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.
Mid Level Pitchers – Interesting Non-Prospects
Ryan Hafner: Coming into the 2012 season Ryan Hafner was viewed as a potential breakout candidate for the Pirates. Unfortunately that didn’t even come close to happening. Hafner was terrible in A ball posting an amazing walk rate of 10.1 BB/9. He starter the season as a starter was demoted to the bullpen and then ultimately demoted to A-. In A- he managed to lower his walk rate to 4.7 BB/9 but that is still bad. Hafner doesn’t have the greatest stuff but up until this season his control was good and he does have some talent but it goes without saying if he repeats this past season’s results this upcoming year his professional baseball career may very well be over.
Jason Creasy: Creasy was one of several projectable high school arms taken in the 2011 draft. He pitched this season in A- and while his overall numbers weren’t good there were some positives such as his fastball adding a couple mph going from the high 80s to low 90s and the slider he added looked like a decent pitch. Overall though his control was shaky and he didn’t strike many batters out. Like all of the Pirates projectable high school pitcher selections there is some potential there but he needs to start realizing some of that potential soon.
Jordan Cooper: The Pirates drafted Cooper twice once in 2009 and then again in 2011. He is an interesting pitcher to figure. He has shown some good stuff throwing his fastball in the mid 90s and having control of his breaking stuff but at other times his fastball tops out around 90 and his control disappears. He starter this season in A ball where he struggled but when he was sent to A- he was dominant. If the Pirates can get him to pitch consistently he could be a good relief prospect but with his ups and downs he is just a project right now.
Kyle Haynes: The Pirates drafted Haynes in the 20th round of the 2012 draft. He served as the closer at the A- level and had mixed results. He struck out a lot of hitters which of course is a positive but allowed a surprisingly high number of base runners. His walk rate was a tad high but not horrible so the high number of base runners suggests that hitters when they weren’t striking out were managing to see the ball well and put up hits. Still Haynes has good stuff with a low 90s fastball and a very good change-up so he has some potential as a relief prospect if he can continue missing bats and start allowing fewer base runners.
Quinton Miller: Miller was a 20th round selection of the Pirates in 2008 and was one of the first of the projectable high school pitchers. He was a good talent coming out of high school, he already touched the mid 90s with his fastball usually sitting around 90 with it. His slider was well-developed and his change was a decent pitch. Unfortunately Miller doesn’t seem to have progressed much from the pitcher he was in high school because he just finished his 4th poor year as a pro. He did manage to strike out a few more hitters this season but it was at the expense of his walk rate blossoming. It is undeniable that Miller has good stuff but the lack of results to date makes it impossible to view him as a legit prospect. The Pirates will probably give him one more shot in 2013 though.
Josh Poytress: The Pirates have a plethora of fringe lefty reliever prospects in the A-AA levels and Poytress appears to be one of the best of that group, which isn’t really saying a lot. The Pirates drafted him out of Fresno State in the 18th round of the 2011 draft and to date he has put up decent numbers as a pro but hasn’t really done anything to stand out. Poytress had a very odd stat line this past season at the A+ level posting a 2.59 ERA but having a 1.49 WHIP and 5.6 BB/9. The peripherals say he didn’t pitch well but the ERA indicates he worked out of most of his messes. At this point Poytress is probably an organizational player but as a left-handed reliever there is always some hope.
Rinku Singh: Singh is probably the most known player I have covered so far but that is more for his background than his pitching ability. We all know the story about him winning a contest in India and then ultimately signing with the Pirates. Singh has had fairly good success so far and one doesn’t even have to add considering his background to make that statement true. Singh pitched well at the A level this past season and was arguably the team’s best pitcher. Singh struck out a quite a few hitters with a 8.1 K/9 and showed good control with a 2.2 BB/9. He isn’t an overpowering pitcher throwing just in the mid 80s but he has good off speed stuff. He is of course a long shot to ever make an impact in the majors but if Singh manages to have a solid showing in 2013 at the A+ level he could force his way on to the prospect map.
Much like I did with the hitters I decided that since I have already covered the Pirates top depth options and top prospects I would give a generally overview of the position and highlight a few off the radar players. Since pitching is really only one position I decided to break down the players into three groups: upper levels (AA and AAA), middle levels (A and A+) and lower levels (SS and Rk). For the time being I have ignored international pitching prospects but for those of you who want information there the top three pitching prospects likely to play in the DSL this season are Martires Cadet, Yunior Montero and Oderman Rocha. This is the last player preview piece of my 2012 expectation series; I hope everyone has enjoyed it. I will now being moving on the coaches and front office. Thank you to my readers.
UPPER LEVELS (AA and AAA)
Aaron Pribanic: Pribanic was acquired in the Jack Wilson trade and is the last of the three pitchers acquired remaining in the Pirates system. He is a sinker ball pitcher and does not project to be much more than a 5th starter of bullpen arm but he is probably the most advanced of the all the upper level pitchers I have yet to cover. Pribanic should be in line to move up to the AAA rotation but it is going to be a little crowded there so chances are he either works out the bullpen in AAA or remains in AA. Either way I am not expecting too much from him; he is your typical depth prospect and will likely remain that way. Depending on the health of the people above him he may or may not get a shot at the majors this season.
Aaron Poreda: Poreda was one of four players taken by the Pirates in the Rule V draft; he along with two others were taken in the minor league draft. Of the four players Poreda is the one who is the most intriguing to me. He profiles as nothing more than a reliever but since he is a lefty with good stuff he has the makings to become a decent back of the bullpen option. He will probably start the year in the AAA bullpen and while I don’t expect him to excel there he has the makeup of a player who could surprise some people.
Phillip Irwin: Irwin’s situation is very similar to Pribanic’s. Both players are finesse pitchers that pitched respectably albeit not greatly in AA last season and could be in line to move up to AAA but due to the lack of space will probably either end up in the AAA bullpen or the AA rotation. I think Irwin will remain in the AA rotation and while he is nothing to get too excited about he has good eough control that he could one day develop into a decent major league option.
Nate Baker: Of the four upper level pitchers I am discussing here I think Baker has the highest upside. Baker has always been a little old for the level he was playing in (at 24 and in AA this season that will remain the case) but he has consistently pitched well putting up very solid numbers. He is a left handed pitcher and has decent velocity in the low 90s; he isn’t a high end prospect but could end up a decent middle of the rotation option. This season in AA will be a big test for Baker and I think he will handle it well and put up another very solid season.
Summary: The Pirates top two minor league levels are filled with depth veterans and good but not great prospects. There is no one is AA or AAA that project to be top of the rotation options but the trio of McPherson, Owens and Locke should provide the Pirates with good rotation depth. The Pirates also have a lot of decent veterans who will probably start the season in AAA and serve as roster depth such as Juan Cruz, Shairon Martis, Logan Kensing and Jo-Jo Reyes. The good mix of young pitchers and veterans should provide the Pirates with a good stabilizing force this season should multiple injuries arise.
MIDDLE LEVELS (A and A+)
Zack Von Rosenberg: Von Rosenberg was the highest thought of prep arm the Pirates took in the 2009 draft. Throughout his career he has performed respectably but not up to his expectations. He did finish strong last season though which should lead to some optimism for this season. Chances are he will move to A+ this season and despite the fact he is probably the Pirates 7th or 8th best starting pitcher prospect he is going to likely be only the 4th highest regarded on the A+ staff. The Pirates A+ affiliate plays in a very hitter friendly park and Von Rosenberg’s underwhelming performance so far point to him not living up to what he was at first billed but his strong finish last season and young age means it is still possible for him to have a breakout. I think that breakout season comes this year.
Zack Dodson: Dodson is likely going to round out what will have to be one of the most interesting minor league rotations in baseball. Like Von Rosenberg, Dodson was one of many prep arms taken by the Pirates in the 2009 draft; he didn’t come with the pedigree of Von Rosenberg but Dodson’s performance to date has pretty much matched Von Rosenberg’s. He is not much of a strikeout pitcher but rather a ground ball pitcher. I like his arm and I think one day he could make a viable back of the rotation candidate but as for this season I see him struggling in A+.
Victor Black: Black was yet another pitcher taken by the Pirates in the 2009 draft but unlike the previous two I discussed he was taken out of college. Baseball America had him rated the 50th best prospect in the draft but he has not lived up to that billing. As of right now it appears his days as being developed as a starter are over but he still has the potential to become a very effective reliever. Black will likely be promoted to A+ this season and pitch out of the bullpen; the Pirates probably want him to get innings so expect it to be a long inning role instead of a back of the bullpen role. He has the stuff to make a good reliever so I think early on he will be successful although I could see him fading as the season goes on.
Trent Stevenson: Yet one more prep arm taken in the 2009 draft, Stevenson was taken not because he was viewed as a polished pitcher but rather because of his high upside. Stevenson hasn’t put up good results thus far but that was to be expected as he was really a project that was going to take a few years to develop. He really struggled in A ball last season, actually getting demoted to short season ball where he continued to struggle. At this point Stevenson is a long shot to make it to the majors but his high potential still makes him worth watching. Stevenson will likely be in A ball this season and due to his high upside will be on the more intriguing arms there. This is a huge year for Stevenson as if he finally puts it together he can start being viewed as a legit prospect but on the other hand another setback will all but eliminate the head start he got by coming straight out of high school. Personally I see him struggling again this season.
Summary: The keys to the organization rest with the pitching in the middle levels. Earlier I previewed the Pirates top 6 starting pitcher prospects and 4 of them will likely start the year pitching in either A or A+ ball. This is the Pirates most talent rich part of the organization and to a rather large degree the future success or failure of the major league rests heavily on the shoulders of these pitching prospects. The group is headlined by Cole and Taillon but the supporting cast of Von Rosenber, Cain, Kingham, etc can also be quite valuable. For the many prep arms drafted by the Pirates in 2009 this is a huge year for them and we will likely start to see some separation between the prospects and the non-prospects.
LOWER LEVELS (SS and Rookie)
Clay Holmes: The Pirates drafted Holmes in 9th round of last year’s draft and apparently thought very highly of him as they gave him a 1.2 million dollar signing bonus. Holmes is ahead of most high school pitchers because of his advanced fastball which he already throws in the low 90s. The rest of Holmes’ pitches are underwhelming making him a bit of a project but he definitely has the highest upside of any of the handful of prep arms taken by the Pirates in the last draft. He will likely start the year pitching in short season ball when a player is at this point in his career it is nearly impossible to predict how he will pitch so I will just add that he will probably struggle some but it will hopefully show some positive signs.
Others: I was going to break down the rest of the intriguing pitchers in the lower levels individually but in reality they are in one of two boats either they are prep arms getting their first real taste of pro ball or they are international prospects coming to the states for the first time. The Pirates really don’t have any intriguing international guys moving up but Andy Otamendi and Clario Perez appear to be the best of the bunch. Last year was Otamendi’s first season of pitching in the DSL but he performed very well and has likely already earned a promotion to the states. Perez on the other hand spent 3 seasons in the DSL but finally pitched well enough last season that he appears ready for a shot at rookie ball. The intriguing prep arms the Pirates selected last draft, in addition to Holmes, are Colten Brewer, Tyler Glasnow, Jake Burnette and Jason Creasy. Glasnow and Burnette appear to be the best prospects of the bunch but in reality all 4 of them will be starting from the same spot. All 4 players have decent velocity but lack some control; it is possible all of them will start in short season ball but I expect the Pirates to break them up and start one or two in rookie ball.
Summary: The lower levels for the Pirates have two elite pitching prospects in Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia but outside of those two prospects the Pirates also have a good compliment of prep arms like the ones I have discussed above. The international ranks have developed a few options for this season but no one who really stands out. Last season the Pirates had Nick Kingham break out from the lower levels and it is very possible they will have another pitcher do the same this season. Who will it be? That is really anyone’s guess but my money is on Holmes or Glasnow. The state of the Pirates lower levels is not really uncommon as pitchers who are throwing in the lower levels tend to be more projects than legit prospects but hopefully the good mix they have coupled with Allie and Heredia will take a step forward this season and set the Pirates up with another wave following Taillon and Cole.