With more cuts, Bucs' roster coming into shape

March 25th, 2023

LAKELAND, Fla. -- And then there were 37.

The club announced prior to Friday’s 6-6 tie against the Tigers that it optioned outfielder Travis Swaggerty and utility man . Additionally, non-roster invitee catcher will exercise his opt-out clause after the team informed him on Thursday that he will not make the Opening Day roster.

“[Swaggerty] needs to play,” said manager Derek Shelton. “I think right now, as good of a camp as he’s had -- and he’s had a good camp -- we still had some guys that are ahead of him. We didn’t see the opportunity right now for everyday at-bats.”

Swaggerty, the Pirates’ No. 22 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has been one of the Bucs’ best players in camp, hitting a blistering .379/.471/.690 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in 19 games. For all Swaggerty has done this Spring, though, Shelton pointed to his missing almost two seasons -- 2020 due to COVID and nearly all of ‘21 due to injury -- as a reason that Swaggerty will begin the year with Triple-A Indianapolis. Shelton added that consistent plate appearances in the Minors will allow Swaggerty to work through the adjustments he’s made in recent weeks.

Swaggerty had been in competition with for the Pirates’ fourth outfield spot, but Shelton added that Swaggerty’s demotion does not necessarily mean Smith-Njigba has cracked the Opening Day roster.

“It’s too simple to say that we’ve made a decision on that last position, but I will say that there’s -- and we told him this -- there’s nothing he could have done more to make the team,” Shelton said. “Sometimes it’s not specifically about what you do, it’s about how other people perform, too, and how they work within that.”

With Marcano and Swaggerty optioned to Indianapolis, the candidate pool for the three non-catcher bench spots includes Smith-Njigba, Connor Joe, Ji Hwan Bae, Mark Mathias, Miguel Andújar (non-roster) and Chris Owings (non-roster). Like Plawecki, Owings can opt out as well, and general manager Ben Cherington said the team will “work with him through that this weekend.”

“[Opt] outs are part of the deal at the end of Spring Training,” Cherington said. “We want all of our players to have as much information as they can about where opportunities are, and so we’ll work through that on an individual basis.”

Cherington may have confirmed that Joe, who hit his first home run on Spring Training on Friday, will be part of the Opening Day roster, noting that the 30-year-old is “an important part of the team.”

Another factor that will determine the composition of the Opening Day roster is Andrew McCutchen’s health.

McCutchen returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing some games due to minor right elbow soreness, but he has only appeared as a designated hitter since coming back. Shelton said the team’s plan is to play McCutchen in the outfield before the end of Spring Training to get an idea of his physical state. Cherington added that McCutchen will spend a lot of time at designated hitter to begin the season, noting that McCutchen will play more in the outfield as he advances further into his throwing progression.

“Andrew is coming along well throwing,” Cherington said. “We’ll keep a close eye on that. Certainly anticipate him being in the outfield, and we’ll get a little better picture of exactly where he is on Opening Day.”

With Plawecki no longer in Major League camp, the backup catcher competition will come down to Jason Delay and Tyler Heineman, both non-roster invitees who spent time with the Major League team last year. Neither Delay nor Heineman provide much with their bats -- they have posted career OPS marks of .536 and .555, respectively -- and Shelton noted that defense will be the most important deciding factor.

If the competition comes down to defense, Heineman has the edge. Delay was the better framer of the two last season, finishing in the 71st percentile while Heineman finished in the 61st percentile. Heineman, however, has a significant advantage over Delay in pop time to second base (72nd percentile to 32nd percentile), as well as blocks above average (+2 to -3). Heineman also finished with five defensive runs saved across 436 1/3 innings, while Delay had two defensive runs saved across 436 2/3 innings.