Candidates: Jacob Stallings, Elias Diaz, Francisco Diaz, Kawika Emsley-Pai, Devin Ivany
Analysis: The Pirates do not have a real prospect ready to man the catching position in A+ so the spot will likely go to a fringe prospect or organizational guy. Carlos Paulino is an option to repeat the level yet again but I suspect the Pirates will push him to AA. That leaves us essentially with the candidates I listed above. Ivany was signed to a minor league contract this offseason and could really play anywhere from A+ to AAA. Emsley-Pai and Francisco Diaz look like organizational catchers who will fill in where they are needed in the middle levels. Stallings and Elias Diaz retain just a hint of prospect status. Diaz has been with the Pirates a few years though so his lack of progress could cause the Pirates to shift him towards an organizational role. Stallings was just drafted last year and is probably the best defensive catcher in the organization. He hasn’t show any ability to hit though. Stallings defense should keep him at the prospect borderline for another season or two though.
Prediction: Jacob Stallings
Candidates: Jose Osuna, Dan Gamache, Eric Avila, Chris Lashmet, Alen Hanson, DJ Crumlich, Kirk Singer, Andy Vasquez, Benji Gonzalez
Analysis: Personally I think the starting infield at the A+ level is fairly straightforward. Osuna and Hanson are locks to handle 1B and SS respectively which only leaves 2B and 3B open. Dan Gamache is coming off a fairly strong year in A ball and I would imagine the Pirates will give him the first crack at 2B in A+. Third base is a bit more wide open but Avila finished the year strong showing a good power surge so I’m guessing he’ll start the year as the third baseman. The other options will have to earn playing time and will likely fill some bench roles in A+ to start the year.
Prediction: Jose Osuna (1B), Dan Gamache (2B), Eric Avila (3B), Alen Hanson (SS)
Candidates: Gregory Polanco, Barrett Barnes, Taylor Lewis, Junior Sosa, Mel Rojas, Willy Garcia, Carlos Mesa
Analysis: There are two locks in the above group and that is Gregory Polanco and Barrett Barnes both are probably top 10 prospects in the Pirates organization and are ready for A+ so they will play. The last spot is a bit more of a question mark. Gaffney was a prime candidate to take a spot before he returned to college football and Garcia is the best prospect of the remaining group but he didn’t show a lot in A ball last year. Of the rest Sosa and Mesa look like organizational filler, Lewis a project and Rojas as a fading prospect who may be pushed to AA for last audition.
Prediction: Barrett Barnes (LF), Gregory Polanco (CF), Mel Rojas (RF)
Analysis: The bench will of course consist of the players listed who I have not assigned starting roles to. The options are not very clear at this point. Obviously a backup catcher will be retained. I also suspect that we will see two of the infielders retained, I think Crumlich with his strong debut last season is the safest bet of the group and we will also see one outfielder. There is one final spot and I think that will go to a player who will split DHing duties with the 4th outfielder.
Prediction: Elias Diaz, DJ Crumlich, Kirk Singer, Chris Lashmet, Taylor Lewis
Candidates: Nicholas Kingham, Robby Rowland, Zach Von Rosenberg, Matt Benedict, Zachary Fuesser, Kenn Kasparek, Luis Sanz, Zack Dodson
Analysis: It is difficult to handicap the pitching staffs as we get this low into the minors. The Pirates have a lot of options and at times it can be difficult to figure just who they are high on. In this case I think 3 of the 5 starting pitchers are or should be rather clear. Kingham, Rowland and Von Rosenberg all have earned a chance to show what they can do in A+. The rest of the group is a smattering of borderline prospects of which I can’t decipher who the Pirates are still high on. Dodson is suspended to begin the season and obviously won’t start the year with anybody but is a candidate to join the A+ rotation shortly after his suspension ends. Sanz I originally pegged for the AA rotation but I’m having second thoughts on that and he could come into player here.
Prediction: Nicholas Kingham, Robby Rownalnd, Zach Von Rosenberg, Matt Benedict, Kenn Kasparek
Analysis: Like all minor league bullpens my prediction is just a shot in the dark in which I pick seven names I kind of like who I think would make sense.
Prediction: Zachary Fuesser, Porfirio Lopez, Dalton Friend, Pat Ludwig, Rinku Singh, Nathan Kilcrease, Quinton Miller
Five years have come and gone since Neal Huntington has taken over as the Pirates GM. I am of the opinion that when switching GMs it takes 5 full seasons before one can really say that the farm system is essentially all the doing of the current GM. So according to my theory this is the first year we can say the system is essentially all Huntington’s. However even with that being said there are eight remaining players in the Pirates farm system from the days of Dave Littlefield. Of the 8, two are solid prospects, another one is intriguing and the other 5 look like organizational filler at this point. However let me introduce you to the Dave Littlefield 8.
Emmanuel De Leon
Of the 8 players, De Leon is the toughest to get a read on. He was an international free agent signed by the Pirates late in 2007 so he never actually played in the Pirates system until the Huntington regime took over. De Leon is an interesting case because prior to last season he had only thrown 89.1 innings in 4 professional seasons and had not yet reached full season ball. De Leon spent two seasons in the DSL, barely playing in 2008 and then showing good stuff and poor command in 2009. The Pirates brought him to the states and assigned him to rookie ball in 2010 but he barely pitched only getting 7 innings the entire season. In 2011 the Pirates tried him at A- and his control was better but his strike outs took a hit. This past season the Pirates tried him at A ball and like most pitchers there this season he pitched poorly. He was eventually demoted to A- where he got better results and was later promoted back to A ball and eventually pushed up to A+ for a few appearances. The good news is his strike outs returned but the bad news is that his control suffered. De Leon is a relief pitcher at this point albeit one with a very good arm. He still has some potential but the lack of progress he has made in regards to his control makes him a project more than a legit prospect. The Pirates will probably have him pitch in A or A+ in 2013.
Vasquez is one of only two position player prospects left from the Littlefield days. He was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent back in 2006. He was a very late signing for an international player as the Pirates signed him as a 20 year old. He made his minor league debut in 2007 getting into a handful of DSL games and showing some good plate discipline. The following year the Pirates pushed him to A- and he played decently but the plate discipline he showed in a small sample the previous year was gone. The Pirates had him split time between 2B and SS. He repeated A- the following season and was just plain bad. Because of his poor showing in 2009 the Pirates started him back at A- for a 3rd straight year in 2010. He hit better albeit in a small sample size and later was promoted to A ball on account of some injuries. He played sparingly only getting 91 AB between the two levels. In 2011 Vasquez started the year as a utility player in A ball, playing essentially every position but he managed to hit well enough that he eventually became a starter playing primarily LF but also getting time at 2B and 3B. However he continued to show no plate discipline. THe Pirates tried Vasquez in A+ in 2012 as a utility player. Once again he hit fairly well with the exception of his high strikeout and low walk totals. He got a brief promotion to AA at the end of the season. In a matter of two season Vasquez has went from looking like he would be out of baseball soon to being a very competent mid level utility player. Due to the poor results posted by most of the players at the A+ level in 2012 it is not inconceivable that Vasquez could start the year in AA perhaps even receiving regular playing time.
Navarro is one of 3 pitchers remaining that fit a mold that Littlefield seemed to like. He is a small left handed (5′ 9″) finese pitcher with better offspeed stuff than you typically see from lower level prospects. These types are a fairly safe bet to make it to the lower to mid levels and have a reasonable amount of success there however that is pretty much also their ceiling. Navarro was signed as an international free agent in 2006. Navarro pitched in the DSL in 2007 and 2008 showing good command and striking out a high number of batters. In 2009 the Pirates brought him to the states and assigned him to rookie ball where he continued to pitch fairly well but he didn’t strike out near as many batters. In 2010 the Pirates sent him to A- to begin his season but after 3 successful appearances he was promoted to A ball where he continued to pitch fairly well. His strike out rates bounced back some in 2010 and his control remained good. In 2011 the Pirates tried him at A+and he got hit around pretty hard. He did manage to post a decent strike out rate though and his command was still solid. THe Pirates demoted him back to A ball and he pitched well both as a reliever and a starter. Last season the Pirates tried him back at A+ and his numbers were better although his strike out rate again took a hit but it was still decent. The Pirates had him both starting and relieving but he was far more effective as a reliever. Navarro’s arsenal consists of a high 80s fastball and some good breaking stuff. He is 25 years old and is likely ticketed for AA. At this point he looks like an organizational pitcher but like with all crafty left handed relief pitchers who manage to make it to AA there is a slight chance he could see a cup of coffee in the majors as a LOOGY one day.
Ramos is very similar to Navarro in that he is another small left handed pitcher (5′ 8″) with an upper 80s fastball, good breaking stuff and good results in the lower minors. Ramos was an international free agent signed in 2006 by the Pirates. Ramos started his professional career in 2007 in the VSL and spent three seasons there. His first season he showed some control issues but he improved on them greatly in the remaining seasons. He posted strong strike out rates all 3 seasons and had good overall stat lines. The Pirates aggressively promoted Ramos all the way to A ball in 2010 which was his first season playing in the states. He got hit very hard and was demoted to A-. He pitched very well there and was eventually promoted back to A ball. At both levels he displayed great control and had a decent strike out rate. In 2011 the Pirates promoted him to A+ where he originally pitched in the bullpen before joining the rotation. He struggled initially in A+ but had decent numbers although his BB/9 went up slightly and his K/9 fell off dramatically. Ramos got hurt in August and when healthy was sent to A ball where he played in one game. In 2012 the Pirates had Ramos serve as a swing pitcher for A+ and AA. he moved between the levels a few times during the course of the season. He had similar ratios at each level although his ERA was much better in AA. Like in 2011 Ramos’s control wasn’t quite as good and his strike outs were far below what he had been putting up. Ramos is an organizational pitcher and will likely once again split time between A+ and AA in 2013. Like Navarro the chance of him eventually getting a call up to the majors is slim but as a left hander that has reached AA it is feasible.
Lopez is the last member of the trio of short left handed finesse pitchers left over. He is 5′ 10″ tall and like the other two has an arsenal of a high 80s fastball which he offsets with a solid assortment of breaking stuff. Of the 3 he does seem to have the best velocity occasionally touching the low 90s. The Pirates signed him as an international free agent in 2007 and he spend three seasons in the DSL. In 2008 he pitched sparingly but struggled in his limited action. In 2009 he put up a great season showing great control and striking out a lot of batters. Despite his strong numbers the Pirates sent him back to the DSL for a third season in 2010 where he put up good numbers but they weren’t as good as the previous season and his walk rate rose and strike out rate dropped. The Pirates promoted him to the states in 2011 and sent him to A+ where he predictably struggled mightily getting hit hard but posting a good strike out rate. He was demoted to A ball where he split time between the bullpen and rotation and fared much better posting a lower walk rate and even a tad higher strike out rate. In 2012 the Pirates started Lopez back in A+ but shuffled him between A and A+ a fair amount. He pitched well in A+ posing a good ERA and low walk rate but struggled to strike people out. Conversely he pitched poorly in A ball posting a high walk rate and high ERA but striking batters out at a good clip. The Pirates are likely to use Lopez in a similar role in 2013 as he has the look of an organizational pitcher. If needed he could see some time at AA this season but like the previous two small left handed pitchers his ceiling looks to be a AA level organizational bullpen arm. If things break just right for him or the other two a cup of coffee as a LOOGY in the big leagues is possible but seems highly unlikely.
Avila is one of the three Littlefield holdovers remaining I still consider a prospect. He was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in 2006. Avila played three season in the DSL converting from 2B to 3B in his third season. In 2007 he got into a handful of games but played only sparingly collecting only 42 AB. In 2008 he played much more frequently and put up decent numbers but not really anything to stand out except for a low strike out rate. In 2009 he had his breakout season, hitting 9 HR and only striking out 3 more times than he walked. He finished as one of the best hitters in the DSL and was promoted to the states the following season. In 2010 the Pirates assigned him to rookie ball and he displayed power finishing tied for the lead league in home runs. On the downside his great strike out rate nearly doubled making it much more average. In 2011 the Pirates promoted him to A ball and he struggled. He didn’t strike out a ton but had trouble hitting the ball with much authority. The Pirates returned him to A ball in 2012 but this time as a utility player instead of a starter. He got hurt early in the season and basically didn’t play until June. During June and July he hit fairly well and was given a starting job in August. Avila finished the year strong hitting 8 home runs over the last 26 games and giving his prospect status a faint pulse. His strike out and walk rates were concerning as he posted 5 times the number of strike outs as walks. Avila is also a weak defender at third base meaning if he is going to have any value going forward it will have to be with his bat. With no real third base prospect blocking him Avila should get a chance to fully revive his prospect status at the A+ in 2013.
Up to this point all the remaining Littlefield players have been international free agent signing but Welker was acquired by the Pirates in 2nd round of the 2007 draft. When drafted he had a low 90s fastball and an average slider. He was a bit of an injury risk and an overdraft for a 2nd round selection as scouts said with a 3rd pitch his ceiling was a #4 starter. Welker got into a few games at the A- level in 2007 and pitched well but his season was cut short due to injuries. The Pirates promoted him to A ball the following season and he was hit hard. He got worse as the season went on and his velocity was down from where it was when he was drafted. He also struggled with control and didn’t strike out many batters. In 2009 Welker repeated A level and wasn’t really any better. He wasn’t hit quite as hard as batters only hit .253 against him compared to .307 the previous season but his ERA and BB/9 both rose over the prior year. On the plus side his velocity was back in the low 90s. In 2010 the Pirates opted to try Welker a third time at A ball but this time purely as a reliever. The move appeared to work as Welker started throwing 96-98 mph out of the bullpen. His walks skyrocketed to 9.7 BB/9 but his strike out rate jumped to 10.1 K/9 and opponents hit a measly .198 against him. He was promoted to A+ midseason and pitched largely the same there. Welker opened the following season, 2011 in A+. He pitched very well there showing better control getting his walk rate down to 4.3 BB/9 but his strike out rate also fell. He was promoted to AA near the end of the season and pitched fairly well there posting a 8.1 K/9 and 0.9 BB/9 in a small sample. The Pirates somewhat surprisingly added Welker to the roster prior to the 2012 season and started him off at AA. He pitched well at AA showing good control and inducing a lot of ground balls but his strike out was just average. The Pirates promoted him to AAA where he initially struggled but by the end fo the season was pitching fairly well. Welker needs a little more polish but as a ground ball pitcher who can post average strike out rates there is a good chance we could see him in the majors some time in 2013 but he will likely start back in AAA.
Another 2007 draft pick McPherson was selected in the 14th round. McPherson’s arsenal includes a low 90s fastball that he can get into the mid 90s, a curve and a change. His best asset is not his pitches themselves but the great control he has of them. McPherson started his professional career in rookie ball in 2007 and pitched fairly well albeit with a low strike out rate. He was promoted to A- near the end of the year and hit fairly hard in three starts. McPherson displayed his great command keeping his walk rate below 2 BB/9 at each level. The Pirates kept McPherson at the A- level for 2008 and he pitched well continuing his great command with a miniscule 0.8 BB/9 but had some home run problems as he allowed 10 of them in just 55.2 innings. The Pirates promoted him to A ball in 2009 where he split time between starting and relieving and he was mediocre posting an average ERA with giood WHIP and BB/9 rates but a low strike out rate. He was sent back down to A- where he worked exclusively as a starter and he pitched better but still with a low strike out rate. In 2010 McPherson once again started out in A ball but this time was much better posting good numbers, including a still very strong walk rate but also improving his strike out rate dramatically. He was originally used as a started but moved to relief later in the season to limit his innings. He made a few appearances at the A+ level at the end of the season and pitched very well. The Pirates surprisingly added him the 40 man roster in the offseason and then sent him to A+ in 2011. He continued his strong pitching there posting great numbers including a solid strike out rate. He was promoted to AA midseason and pitched largely the same at that level. McPherson was supposed to start the 2012 season in AAA but a shoulder injury caused him to miss some time and he eventually started back in AA. His numbers there weren’t quite as good as the year before but he still had strong strike out and walk rates. The Pirates promoted him to AAA later in the season where he made 3 excellent starts before eventually getting promoted to the major leagues. McPherson pitched well in his few outings at the major league level. Going into the 2013 season McPherson is a candidate to start the year in the MLB rotation but will most likely be sent back to AAA for a little more seasoning although he will very likely appear in the majors at some point in 2013.
Pedro Alvarez: Alvarez received the wide majority of at bats for the Pirates from third base this past season. We seen flashes of his brilliance when he got on some unbelievable tears which elevated him to one of the most feared hitters in the game to his bottomless pits where he couldn’t hit anything and was thought of as essentially an automatic out. Pedro is probably always going to be that type of hot/cold player but the key is to make the cold stretches not so bad and by the end of the year Alvarez had made progress with that. There is no doubt about it Alvarez just has gobs of potential and can be the middle of the order bat the Pirates are still desperately lacking. Going into next season will not be very different from this one the most important player to the success of the Pirates will once again be Pedro Alvarez. Along with his big power spike this season came some improved but still shaky defense. It appears Alvarez may eventually have to move over to first base but right now he looks the part of a capable third baseman and until the Pirates have a reason to move him (ie just terrible defense or a stud replacement) he should remain there. There is no reason to not think that Alvarez will be the starting third baseman next year and probably occupying a spot in the middle of the lineup. As for this season I give him an Overall Grade: B+
Josh Harrison: This season Harrison finally got a chance to settle into what will undoubtedly be his primary role in the majors, utility player. Harrison also played some 2B, SS and OF this season but seems most comfortable at 3B which is why I am listing him here. He was defensively solid everywhere except the outfield and even there he appeared to be slowly getting more comfortable. Harrison won’t wow you with his defense and is probably a little suspect at shortstop but as a fill in he is perfectly capable. The problem Harrison had this year was that his bat was rather weak. He had a few hot stretches but overall posted a .624 OPS which isn’t going to be good enough to establish himself as anything more than a fringe bench option. Harrison was the Pirates top pinch hitter this season which admittedly is a role he shouldn’t have but nonetheless he struggled in it. This offseason one thing the Pirates must address is the depth of their bench and by doing so it could end up costing Harrison a spot on the major league roster. I still think he finds a way to sneak in there though. Overall Grade: C
Eric Avila: The Pirates are very weak prospect wise at 3rd base which allowed Avila to stick around as one of the better 3rd base prospects in the system despite a season and half of poor play. Avila’s 2011 season and first part of 2012 were pretty bad but a strong showing coupled with a power spike at the end of the season has him back atop my 3rd base prospect rankings and has him once again as a prospect to watch heading into next season. Next season will be a big test for Avila to show that he has found his power stroke and is once again a legit prospect. Due to the lack of 3rd base depth in the system Avila should open next season in A+ as the starter and with a good showing should easily be promoted to AA as there is no one blocking him.
Eric Wood: The other two 3rd base prospects I’m going to list were both selected in this past draft and the one who has had the best start to his career has been Eric Wood. Wood was selected in the 6th round of this past draft and was sort of a mystery. He appeared to be an overdraft with the idea of saving money by going way underslot but while he did sign for underslot it wasn’t by a huge sum. He was drafted as JuCo player so he is much closer to a high school age player than he is a college age drafted player. He was known to have some power when the Pirates drafted him and he displayed that power during his debut in rookie ball. The Pirates promoted him at the end of the season to A- ball where he struggles some but the sample size there is rather small and the bigger point is this is a move the Pirates usually make when they are considering sending a player straight to full season ball the following year. I expect Wood to start the season as the starting 3rd baseman in A ball and really get a chance to establish himself as a legit 3rd base prospect.
Kevin Ross: Ross was officially signed as a shortstop but spent no time at that position this season and is widely considered someone who won’t stay at the position anyway. His future seems to be at either 2B or 3B but I see him more as a third baseman which is why I have him listed here. Ross signed late into the signing period and due to this he didn’t get a chance to play a whole lot. He struggled initially but put up a very strong stat line in August to end the regular season. Ross does have some power potential but has some work to do with his swing. He is probably more of a project right now than a prospect but due to the Pirates current state of 3rd base prospects he is definitely an interesting name to keep an eye one. Ross will almost definitely return to one of the short season leagues next year but which one is still a bit of a guess and will probably depend on how he does in extended spring training and by who the Pirates draft next year.
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.