The injury to Andrew McCutchen, which could have a devastating impact on the Pirates’ playoff chances, has ramifications that will ripple through the team’s active roster, its minor-league system and the MLB trade market. McCutchen has been diagnosed with an oblique injury on his left side. The injury, which occurred when he hit a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning Sunday, could cause him to miss as much as three to four weeks.
The active roster
• Starling Marte, who was on a rehab assignment at Indianapolis in connection with concussion symptoms, will take McCutchen’s spot in center field. This is the lone plus in the scenario: Marte will be a better center fielder than McCutchen.
* Much-maligned Travis Snider becomes the man who will assume McCutchen’s spot in the starting lineup. He’ll take Marte’s job in left field, at least against right-handed pitching. Since June 1, Snider is batting .291 with an .822 OPS. Since July 1, he is batting .308 with a .932 OPS. However, he has failed miserably in previous attempts at full-time play. But based on recent performance he has earned another chance, and it’s not like the Pirates have a lot of options. He has been particularly ineffective against lefties in his career -- .225 BA, .621 OPS -- so the Pirates might be looking for a platoon partner for him.
• Moving Josh Harrison to left field makes no sense. That leaves the third base job for Pedro Alvarez, who just last week finally lost it. Nothing has transpired to alter the throwing problems that forced Alvarez to the bench, so it’s hard to see him getting back into the lineup with that huge negative still a part of his package.
The minor-league system
• Andrew Lambo is the leading candidate to take McCutchen’s roster spot. Lambo was batting .329 with a .942 OPS at Indianapolis. He was given a chance to win the starting first base job in spring training but lost it when he performed poorly. Lambo missed close to two months with a thumb injury but has been back in the Indianapolis lineup long enough to be ready to handle a promotion.
• Jose Tabata was demoted to Indianapolis June 24, when the Pirates had to open a roster spot for Neil Walker. He still remains third on the team in batting average at .279, behind only McCutchen and Harrison. But he is playing poorly in the minors -- .227 BA, .566 OPS in 88 at-bats. Tabata, however, was a key factor in the Pirates’ stretch drive last season. He had an .851 OPS in August and an .844 in September. Not only has he done it in the past, he would be a better option to platoon with Snider than Lambo.
The trade market
The non-waiver trading period ended July 31. Players now must pass through waivers before they can be dealt. Passing through waivers is the easy part. Making the trade is the hard part. Recognizing the Pirates’ desperate situation, teams will be making excessive demands for their players. Not only that, but all the teams with worse records get a chance at the players before the Pirates. A team might make a trade just to block the Pirates from getting the player.
• Marlon Byrd is clearly the best outfielder on the market. More than that, he was instrumental in the Pirates’ success last season after being acquired in a waiver deal in August. Byrd, a right-handed hitter, is batting .272 with a .799 OPS. His 21 home runs are third in the National League, his 63 RBIs are seventh. He would step right into McCutchen’s spot in the batting order. But there are complications with Byrd beyond the Pirates’ even being in a position to make a trade for him.
Byrd’s contract calls for him to be paid $8 million this season and $8 million in 2015. An $8 million option for 2016 takes effect if he has 600 plate appearances in 2015 or 1,100 in 2014-15. He has 462 this season, roughly 110 a month. He could easily finish this season with 650 plate appearances, which would mean he’d need only 450 in 2015 to gain the option year. In other words, the Pirates would be giving up prospects for Byrd and picking up a contract that has about $18.5 million remaining on it.
• A name often mentioned is Josh Willingham of the Twins, who is in the final year of his contract. Willingham is batting only .218 but has a .359 on-base percentage and a .772 OPS. As recently as 2012, he had 35 home runs and an .890 OPS.
For the moment, and the Pirates hope for three to four weeks, the job belongs to Snider. Lambo will get second call.