Today was supposed to be a joyous day.
It is March 26, the original start date for the regular season.
That, obviously, will not happen.
This was supposed to be the unofficial first day of spring. The first official game of manager Derek Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington‘s tenures with the Pirates, and the 134th in franchise history. Instead, the start of the season has been postponed until mid-May — and likely even later than that — due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that can’t stop us from forecasting what that opening-day lineup and roster might have looked like. Most of the transactions had been completed, and after a month of spring training, it was starting to become clear which direction the club was going with a lot of their players.
A quick disclaimer: There is some guesswork in this. Educated guesses, but guesses none the less. Shelton played a lot of his cards close to the chest this spring, being stingy on who might bat where or what his rotation would look like. He never named an opening-day starter.
“We were not close,” Shelton said on that topic during a conference call last week. “We still had games and outings and decisions to be made.”
So this isn’t an exact science, and it very likely will continue to evolve as we near the actual start of the regular season. But if the season started today, who would be on the bump, and what would be the starting nine?
And what better way to set up this faux game than with a live file?
TAMPA, Fla. — Looking ahead to (what should have been) first pitch …
• Who: Pirates vs. Rays
• When: 4:10 p.m.
• Where: Tropicana Field
• Pitchers: RHP Chris Archer vs. RHP Blake Snell
• TV: AT&T SportsNet
• Radio: 93.7 The Fan
• Streaming: Pirates.com
• Tickets: Not Available
• Boxscore: MLB Gameday
• Media notes: Pirates | Rays
SS Kevin Newman
LF Bryan Reynolds
2B Adam Frazier
1B Josh Bell
DH Gregory Polanco
3B Colin Moran
RF Guillermo Heredia
C Jacob Stallings
CF Jarrod Dyson
Let’s break down the reasoning here:
Most of these picks require little explanation. The starting lineup was more or less decided, with the only real variable being who would be the designated hitter.
As for the order, Reynolds and Bell consistently batted second and clean-up, respectively, this spring. Both are well-deserving of their spots, and Newman is the ideal lead-off hitter, combining a high on-base percentage with speed.
Those three seem like safe bets. The rest could be juggled around. Frazier batting in the three-hole is admittedly less than ideal, but he does not fit particularly well anywhere in this lineup, assuming Newman hits first. He did hit better in the back half of the season, catching fire in early July and then closing with a strong September, recording an .836 OPS over the final three months of the season. He revealed in February that he fractured a finger last spring training and slightly separated his shoulder on opening day in Cincinnati. Perhaps that had a greater impact on his slow start than he let on. If nothing else, this proposed lineup would put the high OBP guys in front of Bell.
It also allows Polanco to protect Bell in the order and gives them another legitimate power threat.
“He extends our lineup completely,” Shelton said about Polanco earlier in spring training. “When he’s been here and he’s been healthy, he’s been a really good player.”
Polanco was the DH more than a handful of times this spring, easing into his time in the field. He wants to play 140-150 games this season. It seems like a safe bet he would have been the designated hitter for at least one game this season. Let’s make it opening day. That gives Heredia a theoretical opening-day nod, too.
Moran and Stallings are what they are at the dish and will fall into place somewhere in the lower half of the order. Dyson is the other wild card. His best tool on offense is his speed, and it’s hard to find ways to utilize it effectively at the end of the lineup. His OBP is fine and he could wind up batting lead-off instead of ninth, but with the benefit of playing in the American League and the pitcher not batting, the ninth spot in the order is important. If he gets on, then the top of the order gets to bat with an elite runner on first. That’s a pretty good proposition.
THE REST OF THE ROSTER
On the bench: Luke Maile, Jose Osuna, Erik Gonzalez, JT Riddle
Not too many surprises here. Maile is probably the closest to being on the fringe, seeing how his competition, John Ryan Murphy, clobbered three homers this spring. But Cherington wants the team’s catchers to get the best out of their pitchers, and the pitching staff praised Maile’s game planning and communication skills during games.
Derek Holland, one of spring training’s biggest surprises, has made a point to compliment Maile every time he catches him. His reaction after their first game may have been the best though, when Holland, unprompted, simply said, “He was perfect behind the plate.”
In the bullpen: SP Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, Mitch Keller and Derek Holland, CL Keone Kela, RP Kyle Crick, Nick Burdi, Edgar Santana, Richard Rodriguez, Michael Feliz, Robbie Erlin, Chris Stratton
The rotation was more or less decided once Steven Brault was injured, even if Shelton did not want to admit it. Again, nothing too unexpected, with the exception of perhaps Holland, who impressed in just about every outing he had, especially with his offspeed stuff.
Shelton did, however, name Kela his closer near the beginning of camp, though he did consider Crick as well. Santana was recently optioned to triple-A, but that was mostly because he still had options remaining. Burdi, Feliz, Stratton and Erlin need to make the team or be potentially lost.
Injured list: Steven Brault, Clay Holmes
Two 40-man roster spots will need to be cleared to add Holland and Erlin, who both signed minor-league contracts this offseason. Dovydas Neverauskas showed a little something this spring, but he is out of minor-league options, so he is designated for assignment after failing to make this club.
The other cut isn’t as clear, though Yacksel Rios and Sam Howard seem like candidates. Both were claimed off waivers before Cherington became general manager and were optioned to triple-A last week. Of course, since the season is not starting Thursday, that means Brault and Holmes could be ready for the real opening day, meaning there is no pressure to make any 40-man moves at this time.
Yeah, I know. Everyone wants Archer vs. Tyler Glasnow, or at the very least Charlie Morton. Those two ex-Pirates would have likely pitched in games two and three of the series, but Snell pitched on Mar. 11, putting him in line for the opening day start. He’s their ace and a Cy Young winner. Hard to argue anyone else should get the opening-day start, however fitting the narrative would have been. This would have also been the first time the Pirates face Austin Meadows, who has quickly established himself as the Rays’ best hitter.
As for Archer, while Shelton was adamant that he had not chosen an opening-day starter, signs were pointing to Archer starting game one. That was, of course, contingent on if he was healthy. Archer was scratched from his first start this spring with a sore neck and didn’t get started until March 6. He did pitch a simulated game on March 11, which was an off-day for the club, and assuming he would stick to a five-day schedule, that would give him time for two more starts before opening day. That’s a shorter spring than most players get, but it could have been enough.
Archer is looking to bounce back from his worst season as a big leaguer, though he did seem to regain his form in the second half of the season before his campaign was cut short with a shoulder injury.
“I went back to just being myself,” Archer said about his stronger second half earlier in camp. “I went back to the windup. I went back to predominantly four-seam fastballs and sliders. My changeup’s come a long way, too. But just really getting back to myself and pitching like me. And the new staff has been great about encouraging that.”
Whenever that may be.