9-6-21 By Craig W. Toth (aka @bucsbasement on Twitter)
Ever since the most recent trade deadline, and in some cases a little before that, Pirates Fans have realized the first 40-Man Roster Crunch of General Manager Ben Cherington is quickly approaching; with many decisions to be made concerning player currently on the roster, as well as others that will need to be protected from the MLB Rule 5 Draft in December.
For some this became a fairly easy exercise, as they quickly skimmed the Pirates Top Prospect Lists on the site(s) of their choosing; making note of which players would be Rule 5 eligible for the first time this coming off-season (noted as Dec ‘21 on Fangraphs). In most cases this can provide an accurate assessment of individual prospects, but not in the situation as a whole.
Not all Rule 5 eligible players will be, or can be protected, certain positions are in higher demand and/or are more easily stashed on a team’s 26-man active roster in the case of the Major League portion and just because a player hasn’t been protected before, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be protected this time around. Is it less likely? Maybe, but it is not out of the realm of possibilities. Players progress/develop at different speeds in that they may have made leaps in the off-season, or in this case during the absence of a Minor League Season, and should at least receive some consideration concerning whether or not they are worthy of a 40-Man Roster Spot.
One such player is relief pitcher, Hunter Stratton, who I spoke with Altoona Curve Broadcaster Jon Mozes about all the way back in the middle of June. At the time Mozes focused on Stratton as one of the under the radar Curve players that could be in line for a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis in the near future due to him recording 60% of his outs via the swing and miss, and also pointed out how obvious it was that he put in the time in during the shutdown; shortening the arm stroke, harnessing his 95-97 split finger and really getting a feel for his slider.
Stratton’s promotion to the Indians would come a little over a month later on July 23rd.
Originally drafted by the Pirates in the 16th Round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft from Walters State Community College, where he compiled 14 straight no-hit innings during his final season with the Senators, on his way to a 3.93 ERA and 10.72 K/9 over 16 appearances-14 of them starts.
For the first two years of his professional career, Pittsburgh kept him on a similar path; giving him 31 starts over 34 appearances, with limited success at times. Between, the Advanced Rookie Level Bristol Pirates and the former Low A affiliate of the Pirates, the West Virginia Power, Stratton posted a 4.49 ERA and a 1.504 WHIP.
During his third season, with the then High-A Bradenton Marauders, he eventually made the transition to a full-time reliever; although the change in roles did not go as smoothly as expected at times. To start the year, as a reliever, for two months he posted a 1.75 ERA and a .944 WHIP over 30.2 innings of work. In June and July he bounced between starter and reliever a little bit, landing on reliever for the final month of the season. As a starter he had a 9.00 ERA versus 3.39 in relief and a WHIP of 1.818 to 1.279; setting up his future in the Pirates Farm System, which unfortunately would have to wait until 2021.
Flash-forward to July 23rd, the date of his promotion, where in the course of his time with the Curve, Stratton earned a 1.42 ERA, a 1.145 WHIP and 7 saves while striking out an insane 15.6 batters per nine innings. However, since the promotion, regrettably his performance has not always been the epitome of success. Currently, he has a 5.54 ERA and a 1.385 WHIP through 13 innings; mostly due to his outing on Friday night when he allowed four runs on 3 hits, with a walk and two strikeouts. At the same time, his advanced metrics would have many not knowing exactly what to think as his FIP (3.16) and xFIP (4.83) clearly don’t align.
Nevertheless, after 20 some odd games of which the only certainty is that there is now way of knowing how many Stratton will appear in, Cherington will have to make a decision that could potentially affect this young man’s professional career.
Once again it is not a sure thing that he would be selected in the Rule 5 Draft, yet, it is far more likely than it was the last time around. On the other hand, I’m not convinced he is a worthwhile 40-Man addition; even though he is only 24 years old, and I would hate to see a young player with his potential, who seems as if he may have unlocked something, be snatched out of the Pirates Organization.
Either way, it won’t be too long before we find out where Cherington falls on this, along with many other crucial decisions.