This Spring Training, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a number of opportunities for young players and veterans to make a case for the 2019 opening day roster. As Opening Day approaches, Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle will have to make a few tough decisions.
There was plenty of competition this Spring for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their players, and with any competition there are always winners and losers. As Opening Day approaches, there are still a lot of question marks that the Pirates will need to answer in-season with how they play the game. Who will be the fifth starting pitcher? Will Jung ho Kang return to form? What will the bench look like? Who’s in the bullpen?
These were the same questions being asked in October as the Pirates watched the post-season once again from the comfort of their couches. Neal Huntington seemed to answer some of these questions by crowning Kang as the Opening Day third-baseman and athletic infielder Erik Gonzalez as the starting shortstop.
Questions still remain for both the bench and the bullpen. So, in order to figure this mess out, let’s take a look at who the winners and losers are for the Pirates this spring as we preview the 2019 campaign. I’ve only included in this list those players who certainly had a clear path to the big leagues and excluded players like Mitch Keller and Rookie Davis who generally weren’t expected to crack the top-25.
After a merely average rookie campaign, Colin Moran entered the Spring with higher expectations after slashing .272/.330/.411 with just 11 home runs and 54 RBIs from the hot corner and ranking among the bottom in defensive metrics around the league. However, it was still his position to lose and he did just that. Moran will be moved to a bench role where he will most likely split time backing up Kang at third and Josh Bell at first.
Steven Brault & Nick Kingham
Entering the Spring, Steven Brault and Nick Kingham were competing with newly signed free agent reliever Jordan Lyles for the fifth spot in the Pirates rotation. After posting 4.32 ERA and 4.35 ERA respectively, both Brault and Kingham failed to make enough noise take the position away from Lyles who, despite a high ERA, had the inside track to the position due to a mid-season adjustment that saw him improve not only his ERA, but his FIP and K% in the second half. Expect him to be the 5th starter to start the season.
For Kingham, who is out of options, not much is known at this point as to what the Pirates plan to do. It seems most likely that the Pirates will add Kingham to the pen, joining Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela, Richard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi, and Francisco Liriano.
For Brault, who still has options, it seems likely that he will be optioned to Triple-A. It doesn’t seem likely that Tyler Lyons will make the roster, however, meaning the Pirates could take an 8th reliever if necessary. Yet, with Brault’s performance to date, it seems like a better idea to start him in the minors and go with just 7.
With a crowd of players in the outfield and at the corners of the infield, the odd-man out is Jose Osuna. He has failed to make even a whimper this spring after batting below .200 and will certainly not make the club at the beginning of the season. For Osuna, his time in Pittsburgh may finally be up.
As I mentioned earlier, it is highly doubtful that the Pirates will keep Lyons on the 25-man roster. Lyons has a 8.38 ERA this spring and with the addition of Francisco Liriano, Lyons usage as a lefty-reliever seems unneeded at this point.
Coming over with Moran from Houston, the strong throwing reliever Michael Feliz was expected to be a strong addition to the bullpen. It hasn’t worked out that way. After a dismal 2018 campaign followed by a poor spring, Feliz has failed to nudge his way back into the pen and will start his season in Triple-A.
Coming into Spring Training, Gonzalez, who has spent time in Cleveland as a utility infielder, was given the opportunity to win the starting shortstop position. His competition was top prospect Kevin Newman. Due to his slick glove and athleticism, Gonzalez beat out Newman for the position and will join Kang on what should be a very good defensive left infield for the Buccos.
Jung Ho Kang
After being away from the game for two plus season, Kang came into Spring Training with something to prove. After cranking 7 home runs including a walk-off grand slam, Kang has shown that his power potential is still there. On defense, he outperformed struggling Moran to claim third base for the beginning part of the season.
After signing with the Pirates on a minor league deal, Melky Cabrera earned a spot on the Opening Day roster. He provides versatility in the outfield, being the best option to back Starling Marte in center, and has proven his strong contact ability is still there after posting a .300+ batting average this spring. Cabrera will join Lonnie Chisenhall and more than likely Pablo Reyes to back the outfield before Gregory Polanco returns.
Like Cabrera, Liriano returned to the Pirates on a minor league deal with a shot at the major league roster. Liriano proved to be reliable this spring and seems to be a better long-relief and left-handed option when compared to Brault and Lyons.
After a hot September debut and a strong spring, Reyes has more than earned a spot in the Pirates lineup as an every-other-day utility man after posting an .857 OPS in Spring Training. This is the final card for the Pirates, who will have to run with a 5-man bench that will include Reyes, Cabrera, Moran, Newman, and Jacob Stallings.