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.
Most of the intriguing prospects that play in the lower levels in a given year are drafted in that year’s draft but of course there are a few holdovers. I’m expecting the Pirates to send the most interesting of the possible holdover lot (Tyler Glasnow, Waytt Mathisen, Jin-De Jhang, Dilson Herrera, Max Moroff and Eric Wood) to A ball. That still leaves some interesting talent and that is what I will discuss here. However at these levels it is difficult to have actual expectations so instead I’ll just go over the interesting names to watch.
The two most interesting names that I currently have projected to play in the lower levels are Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar. Ramirez and Escobar were the Pirates big international signings in 2011 and made the aggressive jump to the states. Ramirez was hampered by injuries but returned later in the year and held his own. Escobar started the year in center field and while his numbers were not eye popping they were fairly impressive for it being his first professional season and playing at a that high a level. Both of them should start the year in short season ball and while things will be taken slowly with them we will hopefully see signs of growth. The next most interesting duo is the DeLaCruz brothers (not actual brothers they just share the same last name). Julio and Michael were the Pirates two big international signings from last year’s class. Neither is a guarantee to start the year in the states but early reports suggest the Pirates are at least considering it. Julio is a third baseman while Michael is an outfielder. It is difficult to say there are any expectations on them but a solid debut like Escobar had last season would be a welcomed sight. Another interesting group are the players moving up from the DSL. Daniel Arribas, Carlos Ozuna, Ulises Montilla, Maximo Rivera and Enyel Vallejo are the players that appear likely to move up. Of the group Arribas and Rivera stand out to me. The Pirates have been slowly turning Arribas into a catcher as he split time at catcher, 1st and 3rd base the last two seasons. He struggled in 2011, his first professional season but fared really well last season. Rivera was one of the Pirates big international signings in 2009 and was said to have good power potential. He didn’t show much his first two professional seasons but broke out last year aand although he didn’t show much power he had a very solid season. Three other names I’ll be keeping an eye on are Stetson Allie, Kevin Ross and Luis Urena. Allie isn’t much of a prospect as a hitter but due to name recognition he garners attention. Ross was drafted in the 8th round of last year’s draft but signed late and didn’t play much. Urena is another outfielder in the Willy Garcia mold. This may sound a little odd but he is a potential 2014 breakout candidate. What I mean by that is that he showed enough positives in 2012 that with a good performance this season he could put himself in a position to really step up next year. None of these players really have expectations at this point but the hope is a couple of them step up and take on the look of real prospects.
No one single pitcher really stands out in the lower levels but there are two trios I am going to be watching closely. One trio is a group of 2011 high school draftees who have all played very sparingly to this point and in which no one has stood out from the rest. They are Jason Creasy, Jake Burnette and Colten Brewer. I give a slight advantage to brewer as the most intriguing of the bunch but they all have to make some sort of statement this year if they are to be taken as real prospects. The other trio is a mix of last year’s drafted pitchers who for some reason or another received little playing time. They are Jonathan Sandfort, John Kuchno and Hayden Hurst. Sandfort was the Pirates 3rd round pick last season but pitched only 15 innings in rookie ball. Hurst and Kuchno pitched 0 and 5 innings respectively last year and while they weren’t high draft picks they were two players the Pirates opted to go overslot for when the Appel signing fell through. Of the three I’m currently highest on Sandfort but to be honest that is largely because I don’t know much about the other two yet. There are also a couple interesting arms coming up from the DSL this season with the two most intriguing to me being Cesilio Pimentel and Mervin Del Rosario. Both players posted good lines in the DSL last season but struck out very few hitters. Pimentel did have a large strikeout rate in 2011 though. Also in the lower levels is a semi-interesting group of relief prospects. The most interesting of the group to me is Bryton Trepagnier. Trepagnier saw his velocity increase last season and a rise in his strikeout rate. The Pirates have an interesting mix of prospects from the 2011 and 2012 drafts along with an assortment of international arms in the lower levels of the system. Some of these players are candidates to see time in A ball this year but for the most part they will be playing in rookie ball or short season ball and sharing the workload with the pitchers selected in this year’s draft. I don’t really see a breakout star in this group or even anyone I’m comfortable saying will have a solid season but there are a ton of interesting arms to keep an eye on so that increases the odds that someone here will emerge.
Borderline Outfield Prospects
Andrew Lambo:Lambo was acquired along with James McDonald in the 2010 trade of Octavio Dotel. Like a lot of Neal Huntington acquirees Lambo was once a top prospect who his old team had soured on. Lambo is not strong defensively but he has the potential to be a very good power hitter. Going into 2009 Lambo was the Dodgers #1 prospect and was rated #49 overall. The Dodgers drafted Lambo is 2007 and he started off strong hitting very well in rookie ball and then moving up to A ball the following season where he continued to hit very well. The Dodgers jumped Lambo to AA before the end of the 2008 season just to get his feet left and started him there in 2009. Lambo had not a spectacular season but a very solid one for a 20 year old in AA. The Dodgers sent him back to AA in 2010 and he started off on fire but then he got suspended 50 games for what is believed to be testing positive for marijuana. After returning from the suspension his play tailed off and this is when the Dodgers decided to send him to Pittsburgh. After coming to Pittsburgh Lambo hit well until he injured his shoulder and that seemed to affect him through his end of season slump. The Pirates sent him to AAA in 2011 (he was still only 22 at the time) and he was awful so he got demoted to AA. He started slowly there but finished the year strong. 2012 was pretty much a lost season for Lambo as he suffered a hammate injury early in the season and only had 92 AB at the AA level. The good news he finished the season strong after returning. Lambo is with the Pirates one last season before he becomes a minor league free agent so 2013 is likely make or break for his prospect status.
Quincy Latimore: Outside of Pedro Alvarez and Josh Bell there is probably no one in the Pirates organization that has better raw power than Quincy Latimore. The Pirates drafted him in the 4th round of the 2007 draft for that very reason. Latimore is actually on the small side for a power hitter at only 5’10” 175 lb but he drives the ball really well. Latimore’s defense and speed are probably average but what he struggles with is plate discipline as he strikes out a ton and often looks bad doing it. The start of Latimore’s pro career was just so-so as he had decent season in 2007 and 2008 at the rookie level and A- levels respectively. It was in 2009 he became the hitter we know him as today as he started show some great power, putting up some great hit streaks but also showing some really cold cold streaks and striking out a ton. In 2010 Latimore basically had a repeat of the 2009 season with the exceptions that he showed more power and struck out even more. In 2011 he got promoted to AA and essentially did it again positing a few great months but overall striking out a lot and posting a rather unimpressive overall line. Latimore repeated the AA level this past season and while his overall stat line was only slightly better than 2011 he showed solid improvement in his walk and strike out rates and managed to keep his power numbers up. Latimore has some big holes in his game, namely his plate discipline but his great power potential has kept his prospect status alive and he should move up to AAA next season with a chance to prove himself.
Dan Grovatt: Grovatt was drafted by the Pirates in the 11th round of the 2010 draft. He was described as a solid all around player with the exception that he had limited power but there was a thought that the limited power could have been due to his unusual swing. Grovatt is a very good defender with a plus arm and he has above average speed. After signing with the Pirates Grovatt appeared in 3 games at the rookie level; his numbers weren’t good but it was only a sample of 11 AB. In 2011 the Pirates pushed Grovatt to A ball and he had a very odd season. In the first half of the season Grovatt showed great plate discipline. He drew a lot of walks and struck out at a very low rate but he also showed next to no power. At some point Grovatt must have changed his approach because in the second half Grovatt had just the opposite line as his walk rate dropped, his strike out rate rose and his power numbers also rose. The Pirates promoted Grovatt to A+ in 2012 and he decided to continue going with the aggressive approach as his walk rate stayed low. He displayed a little power and actually managed to improve upon his K rate but I think it’s rather apparent Grovatt is at his best when he decided to be disciplined rather than aggressive at the plate. Nonetheless Grovatt had a decent season and will likely move up to AA next year. I’m hoping we see the more discipline approach come back as that Grovatt is at least interesting compared to the aggressive Grovatt who just looks like a typical organizational player.
Jesus Vasquez: The Pirates signed Vasquez out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. Vasquez has very good power potential and has pretty decent speed as well. In his first two seasons as a pro ball player in the DSL Vasquez put up solid numbers for a 17 and 18 year old but outside of showing some of that power potential really did nothing to stand out. That changed in 2011 though as in his 3rd season at the DSL Vasquez was arguably the best hitter in the league finishing second in HR and slugging percentage and first in OPS. He also showed improved plate discipline as his walk rate rose but his strike out rate also remained high. The Pirates brought Vasquez stateside this season and started him at the rookie level. Due to a very crowded outfield Vasquez played primarily 1B but he does have the defensive ability for the outfield. He showed some pretty good plate discipline but the power wasn’t there. Later in the season the Pirates sent Vasquez to A- because of opening in the outfield and he flourished defensively, showing off a good arm by recording 10 assists in 33 games. His power returned at the A- level but his plate discipline took a serious hit. Vasquez’s power potential makes him interesting but like a lot of these outfielders his plate discipline hold him back.
Harold Ramirez: Ramirez received the second largest bonus the Pirates have ever given out to a Latin American prospect behind only Luis Heredia. The Pirates signed him in 2011 for just slightly over 1 million dollars. Ramirez skipped over the DSL and came directly to the states which was an aggressive placement for the 17 year old. Ramirez has good potential in his bat, excellent speed and has the defense to stick at center field, although his arm is somewhat questionable. Ramirez missed the start of the season with a leg problem and because of that lost his chance to claim CF and was instead relegated to playing the corners. As a 17 year old making his pro debut and adjusting to a new country he held his own. His season wasn’t great by any stretch but it was a rather decent showing considering his circumstances. Ramirez no doubt has a ton of potential and going off strictly that is a better prospect than I am giving him credit for but right now he is also very raw and very far away from having an impact on the majors. Ramirez is definitely one to keep an eye on and he has the potential to shoot quickly up the prospect lists with a strong showing in the next couple years.
Elvis Escobar: Essentially everything I just said about Ramirez applies to Escobar. He is a Latim American prospect signed last season for a big bonus (his was only 570K) and he skipped over the DSL this season in favor of starting his career in the states. There are some differences though of course. Escobar has only good speed not outstanding like Ramirez’s and his power potential is thought to be significantly less. Those are the negatives regarding Escobar but on the positive side he appears to be a slightly more advanced hitter plate discipline wise. Escobar started the season off at the rookie level playing center field and established himself at that position before Ramirez came back which is why Ramirez despite being the slightly better prospect was forced to a corner. Escobar did more than hold his own this season as he actually had a very solid showing at the rookie ball level. Escobar started off slowly but finished strong and is actually now probably considered a slightly better prospect than Ramirez because he seems slightly more polished but the difference is not really important at this point. Both Escobar and Ramirez should move up to the A- level next season and both have the potential to quickly shoot up the prospect list.
Andrew McCutchen: Do I really need to say anything about McCutchen? I think we all know how truly great a season he had. There aren’t too many negative things to say about a player who should be but probably isn’t a serious threat to win the NL MVP. Yes he cooled down some in August like the rest of the Pirates but even then he was still producing at a very high level. If there are a couple of things we can knock McCutchen for they are his base stealing and his tendency to throw to the wrong guy after fielding a ball in the outfield. Too many times this season we saw McCutchen thrown out trying to steal or making an ill advised throw to someone. One can not be too critical though as Andrew McCutchen made the huge step forward this season and became the face of the Pirates franchise. If the Pirates are to be successful next year and in the near future it will be on his shoulders. Oh one last thing remember its McCutchen not McCutheon, how so many national and even local media types kept spelling his name wrong this season is beyond me. Overall Grade: A
Gregory Polanco: For most of the season Polanco’s big breakout season was being over shadowed by Hanson’s big break out year but by the end of the season the two finished with very similar stat lines. Very few people question Polanco’s ability to stay at CF and because of this he is considered a top prospect. In addition to strong defense in center field Polanco has some power in his bat and was very good on the base paths this season. Polanco is your prototypical 5 tool talent and is definitely a prospect to keep our eyes on going forward. He will play next season in A+ and will hopefully build off of his success this season and blossom into one of the best prospects in the game.
Barrett Barnes: The Pirates drafted Barnes in the supplmental round this season and after he signed he went to A- and hit very well at the level. Some question whether Barnes has the ability to stick in center field but some also think he will eventually develop the power needed to play a corner outfield position. Barnes season was unfortunately cut short due to injury but he was still very impressive in his major league debut. As an advanced college player the Pirates will probably could choose to aggressively push Barnes to A+ ball but with Polanco there he will obviously not center field so the Pirates might instead opt to send him to A ball and let him get acclimated to full season ball before speeding up his development.
Elvis Escobar: Escobar was signed near the same time as Harold Ramirez and like Ramirez was aggressively pushed at 17 years old to rookie ball in the United States. Escobar got to start playing immediately as he wasn’t dealing with any injuries and played well enough to entrench himself as the starting center fielder. Overall he had a slightly better line than Ramirez did this season and seems to be the more advanced of the two but at 17 years old he still has a lot of work to do with his game. Escobar doesn’t profile to hit for much power but he does have the speed and throwing ability to stick in center field so that may not be a huge issue. The Pirates may opt to aggressively push him to A ball but it seems more likely he’ll move up just one level to A-.
Since I have already covered the Pirates top depth options and prospects at each position this piece and the corresponding pitcher one will focus on the overall state of each position in the minors and will focus on one under the radar player I have yet to discuss.
A lot of people view the Pirates minor league catching depth as a weak spot but I view as something stronger than that. The Pirates have a high end prospect in Sanchez and good depth guys in Fryer, Cabrera and Paulino. The rest of the catcher position will be handled by fringe prospects like Jonathan Schwind and organizational players like Kris Watts and Charlie Cutler. The most intriguing of the other minor league catchers is Samuel Gonzalez. Last season was Gonzalez’s first in the states and the Pirates pushed him aggressively to short season ball where he performed very well. Headed into this season the biggest question surrounding Gonzalez is likely his age as he is 23 years old and has not played in A ball yet. The Pirates could opt to push him to A+ but due to the catching backlog I expect him to go to A ball. Through his pro career Gonzalez has shown both good offensive and defensive skills but since he was playing at an advanced age in the lower levels this season is a big test for him. I’m honestly not sure what to expect from him but I think his age is playing against him so I would not expect too much.
The Pirates have an array of intriguing 1B prospects but they lack any true impact prospect. The lack of that impact player makes this a truly weak position for the Pirates but hopefully somebody will make a step forward this season. Outside of the players I have previously covered the Pirates first base position will be manned by fringe prospects like Calvin Anderson and Justin Howard. There is one other player though who is very intriguing and as far as prospect status is concerned does not rank to far behind the Pirates top three at this position. That player is Jose Osuna. Osuna made his state’s debut last season and absolutely dominated rookie ball; he was so effective that despite being 19 the Pirates very well may consider sending him to full season ball to start the season. Due to the lack of other options I do think the Pirates will try to have Osuna make that jump but my expectation is that it will take him some time to adjust and he will initially struggle but will rebound and finish with a respectable season.
For the most part second base is a position lacking true prospects because most of the better options move to 2nd from a position such as shortstop. However as I previously shown the Pirates have some decent prospects at second base and considering most true prospects will ultimately come from other positions, that is all an organization is probably looking for. Outside of Cunningham, Holt and Ngoepe the Pirates have two interesting guys in Adalberto Santos and Dan Gamache. Gamache was drafted last season and will be making the transition from 3rd base to second base this season. The more intriguing of the duo I mentioned, Santos is a combination 2B/OF and will should start the season in AA. If Cunningham is moved up to AA Santos will likely mainly play OF but if he is held back as I expect Santos will receive the majority of the playing time at 2B in AA.
Third base is probably the Pirates weakest position from a prospect position. I have already covered the semi intriguing guys in Navarro, Gonzalez and Avila but the Pirates will man the remaining openings with far less interesting guys like Jeremy Farrell and Yhonathan Barrios. Barrios is still young enough where there is a chance he could put things together but that is probably a long shot. On the flip side this season is likely Farrell’s last chance and in fact he may not even be able to find a regular spot in the minors. The only truly intriguing 3B prospect left (possibly even in the whole organization) is Dilson Herrera. Herrera received the second largest international signing bonus (behind only Heredia) from the Pirates in 2010 and played in the VSL last season. He performed well and will likely move up to the GCL this season. I believe by the time the season ends Dilson Herrera will be the Pirates top 3B prospect (unless a 3B is drafted early). This isn’t to say he will be a great prospect but he will be the best of a bad lot.
The Pirates are relatively weak at shortstop. The foursome of Mercer, Maggi, Hanson and Nunez I have already covered all have something interesting about them but outside of them the Pirates lack somebody who even has a skill set worth getting excited about. A second baseman I covered like Holt or Ngoepe may see time at shortstop this season but both of them project better long term as 2B. The Pirates will likely have any remaining opportunities at shortstop filled by organizational guys like Benji Gonzalez, Kelson Brown and Kirk Singer. It is really tough to find anybody to point here there is the duo of Jorge Bishop and Jodaneli Carvajal but neither of these players has shown anything defensively that makes one think they will remain at the position. Since I have to pick someone I’m going with Carvajal because he showed good speed and hot for a respectable average last season. If Hanson is pushed to A ball it is possible Carvajal will assume the shortstop job in short season ball. I really don’t expect much from him but hopefully he surprises me.
I have already covered 9 outfield prospects for the Pirates, even though one of them Exicardo Cayones has been since traded. Of the remaining prospects it is tough to find anyone who doesn’t like they are organizational depth or minor league filler. The most promising of the group in my mind is Candon Myles but with Cayones no longer in the system I went back and used Myles as my 9th prospect. The remaining lot includes guys like Quincy Latimore and Rogelios Noris who have huge power potential but lack any other tools. There are those who like Gregory Polanco, Rodarrick Jones and Taylor Lewis but in my opinion they are a year away from being considered for the ones to watch. Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar are probably the two most intriguing players I haven’t mentioned but these two were just signed last season and will likely spend multiple seasons in the DSL. I usually do not follow prospects until they reach the states so instead I am going to go with Daniel Grovatt. Grovatt put up strong numbers in A ball last season but was a touch old for the level. He doesn’t profile as much and since he was drafted out of college he probably needs to quickly show that he is for real so a good showing in A+ is probably necessary for him to be considered a legit prospect. He showed some good skills last season so I am actually expecting him to have a surprisingly good season this year.