Upper Level Hitters – Interesting Non-Prospects
Charlie Cutler: Cutler, a catcher, was drafted by the Pirates in the minor league portion of the Rule V draft and sent him to Altoona this season. Cutler is tough to get a read on because he has hit well at every level but has been consistently old for each level. His defense is average at best. Cutler’s offensive ability makes him an interesting player to watch but considering his age he is probably not much more than an organizational player. Cutler has good plate discipline and has shown decent power so there is still hope for him.
Justin Howard: Howard was drafted by the Pirates in the 24th round of the 2010 draft. He is a good hitter but his defense limits him to a corner and he doesn’t have much power. Before this season Howard had shown a tendency to strike out a lot but he significantly improved upon this season but doing so took even more of his limited power away. If Howard could handle a more defensively challenging position he would probably be a very good prospect right now but being limited to 1B or maybe RF decreases his value significantly. His upside appears to be a Matt Hague type so it still is possible he could get a cup of coffee with the Pirates at some point in the future.
Stefan Welch: Welch was signed by the Mets as an international free agent in 2005 and the Pirates signed him last season as a minor league free agent. Welch showed moderate success in the Mets organization which made the Pirates signing of him at least some what notable as far as minor league signings go. The Pirates started Welch in A+ and he played well enough to earn a promotion to AA and he got off to a great start there making himself look like a possible prospect. However Welch struggled down the stretch and it became more clear why the Pirates were able to sign him as a minor league free agent. Welch plays both 1B and 3B and has shown at least a little bit of power. The Pirates really have very few prospect options for the infield corners in the upper levels so Welch will likely get another chance in 2013.
Elevys Gonzalez: Gonzalez was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in 2008. He plays 2B and 3B, has average speed but is a good defender. At the plate he has shown decent plate discipline but that took a hit in the 2011 season. Gonzalez played well in the Pirates minor leagues from 2008-2010 before having his big breakout season in 2011. Gonzalez had a great season at the A+ level in 2011 and was considered the Pirates top 3B prospect headed into this season. Unfortunately Gonzalez had a very bad season at the AA level this season and his prospect status took a big hit. The Pirates sent Gonzalez back to A+ but he didn’t perform much better. His strike out rate rose and he showed no increase in power.
Andy Vasquez: Vasquez was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in 2006. He has played everywhere on the diamond except catcher for the Pirates. His best defensive positions appear to be 3B or the corner outfield though. He didn’t hit to well with the Pirates in his four seasons in the organization but had a nice season in 2011 at the A level. He has decent power but has poor plate discipline. He is evidently a switch hitter but he is an odd switch hitter as he has changed back and forth between batting left-handed and right-handed without actually ever being a switch hitter. Coming off a strong showing in A ball in 2011 Vasquez had a modest year at the A+ level but it was far from a stand out year. At this point Vasquez is probably just a minor league utility player but he has some tools that make him at least slightly interesting.
Kelson Brown: I like Brown better than most people. The Pirates drafted him in the 34th round of the 2010 draft and immediately began using him as an organizational player but he appears to have more upside than that. He has played every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher and was a decent pitcher in college so he could probably even do that for a few innings if needed. He is a good defender at basically each position and has shown the ability to hit fairly well. Brown has very little power, although he did show a slight increase this season, but has decent plate discipline. Essentially Brown is the type of player who does nothing really great nor terrible. He hit quite well as a utility player in AA this season so hopefully the Pirates find away with a shallow position player crop to give him more at bats this season. He has the upside of a solid major league utility player.
Ali Solis: The Pirates claimed Solis off of waivers this season but just a few days later they waved him from the roster. Solis looks like a good defensive player but he has shown very little with the bat. He had a decent showing at the AA level in 2012 but it was the 4th year he has spent time at the AA level. Solis even made his major league debut this year but only received 4 PA. Solis has no power and very poor plate discipline so the Pirates decision to claim him seems a little odd. He doesn’t really seem to have much upside and assuming he clears waivers he will likely serve as the Pirates replacement for Eric Fryer.
Pedro Alvarez: Here it is the key to any success the Pirates may or may not have in 2012. The team as constituted has several holes but none are more apparent than the lack of a true cleanup hitter. The Pirates have little chance of finding such a player externally and their internal options are extremely limited. The only such player who exists in the system is one Pedro Alvarez. After a strong rookie campaign Alvarez posted an abysmal 2011 and right now no one really knows what to expect from Alvarez in 2012. He could bust or he could break out. The guess here as is often the case is that it will be somewhere in between. I foresee a slight improvement of his rookie numbers but not the 30 homer year he is certainly capable of. My prediction for him is 23 HR and a line of .250/.330/.480.
Casey McGehee: I have already covered McGehee at 1st base because that is where he will end up getting most of his playing time but he was also bought in to be the backup plan for Alvarez. The hope is that with the occasional exception of a spot start or maybe facing some tough lefties (with Nick Evans at 1st) that there will be little need for McGehee to appear at 3rd base. However if the need arises I expect him to perform better than the Harrison/Wood duo of last season.
Josh Harrison: Harrison will be given a chance to win a major league bench job but due to his lack of experience at SS will probably only stick if the Pirates decide to carry an extra infielder at the expense of a 5th outfielder. I expect him to start the season in AAA but with d’Arnaud, Mercer and Navarro all ticketed for AAA there may not be room for him to get regular starts in the infield. The Pirates could try to get him time in the OF but unless Lambo is held back in AA that does not seem too likely. Harrison will probably be needed to fill in sometime in the majors and when he does he should be rather serviceable.
Yamaico Navarro: Acquired this offseason for Brooks Pounders Navarro immediately vaults to the top of the Pirates 3rd base prospect rankings. This is more proof of how sad the state of the Pirates 3rd base prospects is than it is praise for him as a prospect. Navarro is a decent prospect and will be given a chance to win a job in the majors but if he doesn’t he will play in AAA. Like Harrison the crowded infield could force him into the outfield but once again the outfield appears pretty full. Navarro is likely to get a chance at some point this year and with more experience at SS than Harrison he could even be the first infielder in line for a call up. Being a new guy in the system I really do not know what to expect from Navarro but my guess here is that he will be in the Harrison mold and will be capabale of being a decent bench guy. His defensive skills and strike zone awareness will make him a slightly better option than Harrison though.
Elevys Gonzalez: Gonnzalez has hit well at every level but lacks the power to be a legit 3rd base prospect. His bat would play well in the middle infield but his defense there is suspect at best. He should start the season in AA but with Farrell possibly repeating the level he may slide over to 2nd to begin the season (assuming Cunningham isn’t promoted). There is no reason to believe he will not continue to hit at a decent clip but on the flip side there is little reason to believe his power and/or defense will improve. Essentially what we have in Gonzalez is another utility type player in a similar mold to Harrison and Navarro.
Eric Avila: Avila was the Pirates best 3rd base prospect headed into the 2011 season but he struggled mightily in A ball. In fact his struggles were so bad that me listing him as the Pirates 3rd best third base prospect is probably on the optimistic side. He displayed some power in the GCL the previous season but that all but evaporated last season. On the plus side he did make strides on his defensive game. Avila will likely repeat A ball this season and while it would be surprising to see him not improve on his numbers from last year, he will have to have a huge season to get back into the legit prospect status.
Summary: Third base is probably the Pirates weakest position from a prospect standpoint so that makes it even more important that Pedro Alvarez succeeds. Looking at the talent the Pirates have down on the farm and ignoring the possibility of McGehee returning to 2009-10 form the only chance the Pirates have to get good production from 3rd base this year or in the immediate future is Pedro Alvarez. I hate to put so much on one player’s shoulders but in reality it’s the case. The production the Pirates get from third base this season is going to have a major impact on whether this club has a shot break the streak and in the end that all comes down to Alvarez. Don’t let us down Pedro, we are rooting for you.