PITTSBURGH -- The recent stretch of losses for the Pirates has been hard to endure, but it’s only amplified one pivotal question for the club in the last month and a half of the season.
When will we see callups to the Majors, especially first-timers making their debuts?
Hoy Jun Park nearly fits the bill, but he made a plate appearance with the Yankees earlier this season. So this is effectively his first extended look.
But more must be on the horizon for the retooling Pirates, right?
“Our hope is that we're able to give more opportunity to some younger players who are currently in the Minor Leagues,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “We want to balance that with the idea that it ought to be earned. We want to strike that balance as best we can.”
It’s a little bit trickier this season than in years past, however. Before 2020, rosters expanded on Sept. 1 from 25 players to 40 players. Effectively, an entire 40-man roster could be utilized in any given game. However, as a pandemic-related precaution, expansion was capped at 28 players for September to manage the amount of people in the dugout and clubhouse.
That remains the case in 2021, making it in theory tougher for the Pirates to make evaluations of prospects playing at the Major League level. But there’s another side to this: Cherington and his staff don’t want this to be an experience just anyone can have.
Sure, there are obvious callup candidates at Triple-A like new acquisitions Tucupita Marcano and Michael Chavis. There are even examples at Double-A, which Cherington has proved he’s not afraid to dip into to fill the MLB roster, with second baseman Rodolfo Castro going that path.
“It’s probably the guys that you’re already thinking about but, again, because we want to make sure that development needs are met and that it’s earned. … There’s only so much opportunity. Not everyone will get an opportunity.”
The most important thing for Cherington is to make sure that wherever prospects are, they’re playing a lot. Unlike seasons past, where regular-season Minor League games barely ventured into September, this year’s Minor League slate goes deep into the month.
“Just because a guy's not in the big leagues doesn't mean he's not playing,” Cherington said. “We're still seeing that benefit happening. And … it's not necessarily waiting for September, either. We can make these decisions at any time.”
Of course, to make those decisions for players not on the 40-man roster -- even for the two additional September spots -- moves will have to be made in correspondence. Some tough designations and releases have had to be made already, including the surprise release of right-hander Kyle Crick in July and the designation of infielder Erik González for assignment this month.
The Pirates obviously have some players on the Major League team who they hope can contribute to contending teams of the future. Now, it’s time to determine who those guys are, as well as who they can risk to put on waivers or release to clear spots for guys they think could make a difference in the long run.
It’s a tightrope Cherington has to walk over the coming weeks.
“There's a balance between [callups] and wanting those at-bats to be earned and wanting to put the best possible lineup we can out there every night,” Cherington said. “It's not easy to balance those two things. I think we can balance them.”