Pirates add five to 40-man roster
Former top pick Walker could compete for job in Spring Training
PITTSBURGH -- In preparation for the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 11, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington finalized the team's 40-man roster on Thursday by filling all five open spots.
As expected, the Pirates added third baseman Neil Walker, outfielder Jose Tabata and right-hander Jeff Sues. Also added were catcher Steve Lerud and right-handed reliever Ronald Uviedo.
Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement signed a year ago, teams have four years after signing a player 19 years old or older to put them on the 40-man roster or they risk losing them in the Rule 5 Draft. For players 18 and younger, clubs have a five-year window.
Of the five players added to the roster, Walker remains the closest to denting the Major League roster. Though still viewed as a long shot to make the team out of Spring Training, Walker will go into camp with a chance at competing against Andy LaRoche for the starting spot at third.
"Andy has already done some things at Triple-A that we are anticipating Neil will do," Huntington told MLB.com at the end of the season. "But if it's not Andy, then certainly Neil Walker becomes a candidate."
The 23-year-old Walker, a Pittsburgh-area native, spent his first full season at Triple-A in '08, hitting .242 with 16 homers and 82 RBIs.
The Pirates acquired Tabata from the Yankees in the Trade Deadline deal that sent Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to New York. Though only 20, Tabata was signed as a non-drafted free agent out of Venezuela on his 16th birthday and has played in parts of five professional seasons, which explains why he had to be protected from this year's Rule 5 Draft.
Tabata is expected to be a fixture in the Pirates' outfield in the coming years and made a solid first impression by hitting .348 with 13 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 22 games with Double-A Altoona after coming over to the organization. He is currently playing winter ball in Venezuela, where he has hit .263 in 29 games.
Sues' comeback season in the farm system was one of the more promising Minor League story lines to come out of the organization in '08. After recovering from labrum surgery that kept him out in 2006 and most of 2007, Sues was named the Pirates' Minor League Pitcher of the Year at the end of this season. He made 37 appearances between Class A Lynchburg and Altoona, going 4-2 with a 3.22 ERA.
Uviedo, a 22-year-old right-hander, spent most of the season with low Class A Hickory, where he made 33 appearances. He allowed 24 earned runs in 71 2/3 innings. However, it was the better than five-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio that solidified the need to add him to the 40-man.
"He throws strikes," Huntington said. "As we evaluated the types of players that get selected, those guys who throw strikes are the type of guys that catch a scout's eye or get the interest of someone in the front office. We didn't want to risk losing that."
Uviedo finished the season with high Class A Lynchburg, making seven appearances and allowing four runs in 16 innings. He is expected to start 2009 in Lynchburg as well.
As for Lerud, a 24-year-old catcher drafted in 2003, the Pirates identified an increased risk of losing him in the Rule 5 Draft simply because so many teams lack young catchers. Add in the fact that the Pirates, too, have a deficiency of catchers in the organization, and the risk of losing Lerud was too high to leave him unprotected.
"He can catch and throw," Huntington said. "He's left-handed. He looks the part. We wanted to buy ourselves some time by ensuring that he stays in the organization."
While most of Thursday's news centers around who was added, it's also necessary to note certain prospects who were not added and are therefore susceptible to be taken by another team in December.
Outfielder Jamie Romak, who was acquired from Atlanta in the trade that netted Adam LaRoche, and pitchers Juan Mateo, Kyle Bloom and Eric Krebs all fit in that category.
While on-field performance and potential upside were certainly considered by Huntington in determining the roster additions, so, too, were two other factors: the likelihood of a player being selected and the likelihood of that player actually sticking on another Major League roster for an entire season. Remember, players selected in the Rule 5 Draft must stay on the selecting team's 25-man roster for the entirety of the next year or be offered back.
As the Pirates saw with their selection of Evan Meek in the Rule 5 Draft last winter, retaining a Rule 5 pick on the Major League roster can often present quite a challenge.
"It's one thing to be selected," Huntington said, "but it's another to be carried on through all year long."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.