AAA: Tony Sanchez
Backing up Tony Sanchez this season in AAA will likely be some combination of Lucas May, Ali Solis and Brian Jeroloman. All of three catchers are past their prospect days but should an opening arise in the majors it is possible one of them could get the call. As for Sanchez his prospect stock has took a hit down to the point where he is no longer widely consider the Pirates top catching prospect (Battling Bucs still gives him the slightest of edges though) but he still does have some upside and could be a useful major league catcher as early as later this season. Sanchez’s defense was said to be good when he was drafted and that remains the case; his game calling is also improving which means he looks to be a very capable receiver at this point in his career. The question is as it always was his bat. Sanchez recovered some last season from a terrible 2011 but his offensive numbers were still a disappointment. In order to move forward this year and show he still might be able to develop into at least an averae MLB starting catcher his offensive game particularly his power will need to make great strides.
AA: Carlos Paulino
Paulino will serve as the regular catcher in AA and be backed up primarily by Charlie Cutler. Kawika Emsley-Pai and others may play at the level as well but barring an injury it is likely to be sparingly. At this point in his career Paulino is essentially an extreme version of Sanchez. His defensive game overall is a little better than Sanchez’s but his bat is worse. Paulino’s defense alone has what it takes to make him a backup catcher in the majors but if he is ever going to have a shot at being a starting catcher he is going to have to show he can hit some. Paulino has hit fairly well in the past posting good numbers in 2011 but he struggled last season when he was forced to repeat A+. Now as the unquestioned starter in AA this is Paulino’s time to shine.
A+: Jacob Stallings, Elias Diaz
Stallings and Diaz are expected to split catching time in A+. Like Sanchez and Paulino these two catchers are noted more for their defense than their offense. Stallings was drafted last year by the Pirates in the early rounds mainly as an attempt to save cap space for making a run at Appel. He comes from the NCAA holding the single season record for throwing out runners attempting to steal. The Pirates are aggressively pushing him over regular A ball and straight to advance. This is a typical move for advanced college hitters but Stallings is not one of those. His offense will likely struggle but it is going to have to be his defense that carries him anyway. As for Diaz the Pirates seem to really like him but up to this point he really hasn’t shown much progress as a hitter. Like all the other catchers discussed so far he is going have to show some improvements with the bat to see his prospect stock rise.
A: Wyatt Mathisen
At this point I’m not really sure who will back up Mathisen but the Pirates are not short of options as the lower levels are filled with a ton of catchers (non prospects of course). Mathisen is a horse of a different color in this catching crop. He is widely considered to be the Pirates top catching prospect (Battling Bucs has him 2nd just slighly behind Sanchez) with his biggest weakness being his defense. Mathisen is really just becoming accustomed to the catcher position having played the majority of his high school career at the shortstop position. His bat is advanced for a high school player and his defensive game has shown flashes of potential but with this being a relatively new position to him there is still a lot to work on. The main challenge for Mathisen in 2013 will be just adjusting to being a full tiem catcher.
Lower Levels: Jin-De Jhang, Daniel Arribas
There was some talk the Pirates might consider moving Jhang to A ball with Mathisen and having them continue to split time between catcher and DH but that doesn’t appear to have happened. Jhang will start the season likely in short season ball. Like Mathisen, Jhang is relatively new to catching and has a lot of work to do to get the mechanics of the position down. His bat is strong for a catcher though and makes him an interesting prospect to watch. Arribas has played catcher, 1st base and 3rd base in the DSL but appears to be focusing entirely on catching right now. Arribas shown some hitting talent in the DSL last season and was moved up to the states this year. He will likely share catching duties in rookie ball this season as he adjusts to his more permanent position home.
Top 5 Catching Prospects
1. Tony Sanchez
2. Wyatt Mathisen
3. Jin-De Jhang
4. Carlos Paulino
5. Jacob Stallings
Catchers: Carlos Paulino, Charlie Cutler
Paulino is a defensive first catcher who is graded by scouts as one of the best defensive catchers in the minor leagues. He stuck around with the big league camp until the final round of cuts so the Pirates must see something in him. Cutler is an organizational player who is a bat first catcher.
1st Base/DH: Alex Dickerson, Matt Curry
Both Dickerson and Curry are prospects to some degrees. If it wasn’t for the logjam of 1B types in AAA (Hague, Larish and possibly Robinson) Curry would almost certainly be there after a good season in AA. Both players have received a little time in LF this Spring but neither is an option there long term. Both players are good hitters but the question is whether either has enough power to make up for their defensive limitations.
Middle Infield: Jarek Cunningham, Gift Ngoepe, Drew Maggi
Cunningham will be the starter at 2nd and Ngoepe at shortstop. Cunningham is repeating the level because he struggled last season but has good power for a 2nd baseman so he is worth keeping an eye on. Ngoepe doesn’t do much with the bat but is a slick fielding shortstop. If he can hit even a little his glove will almost certainly carry him to the majors. Maggi was given an overslot bonus just a few years ago but is now just an organizational player. He could see time just about anywhere including the outfield but his primary purpose will be backing up the middle infield.
Other Infielders: Stefan Welch, Adalberto Santos
Welch and Santos figure to split the third base duties. Neither is a 3rd baseman by trade as Welch is better suited for 1st base and Santos has played almost exclusively the outfield. Welch is coming off an excellent season in A+ in 2012 which earned him a promotion to AA. He started off hot but quickly cooled down. He did have a good showing in the WBC for Team Australia this spring though. Santos has hit at every level the Pirates put him on and probably should be up in AAA this year but the roster figures to be a little crowded. He played exclusively the outfield last season but played some 2B the year before that. Santos is likely to see time in both the OF and 2B as well as adding 3B to his duties. If he can be passable defensively eat each position it coupled with his good contact skills could make him an intriguing bench option.
Outfielders: Mel Rojas, Andrew Lambo, Justin Howard, Andy Vasquez
Rojas is the only real prospect in this group. He has a good set of tools but hasn’t really put everything together. He probably isn’t ready for AA but with Polanco moving up to A+ the Pirates have decided to give him an aggressive push and let him continue playing center field. Lambo will be spending his 5th year at the AA level. This his last year before minor league free agency so if he is going to ever live up to that prospect hype its likely now or never. Howard has good contact skills but is poor defensively and has little power. In reality he shouldn’t be in the outfield but the only position he plays even half decently his first base and there is just no room for him there. Vasquez is a utility player who has been in the Pirates organization seemingly forever. He has played a little bit of everywhere but it appears he will serve mainly as a backup outfielder this season. In addition to these guys Santos is likely to see a lot of time in the outfield and Maggi, Dickerson and even Curry could get the occasional start as well.
Starting Pitchers: Jameson Taillon, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, Tyler Waldron
Taillon is of course Taillon. He is the only true top flight prospect at this level. The main question surrounding him is when will he move up to AAA. Pimentel was acquired in the Joel Hanrahan trade and has a lot of upside but has struggled in AA in the past and is on his last option so he is going to have to impress quickly. Cumpton had moderate success in the AA rotation last year but wasn’t overwhelming so the Pirate have opted to have him repeat the level. Sadler is a prospect I like a lot but he is better suited for relief than starting. He pitched well last year both as a starter and a reliever in A+ and the Pirates like to keep their pitching prospects starting for as long as possible. Waldron was supposed to be moving to the bullpen but I guess the Pirates have had a change of mind. He really didn’t pitch that well last season in A+ but he was promoted near the end of the season so the Pirates must see some potential in him.
Relief Pitchers: Tim Alderson, Nate Baker, Jason Townsend, Jeff Inman, Luis Sanz, Ethan Hollingsworth, Kenn Kasparek
Alderson has seemingly been around forever but is still relatively young at only 24 years old. He gets another go around in AA and this could be his last chance to salvage his career. he still has that great curveball and his fastball is back in the lower 90s so anything is possible. Baker was in the AA rotation for most of last year but struggled and was moved to the bullpen. He did well there and as a left hander he shouldn’t be completely dismissed as an organizational player quite yet. Townsend was a prospect I was initially excited about when the Pirates drafted him because he was throwing in the upper 90s and striking batters out. However something happened last year and that good velocity and strike out numbers were no longer there. I will be curious to see if he can regain that form this season. Inman was a fairly highly touted 12th round pick by the Pirates who only slipped that low because of health concerns. Well so far those health concerns have proved to be a big problem as before last year he pitched in only 17 games over 3 seasons. he did remain relatively healthy last year and displayed good velocity but his strike out rates were low largely do to the lack of a good secondary pitch. The other 3 relievers were added this offseason to provide depth and are only organizational players.
The players I’m the most surprised to not see here are Zach Thornton, Kelson Brown and Dan Grovatt. Thornton was acquired this offseason for Resop and was talked about as the potential closer for the AA team. He had a high strike out rate last year but he was admittedly old for the level. Kelson Brown had a good showing in AA last year and looked like a possible future utility player in the major leagues. He didn’t have much of a ceiling but I would say he had a shot at a Rob Mackowiak type career. Finally Grovatt was one of the better hitters at A+ last year which again really isn’t saying a whole lot as the offense was terrible at that level. One other player to watch but he is not a notable omission is Ryan Beckman. Fan Graphs recently called Beckman a sleeper prospect and I agree with that assessment. Ordinarily he would be on this roster but he is still recovering from Tommy John surgery.
1. Jameson Taillon
2. Alex Dickerson
3. Gift Ngoepe
4. Adalberto Santos
5. Stolmy Pimentel
6. Casey Sadler
7. Mel Rojas Jr
8. Matt Curry
9. Carlos Paulino
10. Brandon Cumpton
11. Jarek Cunningham
Last offseason I did a 15 part preview of the Pirates upcoming seasons focusing on what I expected to see out of various positions at the major league levels, the minor levels, the coaching staff and the front office. The series went over fairly well with my readers so I have decided to bring it back for a second year. I’m not sure how many parts this year’s series will include but I will do my best to cover every key player I can think of.
At the very top of my personal top Pirates prospects list the Pirates have a group I call the top 6 and a group I call the next 6. Two of the top 6 prospects and 1 of the next 6 prospects will be beginning the 2013 season either in AA, AAA or perhaps the major leagues. The two top prospects are of course Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. The next 6 prospect is Kyle McPherson. Cole is likely to garner the most attention and will likely start the season out in AAA but with a few adjustments and a strong start to the season he could see Pittsburgh fairly early on. Big things are expected from Cole and I fully expect we will see him in Pittsburgh come June or July. Cole may be the ace the Pirates are sorely lacking but it is not realistic to expect him to be that right out of the gate. I expect his major league time to be solid but lacking the elite quality we all will hope to see. Taillion should start the year in AA with a chance for a mid season promotion to AAA. I have high hopes that 2013 will be the year he unleashes his full arsenal and starts putting up the dominant minor league numbers we all hoped we would see. McPherson is competing for a major league rotation spot this spring but barring injuries I see him starting the year in the AAA rotation. McPherson will definitely get some time in the majors this season and I would like to see him perform well enough to earn a 2014 rotation spot. I think McPherson has the upside of a solid middle of the rotation starter and I have reasonably high hopes he will take the first steps towards establishing himself as one this season.
The Pirates upper levels aren’t exactly brimming with hitting talent. The top prospects are probably Tony Sanchez, Adalberto Santos, Alex Dickerson, Gift Ngoepe and if he is promoted to AA Mel Rojas Jr. Sanchez I have already discussed this is a pivotal year for him to have a solid season in AAA and in the likely event of one of the Pirates two catchers suffering an injury this season I would expect Sanchez to be a candidate to be called up to the majors. My expectation is Sanchez will have a solid but not great year in AAA and struggle offensively during any brief major league stint. Santos, Dickerson and Ngoepe I could see all starting in AA this season. Santos has a case to move up to AAA but the crowded outfield will likely hold him back. Hopefully one or more of these three will show something this season that lets the Pirates believe they could be contributors to the 2014 team. My expectations aren’t really high for any of them as I expect Dickerson’s numbers to be solid but again not where they need to be for an all bat player, Santos to regress from his good contact ways and Ngoepe to show only minimal improvement with the bat. The remaining hitting prospects with some intrigue are Ivan De Jesus, Matt Curry, Clint Robinson and Carlos Paulino. De Jesus, Curry and Robinson should start the year in AAA and could be called upon to serve as major league depth this season. Of the 3 my expectations are the highest for De Jesus who I think could develop into a nice middle infield utility player.
Outside of the top 3 pitching prospects I discussed the Pirates have a bunch of interesting arms projected to begin the season in one of the top two levels or the major leagues. Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Andy Oliver, Phillip Irwin and Victor Black are all very intriguing arms with some degree of chance of making the major league squad but most likely for all except Morris and possibly Wilson they will start the season in AAA. I have previously discussed Morris and Wilson so I’ll focus on the other 3. Oliver to me looks like another Justin Wilson type project who the Pirates will try to fix his control this season. Irwin has the look of a crafty righty with a know how to pitch and a good enough arsenal of pitches where he could be an effective back of the rotation starter. Black has the makings of a late inning shut down reliever but needs some fine tuning before he gets there. My expectation is that Oliver won’t show much improvement with his control and will wind up in the bullpen and the other two will show positive signs of improvement and I wouldn’t be shocked if either or both of them spent a fair amount of time in the majors this year. In AA the pitching talent is a little less deep outside of Taillon but two guys I’ll be watching are Stolmy Pimentel and Casey Sadler. With this being Pimentel’s last option year I expect the Pirates to move him to the bullpen and Sadler shown enough the Pirates are likely to keep him starting but I think they see him as a reliever long term. I don’t have high hopes for Pimentel this season but I think Sadler will show enough promise the Pirates will add him to the roster at the end of the season. There are a bunch of other semi-interesting pitching prospects in the upper levels but the 4 that catch my eye are Duke Welker, Brandon Cumpton, Tyler Waldron and Hunter Strickland. Welker and Strickland are on the 40 man roster and will need to show something to prove they belong there. I think Strickland will surprise people but my expectation is that Welker will struggle. As for the other two I think both will be converted to relief roles this spring to see if either is worth protecting from the Rule V draft this upcoming offseason. I suspect one of these two will wind up being the Pirates yearly surprise addition to the roster.
Prospects To Watch
I already mentioned that I think De Jesus, Waldron and Cumpton are a couple under the radar names to keep an eye on but I want to dig a little deeper and mention a few players who look like organizational players at this point who interest me. Jared Goedert is having a solid spring and while I don’t expect a whole lot out of him if he hits well in AAA he could get a chance in the majors and I think he has a chance to find a niche there as a good pinch hitting option. Michael Colla has flown under the radar but he has had moderate success at essentially every level. He could potential earn a chance to pitch as a middle reliever some time this season. A few other players I plan on keeping an eye on down in AA are Justin Howard, Kelson Brown and Tim Alderson. Howard is a 1st baseman with limited power but a pretty good knack for making contact. The Pirates have tried using him in the outfield some and with no real option to man 3B in AA I wouldn’t be shocked to see him trotted out there. If he can manage to be competent defensively in the outfield and third base his good contact ability could gain him some traction as a potential bench option down the road. Brown is the type of player who is solid in all aspects of the game but wonderful in none. He plays multiple positions, makes decent contact, shows a little power and is sound defensively. However he does none of those things at a high or low level. He has been fairly successful at every level and as I said with Howard the opening at 3B provides him with a chance to get some playing time and if given a chance he could surprise some people. Alderson has been written off by nearly everyone at this point and with very good reason but he is still relatively young. The last two seasons he has shown progress in converting to a reliever and a more finesse pitcher. He isn’t ever going to become what the Pirates hoped they were acquiring when they traded Freddy Sanchez for him but maybe there is enough talent left in him to develop into a marginal relief prospect. Now for the standard disclaimer my expectation of the players I discussed at length here is that they will continue on their path as organizational guys but of that group the names I noted I believe have the best chance to surprise in 2013.
The Pirates have sort of a gap in talent between AAA and A+ so the AA squad is a difficult one to predict as there are not really a lot of prospects. Some of the borderline players I have making the team in AAA are of course a possibility to start in AA and I will do my best to mention them but of course my projection will ultimately include players not projected on to any of my other levels. As we get lower and lower it becomes increasingly more difficult to project minor league rosters because there is an increasing number of players who still look at least some what promising. So this is essentially just a stab in the dark.
Candidates: Carlos Paulino, Charlie Cutler, Devin Ivany, Lucas May, Ali Solis
Analysis: There is really no prospect who is a guarantee to be at this level. Of the above listed catcher Carlos Paulino appears to be the best prospect of the group but is coming off a year in which he struggled in A+. Still if he were to repeat the level it would be his third season there and that doesn’t seem likely especially since he played well at the A+ level in 2011. The other options include whoever loses out in the Lucas May/Ali Solis battle to be the backup catcher in AAA and a couple of minor league veterans in Charlie Cutler and Devin Ivany. There is a case to be made for essentially any of these players to begin the year at AA but in the end only one will be here as the starter and another one as a backup, most of the rest will probably stay in extended spring training until their services are needed.
Prediction: Carlos Paulino
Candidates: Alex Dickerson, Justin Howard, Stefan Welch, Jarek Cunningham, Oscar Tejeda, Alex Valdez, Jeremey Farrell, Andy Vasquez, Gift Ngoepe, Drew Maggi, Benji Gonzalez, Kelson Brown
Analysis: There are other candidates who I did not list, specifically the players battling for spots in AAA who miss out. Notably because they are the two I have missing out are Jeff Larish and Anderson Hernandez. However I believe those two will serve as depth for AAA and take a spot should one of the non roster invitees to spring training opt out instead of taking the AAA assignment. As for the rest of the crop the only two prospects in the group are Alex Dickerson and Gift Ngoepe. Dickerson is coming off a solid year in A+ and should be the everyday starter at 1B. Ngoepe is a masterful defender who’s bat probably isn’t ready for AA but he is probably going to be forced up a level because of the players behind him. That leaves two spots open second and third base. Most of the rest of the players listed are at this point organizational players with little to no prospect value so it is difficult if not impossible to figure just how the Pirates may handle playing time. Cunningham still has at least some potential in him so figure on him taking one spot but the other is pretty wide open.
Prediction: Alex Dickerson (1B), Jarek Cunningham (2B), Alex Valdez (3B), Gift Ngoepe (SS)
Candidates: Adalberto Santos, Andrew Lambo, Mel Rojas, Evan Chambers, Dan Grovatt
Analysis: Like Larish and Hernandez above Brad Hawpe is also a candidate but I don’t see him accepting an assignment to AA so I am assuming he is not a realistic possibility. The rest of the crop gives us some rather unimpressive options. Some of the infielders who don’t wins spots would be candidates for the outfield as well like Howard, Tejeda, Vasquez and Maggi in particular. However I believe the starting three will come from this group. Santos has a strong case to be in AAA but a numbers game will likely keep him down meaning one spot should be his. The others are really open for debate. Mel Rojas should get one if the Pirates opt to promote him but he struggled in A+ in 2012 so I think they will have him repeat the level to begin the season. Of the remaining options Evan Chambers would appear to be the best option for center field. The last spot will probably be mainly split between Grovatt and Lambo but since Lambo has an ounce more of potential I’ll give him the nod.
Prediction: Andrew Lambo (LF), Evan Chambers (CF), Adalberto Santos (RF)
Analysis: The candidates are everyone discussed above. Obviously the Pirates will keep a backup catcher but in reality it could be nearly anyone on the list. Also a reserve infielder will be kept and it should obviously be someone with the ability to play shortstop and because he still does have at least some potential I am currently leaning towards Drew Maggi. Also a fourth outfielder will be kept as I have mentioned earlier Dan Grovatt and Andrew Lambo will probably share left field duties so the other one will most likely be the 4th outfielder. The last two spots will go to a DH and a utility player which once again could be just about anyone. AA is really a crap shot this year.
Prediction: Charlie Cutler (C), Justin Howard (DH), Drew Maggi (IF), Dan Grovatt (OF), Andy Vasquez (U)
Candidates: Jameson Taillon, Stolmy Pimentel, Casey Sadler, Aaron Pribanic, Tyler Waldron, Nathan Baker, Aaron Poreda, Luis Sanz, Ethan Hollingsworth, Tim Alderson, Brooks Brown
Analysis: Aside from the obvious Jameson Taillon starting the Pirates really don’t have many intriguing starting candidates so it is likely to come from the above group with the possibility of a few more non-interesting names thrown into the mix. To me the four most interesting names outside of Taillon listed are Pimentel, Sadler, Waldron and Alderson. However with only one option remaining Pimentel will probably be converted to relief, Salder appears better suited for relief, Waldron has been rumored to be moving to relief and Alderson has lost almost all of his prospect luster and doesn’t appear to be a viable starter anymore. Of those four I really only expect Sadler to start the season in the rotation. The rest of the rotation will be filled out by the minor league veterans listed and I’m sure a few more names.
Prediction: Jameson Taillon, Casey Sadler, Aaron Pribanic, Nathan Baker, Luis Sanz
Analysis: Aside from a few obvious names like Stolmy Pimentel and Hunter Strickland the AA bullpen like all minor league bullpens is just a guessing game. So I picked 7 players I kind of sort of liked and called it a bullpen.
Prediction: Stolmy Pimentel, Hunter Strickland, Zach Thornton, Tim Alderson, Ethan Hollingsworth, Jason Townsend, Tyler Waldron
C: Carlos Paulino
1B: Alex Dickerson
2B: Jarek Cunningham
3B: Alex Valdez
SS: Gift Ngoepe
LF: Andrew Lambo
CF: Evan Chambers
RF: Adalberto Santos
C: Charlie Cutler
IF: Drew Maggi
OF: Dan Grovatt
U: Andy Vasquez
DH: Justin Howard
SP: Jameson Taillon
SP: Casey Sadler
SP: Aaron Pribanic
SP: Nathan Baker
SP: Luis Sanz
RP; Ethan Hollingsworth
RP: Jason Townsend
RP: Tyler Waldron
RP: Tim Alderson
RP: Zach Thornton
RP: Hunter Strickland
RP: Stolmy Pimentel
Borderline Infield Prospects (Grade C-)
Carlos Paulino: The Pirates acquired Paulino from the Marlins before the start of the 2011 season in exchange for Jim Negrych. In three years in the Marlins organization Paulino had established himself as a solid defensive catcher with a lot of questions surrounding his bat. He had a good offensive season in rookie ball in 2009 but was awful for the Marlins in A ball during the 2010 season. The Pirates still pushed Paulino up a level after acquire and sent him to A+ where he figured to back up Ramon Cabrera. However Paulino quickly earned more playing time by having a big offensive season and continuing his great defensive work. To keep his bat in the lineup the Pirates even tried Paulino some in LF near the end of the season. It appeared Paulino was in line for a promotion to AA this season but Tony Sanchez repeating the level caused a bit of a log jam and he remained at A+. Unfortunately he regressed at the plate this season and despite posting similar walk and strike out rates hit quite a bit worse. He did show some offensive improvements in the second half but it was still a step backwards from his 2011 season. Despite his poor offense Paulino’s calling card is his defense and that is strong enough that he could make it to the majors one day as a solid backup catcher.
Jacob Stallings: Paulino is a great defensive catcher but he isn’t the best in the organization. That title goes to Stallings who the Pirates drafted as a signability pick in the 7th round of this year’s draft. In his junior season Stallings set an NCAA record for base runners thrown out attempting to steal so that speaks highly of his defensive ability. The Pirates coaches at the A- praised Stallings this season and called him a second pitching coach. Even with the Pirates odd strategy of not having their pitchers hold on runners Stallings managed to throw out 36% of base stealers this season. He is a great game caller and a leader in the clubhouse. For all the positive reviews his glove work receives his bat receives negative marks. Stallings is not strong with the bat. He is not a good contact hitter and has very little power but on the plus side he has shown decent plate discipline, drawing a fair number of walks in college and at the A- level. Stallings is a great catcher to have in the organization as he should be a big help to the Pirates young crop of pitchers but due to his weak bat he isn’t really much of a prospect. Stallings great defense with even just a slight improvement in his bat may very well be enough for him to make it to the majors one day but if so it will likely be as only a backup catcher.
Eric Avilia: The Pirates signed Avilia as a 16 years old out of the Dominican Republic in 2006. He wasn’t a high-profile signing and he spent 3 seasons in the DSL before breaking out in 2009. Avilia had a very strong 2009 showing a lot more power, better plate discipline and better contact skills. He moved to the states the following season and had a strong showing in rookie ball finishing tied for the league lead in HR but on the downside his K rate did jump significantly. At this point Avilia was the Pirates top 3rd base prospect, a good title but one with very little distinction as the Pirates 3B prospects have been very weak outside of Alvarez. The Pirates sent Avilia to A ball in 2011 and well it didn’t go well. On the positive side he did manage to cut back on his strike out rate but that came at the expense of him making essentially any good contact. For the season he hit .216/.275/.289 and only hit 4 home runs. His defense at third base had also seemed to take a step backwards. The Pirates sent him back to A ball as a utility player which appeared to mark the end of his prospect days. Avilia got hurt early in the season and didn’t return to June. After posting solid numbers in June and July Avilia earned a chance to start in August and took off displaying some of that great power he has and showing much better contact. Unfortunately his strike out rate continued to rise and his walk rate dipped. Avilia’s power makes him intriguing but he is running out of time to show not only something else but some consistency.
Drew Maggi: The Pirates drafted Maggi in the 15th round of the 2010 draft and signed him for the overslot amount of 468K. At the time he was drafted Maggi was viewed as a strong OBP guy with good speed and defense but limited power. Maggi was drafted as a shortstop but was considered more of an athlete by scouts meaning they thought he could end up as a middle infielder or a center fielder. He debuted at the A- level and struggled hitting for only 156/257/203 line. The Pirates typically send advanced college players like Maggi to A+ for their first full pro season but due to his struggles in A- they sent Maggi to A ball. Maggi hit decently at the A level showing the great plate discipline but never really did anything to stand out the way the Pirates would surely hoped he would. The Pirates sent Maggi to A+ and there he continued with pretty much the same results, good plate discipline but no power. He is also had more trouble making good contact and saw a jump in his strike out rate. His defense was solid but not spectacular. Despite his struggles the Pirates decided to promote Maggi to AA during the season and there he served primarily as a utility player playing both the middle infield and the outfield. His numbers at AA were even worse. Considering the Pirates pushed him to AA despite not earning it and didn’t give him full time playing time it appears they view him as an organization player at this point still Maggi retains some upside.
Kevin Ross: The Pirates drafted Kevin Ross in the 8th round of the 2012 draft and unlike the other picks in the back half of the top 10 he didn’t appear to be a signability selection. Ross was thought to be a tough sign but he ended up signing for slightly below slot. When drafted Ross was characterized as a solid defensive shortstop with a good arm and power potential but it was believed that as he filled out his size would force him to move from SS to 3B. The Pirates announced him as a shortstop but he didn’t play there at all this seasons instead splitting his time between 2B and 3B. Ross played very sparingly so his numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt but he struggled in his limited appearances. Ross appears to have a relatively high upside as Baseball America rated him the 225th best prospect in this past draft so the Pirates will probably try to see what they got in him. Ross will likely play next season with one of the short season affiliates.
Since the catching position is struggling in the major leagues for the Pirates I thought now would be a good time to look at what is down in the minors in terms of catching prospects.
At the rookie league level there are two interesting prospects sharing most of the catching duty. They are Wyatt Mathisen and Jin-De Jhang.
Mathisen: Wyatt Mathisen was selected out of high school in the second round of this past draft. While in high school Mathisen rarely played catcher instead moving all around the field and spending most of his time as a shortstop. His skill set best projects as a catcher though and that is how the Pirates and most other teams viewed him. Mathisen has the potential to be a strong two-way catcher who can play both good defense and hit for power and average. He also possesses average speed which would be a plus in a catcher. So far during his pro debut he is off to a good start with a .789 OPS in 152 PA. Mathisen figures to start 2013 in A- but could be pushed to A ball.
Jhang: Jin-De Jhang was signed out of Taiwan in 2011 and at the time was considered one of the best prospects in that area. That was reflected in the $250,000 bonus he received from the Pirates. Like Mathisen Jhang hasn’t spent much time at catcher so he has some skill sets to work on. So far this season in his pro debut Jhang has posted good numbers with an OPS of .798 in 133 PA. He has also received more playing time at catcher than Mathisen showing the Pirates really view him as a legit prospect. Like Mathisen, Jhang should start at A- next season but to separate the two, him or Mathisen could be pushed to A ball.
At this level the majority of the playing time behind the plate has went to one player with a bunch of other receiving a handful of starts as well. Jacob Stallings has received the majority of the playing time and his main backup appears to be Ryan Hornback.
Stallings: Jacob Stallings is another 2012 draftee as he was selected in the 7th round this season out of the University of North Carolina. He was a college senior and signed for way under slot at $10,000. Unlike the catchers I have mentioned previously Stallings is a very polished catcher and has a good bit of experience behind the plate. Stallings strengths are his ability to handle a pitching staff, play solid defense and yes throw out runners. He set an NCAA record in 2011 with 32 caught stealings. At the plate Stallings has good plate discipline but is overall a weak hitter. He has already received praise from his coaching staff being called another pitching coach out on the field. So far this season Stallings has put up a respectable .717 OPS in 223 PA. Due to his weak bat Stallings projects only as a backup catcher. With a lot of young pitchers having a guy like Stallings is valuable to the Pirates and he should start next season in A ball or A+ depending on how the Pirates choose to push Mathisen and Jhang.
Hornback: Ryan Hornback was a 27th round pick in 2011 out of San Jacinto College. He was viewed as a solid defender and was an average hitter at college. In his first year of pro ball he played in the rookie league and didn’t do a whole lot. This season Hornback has caught only 13 games and has received only 86 PA. He has done respectably in those at bats posing a .696 OPS. It appears the Pirates view him as an organizational player now so expect him to either stay in A- or possibly move up to A ball in a backup capacity. Essentially he will go where the team needs him.
In West Virginia the catching job has been shared by two players with the last name Diaz. Elias Diaz and Francisco Diaz have caught nearly all the games played at this level.
E Diaz: Elias Diaz was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in 2008. He wasn’t viewed as much of a prospect at the time but the fit the Pirates mold of an athletic catcher with a guy arm and potential in his bat. Diaz put up good numbers in his first year of pro ball in the VSL with a .781 OPS and was promoted to the US in 2010. Since coming to the United States Diaz has struggled. In 2010 he put up an OPS of .590 in Rookie ball. The next season he was surprisingly moved to A ball and put up a .607 OPS. He has repeated the level this season and has put up a .543 OPS in 329 PA. At only 21 years old there is still time for him but he will need to move quickly. With no real options for A+ next season the Pirates could choose to push Diaz but most likely he’ll return to A ball for a 3rd season.
F Diaz: The Pirates selected this Diaz in this year’s minor league Rule V draft and he appeared to be nothing more than some middle level catching depth. Diaz was part of the Phillies organization from 2007-2011. He came to the states in 2009 and was immediately used as an organizational player playing everywhere from Rookie ball to A+ ball. He never put up good numbers with the Phillies. Surprisingly though Diaz is only 22 years old which is a touch old for A ball but not overly so. He has put up great numbers this season with an .822 OPS in 140 PA. Diaz did struggle in a short stint in A+ though with a .377 OPS in 39 PA. At this point there is nothing to get excited about here but his strong numbers in A ball this season at least give him some hope of continuing to move up the ladder. If he is still around next season I suspect he will be A+ ball.
With the exception of Francisco Diaz’s short stint the catching duty at this level has been handled by Carlos Paulino and Kawika Emsley-Pai.
Paulino: Carlos Paulino was acquired by the Pirates at the start of the 2011 season for a player most Pirate fans probably either never heard about or have forgotten about, Jim Negrych. The only reason Pirate fans may have even heard about Negrych was that he was a Pitt guy. Anyway as for Paulino at the time he was acquired Paulino didn’t appear to be much of a prospect just a good solid defensive catcher for the middle levels but last season Paulino at 21 years olds broke out in A+ posting a .790 OPS in 301 PA. That production would under normal circumstances earn you a promotion but the Pirates were full at catcher at AA with Sanchez repeating the level and Cabrera having actually outperformed Paulino at A+. So Paulino repeated A+ this season with hopes of farther cementing his prospect status but that hasn’t happened as he has posted a .676 OPS in 308 PA. Paulino remains one to keep an eye on because of his good defense and the fact he does have a breakout offensive season on his resume but right now he is on the back burner. I suspect he’ll start next season in AA.
Emsely-Pai: Kawika Emsely-Pai was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 10th round of the 2010 draft in June and was kind of strangely released by them in December 2010. He did have a poor showing in A- but it was only 103 PA and was his first pro season. The Pirates signed Emsely-Pai to a minor league contract in January 2011. The Pirates place Emsley-Pai in A ball and he had a good season posting a .725 OPS in 250 PA. The performance was good enough to earn him a promotion to A+ this season where he backs up Paulino. Unfortunately in limited playing time (150 PA) Emsely-Pai hasn’t produced great numbers posting an OPS of just .608. I suspect he will be back at A+ next season possibly even as the starting catcher next season.
Tony Sanchez started the year as the starting catcher for the Altoona Curve but since he was promoted I’m covering him in AAA. Outside of Sanchez the two players who have manned the catching position in AA this season are Ramon Cabrera and Charlie Cutler.
Cabrera: Ramon Cabrera was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in July 2008. He had just transitioned to catcher at the time so he was relatively raw at the position at the time of the signing. He spent all of 2008 and part of 2009 in the VSL putting up strong numbers with an OPS in 2008 of .771 and in 2009 of .868. He then came state side where he continued hitting well in rookie ball and was promoted to A ball in 2010. Cabrera struggled in A ball to the tune of a .654 OPS but was nonetheless pushed to A+ in 2011 where he broke out with a .881 OPS in 396 PA. Ordinarily that would have earned him a chance to be the starting catcher in AA but Sanchez was blocking him. Cabrera did catch some games while Sanchez was in AA and has caught most since he has left and has been ok offensively posting a .692 OPS in 396 PA. The knock against Cabrera has always been his defense and his durability behind the plate. He is relatively small for a catcher at 5′ 7″ 202 lbs and has had trouble throwing out base runners already. So what needs to carry him is his bat and his ability to hit line drives and consistently make contact. Cabrera will likely repeat AA next season.
Cutler: Charlie Cutler was another player taken in the minor league Rule V draft but he did appear to have a little bit of upside. Cutler was drafted by the Cardinals in 2008 and put up good numbers at every level in their organization. To be fair he was old for each level but that is still a pretty solid performance. Last season at 24 years old in AA Cutler put up an .874 OPS in 232 PA. He struggled the year before in AA posting only .581 OPS in 140 PA. At 24 years old he was probably a touch older than you would like for players in AA but that isn’t egregiously old for the level. This year with the Pirates Cutler remained in AA acting as a 3rd catcher and has once again had a solid season posting a .824 OPS in 159 PA. Of course at 25 years old he is now definitely too old for the level. Cutler’s reputation defensively is not good but his bat can’t be ignored. He has a career .800 OPS in the minors and .782 OPS in AA. The Pirates should push him to AAA next year to see what they got here as he is worth keeping an eye on.
Three catchers have shared nearly all the playing time for the Indianapolis Indians. Tony Sanchez has received the most games behind the plate but prior to his promotion Jose Morales and Eric Fryer were handling the work load.
Morales: Jose Morales was signed by the Pirates this offseason to a minor league deal to compete with Micheal McKenry for the team’s backup catching position and to at least serve as the 3rd catcher. Unfortunately he got injured early in Spring Training and never really got a chance to compete. Morales is your typical AAAA player. He spends a lot of time in the minors in AAA and when the need arises can come up and adequately fill a role with the major league roster. Morales started off the year decently but has struggled as of late. Since he hasn’t been added by now I don’t envision him joining the big league club unless it is for an emergency. Chances are he won’t be back next season.
Fryer: Eric Fryer is an interesting case. Fryer has never been highly regarded as a prospect and has nearly always been blocked by a better catching prospect but yet he just kept performing well enough in a limited sample to keep moving up. The Pirates acquired Eric Fryer and Casey Erickson from the Yankees for Eric Hinske. When he first came to the Pirates Fryer actually showed enough to warrant a look as a starting catcher for the first time in his career posting a .730 OPS in 187 PA in A+ but the Pirates had just drafted Sanchez and once he was promoted Fryer went back to being a backup. Fryer continued to hit well though posting an .865 OPS the following year in A+ and then a .976 OPS in AA the following season. Fryer received a quick promotion to AAA in 2011 where it appeared he was going to get a chance to start some games but injuries forced him to Pittsburgh. Fryer sparingly played in Pittsburgh and when he was sent back down to AAA struggled hitting for only a .647 OPS. This season Fryer has been worse posting a .513 OPS. Fryer is a candidate to be removed from the 40 man roster this offseason and since he has already been removed once can opt for free agency if he clears waivers which he almost assuredly will. I expect him to stay though and be back at AAA next season but not really as a catcher instead he will be using his versatility and playing some 1B, 3B and OF.
Sanchez: Tony Sanchez is the Pirates best catching prospect and realistically speaking short of trying to project out Mathisen or Jhang is the Pirates only hope of having a strong two-way starting catcher in the majors relatively soon. Sanchez was drafted by the Pirates 4th overall in 2009 and was definitely a reach at that position but with no real clear-cut options the Pirates opted to go for high upside later round selections. Sanchez started off his pro career strong posting an OPS of .976 in 188 PA at A ball. The next season he also put up good numbers in A+ ball with a .870 OPS in 250 PA. It was beginning to appear the Pirates made the right choice in drafting him but then in June he fractured his jaw ending his season. In 2011 Sanchez started in AA and was not good leaving a lot of people to question his top prospect status. This season Sanchez once again opened in AA and while he wasn’t great he fared much better and earned a promotion to AAA. Sanchez started slow in AAA but had a great July and appears to be back on track for a 2013 arrival. Sanchez’s strength is his defense. He is a good game caller and great at blocking pitches. His ability to throw out runners gets mixed reviews from average to very good but the average reviews mostly stem from the troubles he had in A+ ball when he was playing with a hurt shoulder. The question surrounding Sanchez has always been whether his bat would be good enough to be a starting catcher. Sanchez is not going to be a player who supports a very high average but can be good and he has the ability to provide plus power from the catching position. In short if you want the Pirates catching problem fixed internally this is your hope. Sanchez will likely start 2013 in AAA and if things go according to plan be called up to the majors near the middle of next season.
1. Tony Sanchez
2. Ramon Cabrera
3. Eric Fryer
4. Carlos Paulino
5. Samuel Gonzalez
Prospects By Likely Level
AAA: Eric Fryer
AA: Tony Sanchez, Ramon Cabrera
A+: Carlos Paulino, Elias Diaz
A: Samuel Gonzalez, Kawika Emsley-Pai
Lower: Jonathan Schwind, Ryan Hornback
B: Tony Sanchez
C+: Ramon Cabrera
C: Eric Fryer, Carlos Paulino
C-: Samuel Gonzalez, Elias Diaz
Profiles (Top 3 Prospects)
Tony Sanchez: Last season Sanchez struggled in AA but he remains in the opinion of most one of the Pirates top 10 overall prospects. He is the Pirates best hope of getting a strong 2-way catcher. The thought is that Sanchez was slowed last season because of the broken jaw he suffered the year before and the subsequent weight loss that followed. Sanchez is considered a strong defensive catcher and has been working on improving his game calling skills. On the offensive side Sanchez’s best tool is considered to be his power. Unfortunately last season Sanchez showed little in the terms of power or any offensive prowess for that matter. Over this past offseason Sanchez was able to regain most of the weight he lost because of his broken jaw and the Pirates are hoping this will vault him back to top prospect form.
Ramon Cabrera: Cabrera had a very strong showing in A+ last season, winning the league batting title. Under normal circumstance Cabrera should be moving up to AA as the starting catcher but due to Sanchez likely repeating the level Cabrera will probably be relegated to back up duty and DH duty. Cabrera’ s strength is that he can most definitely hit; he has shown the ability to post good averages and has even displayed decent plate discipline. The knock against Cabrera is that he isn’t strong defensively and that his small stature probably will lead to durability issues.
Eric Fryer: Fryer made a quick ascent to the majors last season while the Pirates were involved in catcher mania. He got a brief appearance in the majors but didn’t get much of a chance to show case himself. I get the feeling the Pirates are not too high on him and view him as nothing more than potentially a future utility player (he has seen time at C, 1B, 3B and the OF). Personally I am a little higher on Fryer than most and see him as a player who could turn into a very good major league backup and maybe even a serviceable starter. For this season Fryer will likely split time at catcher with Jose Morales in AAA at least until Sanchez proves himself worthy of playing in AAA. Once that happens Fryer may start to see time at other positions. for one hope he plays his way on to the major league roster and I believe there is a good chance for that to happen.
Summary: The Pirates have some intriguing catching prospects but in all reality most of them profile as nothing more than a backup or at the very most a marginal starter. The only real hope the Pirates have for a strong 2-way starting catcher is Tony Sanchez. Sanchez with a strong showing could arrive as early as September this season but some time next year seems more likely. The future of the catcher position for the Pirates is tied to Tony Sanchez. If he excels this season the immediate future at the position will be looking pretty good but if performs poorly the Pirates appear to have no other really solid starting option on the horizon. In short the future of this position is all on the shoulders of Sanchez. Best of luck to him this year.