The Pittsburgh Pirates left PNC Park on Thursday afternoon dressed in disguise, wearing superhero costumes for their flight to Milwaukee to begin a 10-game road trip.
We might not recognize them when they return.
Corey Dickerson is expected to be activated from the injured list for Friday’s game against the Brewers. Jung Ho Kang might not be far behind. Chris Stratton should be back soon, too. And Trevor Williams is targeted to return within two weeks.
That means the Pirates are getting close to being healthy and have to make multiple roster decisions over the next two weeks. Right now, it’s the moves they didn’t make that could end up hurting the Pirates.
1. Struck out looking: Despite their pitching woes in both the rotation and bullpen, the Pirates were never players for top available free agents Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel.
That would have been a hefty price for the Pirates (30-31) to pay, but their payroll is in the $75 million range. They could have afforded Keuchel, but ownership has made it clear that it has no intention of spending on payroll.
Instead, there is another price to pay. Both Kimbrel and Keuchel ended up in the National League. What the Pirates won’t pay for, they’ll end up playing against.
The Pirates certainly could have used Keuchel, a 31-year-old left-hander who won the 2015 AL Cy Young.
But there was some risk involved as Keuchel was 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA last season, when he lost eight of his first 13 starts for the Houston Astros. With Keuchel scheduled to start Saturday for the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate in Gwinnett, the Pirates should avoid him on their road trip.
They won’t be so lucky with Kimbrel in the NL Central.
For one, Dickerson slashed .182/.237/.212 in nine games at Indianapolis so he still has to show his timing is back.
For another, given that he’s coming off a shoulder injury, the Pirates have a plan to ease Dickerson back into the lineup the way they did with Gregory Polanco.
And with Bryan Reynolds riding a 14-game hitting streak, it shouldn’t even be a consideration to take his bat out of the lineup. Dickerson, however, is a Gold Glove winner and will be a defensive upgrade in left field.
The Pirates could keep five outfielders to allow Dickerson a grace period, turning that from their greatest concern at the start of the season into one of their biggest strengths.
But will it come at the expense of another position player?
3. Making moves: Sending infielder Jose Osuna and reliever Geoff Hartlieb back to Triple-A Indianapolis are likely moves to clear room for Dickerson and Stratton.
The big question is what the Pirates will do to make room when Kang is ready.
4. Who’s on third?: The Pirates can send rookie Cole Tucker (.198 batting average) to Indy to get him regular at-bats, but only if they believe that Kang can be a serviceable backup shortstop.
Kang is slashing .478/.556/.739 with one homer and six RBIs in seven games at Indianapolis, and the Pirates would like to get his bat back in the lineup.
But it shouldn’t come at the expense of Colin Moran, who is slashing .325/.358/.571 with five home runs and 17 RBIs since Kang went on the IL on May 14.
5. Second chance: Mitch Keller’s major league debut at Cincinnati was a disaster, at least for the first inning, but the Pirates should bring back their top prospect soon.
Their patchwork pitching rotation hasn’t helped their cause, as the Pirates (30-31) are 16-17 since Taillon’s last start on May 1 and 9-11 since Williams left the game at San Diego on May 16.
In his last start, Keller allowed two runs on three hits in six innings, with five strikeouts and two walks for his first Triple-A loss this season, 4-2, to Gwinnett on June 2. Keller threw 67 of his 99 pitches for strikes.
Keller is scheduled to start Saturday for Indianapolis against Toledo, which would make him available for the Pirates for Wednesday’s game at Atlanta.
The best-case scenario, however, would be to have Keller make his PNC Park debut when the Pirates return home to play the Detroit Tigers on June 18.