Pirates consider using six-player bench
By carrying only 11 pitchers, club would have more options
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Of the few decisions the Pirates have left to make before their April 5 opener, who the final bench player will be remains arguably the most intriguing. Only, there may be more than one winner.
Management is kicking around the idea of starting the season with an 11-man pitching staff. That would leave room for a six-player bench, as opposed to the normal five.
"It's an option," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We still have to have further dialogue, but it is an option."
Such a scenario would seem possible because the Pirates have three off-days during the first two weeks of the season. Choosing to go in this direction would have a handful of notable implications and potential benefits.
With nine days remaining before the Pirates have to finalize their 25-man roster, the makeup of the club's bench is not entirely in focus. In are Ryan Church, Bobby Crosby and a backup catcher, who has not been named. Although unofficial, Delwyn Young's name should be in ink, too, after the spring he has had. That leaves Ramon Vazquez, Brandon Moss, John Raynor and Steve Pearce as the remaining position players under consideration.
Although the Pirates have noted improvements with his approach at the plate this spring, Pearce is likely on the outside looking in. Because he has an option remaining, the club enjoys the flexibility of being able to send him to Triple-A.
If the Pirates go with a traditional 12-man pitching staff, only one spot would be vacant for the remaining three candidates. It would likely go to Raynor or Moss.
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Moss was seen as the favorite coming in, if for no other reason than that it seemed premature to part ways with a 26-year-old outfielder who was a key part of the Jason Bay trade in 2008. However, Moss lost his job as the team's starting right fielder last year when he slumped at the plate, and his offensive numbers are even worse this spring. Moss entered Friday with just two hits in 32 at-bats.
Raynor, 26, was taken by Pittsburgh in the Rule 5 Draft and has intrigued management with his upside. The club is confident he could step in and play Major League defense right away, and his speed could be an immediate asset as well. However, there are still concerns about his ability to hit at the big league level.
After Friday's game, Raynor had a .278 average with just two hits in his last 20 at-bats.
Still, based on evaluations this spring, does Raynor currently sit ahead of Moss in the depth chart?
"If the season were to start today, yes," Huntington said. "John has shown us some things that we had anticipated seeing. He's also shown us that we have some work remaining. Brandon, obviously, has really struggled statistically this spring. But there are still some things that intrigue us about Brandon. But sitting here today, yes, John Raynor is a nose ahead."
If Moss doesn't make the Opening Day roster, he would have to be put on waivers because he is out of options. That would give any of the other 29 teams the chance to take him, and one likely would. If it's Raynor who is squeezed out of a spot, the Pirates would have to offer him back to the Marlins for $25,000, unless the two sides work out a trade.
That's where carrying an extra position player could prove beneficial. The Pirates could potentially carry both players north, giving the organization time for additional evaluation.
Or, of course, Vazquez could sneak in if that sixth bench spot opens. With Crosby and Young available as backup infield options, Vazquez doesn't seem to have a chance to make the club if there are only five bench players. The Pirates would be amenable to trading the veteran infielder if a serious suitor emerged. Otherwise, they'll likely release Vazquez despite his $2 million guaranteed salary.
So how could the Pirates get by with only 11 pitchers? There are two options, though management has not determined which it would run with.
Because the Pirates need fifth starter Daniel McCutchen to throw only once in the first three times through the rotation, the Pirates could use him in relief, as necessary, after he makes that first start. Otherwise, the club could send McCutchen to Triple-A after the first week of the season, call up a seventh reliever, and just stick with a four-man rotation until the third weekend of the season.
The Pirates have until April 4 at 3 p.m. ET to set their roster, though most everything should be determined before the Pirates leave Florida next Thursday to finish the spring with two exhibition games in Philadelphia.
"In a perfect world, it will be set as we head to Philly," Huntington said. "But we always reserve the right to make a couple decisions late. I think we'll be very close by the time we head to Philly, and internally, we may be set. But externally, there may still be some guys in limbo with the potential to make the club in case of an injury, in case of late trade or late waiver claim."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.