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.
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.