I know it is a little early but I was thinking what the Pirates AAA team may look like next season. After doing a little research I discovered that the majority of it is probably set. The bench and the bullpen still have some spots open which will likely go to players signed to minor league contracts. Here is a breakdown of who I think will be the major players for the Pirates AAA team next season.
Eric Fryer, C:If he is able to translate his minor league hitting success over to the majors he has the making of a solid starting catcher. If not his defense and whatecer offense does translate should be enough to make him a very good backup catcher. I would not be surprised at all if Fryer is the Pirates starting catcher come June or July of 2012. An interesting note is that the Pirates have been playing him at 3B this fall to add some versatility (he is already capable of playing 1B and the OF). Tony Sanchez is a possibility here as well but I don’t see the Pirates moving him up to start the season.
Matt Hague, 1B: Hague looks like he could become a Casey Kotchman type first baseman. His power is limited to probably about 15 home runs a year but he has shown the ability to hit for a high average and play good defense. He is Rule V eligible and is not a lock to be protected but since he is a 1B there is a good chance he would go unselected anyway (teams generally don’t carry a backup 1B). He was originally a 3B but really does not have good range there and would probably only play there in a pinch. I would like to see the Pirates give Hague time in RF as he is said to have a really good arm and if he was able to play 1B and RF he could make a good bench option for the Pirates.
Brock Holt, 2B: Holt may return to AA to start the year but I think he showed enough to warrant a spot on the AAA roster. If Alvarez starts out in this level Holt could be the odd man out (unless d’Arnaud is in the majors). Holt was drafted as a shortstop but is not really strong there defensively and projects better as a second baseman. He has some speed but very little power. Holt isn’t an exciting prospect but he is at least some what intriguing because he does have some upside.
Jordy Mercer, 3B: Mercer and d’Arnaud will probably share shortstop and third base duties but I think the Pirates are going to give d’Arnaud the majority of playing time at SS meaning Mercer will be at 3B. Mercer has the defensive ability to play SS but his real value is in his bat. If he is able to improve his pitch recognition skills he could become a very solid major leaguer. Mercer has the power to play 3B and could potential be a 20 home run a year guy (he led the Pirates minor leagues with 19 home runs this season). It is my opinion that Mercer is one of the Pirates more underrated prospects. So he is definitely one to watch.
Chase d’Arnaud, SS: It is possible d’Arnaud starts off in the majors but I think the Pirates start him back off in AAA. As most people probably know d’Arnaud made his pro debut this season but looked very unpolished. He has the skills to be a decent defender at the shortstop position and he has the speed to cause excitement on the bases. The one area d’Arnaud is lacking is with his bat but since shortstop isn’t really a strong offensive position if he can just be respectable hitting he could make an average starting shortstop.
Gorkys Hernandez, LF: Hernandez is the best outfield defender in the Pirates organization and someone who I think should be given a chance to make the major league roster. He has no power to speak of but his speed means he is a threat on the bases and he has the ability to bunt for a base hit. Hernandez’s upside appears to be no more than a 4th or 5th outfielder but he has the tools to exceed in such a role. He is currently on the 40 man roster and just spent a whole season at AAA so this year will be a make or break year for him.
Starling Marte, CF: Knowing what type of defender Hernandez is it is a little strange not penciling him in as the starting center fielder. However Marte is a very special talent who is going to take a back seat to no one (possibly not even Andrew McCutchen) when it comes to sticking in center fielder. While Hernandez is the Pirates best outfield defender Marte is a very close second. He does a tremendous job covering ground and has a very strong arm. His defensive skills are such that many people expect him to move McCutchen from CF to LF. In addition to his defense Marte can hit. He won the Eastern League batting title this season. The two drawbacks he is said to have are his lack of power and plate discipline. He addressed the power knock this season by hitting 12 home runs and .500. On the surface that is not too impressive but this comes a season after he had hammate surgery which traditionally sucks a player’s power for a year and his home stadium is one of the most pitcher friendly parks in the minor leagues. The plate discipline remains an issue he must improve on though.
Andrew Lambo, RF: Yes Lambo will be back in AAA this season (assuming he isn’t selected in the Rule V draft). He failed miserably there this season and played his 3rd straight season in AA which leads many people to think he is falling behind the prospect curve. Not true as he was only 22 and will be 23 next season. That is still a very young age for a player in AAA. As a rule of thumb I don’t start wondering about a player’s prospect status unless a player is above 25 in AAA. Lambo has some power potential and because of this is still someone to watch. On the downside his defense is so poor that he might need to be moved to 1st base soon.
Bench/DH: The makeup of the bench and DH will likely go to some minor league veterans. Some current internal options for the Pirates are Jeff Clement, Miles Durhams, Brian Friday, Anthony Norman and Josh Rodriguez. Steve Pearce (who amazingly still has an option left) would also be a candidate if he is retained. I expect Matt Pagnozzi to be the backup catcher. In addition to the players I listed the Pirates will also probably bring in a few players who will fill bench spots. Obviously not all of these guys are going to be needed.
Rudy Owens, SP: Owens was the Pirates 2009 and 2010 minor league pitcher of the year. He was expected to get some time in the majors this season but had a down year this season and will need to bounce back next year. He has the talent to make a very effective major league pitcher but his struggles this season are still a concern. He is not just another soft tossing lefty as he can get his fastball into the mid 90s but his best trait is his pinpoint control. The Pirates will probably count on Owens to make at least a couple starts in the majors next year.
Jeff Locke, SP: We got to see Locke some at the end of this past season. Essentially he is another pitcher in the Zach Dume, Paul Maholm mold. If no starting pitcher is signed this offseason Locke may be given a chance to compete with Lincoln for the 5th starter job but will likely lose such a battle. He needs a little more development but could make an effective back of the rotation starter for the Pirates.
Kyle McPherson, SP: McPherson was the Pirates pitcher of the year this season and will likely be amongst a lot of people’s top 10 Pirates prospects lists. He excelled in both A+ and AA this season and looks ready to take on the challenge of AAA. McPherson doesn’t have the greatest arsenal of pitches but they are all very good and he can control meaning he has a chance to make an impact in the majors someday possibly as soon as some time in 2012.
Justin Wilson, SP/RP: Wilson was another pitcher the Pirates were counting on to provide rotation depth this season but he continued to show control problems and was eventually moved to the bullpen. It is unclear whether the Pirates plan on moving him back to the rotation but since he does have control issues a bullpen job probably best suits him. Wilson should not be dismissed though because he has a good arsenal of pitches including a fastball that has been clocked up to 99 mph.
Bryan Morris, RP: The last piece remaining of the Jason Bay trade. Morris had a rough year in AA this season failing to get promoted even to AAA. In fact Morris was demoted to the bullpen where he excelled. The Pirates could opt to move him back to the rotation but it appears he is going to stay in the bullpen for a while. Morris has the tools to make himself an effective relief pitcher but of course the Pirates are hoping he turns into more.
Daniel Moskos, RP: Moskos is another pitcher we got to see this season. He had mild success in the majors this season but it appears Hurdle favors Tony Watson over him meaning he will likely start the season in AAA and serve as bullpen depth. He will likely never live up to his 4th overall pick status but Moskos has the potential to become a very good top lefty out of the pen and will hopefully assume that ole some time in 2012.
Jared Hughes, RP: Hughes was fairly impressive in his limited time in the majors. He has a huge 6′ 7″ frame and can overpower hitters with his fastball. He could be a candidate to start off in the major league bullpen but I think he will likely serve as depth to start the season. Hughes doesn’t have the highest of prospect status but could make an effective middle reliever as soon as next season.
Aaron Thompson, RP: Thompson came up and made a very solid spot start when the Pirates rotation was just falling apart. Even with that being said he has already been removed from the 40 man roster once and is likely not in the Pirates long term plans. It is a question whether he will even be retained but if he is he will likely pitch out of the bullpen in AAA or possibly be put back in AA.
The Rest Of The Pitching Staff: The rest of the pitching staff will likely to be filled with non roster invited veterans. Neal Huntington seems to like having at least veteran filling a rotation spot in AAA so that is why I only listed 4 starters. Brian Burres, Sean Gallagher, Noah Krol and a few others are some internal candidates who may fill roles but I expect a handful of spots to go to people form the outside.
Top 5 Prospects
1. Starling Marte
2. Kyle McPherson
3. Rudy Owens
4. Jordy Mercer
5. Jeff Locke
Note: d’Arnaud and Moskos no longer have prospect eligibility.