The Pittsburgh Pirates are entering the spring with 17 non-roster invitees. But could any of them head north with the team when spring ends?
The Pittsburgh Pirates recently announced their Spring Training non-roster invitees. You can read the whole list here, and Brenden recently looked at a couple of the more interesting names that the Pirates are bringing with them to camp. In total, there are 17 players, but could any of them break camp with the team and head back to Pittsburgh? (note that if any of these players did break camp, the Piraets would need to add them to the 40-man roster)
Let’s first get out of the way players who have almost no shot of breaking camp. Arguably the Pirates’ most talented prospect will see some spring training action, that being Termarr Johnson. Johnson won’t make the roster for pretty obvious reasons. He has barely even played at Low-A and won’t turn 19 until mid-June.
Another highly talented prospect in camp is Henry Davis. Davis has played some at Double-A but still has not played much. While teams are more aggressively moving players from Double-A to the major leagues, Davis didn’t excel at Altoona either. Jared Jones also hasn’t reached Double-A, and the likes of Kyle Nicolas, Carmen Mlodzinski, and Lolo Sanchez haven’t seen a day at Triple-A yet (technically Mlodzinski has, but it was at the end of 2021 and it was only to get him a few more innings in before the end of the year).
But are there any prospects who are NRI’s and potentially held back for service time reasons? Quinn Priester certainly could be one of these players. Preister made two starts at Triple-A last year and is one of the Pirates’ best prospects. They’re not going to sacrifice the one year of service time, especially considering he could use another few starts at Indy. You could also make the argument for Malcom Nunez, who also played a few games at Triple-A at the end of 2022, but with Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi, there’s no rush. Matt Gorski is another guy who saw a few games at Triple-A at the tail-end of ‘23. Aside from potential service time concerns, the Pirates don’t have a regular role for him. Though if Connor Joe were to get injured, he might get some heavy consideration.
There are also a handful of players who won’t make it because they’re depth and the Pirates will not make room on the 40-man roster for them. One of the more notable depth options is Tyler Chatwood, a ten-year veteran returning from a short stint in Japan, Chatwood signed a minor league deal but essentially has a net-zero chance of making it to Pittsburgh at the start of the year unless there is a boatload of injuries. Wei-Chieh Huang was a Rule 5 draftee in the minor league phase, but is in a similar boat with Chatwood in that the only way he makes it is because of a multitude of injuries. Chris Owings and Drew Maggi are also only here for organizational depth. Owings is likely here to serve as Triple-A depth for when the Pirates promote guys like Nick Gonzales and Jared Triolo, but Indy still needs to field a roster of players. The most interesting and best ‘depth’ guy is Andres Alvarez. Alvarez had a 20/20 season and a 111 wRC+. Among all the depth guys, he has the likeliest chance but will still likely get regulated to Triple-A.
So that leaves three players that might have a decent chance of breaking camp with the team. Jason Delay is the first and the only one with major league experience among the three. The longtime minor league backstop batted .213/.256/.271 with a .243 wOBA and 53 wRC+ in 167 plate appearances.
Despite his poor offense, Delay was here for his defense, and he had +2 DRS and +3.5 framing runs in just 436.2 innings behind the dish. He also didn't allow a single passed ball. Those hitting numbers are almost identical to another catcher the Pirates brought back on a minor league deal, Tyler Heineman (who slashed .217/.276/.268 with a .248 wOBA and 57 wRC+). Both are defensive specialists, but Heineman likely has an inside track here. He could serve as a left-handed compliment to Austin Hedges.
There is also another catcher on the team’s non-roster invite list who can’t be fully ruled out, and that’s Carter Bins. Acquired in the Tyler Anderson swap at the 2021 deadline, Bins had an unimpressive 2022 split between Altoona and Indy. Through 330 plate appearances, Bins batted .198/.285/.388 with a .299 wOBA and 78 wRC+. While Bins did have 11 home runs and a .192 isolated slugging percentage, along with an 8.8% walk rate, he also struck out at a robust 36.7% rate. That was the second-highest strikeout rate among all minor league catchers with 300+ PAs.
But he did have a decent post-all-star break, posting a 105 wRC+, .778 OPS, and .228 isolated slugging percentage. Bins also holds his own defensively, though he has allowed 28 passed balls in just under 1500 innings as a pro. Given that the Pirates’ backup options are Jason Delay or Tyler Heineman going into Spring Training, I wouldn’t rule anything out regarding Bins.
The last player that could potentially have an outside chance of making it to Pittsburgh on Opening Day is Cody Bolton. Bolton had a solid rebound season at Triple-A last year, working to a 3.09 ERA, 3.81 FIP, and 1.28 WHIP. He also struck out just over a quarter of the opponents he faced with a 25.4% strikeout rate while holding opposing hitters to a .208 average.
On top of that, Bolton had a 0.48 HR/9. However, there were a few red flags. This included a 12.4% walk rate, an HR/FB ratio of just 5.1%, and 4.85 xFIP. Despite his low HR/9, he only had a ground ball rate of 40.6%. At 24 years old and with decent numbers in over 70 innings at Indy, there is certainly a strong case to be made for Bolton. The Pirates’ long-relief options do not inspire much confidence. Chase DeJong and however they decide to utilize Vince Velasquez seem to be the best options. There is also a strong chance that he would make the Opening Day roster if a pitcher were to start the year on the injured list.
Overall, while the Pittsburgh Pirates are making a handful of non-roster invitees, only a few have any real chance of making it on the team's Opening Day. roster But that’s to be expected of most NRI lists. They mostly consist of depth, top prospects who are still a month or two away, or other prospects who haven’t even made it to Double-A. But Bins and Delay have a chance given how poor the catching situation is, offensively that is, and Bolton has a chance because the Pirates have very few or inspiring long-relief/swing-man options on the major league roster.