Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Camp Battles

Going into Florida, the Bucs had just a handful of battles for roster spots. Here's how they've shaken out in the first couple of weeks:

Ins - Lastings Milledge, Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones, Andy LaRoche, Ronny Cedeno, Aki Iwomura, and Ryan Doumit in the lineup; Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, and Charlie Morton in the rotation; the bullpen and bench are discussed later in the post.

Jeff Clement - He's the missing piece. If he shows enough, first base is his for the taking. If not, he still has an option left to polish his game at Indy, which would create a domino effect on the lineup and roster. So far, Clement hasn't hit a lick in Florida.

His line is .130/.217/.286 in 23 at-bats. He's shown a little pop - 2 of his 3 hits have been doubles - and fielded his new position at first adequately. He can pick a throw, not too surprising for a catcher, but hasn't been challenged yet in the field. The bunt is a foreign animal during the spring when the pitchers don't bat.

If he gets sent down, it will be during the final cut, so he still has two and half weeks to get his bat in order. If he can't, the plan is to put Jones at first and take Ryan Church off the pine and start him in right field while changing the bench dynamics.

Jones hasn't hit much better - he's sitting on a .160 average - but he's swatted two homers and driven in seven runs, so he's still legitimate in the middle of the order. Church has had an even rougher start, hitting .158. So no one is really pulling away in this competition; it looks like it will go to the wire.

Ronny Cedeno - This is another spot that is the incumbents to lose. Cedeno has a .235/.278/.471 line, about usual; his MO has been a low average with a little power. Bobby Crosby has been raking, with a .381 average and .952 slugging percentage, with 3 homers, 3 doubles, and nine RBI. That showing hasn't seemed to made much impact on the suits as far as the every-day lineup is concerned, though it makes Ramon Vazquez's spot very iffy on the bench.

Kevin Hart - It was supposed to be a free-for-all with Daniel McCutchen and perhaps dark horse candidate Brad Lincoln for the fifth spot in the rotation. But early in camp, JR was high on Hart, and it appears the suits are going to give him every opportunity to join the pitching staff.

So far, Hart has gotten a pair of starts, and lasted just three innings, giving up seven runs on four hits and seven walks, with just one K. That's an early 21.00 ERA. McCutchen hasn't gotten to start yet, and even worked an intrasquad game to stretch his arm. But in his four innings, he's put together a 2.25 ERA, surrendering three hits, striking out three, and walking nary a soul.

Still, it doesn't look like McCutchen can win the battle alone; it's Hart's to win or lose because the Pirates are so enamored of his stuff. He has three starts left to show he belongs. If a couple of them are decent, he's probably in. Adding to the mix is the early season off days; the Bucs will only need a fifth starter once until late in April.

Hart has an option left, and McCutchen has all three of his available to the team, which at least for this season is a drawback for starting his MLB clock. Lincoln was sent down during the first round of cuts, but he could be back in mid-season to challenge again. They say you never have too much pitching, and this may be one of those situations.

With the early season off-days and because both are seen as starters, the loser isn't likely to stick around as a long man; he'll probably go to Indy and join their rotation.

Catcher - There was never any question here; Doumit da man. But Jason Jaramillo has received amazingly little love, and Eric Kratz has made some noise with his bat. There's been talk of sending JJ down to get everyday work at Indy until the season picks up.

Working against that is that even though Jaramillo has a pair of options remaining, Kratz isn't on the forty man roster, and someone will have to be cut free to make room for him (although a quick back-of-the-envelope look at the current roster shows probably three openings after final cuts, without trades).

Bench - If Clement sticks, Church, Crosby, and a catcher are locks. That leaves two spots. Delwyn Young has been clubbing the ball (.375/.444/.792, 3 HR, 10 RBI) and is out of options, so if the notoriously thin-skinned suits get over his refusal to play winter ball, the switch-hitter is in. Of course, that's if he remains a Pirate; we understand several teams have made inquiries regarding him.

And then there was one. Neil Walker has two options left, and Steve Pearce one, so they'll start at Indy. Vazquez has Crosby and Young ahead of him; his only saving grace is the $2M contract for 2010.

The logical choice to stick is Rule 5 pickup John Raynor, a Punch and Judy hitter with a .421 average so far this spring, and the only true back-up to Andrew McCutchen in center. Brandon Moss has gone 0-for-the spring, but he's out of options, and you know the Pirates would hate to give his potential away for a bag of bullpen balls.

So Raynor-Moss looks like the cage match; winner stays, loser slinks off into the sunset to another organization.

The suits haven't really embraced Raynor (they think he needs more development), and his center field skills could be redundant in a couple of months if Jose Tabata gets his call later this season. On the other hand, the brass love Moss' tools, and like Hart, seem like they're going to give him every benefit of the doubt. Should be an interesting choice.

Of course, there are still the what ifs...what if Clement doesn't earn a spot; what if the Pirates deal a couple of guys (and by next weekend, when rosters are beginning to jell, the GM's will be working the phones hot and heavy; the O's and Rangers are said to have a little interest in Vazquez); what if they work out a deal to keep Raynor, ala Evan Meek...which leads us to the...

Bullpen - Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly, Evan Meek, Javier Lopez and DJ Carrasco appear in; Joel Hanrahan will join them, but not on Opening Day. He hasn't pitched live since injuring his elbow.

On performance, LHP Jack Taschner (0.00 ERA, 10 Ks in 6 innings) and RHP Vinnie Chulk (3.00 ERA, 8 Ks in six innings) have the upper hand. RHPs Brian Bass and Anthony Claggett have been sharp, too, although Claggett is almost certain to end up at Indy again.

This will be an area with lots of changes. Hanrahan will be back early in the season to knock someone out. When Jose Ascanio returns to action, he'll need a spot, too - he's out of options. And they'll have to decide what to do with Tyler Yates later in the summer, when he's ready to work after TJ surgery. Neal Cott and perhaps Craig Hansen should also be ready sometime in 2010. If nothing else, the numbers are there to keep things hopping.

And finally, the fearless Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette has his 25-man roster prognostication in this article.

-- BTW, make sure you check out the other Pirate sites on the blogroll on the right; the guys do a great job. The blogosphere gang has visited Bradenton, done analysis, featured bios, and have the game recaps. It's all good stuff for a Bucco fan.

(Word of caution - the batting averages and ERAs, good, bad or ugly, aren't more than a current snapshot; even GW recognizes that spring training stats are about as meaningful as a promise of "the check is in the mail." Still, it is all we've got to go on, so....)


WilliamJPellas said...

I must say, the suits' attitude toward Raynor is really strange. If they're THAT underwhelmed with the guy, well then: why even bother with blowing a Rule V on him at all? What, they didn't have time to scout him extensively last season? What gives?!?

Ron Ieraci said...

As I recall, Will, Raynor was a fast climber, ala Steve Pearce, before hitting the wall at AAA in '09 (I think he hit .250 or something there) which is what landed him on the Rule 5 list.

The Pirates like reclamation projects; he had speed and some lower-level pedigree, so my guess is that they thought they could coach him up to MLB fifth-outfielder standards.

Tabata has made a good impression in the spring so far, reducing the need for an insurance policy, and they apparently haven't given up on Moss.

And the Bucs do have a ton of outfielders, so I don't really think it makes much difference who gets the last spot this year, though I do hate leaving McCutchen with Milledge as his back-up.

WilliamJPellas said...

Well ya know, speaking of center fielders, this organization developed FOUR over the past six seasons who are ALL playing that position in the big leagues. Odd that such a downtrodden wreck as the Pirates could do so well at any position, but them's the facts. While I was against Nyjer Morgan and Whatsisface (now playing for the A's and stealing huge numbers of bases) playing ahead of Nate McLouth, I was against trading ALL of them and leaving us with McCutchen and nothing else. I'd much rather have held onto McLouth as the left fielder with McCutchen in center, but absent that, either Morgan or that other dude whose name escapes me should have been kept as a fourth or fifth outfielder.

As for Raynor, I dunno. This smells like "we're keeping Moss because if we get rid of him the Bay trade looks even worse" to me. Either that or they just missed with their talent evaluation of Raynor. In any event, they are curiously lukewarm about him despite selecting him in Rule V. Like I said, why bring him here at all if that's the case? Select another arm and try to hide him for a year, or pick somebody else. I'm telling you, this front office, while definitely smart, is also definitely flaky sometimes.

Ron Ieraci said...

I think you're referring to Rajai Davis, Will, who was shipped out for Matt Morris in Littlefield's waning days.

And I do agree that the Bucs don't get much in the way of can't miss prospects. I suspect they're playing a numbers game, knowing some guys will work out and others will fall by the wayside.

WilliamJPellas said...

Yes, Rajai Davis. Again, neither him nor Morgan are world-beaters, but they work just fine for me as fourth outfielders and pinch-runners and defensive replacements. Poor planning on the Pirates' part, as far as I'm concerned, to leave no CF backup behind McCutchen. As you say, they might have in mind to use Tabata in that role, but unless I miss my guess, he's miscast as a CF, though fine as a corner OF.