Here's where Pirates' position battles stand

March 17th, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- When Spring Training was suspended last Thursday, the Pirates seemingly had a pretty good idea of who might round out their Opening Day roster in two weeks’ time. Some front-runners had emerged and several injuries had limited the club's options, even if -- of course -- the Bucs hadn’t made any official decisions.

Now, with baseball on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pirates' remaining position battles remain undecided. Who’s on third? What will the rotation look like? How will they round out their bullpen and bench?

Here's a look at the Bucs' undecided position battles and how the indefinite delay might affect those races.

Third base
Leg up: Colin Moran
Contenders: Erik Gonzalez, Jose Osuna, JT Riddle
The long shot: Ke’Bryan Hayes

For now, it seems like the status quo might hold with Moran as the starter. That obviously could change, and Gonzalez and Riddle are particularly compelling candidates given the Pirates’ focus on improving their team defense this spring. Moran showed a little power during Grapefruit League play, slugging .483 in 30 plate appearances, but defense is the question with the returning starter at the hot corner.

It felt like Pittsburgh would take a longer look at Gonzalez, the Opening Day shortstop in 2019, but he was held back at the start of camp by lingering complications from offseason left foot surgery. As a result, he only had nine plate appearances over three games and went hitless with one walk and a strikeout. There’s just not enough to work with.

Riddle showed up well, displaying his hustle on the bases and at multiple positions in the field, but the Pirates signed him to be a versatile super-utility man off the bench given his ability to play around the infield and outfield. Osuna hit well, as he often does in Spring Training, but he is more likely ticketed for a corner-utility role off the bench.

What about Hayes? Of all the options here, the Bucs’ top position player prospect is the only one who didn’t man another position during Spring Training games. Moran started at first. Osuna bounced around. Riddle played all over. Gonzalez even got a start at second.

Hayes, ranked as the club's No. 2 prospect by MLB Pipeline, likely would have taken over if he’d signed a guaranteed contract extension, something the Pirates reportedly were interested in pursuing, but what does this pause in the on-field action mean for those potential negotiations? For now, we’ll assume he will start the season with Triple-A Indianapolis before taking over the everyday job in Pittsburgh.

Leg up: Mitch Keller, Derek Holland
Contenders in camp: Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, Hector Noesi

If the season had started on time, this would have been easy. Brault likely would have been working his way back from a strained left shoulder, and Kuhl would have been easing his way into the season after Tommy John surgery. That left two wide-open spots for Keller, ranked as the club's No. 1 prospect and No. 39 overall by MLB Pipeline, and Holland, the non-roster veteran lefty who mostly pitched well in Grapefruit League play while quickly becoming a popular presence in the clubhouse.

Now, it remains to be seen how the time down will affect the rotation behind Chris Archer, Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams. Brault should have time to get his shoulder healthy. Kuhl might not be bumping up against any workload restrictions that would affect him at the end of the season.

It’s hard to imagine the Pirates putting Keller anywhere but their Opening Day rotation, so let’s assume they’ll be evaluating three candidates for one spot. Holland and Brault both have the ability to move to the bullpen, where the Bucs are short on lefties, while Kuhl has a Minor League option remaining. Keep an eye on Brault’s progress, and whether the Pirates add Holland to their 40-man roster, to see how this might play out.

Leg up: Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, Richard Rodriguez, Edgar Santana, Michael Feliz, Nick Burdi, Chris Stratton, Nik Turley
Contenders in camp: Clay Holmes, Robbie Erlin, Sam Howard, Yacksel Rios, Geoff Hartlieb, Dovydas Neverauskas, Miguel Del Pozo

The rotation decision figures to create some fallout in the bullpen, as Holland or Brault -- and perhaps even Kuhl -- could work as a long reliever to start the season, even though they were being stretched out as starters.

There’s another injury situation to monitor here, too, as Holmes is working his way back from a right fibula fracture. If he’s ready for Opening Day, whenever that might be, things get complicated because the hard-throwing righty is out of Minor League options.

Odds are, the group will include Kela, Crick, Rodriguez, Feliz, Santana and Burdi. Stratton, who pitched well in a swingman role last season, is also out of Minor League options. Turley is the only lefty relief candidate who impressed in the first phase of Spring Training, but don’t expect the front office to make any calls based solely off of Grapefruit League performance.

Needless to say, this is definitely an area where more time would have helped the Pirates’ decision-makers as the candidates began to pitch on back-to-back days.

Leg up: Guillermo Heredia, Luke Maile, Riddle, Gonzalez, Osuna
Contenders in camp: Cole Tucker, Kevin Kramer, Phillip Evans, Jason Martin, John Ryan Murphy, Andrew Susac

The first four candidates in the “leg up” section seem pretty much set, unless one of them winds up injured or (in the case of Gonzalez) in the starting lineup. The Pitates need a fourth outfielder, and Heredia can play all three spots. The club also needs a backup catcher, and Maile is already on the 40-man roster.

The other candidates might be better served starting the season in Triple-A. Tucker could use the at-bats to test-drive his revamped swing, and sporadic playing time probably isn’t the best way forward for his development. Kramer is valuable, versatile depth; same goes for Evans. Martin could work his way into the outfield mix at some point, but he’s behind Heredia on the depth chart.

Murphy has impressed behind the plate -- and all three of his Grapefruit League hits were home runs -- so his candidacy will become more serious if the Pirates are worried about losing him or have any interest in carrying three catchers to start the season.