Sunday morning: Roster depth and AJ Burnett

In the wake of these two embarrassing losses in Colorado (which, I dunno, I guess I’ll say more about in the preview for today’s game), there’s been a lot of focus on the Pirates’ current roster construction. That’s because the Pirates have both Michael Martinez and Brent Morel on the active roster, and since the Pirates are facing a slew of left-handed pitchers this week, Brent Morel is playing quite a bit.

This is obviously frustrating, but in looking at the Pirates schedule this week, their match-ups, and their roster depth, I’m also not sure there’s a lot to be done about it. There’s a conversation to be had about using Martinez to replace Barmes, since Barmes is on the roster as a defensive wizard and Martinez is on the roster as a 25th man utility player. Since Martinez doesn’t have Barmes’s defensive strengths, you can probably make a case for calling Andrew Lambo up, since he does have one strength (his bat). While that strength doesn’t replicate Barmes’s one strength, at least the Pirates would have a player with a strength on the roster.

Martinez would be fine as the 25th man, though, because 25th men tend to not really matter all that much — remember all the wailing we did about Brandon Inge last year? The whole thing has been complicated by Starling Marte’s concussion putting him on the disabled list before a weekend in Colorado against an all-left-handed rotation. Marte goes on the disabled list and since Josh Harrison is a righty, Harrison becomes and outfielder. Pedro Alvarez can’t really hit lefties and he definitely can’t play defense right now, so if Harrison is an outfielder, the Pirates need an infielder. That means Brent Morel.

You can run through the other options, but it’s hard to find a better one. The one right-handed outfield option that the Pirates have is Jose Tabata and it seems unlikely that Jose Tabata is ever coming back. I’ve seen quite a few people pining over Chris Dickerson since his trade to Cleveland, but on top of his being a lefty, Dickerson had an opt-out clause in his deal for July 15th — before Marte’s injury. That means that if Cleveland wanted him, he was going to Cleveland either way. We can go back to Andrew Lambo, but again, bringing up a lefty in advance of facing all lefties this weekend forces either Lambo, Alvarez, or Snider onto the field. Morel is not a great player, but his career OPS against lefties is better than Snider’s.

This is just a weird confluence of circumstances that boiled over with Marte’s injury: the Pirates’ best utility infielder has become a useful outfield option, the Pirates’ third baseman has completely lost his ability to throw the ball to first base, the Pirates already have an injured utility infielder (who barely plays enough to be considered an injury risk and who got hurt during a batting practice fluke), and the Pirates won’t face a right-handed pitcher all weekend. Most teams keep their Triple-A team stocked with Quad-A guys to help out in situations like this, but it’s impossible to have a Triple-A roster prepared for any and all circumstances. The Pirates need to think about a few things here as the trade deadline approaches (namely and in order: Pedro Alvarez’s viability as a third baseman down the stretch and the purpose of having Michael Martinez on the roster instead of Lambo or a trade for a right-handed bat, which seems more likely), but I dunno, it’s hard for me to imagine that there are many teams that would’ve done a lot better with the injuries the Pirates have and the roster and matchup problems that those presented the Pirates with. Hopefully this will clear itself up once Marte is healthy and the Pirates start facing right-handed pitching at a normal rate again.

If we can transition from there into the trade deadline, the one name that the Pirates seem linked to over and over again is AJ Burnett. The Cliffs’ Notes here is that the Pirates need a starter, the Phillies are sellers, and AJ Burnett would apparently love to be a Pirate again. The Pirates are, of course, petrified of Burnett’s 2015 player option that will probably be worth in the neighborhood of $12 million after the escalators based on starts made start ramping up. It’s really hard to fault them there, I think, because Burnett is showing some signs of aging this year and because the Pirates got burnt badly by a hefty player option in the form of Wandy Rodriguez this year.

I’ll be writing more about the trade deadline in the coming week, of course, but let’s tackle the Burnett situation briefly right here. I think the Pirates need another starter down the stretch, I think the Pirates should be willing to part with a decent prospect or two for a starter that will help them in 2014 and in 2015, and I think that the Pirates probably have the ability to take on payroll at the deadline given that they didn’t do much in the winter. If we really want to get deep into the philosophical weeds, I’d argue that their inactivity over the winter is only really forgivable if they act to upgrade this team at the deadline, but that’s probably a topic of August 1st. The question of adding a starter should be this, though: is that pitcher enough better than Edinson Volquez to justify the financial and prospect cost? That assumes that Gerrit Cole’s rehab will go well enough to have him back by mid-August, but there’s not really any reason to think he won’t be back by then at this point. And so my concern with Burnett is that he’s simply not good enough to justify the trade. His FIP and xFIP aren’t hugely better than Volquez’s (3.96/3.95 vs. 4.36/4.34) and his fastball has dropped almost a full mile per hour to below 92 this year.

Burnett is not the pitcher he was last year, and it’s not hard to imagine him being an expensive disaster next year. If the Pirates are going to pay a premium in dollars and prospects to upgrade themselves at this trade deadline, they should be getting a pitcher that will both obviously make them better this year and help them out next year. Burnett probably helps them a little this year (particularly in bridging the gap from whenever the trade happens to whenever Cole comes back), but I don’t know if he’s a huge upgrade and he’s a huge risk next year. I don’t think he’d be worth it.

Image: Liz West, Flickr

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.