Today is August 31st. On August 31st, baseball’s rosters lock for the post-season, which means that only players on the active roster or the disabled list on August 31st can be used in the playoffs (with an exception for the 60-day disabled list, which we can talk more about in a minute). The Pittsburgh Pirates are only 1/2 game out of a playoff spot right now, which means that this is actually something the Pittsburgh Pirates have to actively worry about today. This is weird and wonderful.
We don’t know anything official yet, but KDKA’s Mike Vukovcan reported yesterday that Alex Presley and Kyle McPherson are both on their way to Milwaukee to meet the club. It’s easy to guess what McPherson might be doing there, since the Pirates only have four starting pitchers right now, but we have to do some extrapolation for Presley. Let’s start with McPherson, move to Presley, and talk about roster implications from there.
There are two reasons McPherson might be in Milwaukee tonight One is that the Pirates have him up as insurance in case something goes wrong with Jeff Karstens’ groin tonight (this seems unlikely to me since Correia’s still on the roster and rested). If Karstens gets the all-clear, McPherson won’t be officially added to the roster until tomorrow as a September call-up, which would still let him make a start on Monday (the off-day let the Pirates set their roster for the weekend without Erik Bedard’s spot coming up, but we’ll assume that McPherson is the guy that will eventually start in his place). Not needing a starter until Monday would make McPherson’s call-up today an interesting move up today to set the playoff roster (most clubs only go with four starters in the playoffs anyway), because it would imply that he’s a pitcher they want on the playoff roster, not someone else. Let’s ruminate on that for a second.
McPherson was a pretty interesting, non-traditional prospect entering the 2012 season. His career got off to a sloooow start; he was drafted in 2007 but he still started 2009 in short-season State College. He had a decent 2010 season with 124 strikeouts in 117 2/3 innings, but he did it as a 22-year old in Single-A. Still, the Pirates chose to protect him in that December’s Rule 5 draft, which you may remember caused a bit of a stir when the Bucs lost Nathan Adcock (a more advanced prospect, but with less of a ceiling) to the Royals. McPherson pretty immediately justified that decision in 2011, though; he buzzed through 12 starts in Bradenton with a 10.00 K/BB ratio and a 2.89 ERA and barely missed a beat when he was promoted to Altoona to make 16 starts for the Curve (3.02 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9). When 2012 started, I figured he had a good chance to be the first pitcher from Indianapolis promoted to Pittsburgh this year (I had him ahead of Owens, Locke, and Wilson on my last prospect list) if he started the year strong with Indy. If you remember the Rumbunter Podcast I did back in April, I said that I was hoping that he’d shake his early-season shoulder problems off so that I could see him pitch in Durham. Instead, those problems kept him shelved for quite a while and he started 2012 off with Altoona to ease back into things.
He pitched pretty well in Altoona, though, and he pitched really well in his three starts with Indy (0.98 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.82 WHIP, so obviously he had a ridiculously low BABIP, but still) and we saw him in long relief 10 days ago after the 19-inning game. From what I can tell of his stuff, he’s kind of like a right-handed Rudy Owens. His fastball sits in the low 90s and he can occasionally ramp it up a bit (he hit 93 in his relief stint, but I’m not sure if that’s what it’s normally like when he starts) and he locates it very well. He’s got a curve and a change that are decent, but he’s a flyball guy that’s occasionally prone to homers (you can read the WTM profile at Pirates Prospects for a full picture). Three pitches, decent velocity, and good location means he could be a solid mid-to-back-end starter as a big leaguer, depending on how well his secondary stuff develops. I still say he could have some success right now because he’s only made four Triple-A starts and there’s a good chance he’s going to catch people off-guard, especially if the Pirates continue to use their off-days to ensure he faces teams like the Astros instead of teams like the Brewers. If he can find even a little more velocity out of the bullpen, he could also be a pretty effective reliever, though he’s never really pitched in that capacity, though I think Chris Leroux would make more sense in this kind of role.
The obvious move to put McPherson on the team would seem to be to demote Chase d’Arnaud back to Indy or DFA Jeff Clement, except that a lot of teams choose to go with a 14/11 position player/pitcher split because the playoffs are full of off days and more pitchers are usuallly unnecessary. The Pirates have a bit of leeway here, too; Charlie Morton is on the 60-day disabled list and won’t be back for the playoffs, so the Pirates can replace him with literally anyone on the 40-man roster for the playoffs, whether they’re on the roster today or not (there is some confusion if this is limited to a pitcher or not; it definitely used to be the case but it may not be anymore). That means that if the Pirates don’t call McPherson up until Monday and leave the roster as is, then call Justin Wilson up as a September call-up and he dominates, the Pirates can put Wilson on the playoff roster as a “replacement” for Morton even though he’d really be in Kevin Correia or Hisanori Takahashi’s roster spot. It also means the Pirates could put McPherson on the roster today and demote Jared Hughes today and send him to West Virginia or Altoona (their seasons both end on Monday, so Hughes could be back with the Pirates on Tuesday) to make room for McPherson without disrespecting Kevin Correia (this is a dumb reason to do something but also something the Pirates are probably considering). This line of thinking isn’t limited to McPherson, of course; the Pirates could make this kind swing with Chris Leroux or Bryan Morris or Justin Wilson or Jeff Locke today, too. McPherson’s just the guy we know is in Milwaukee.
Let’s summarize and clean things up here: we’ll assume that for the purposes of the playoffs, the Pirates will go with 14 position players and 11 pitchers. Charlie Morton gives them the ability to add one player (maybe limited to a pitcher, maybe not) to their playoff roster that doesn’t have to be on the roster today. The Pirates don’t really need a starter until Monday, so that means any pitcher put on the roster today will be put there for the expressed purpose of playoff eligibility. That means that to add a pitcher today, they’ll either get rid of Correia or they’ll demote Hughes to the low minors to speed his return back to Pittsburgh, with the intention of putting him on the playoff roster in Morton’s spot.
So what about Presley? The Pirates have four outfielders on their roster right now (McCutchen, Snider, Tabata, and Jones), plus Starling Marte will be eligible for the playoffs since he’s on the disabled list at the moment. I’m guessing the Pirates want the ability to choose between Tabata and Presley and Marte for a playoff spot or two, so I don’t think an outfielder will go down. Sending a middle infielder down would make sense since Barmes, Mercer, Harrison, and d’Arnaud are all still on the team, but as was just pointed out to me, d’Arnaud’s speed makes him an interesting playoff option. I’d think the club would want Mercer and Harrison both as options, too, and so since Presley more or less duplicates Jeff Clement’s skill set (lefty, some pop) but with the ability to play outfield, it seems most likely that Presley replaces Clement on the roster.
There are some other unknowns here, of course; Chad Qualls could go to the 60-day disabled list with an infection in that stubbed toe or something, which would mean that the Pirates would get a free roster replacement for him, too (I have no idea how blatantly this can be exploited, but if Chad Qualls goes on the 60-day DL with an injury that started a stubbed toe, we’ll probably have an idea). Players can also get hurt or “get hurt” in September. Where we stand today, though, is that I think we’ll see Presley up for Clement and quite possibly McPherson up for either Correia or a short Hughes demotion to the low minors to hasten his return. There’s still some flexibility with Marte on the DL and due back before the season ends and with Charlie Morton on the 60-day DL, but we should have a pretty good idea of what the front office thinks is its best playoff roster before the day ends.