PITTSBURGH -- Even with Spring Training operations suspended and players scattered from LECOM Park to their offseason homes, the Pirates trimmed their active roster by seven players on Friday afternoon.
Pittsburgh optioned shortstop Cole Tucker, third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes, outfielder Jason Martin and relievers Edgar Santana, Geoff Hartlieb, Sam Howard and Yacksel Ríos to Triple-A Indianapolis. All seven remain on the Pirates’ 40-man roster, and Santana is the only surprising inclusion because he seemed likely to crack the club’s Opening Day bullpen.
“In a typical year, if you make moves like this on March 20, it’s a pretty clear indication that you’re probably getting towards the Opening Day roster and those guys aren’t going to be on the Opening Day roster. This year, I would say that’s less conclusive,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “We’re certainly in a less certain time. With the uncertainty and having guys spread out all over the country and the globe at this point, we weren’t comfortable carrying as big a number [of players on the active roster] as we were. Wanted to get down to a smaller number.”
Santana enjoyed a perfect Spring Training in his return from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent after the 2018 season. The right-hander retired all 15 batters he faced over five appearances and struck out four hitters. His Major League track record -- a 3.31 ERA and 1.19 WHIP -- is also indicative of a pitcher well-suited for a late-inning relief role.
Perhaps the Pirates were planning to be cautious with the 28-year-old Santana, even with the start of the season delayed, considering he didn’t pitch at all last season while working his way back from elbow surgery. Or perhaps they are looking to keep a spot open in their bullpen for an out-of-options right-handed reliever like Dovydas Neverauskas or Chris Stratton.
Either way, it seems likely that Santana will pitch quite a bit for the Pirates this season and probably in a high-leverage role.
The rest of the Pirates’ moves on Friday were expected at some point before Opening Day. Tucker and Hayes performed well in Spring Training, but they will most likely form the everyday left side of the infield in Triple-A to start the season.
In management’s view, Tucker is better off playing everyday in Indianapolis, at least for now, than he would be hitting sporadically off the bench in Pittsburgh. The club also believes that Hayes, their top position-player prospect according to MLB Pipeline, could benefit from further offensive development before he’s fully prepared for the Majors.
“We definitely believe in Cole as an everyday player, and he’s young enough where we think he should be playing every day still,” Cherington said. “We certainly see him contributing at the Major League level really soon and believe he’s going to be an important part of what we’re doing. We don’t know when that will start, but we do think it’s important that he plays every day.”
Tucker hit just .211/.266/.361 in the Majors last season, but he showed off his revamped swing this spring by going 8-for-27 with three homers -- including a majestic shot in the final Grapefruit League game -- and as many walks (four) as strikeouts. Tucker has played shortstop and second base, making him a versatile option up the middle behind big league starters Kevin Newman and Adam Frazier.
Hayes, the Pirates’ third baseman of the future, took a step back offensively in Triple-A last year, but once again thrived while working with hitting coach Rick Eckstein in Bradenton, Fla. Hayes went 7-for-25 with a double and a homer in Grapefruit League play while flashing his potentially Gold Glove caliber defense at the hot corner.
The Pirates have reportedly considered signing the 23-year-old to a long-term contract extension, though it’s unclear how this downtime will affect such negotiations. He’s bound to be in the big leagues later this year, and that time could come sooner if Hayes is signed to a guaranteed deal.
“Really excited about what he did. Probably not surprising, but just really impressive watching him play. The poise, the defense you know about, good at-bats, consistent at-bats and just a fun kid to be around,” Cherington said. “Probably came into the spring with the expectation that there might be a little bit more time in Triple-A. We want to have an open mind. He did a lot of good things.”
Martin, who made his Major League debut last season, didn’t seem to have a spot on the Opening Day roster. The Pirates can start Bryan Reynolds, Jarrod Dyson and Gregory Polanco in the outfield with Guillermo Heredia as the dedicated fourth outfielder. They also have super-utility options available, including JT Riddle, Erik González and José Osuna. Martin figures to be the next man up in the event of an injury, however.
Hartlieb and Ríos will serve as bullpen depth options in Triple-A. Howard seemed like he had a shot to earn a spot in the Pirates' bullpen as one of two left-handed pitchers on the 40-man roster, but he gave up five hits and walked seven in 5 2/3 innings over six appearances this spring.
The delayed start to the season might allow the Pirates to carry either Derek Holland or Steven Brault (who was unlikely to be ready by the end of March due to a strained shoulder) in their rotation, while stashing the other in the bullpen as a long-relief lefty.
Pittsburgh also thinks highly of non-roster lefty Robbie Erlin, and fellow non-roster southpaw Nik Turley was one of the pleasant surprises in camp this year.
“We’re really focused on doing everything we can to make sure [Brault is] in a good spot when he comes back to pitching. And we don’t know how long that’s going to take, but certainly the delay in the season gives a better chance for him to be ready,” Cherington said. “Obviously we’re a ways away from making any decisions, but I would say overall we feel better about our left-handed bullpen options than we did in January.”