The Pirates protected Tony Sanchez, their 2009 first-round draft pick, and four other minor leaguers from the Rule 5 draft Tuesday by adding them to the 40-man roster.
Sanchez and fellow catcher Ramon Cabrera and right-handed pitchers Vic Black, Phil Irwin and Hunter Strickland were added to the 40-man roster, which now includes 39 players.
Tuesday was the deadline for teams to protect players from the Dec. 6 Rule 5 draft, which allows teams to draft eligible minor league players. The five players the Pirates protected all were eligible for the draft for the first time.
The Pirates can modify the 40-man roster before the Rule 5 draft, but only those players added by today will be protected.
General manager Neal Huntington said Sanchez, 24, made "quality strides" last season both at and behind the plate. But he stopped short of saying Sanchez is ready to compete for a spot on the 25-man roster come spring training.
"He's continued to make improvements," Huntington said. "We feel he's on path to be a quality major league catcher."
Sanchez was the fourth overall draft pick in the 2009 amateur draft. He is a career .268 hitter in the minor leagues and last season earned his first promotion to Class AAA. An above average defensive catcher, Sanchez has struggled at the plate since missing most of the '10 season after his jaw was broken when he was hit twice by pitches.
Cabrera, 23, also earned his first promotion to Class AAA Indianapolis last season, joining the club for their playoffs. Signed as an international free agent in 2008, Cabrera is a career .292 hitter.
The Pirates entered Tuesday with only one catcher -- Michael McKenry -- on their 40-man roster, and Huntington said the Pirates wanted to protect their catchers since the industry is thin at the position.
Huntington said the Pirates and their player development staff are constantly evaluating minor league players with this deadline in mind, though he said the final determination on these five players was made Monday night.
Black, 24, was a compensation pick in the first round of the '09 amateur draft. He has a career 3.28 ERA in four seasons and went 2-3 with 13 saves last season for Class AA Altoona, posting a 1.25 ERA.
He was one of four players the Pirates sent to the Arizona Fall League. There, he struggled, going 1-1 with a 11.81 ERA. Fall League darling Kyle Kaminska was left off the 40-man roster.
Irwin, 25, put together a strong enough season in Altoona to earn a late-season call-up to Indianapolis. He went 4-7 with a 2.93 ERA in 18 appearances, 16 starts, for Altoona and went 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA in four starts with Indianapolis. A 21st-round draft pick in '09, Irwin has a career 3.02 ERA in four seasons.
The biggest surprise was the addition of Strickland, 24, who missed the '11 season with a shoulder injury and had made 23 appearances above Class A. But Huntington said Strickland fits the profile of many minor league pitchers who went on to become strong major league relievers.
Strickland has a quality fastball, a strong changeup and a developing breaking ball, Huntington said, and the front office is high on his prospects. The Pirates acquired Strickland in a trade that sent first baseman Adam LaRoche to the Boston Red Sox in '09.
NOTE -- The Pirates released their game times and promotional schedule for the 2013 season, which includes four postgame concerts and two bobblehead giveaways. They abandoned the experiment of 4:05 p.m. start times on weekday games, opting to again schedule select weekday games at 12:35 p.m. The Pirates will play five 12:35 p.m. games on either Wednesday or Thursday. ... A "Fan Jam" show (Kool & the Gang) will be June 1 and a second "Fan Jam" (act to be announced) will be June 15. Skyblast dates will be Aug. 31 (to be announced) and Sept. 21 (Neon Trees). ... An Andrew McCutchen bobblehead commemorating his offseason Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards will be handed out April 20, and an A.J. Burnett bobblehead will be handed out May 18.
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published November 21, 2012 5:00 AM