As the Pirates make their final roster decisions in the coming months, expect roster flexibility to play a role. There are currently five players on the team's 40-man roster who are out of options and not already guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster.
The crux is this: If any of the five don't make the club out of camp, the Pirates risk losing them on waivers. That risk, whether the Pirates say it publically or not, will play a role in Spring Training evaluations.
Here is a look at those five players and what their situations are as Spring Training approaches:
After missing all of 2010 due to injury, Ascanio will report to Bradenton, Fla., without any health issues. He has been pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League -- and pitching well -- so that is certainly encouraging for the Pirates.
Though the Pirates eyed Ascanio as a starter when they acquired him in a five-player deal at the 2009 Trade Deadline, his most likely role on the '11 club is as a reliever. It will be easier for the right-hander to make the roster if he's slated to pitch out of the bullpen, and the Pirates don't want to risk losing a pitcher that has been healthy enough to pitch just twice for Pittsburgh so far.
Ascanio's ability to throw in the mid-90s could be an asset in relief for the Pirates, who are still looking for pitchers to bridge the gap from the starters to Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek in the back end of the 'pen.
Hart was acquired in the same deal that netted Ascanio, and the right-hander is coming off a forgettable 2010 campaign. It started with disastrous Spring Training results that forced the Pirates to start the season without Hart in the rotation. Hart's season then came to an abrupt end less than a month after it started when he had labrum surgery.
Hart is on schedule to be healthy at the start of Spring Training, so he will be ready to make his comeback attempt. His path is likely to be quite similar to Ascanio's. Because Hart missed most of 2010, he's going to be competing for a spot in the bullpen, not the rotation. The right-hander has a better chance of making the Opening Day roster this way.
That's not to say that Hart is anything near a lock to make the club, however, as there are plenty of questions left to answer. First, he has to prove he's healthy. Then, he has to show that he has recovered mentally from a tough string of performances late in the '09 season and into 2010. He must prove, too, that those struggles were an anomaly and that he can still be effective at the big league level.
Morton is quite an interesting case. He obviously had a terrible season in 2010 following preseason predictions that he could be the rotation's break-out performer. Instead, the righty found himself burdened with nine losses before the end of the second month of the season. Morton righted himself a bit during a Triple-A stint and showed a few encouraging signs with Pittsburgh late in the year and in winter ball. But plenty of questions still remain.
There are concerns that Morton took a mental beating that he never will completely be able to recover from and that his potential will never be entirely tapped. On the other hand, it's hard to give up on a pitcher who has obvious talent and nasty movement on his pitches.
Morton certainly missed an opportune chance to prove he should be a mainstay in a Major League rotation last year, and now it looks as if he'll be competing for just one open rotation spot. The fact that he is out of options could give Morton an edge to get that fifth spot in the rotation if he shows enough encouraging signs in February and March.
Of this group of five, Resop might stand atop the list as being the one with the best stranglehold on a roster spot this far out from the start of the season. He is one of the leading candidates to help the Pirates address their need for middle relievers.
After being claimed off waivers in August, Resop thrived with Pittsburgh. He allowed just four earned runs and struck out 24 in 19 innings (22 games). He attacked the strike zone consistently and showed an ability to pitch in some meaningful situations late in games.
Though Bowker received plenty of playing time late last season, his chances of making the Pirates' Opening Day roster have taken a hit with the Pirates' offseason moves. The acquisition of Matt Diaz and Garrett Jones' move to the outfield gives the Pirates four outfielders already. The club will probably take one more, though Bowker isn't the only extra outfielder under consideration.
Alex Presley could be considered, and Steve Pearce would be able to serve as an extra outfielder if he makes the club as a backup first baseman. Corey Wimberly could also fit on the roster as a fifth outfielder if he makes the club as a backup infielder. And don't forget about Ryan Doumit, who is already in line to get some playing time in the outfield in addition to his catching duties.
Bowker, who was acquired in a Trade Deadline deal in July, hit .232 in 26 games with the Pirates late last season. He has shown an ability to hit in the Minors, but that hasn't translated to sustained success in plenty of big league opportunities to that point. This doesn't necessarily bode well if the Pirates keep Bowker solely to fill a bench role.