly five men deep, but rather six or seven. Whether due to injury or ineffectiveness, the need for starting pitching depth extends beyond the five currently designated as “starters.”
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation was a mess at times last year, but they had fantastic depth at the minor league level. Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl eventually found their way into the rotation on a permanent basis, and the team saw starts from Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow and Wilfredo Boscan.
There is a distinct possibility that the Pirates could use a 26th spot specifically for a sixth depth-type starter. This would not mean that the club would convert to a six-man rotation, but rather this spot could be a starter that could pitch in long relief, much as Jeff Locke or Juan Nicasio did in 2016.
While the concept of a starter who can pitch long relief innings is nothing new, using the 26th spot for a designated starting pitcher could allow the club to “schedule in” spot starts without making roster moves, allowing the ability to keep starters such as Gerrit Cole and Taillon fresh. There would be a challenge to get this theoretical pitcher enough innings to stay fresh, but the benefits could outweigh those hurdles.
Another Bench Bat; Early Callup?
When the Pittsburgh Pirates added 1B/OF Jose Osuna to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, I felt that it to be very telling.
While the concept of a starter who can pitch long relief innings is nothing new, using the 26th spot for a designated starting pitcher could allow the club to “schedule in” spot starts.
Slated to become a minor league free agent should he remain unprotected, Osuna’s stock rose high enough to remain with the club on the back of a .787 OPS between Altoona and Indianapolis last season. Perhaps most encouragingly, his OPS actually rose to .815 at Triple-A, showing a solid ability to adjust to the next level of pitching.
It would be hard to project that the Pirates might bring Osuna up for the 26th spot specifically, but as it stands now he could serve as a useful bench player. He struck out just 16 percent of the time in 220 at-bats in Indy, showing solid plate discipline. That fact combined with his multi-positional ability could be enough to put him on the
25 26-man roster.
We also cannot completely put aside the notion that the Pirates could use the new spot on an early call up for prospects such as Austin Meadows. Though the Pirates would be reluctant to give up service time in the case of one of their prized prospects, they could potentially bring a bat such as Meadows up for an extended one, or two-week stay. Last year, the team brought up Josh Bell right before the All-Star break due to injury, and felt the need to send him right back down. With an extra spot, that pressure to keep the club in balance would be gone, allowing for the prospect called up to stay up even a bit longer.
Another Relief Arm
Of course, the most conventional use for a 26th man would be for a relief arm. The Pittsburgh Pirates have several intriguing options at the minor league level should they choose to go this route.
The club has protected Clay Holmes and Dovydas Neverauskas. Of the two, Neverauskas has the clearest path to make the jump, though relief pitchers historically fare better in jumping up more than one level to the Major Leagues than many other players. There could also be a free-agent relief arm thrown into this spot as well. The options here are myriad, so we won’t waste much more time running through them. But, another bullpen arm would give Clint Hurdle another option in a relief corps that is looking to get back to its glory days.
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