PITTSBURGH -- Less than a week before Opening Day, the Pirates lost catcher Luke Maile for the entire season.
Maile, who was expected to break camp as Jacob Stallings’ backup behind the plate, underwent surgery on Friday to repair a fractured right index finger. He sustained the fracture after being hit by a pitch Thursday in an intrasquad game at PNC Park.
Maile is projected to resume “competitive baseball activities” in 10-12 weeks, the Pirates announced Saturday. That means he won’t be at full strength in time to play during the regular season. It’s another tough blow for the Pirates, who have had their depth tested before they started exhibition play Saturday night against Cleveland.
"It's heartbreaking, dude. I mean, he put so much time and effort in over the last six months from when we came to the first Spring Training to the Summer Camp, during the quarantine,” starter Joe Musgrove said. “I know he was working. He came in in great shape, looked good, was swinging the bat really well. So it's heartbreaking seeing one of your guys go down.”
Pittsburgh is expected to enter the season without right fielder Gregory Polanco (positive COVID-19 test) and closer Keone Kela (undisclosed absence from camp). The Pirates previously lost starting pitchers Jameson Taillon (Tommy John surgery last year) and Chris Archer (neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome) for this abbreviated, 60-game season. Infielder Kevin Kramer (right hip surgery) is also out for the year.
And now, they’ll miss the defensive-minded Maile, an offseason signing who recently said he hadn’t felt as good as he felt at the plate during Summer Camp “in a long time.” Without Maile, the Pirates likely will add John Ryan Murphy to their 40-man roster and carry him as their backup catcher.
“Anytime you lose catching depth, it affects you. It’s really unfortunate for Luke,” manager Derek Shelton said. “He was in one of the better spots he’d been in his career swinging the bat, which was very evident in terms of how he looked during our intrasquad games. Anytime you lose catching depth, it dings you a little bit but I’m really happy that we have Murph here to be able to catch.”
Murphy reported to Spring Training with the Pirates after signing a Minor League deal. Another backup catcher known for his defense, Murphy played 26 games in the Majors last year and batted .175 with a .659 OPS. Over parts of seven Major League seasons, the 29-year-old owns a .219/.265/.357 slash line in 674 plate appearances.
“I've worked a ton with Murph, one of my favorite guys on the team. His personality, man, he cracks me up. We get along well," Musgrove said. “I've gotten to throw to him three times during the Summer Camp, so he's got a good feel for what I like to do and how my pitches move and stuff. So it was something about him behind the dish and a calmness about him and a certain presence that just fires me up.”
That would put non-roster catcher Andrew Susac in position to be Pittsburgh’s emergency third catcher, likely as part of the taxi squad that will accompany the team on the road. The Pirates called over Susac, a journeyman catcher who signed a Minor League deal this offseason, from their alternate training site to be on the roster Saturday against the Indians. Susac will remain in Pittsburgh through at least Sunday, as he’s scheduled to catch during the Pirates’ two-inning intrasquad game at PNC Park.
Around the horn
Initially projected to be the primary setup man for Kela, right-hander Kyle Crick might find himself pitching in the ninth inning at the start of the season. After Kela was placed on the injured list for undisclosed reasons, manager Derek Shelton said the Pirates likely won’t name a replacement closer.
But Crick, who struggled with shaky command as he took the loss in Pittsburgh’s exhibition against Cleveland on Saturday night, figures to be one of the team’s top high-leverage options, along with right-handers Richard Rodríguez and Michael Feliz.
“I think we have multiple arms that can do it. It'll just be who's the most consistent and who goes out there and puts up the most zeroes in a row,” Crick said. “Those [closer] ambitions are stored in everyone's head in the bullpen, no matter what your role actually is. I think it's all about how you look at it. I'm sure the ninth inning is a little bit more of a rush. It’s the same three-out game that we play, but it's something I've always thought was pretty cool."
• Shelton said shortstop Kevin Newman, who did not play Saturday night, “got a little dinged up” during Friday’s workout. But Newman is expected to be in the lineup for Monday’s exhibition in Cleveland, Shelton said, and whatever injury he’s dealing with would not have kept him sidelined if Saturday had been a regular-season game.
• Super-utility man JT Riddle has not played in a game the last four days, as Shelton said Saturday night that he is “a little dinged up.” But Riddle was able to take ground balls on Saturday afternoon, Shelton said, and he is “very much” expected to be active on the Opening Day roster.
Reinforcements at PNC Park
In much the same way that they call over players from Minor League camp for big league Spring Training games, the Pirates summoned four players from their alternate training site to round out their roster on Saturday night. Pittsburgh called over infielders Will Craig (the club's No. 19 prospect) and Oneil Cruz (No. 3), outfielder Jason Martin and Susac from the secondary camp in Altoona, Pa. Craig, Cruz and Martin will return to the Altoona camp on Sunday.
After another Summer Camp workout at PNC Park on Sunday, the Pirates will head to Cleveland on Monday for another exhibition game against the Indians at Progressive Field. Right-hander Trevor Williams will start for the Pirates, putting him in line to start the second game of the season in St. Louis. He’ll be followed by right-handers JT Brubaker, Feliz, Crick, Rodríguez and Chris Stratton and lefty Robbie Erlin. Right-hander Mike Clevinger will start for Cleveland. The game will air on MLB.TV, AT&T SportsNet, KDKA-FM and the Pirates Radio Network at 7:05 p.m. ET.