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.
Upper Level Pitchers – Interesting Non-Prospects
Aaron Pribanic: Pribanic was one of three minor league pitchers the Pirates acquired in the Jack Wilson trade a few years back. The other two were both selected in the Rule V draft but Pribanic remains with the Pirates. Pribanic is a sinker ball pitcher which means he lives or dies with ground balls. Before this season he had modest success and was looking like a fringe prospect. However this season he suffered a shoulder injury early in the season and spent the rest of the year trying to come back from it. Pribanic has decent control but he relies heavily on his sinker and his secondary pitches are average at best. At this point he is a 26 year who will likely be returning for a 3rd straight season of AA ball so his prospect days look behind him but considering he missed this year due to injury he should probably be given one last chance to prove himself.
Nathan Baker: Baker was drafted by the Pirates in the 5th round of the 2009 draft. He is a left-handed pitcher who throws his fastball right around 90 mph and compliments it with a good change-up. He was a pitcher I liked coming into the 2012 season and I thought could take a step forward; as it turns out I was close as his college and Pirate minor league teammate, Phillip Irwin made the step forward. Baker on the other hand had a poor showing at AA which significantly hurt his prospect status. Baker was moved to the bullpen this season but the Pirates do not have a ton of starting options for AA so Baker may return to the rotation, either way if he has a future in the major leagues going forward it will probably be a fringe left-handed reliever.
Hunter Strickland: I doubt anyone remembers this at this point but Strickland was the pitching prospect we got in return for Adam LaRoche. Strickland doesn’t have the best arsenal with a low 90s fastball and average breaking stuff but what he does have is pin point control. In his two seasons with the Pirates Strickland had two decent seasons but never really stood out and then he missed all of 2011 due to a shoulder injury. This season he returned and had a very solid showing in A+ but struggled upon getting promoted. Strickland is still only 24 years old so it is too early to write him off completely especially considering he lost a whole year of development with the shoulder injury but going forward Strickland is going to have to start missing some more bats and getting better results if he is to be viewed as a legitimate prospect.
Jhonathan Ramos: During the Littlefield era the Pirates had a fascination with signing Latin American prospects who were short finesse left-handed pitchers. Ramos is one of the last remaining and has probably been the most successful so far. Ramos has put up respectable numbers at just about every level he has pitched but has never really stood out. He was great in the VSL and A- but since moving to full season ball he has been mediocre. His arsenal includes an upper 80s fastball, a slider and a change-up. This past season he split time between A+ and AA and put some eerily similar peripherals but he had a much a higher ERA in A+ than he did AA. Ramos is probably just an organizational pitcher at this point but as a finesse left-handed reliever with good control it is not unreasonable to think he could get a cup of coffee in the major leagues one day.
Porfirio Lopez: Lopez is the other hold out of the short left-handed Latin American pitching prospects signed by Littlefield. Like Ramos Lopez dominated when in the international leagues but has struggled since starting full season ball in the states. Unlike Ramos, Lopez appears to have the ability to miss bats but he pays for it with poor control and a high walk rate. This past season like 2011 Lopez split time between A and A+ and put up mediocre numbers. He actually showed improved control this season in A+ but it was at the expense of some strike outs so I imagine he must have been trying something different. Lopez seems to have a tad bit more on his fastball than Ramos occasionally hitting 90 but his secondary pitches are roughly the same at average to maybe slightly above. At this point Lopez looks like an organizational pitcher but the same caveat applies here as it is not unreasonable to think he could make a major league appearance some day under the right conditions.
Aaron Poreda: Poreda is an interesting story. He was drafted by the White Sox in the first round of the 2007 draft and he moved quickly through the minors pitching well at every level and he made his MLB debut in 2009. He was shaky in his 10 appearances with the White Sox but it appeared to be nothing more than a rookie trying to adjust but then he was traded to the Padres in the Jake Peavy deal and everything fell apart. He pitched only 2.1 innings with the Padres but appeared to have no control what so ever. The Padres sent him to the minors and he continued showing no control what so ever. He did manage to start missing bats again but with walk rates above 10 BB/9 that scarcely mattered. The Pirates selected him during the minor league portion of the Rule V draft last season and sent him to AA where in limited to before he got injured he did show somewhat improved control but even so the 6.2 BB/9 rate he posted is still awful. Poreda is a left-handed pitcher with great stuff, his fastball has been clocked at 100 mph. There is obviously talent here but unless Poreda can find his control again it won’t matter. The Pirates will probably give him one more chance this season.
Michael Colla: Colla was drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the 2008 draft. He throws a low 90s fastball, a slider and a curve. Colla has spent the last two seasons at AA and put up very similar numbers both seasons. This season the Pirates moved him to the bullpen and he pitched much better there than he did as a starter. Colla seems to have decent control as he has always posted good walk rate and even manages to miss a few bats with a K rate normally around 7 K/9. The Pirates had success moving Hughes and Watson to the bullpen after they tapped out as starters at the AA level so I see no reason why they shouldn’t try the same path with Colla. Colla should open the season in AAA and could be a candidate for the major leagues some time this season if he pitches well and a need arises in the Pirates bullpen.