Pittsburgh Pirates: Offseason 40-Man Roster Crunch is Looming

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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Pittsburgh Pirates
Indianapolis centerfielder Travis Swaggerty hit a leadoff home run to start the game against Iowa at Principal Park in Des Moines on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.20210504 Iowacubs /

The Pittsburgh Pirates will have a handful of 40-man roster decisions to make in the near future, so let’s take an early look at some of these potential decisions

The Pittsburgh Pirates may have a dilemma on their hands in the next few months. They have a handful of players who will be Rule 5 eligible but can protect them from being selected by placing them on the 40-man roster. Some of their more noteworthy prospects may be exposed to the draft, so the team will need to find a way to make room for them.

It’s a bit early, but I still think it’s important to get an idea of what the 40-man roster looks like, what players not on it that are locks to be selected or left off, as well as players who are on the fringe and could be removed by being designated for assignment, or outright release.

Locks to be added to the 40-man roster

Outfield prospect Travis Swaggerty is an automatic lock to get protected. The 2018 first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates had a solid 2019 season where he had a .341 wOBA and 121 wRC+ at High-A Bradenton. Swaggerty got off to a slow start in 2019, but hit well from mid-June onward, having a .306/.375/.430 line, .373 wOBA, and 141 wRC+ through his final 235 plate appearances of the season.

Swaggerty completely skipped Double-A this season and jumped directly into Triple-A action where he did solid. He hit .220/.333/.439 with 4 home runs in 48 plate appearances. Overall, he had a .772 OPS, .343 wOBA, and 107 wRC+.

While the average isn’t very pretty, he got on base a lot and showed some good power. He also struck out less than 18% of the time (16.7%) while having a 12.5% walk rate. Not bad for a guy who completely skipped Double-A, but those numbers don’t tell the full story. Swaggerty got extremely unlucky with a .200 batting average on balls in play, lower than his actual batting average. While it is just 48 trips to the plate and BAbip needs a much larger sample size to get a better reading, that’s very unlucky no matter how you spin it. Once you look at his batted ball rates, it’s even more impressive as to how low that BAbip is. He had a 26.7% line drive rate and ground ball rate of just 36.7%.

Swaggerty had always been praised for his raw power. FanGraphs sees his raw power as a 60-grade tool. Though he didn’t show it much in 2019, he started to put on a good power display this year. Along with his 4 home runs, he had a strong .220 isolated slugging percentage. Yes, very small sample size, but a promising one at that. Swaggerty looked like he was on pace for an early-May promotion to the majors, maybe even sooner. But shoulder surgery derailed his season. He should be back next year fully healthy.

Considering he could be a starting outfielder by mid-May, Swaggerty will absolutely get a 40-man roster spot. Not only that but the regime seem pretty high on Swaggerty. They wouldn’t have him skip Double-A entierly if they didn’t feel he couldn’t do well at Triple-A.

Mason Martin is probably another lock. Martin has some of the best power potential in the Pittsburgh Pirates system and in all of baseball. The left-handed slugger has a 60-future game power and 70-future raw power grade per FanGraphs. So far at Double-A, he’s hit .251/.329/.522 with 21 home runs in 395 plate appearances. Martin has a .360 wOBA, 124 wRC+, and outstanding .271 ISO.

Though there are some red flags with Martin. He strikes out a ton and he’s gone down on strike three 34.7% of the time. He does have a solid 8.6% walk rate, but this is a single-season career-low. Previously, he sat in the 10-%12% range. But while he may strike out a ton and his walks are down, he’d almost certainly be picked up in the Rule 5 Draft. Overall, he’s done well in the upper level of the minor leagues. Some team would surely give him a shot on his power potential alone. Sure he has some question marks that need to be answered, especially once he takes the step to Triple-A, but the Pittsburgh Pirates can’t afford to lose him for nothing.

Another player who should be considered a lock is outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Smith-Njigba as part of the Jameson Taillon trade and he’s done excellent at Double-A. In 248 trips to the plate, he’s hit .286/.403/.427 with a .372 wOBA, and 132 wRC+. Smith-Njigba is walking a ton, drawing ball four in 16.1% of his plate appearances. Though he’s gone down on strikes at a 25.8% rate. Smith-Njigba has above-average power potential with a 55-future game power grade and 60-raw power grade.

Though in order to unlock that power potential, he needs to get the ball in the air more often. Smith-Njigba has a ground ball rate of 65.4% and LD% of just 11%. Now he did have a strong 26% line drive rate in 2019, so it’s not like he hasn’t done it before. Could just be a little bit of adjusting. There are some concerns with his overall athleticism. He’s only a 40-grade runner and his glove is projected to be a 45-grade tool. He’s a smart base runner though with more than a dozen steals in his last 2 professional seasons. He may end up being an LF/DH kind of player, but he has enough offensive potential to be just that.

At 22-years-old and doing well at Double-A, he’d likely be scooped up pretty quickly in a Rule 5 draft if left unprotected. The Pittsburgh Pirates will likely find a way to get him on the 40-man before the deadline to do so this offseason.

Another former New York Yankee prospect that is doing well at Double-A is Diego Castillo. The infielder is already 23 and will turn 24 at the end of October, so he’ll surely be a higher priority player. Between the two affiliates, he’s hit .279/.345/.488 with 16 long balls in 336 plate appearances. He’s also hit well at Altoona, having a .283/.345/.453 with a .347 wOBA, and 115 wRC+. Considering that he has a batting average on balls in play lower than his actual average, his production should improve once his BAbip stabilizes. Overall, he’s been outstanding at avoiding strikeouts. His K% is just 12.8%. Though his walk rate isn’t insanely high, 9.2% is still above average.

I projected Castillo to be the team’s starting shortstop by the end of 2022, which will be his age-24 season. He’s done well at Double-A, avoiding strikeouts, drawing walks at an above-average rate, and showing some pop. He’s played both middle infield spots as well as third base. He should easily get a shot to play in early 2022 so long as he doesn’t run into any injuries.

A slugging outfielder who will likely be given a shot sometime in 2022 is Jack Suwinski. Part of the Adam Frazier trade, Suwinski was hitting well with San Diego’s Double-A affiliate, batting .269/.398/.551 with 15 home runs, a .413 wOBA, and an outstanding 151 wRC+. Since arriving with the Pirates, he’s only hitting .228/.333/.370 with a .315 wOBA, and 94 wRC+.

Suwinski is also considered a plus fielder with a strong arm. He isn’t fast, but he’s about average in terms of speed. Think of a slightly higher OBP Hunter Renfroe. Now while Suwinski isn’t an obvious choice, he’d probably be protected for similar reasons that Castillo would be protected. He’s 23-years-old and has put up solid numbers overall at Double-A. Some team would take a no-risk shot at that, and you don’t want to give up such a player when you just traded for him.

Left-hander Omar Cruz will probably end up getting a 40-man roster spot, speaking that the Pirates as a whole do not have that many southpaws on their roster to start with. Cruz, who was part of the Joe Musgrove trade, was promoted to Double-A earlier this year. So far, he’s put up a solid 3.54 ERA, 3.97 FIP, and 1.25 WHIP across 56 innings of work. Cruz has a strong 6.8% walk rate and 0.64 HR/9, but he isn’t striking out many batters. His 18.6% strikeout rate is a big departure from the 30%+ rates he had with the Padres and High-A Greensboro.

Cruz is a soft tosser but has plus control/command. Along with a four-seamer, he throws a curveball and change-up. Currently, I have him slotting into the back of the rotation in 2022 as the team’s 5th starter by the end of the season. If he can get his strikeout rate up a bit, you’re looking at a solid left-handed prospect.

I almost put top shortstop prospect, Liover Peguero, in the next section. But decided to leave him here because, while he will still be very young, leaving that talented of a player off the 40-man and possibly losing him isn’t ideal. While teams will usually pass on a young player with no experience above High-A where they didn’t do all that well to start with, it’s not like it hasn’t been done before either. In the end, I think the Pirates will try the best they can to include Peguero on the 40-man roster.

Peguero is batting just .263/.316/.442 with a .329 wOBA, coming to an around league-average 102 wRC+. Now those aren’t  fantastic numbers. They’re only about league average, which is solid but not great. But you have to remember Peguero essentially made the jump from Rookie-Ball to High-A as he only had 93 plate appearances at Low-A and no time played at High-A in 2019. Peguero has 5-tool potential. He’s shown he can hit for a solid average, he’s a plus runner, and is projected to be a plus fielder with a solid arm. His power hasn’t fully developed yet, but by the time he’s 22-23 years old, it should be average at the very least. Currently, he has a solid .179 ISO.

Odds are the Pittsburgh Pirates will place him on the 40-man roster for a few reasons. Aside from having very good potential, Ben Cherington’s regime seems very high on Peguero. They put him at the alternative site in 2020 despite being so young. They also are pushing him through the minors at a fast pace, having him skip Low-A entirely and having him play just a step below Double-A this year.

Now this one may seem a bit stretched, but I have them protecting Tahnaj Thomas. Thomas came over in the Erik Gonzalez trade. Thomas looked great in his first season in a Pirate uniform, but High-A Greensboro hasn’t been kind to him this year. He has a 4.18 ERA, 5.88 FIP, and 1.52 WHIP in 51.2 innings of work. Thomas’ has struggled to get strikeouts, one of his strengths in years prior. He has a 23.1% strikeout rate and his walks have shot up to 14.3% (over double what it was in 2019). Plus, home runs have been an issue (1.39).

But Thomas is still a highly talented pitcher. He’s 22 and can throw 100 MPH. He has an elite fastball with a plus slider. His changeup is a work in progress, but he’s got the raw talent. FanGraphs even ranks him as their 97th best prospect. There’s bound to be some team that gives that a chance. Heck, the Pittsburgh Pirates did it twice during the last Rule 5 Draft, picking Jose Soriano from the Los Angeles Angels, and then trading for Luis Oviedo. Both right-handers throw very hard, have some control issues, but have a lot of raw talent.

Seeing that they have been acquired in trades in the last calendar year pitcher Eddy Yean and catcher Abrahan Gutierrez are likely locks to be added to the 40-man roster as well. It’s unlikely the Pittsburgh Pirates would have acquired them without having this intention in mind.

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