AAA: Tony Sanchez
Backing up Tony Sanchez this season in AAA will likely be some combination of Lucas May, Ali Solis and Brian Jeroloman. All of three catchers are past their prospect days but should an opening arise in the majors it is possible one of them could get the call. As for Sanchez his prospect stock has took a hit down to the point where he is no longer widely consider the Pirates top catching prospect (Battling Bucs still gives him the slightest of edges though) but he still does have some upside and could be a useful major league catcher as early as later this season. Sanchez’s defense was said to be good when he was drafted and that remains the case; his game calling is also improving which means he looks to be a very capable receiver at this point in his career. The question is as it always was his bat. Sanchez recovered some last season from a terrible 2011 but his offensive numbers were still a disappointment. In order to move forward this year and show he still might be able to develop into at least an averae MLB starting catcher his offensive game particularly his power will need to make great strides.
AA: Carlos Paulino
Paulino will serve as the regular catcher in AA and be backed up primarily by Charlie Cutler. Kawika Emsley-Pai and others may play at the level as well but barring an injury it is likely to be sparingly. At this point in his career Paulino is essentially an extreme version of Sanchez. His defensive game overall is a little better than Sanchez’s but his bat is worse. Paulino’s defense alone has what it takes to make him a backup catcher in the majors but if he is ever going to have a shot at being a starting catcher he is going to have to show he can hit some. Paulino has hit fairly well in the past posting good numbers in 2011 but he struggled last season when he was forced to repeat A+. Now as the unquestioned starter in AA this is Paulino’s time to shine.
A+: Jacob Stallings, Elias Diaz
Stallings and Diaz are expected to split catching time in A+. Like Sanchez and Paulino these two catchers are noted more for their defense than their offense. Stallings was drafted last year by the Pirates in the early rounds mainly as an attempt to save cap space for making a run at Appel. He comes from the NCAA holding the single season record for throwing out runners attempting to steal. The Pirates are aggressively pushing him over regular A ball and straight to advance. This is a typical move for advanced college hitters but Stallings is not one of those. His offense will likely struggle but it is going to have to be his defense that carries him anyway. As for Diaz the Pirates seem to really like him but up to this point he really hasn’t shown much progress as a hitter. Like all the other catchers discussed so far he is going have to show some improvements with the bat to see his prospect stock rise.
A: Wyatt Mathisen
At this point I’m not really sure who will back up Mathisen but the Pirates are not short of options as the lower levels are filled with a ton of catchers (non prospects of course). Mathisen is a horse of a different color in this catching crop. He is widely considered to be the Pirates top catching prospect (Battling Bucs has him 2nd just slighly behind Sanchez) with his biggest weakness being his defense. Mathisen is really just becoming accustomed to the catcher position having played the majority of his high school career at the shortstop position. His bat is advanced for a high school player and his defensive game has shown flashes of potential but with this being a relatively new position to him there is still a lot to work on. The main challenge for Mathisen in 2013 will be just adjusting to being a full tiem catcher.
Lower Levels: Jin-De Jhang, Daniel Arribas
There was some talk the Pirates might consider moving Jhang to A ball with Mathisen and having them continue to split time between catcher and DH but that doesn’t appear to have happened. Jhang will start the season likely in short season ball. Like Mathisen, Jhang is relatively new to catching and has a lot of work to do to get the mechanics of the position down. His bat is strong for a catcher though and makes him an interesting prospect to watch. Arribas has played catcher, 1st base and 3rd base in the DSL but appears to be focusing entirely on catching right now. Arribas shown some hitting talent in the DSL last season and was moved up to the states this year. He will likely share catching duties in rookie ball this season as he adjusts to his more permanent position home.
Top 5 Catching Prospects
1. Tony Sanchez
2. Wyatt Mathisen
3. Jin-De Jhang
4. Carlos Paulino
5. Jacob Stallings
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.
Top Hitting Prospects
The top 5 hitting prospects in the Pirates system all are expected to begin to 2013 season in either A or A+ ball. Dilson Herrera should skip over short season ball and start the year in A ball and Josh Bell should join him there as he is expected to repeat the level. Herrera is a popular break out candidate for 2013 and certainly has the tools to do. He is coming off a very solid 2012 season in rookie ball in which he displayed a good all around offensive game. I’m expecting a very good season from Herrera and while I don’t think he will necessary break out I don’t expect him to do anything to hurt his status. Joining him in A ball will be Bell who missed most of last season with a knee injury. At this point it is difficult to know just what to expect from Bell but a good start is I wasn’t to see him healthy and hitting for power. I’m thinking his overall line might not sparkle being essentially his first professional season but if those two things are present it should be a decent year for Bell. At the A+ level the Pirates will have the two top hitting prospects in Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco and also last year’s supplemental pick Barrett Barnes. Barnes had a very solid debut in A- last season and will be looking to continue it at a much more age appropriate level. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him struggle with the jump but we shall see. Hanson broke out last season and has a tremendous bat for a middle infielder but his defensive game needs a lot of work if he is to remain at shortstop. The Pirates will likely have him focus on improving defensively which I think might end up hurting his overall offensive numbers this season in particular his power. Going step for step with Hanson last season in A ball was Gregory Polanco. Polanco’s season last year was just as impressive as Hanson’s and in fact I think it was slightly better. Polanco will start the season in A+ but if he is successful I expect the Pirates to give him a mid season promotion to AA. My instinct tells me this will be another big year for Polanco so that isn what I am expecting.
Top Pitching Prospects
The Pirates middle levels aren’t just chalked full of hitting prospects as there are 4 top pitching prospects also expected to play at one of the A levels this season. The only one expected to pitch in A+ though is Nicholas Kingham. Kingham had a rough start to his 2012 campaign and finished the season with a poor ERA but he improved greatly as the year progress, finishing strong and posting solid peripherals. He probably doesn’t have the ace upside of the top pitching prospects at the A ball level but he is father along developmentally and looks like he could become a good middle of the rotation inning eater. I think Kingham will take a significant step forward this season. At the A ball level the Pirates are likely to have Luis Heredia and Clayton Holmes and may also have Tyler Glasnow pitching at the level. Heredia is the top prospect here as he put up excellent numbers in A- last season despite being younger than most of his competition. The Pirates will likely continue to proceed slowly with Heredia but I suspect we will continue to see good things from him and I expect him to start missing a few more bats this season. Along with Heredia in A- Clayton Holmes was putting up excellent numbers but unlike Heredia he comes with a couple warning signs. One his delivery is very awkward looking at two he struggled with control at times last season while not striking out many batters. I expect the jump to A level is going to be a big test for him and I think he’ll struggle. Glasnow pitched in rookie ball last year with just a taste of A- at the end of the year. He was dominate in rookie ball and did fairly well in short season ball as well. The Pirates may opt to keep him in short season but my expectation is they will hold him back in extended spring training and then give him a shot at A ball. I actually think he’ll do quite well at whichever level he pitches and I could see him shooting up some prospect lists.
Other Hitting Prospects
In addition to the top level hitters the Pirates have a good assortment of the next level of hitters ready to play in the middle levels. At the A+ level the talent is a little light but Jose Osuna is a very solid 1st base prospect and could be on the verge of a breakout. Lost in the hype surrounding Hanson and Polanco was Osuna’s very solid season in A ball. He didn’t put up the show stopping numbers but it was still a very good season. Osuna is limited defensively to 1st base so his bat is going to have to carry him but he has shown the power potential which suggests it just might. I’m not expecting a full breakout from Osuna but I think he’ll once again post a good line while going largely unnoticed in 2013. In A ball the talent is a little deeper with Wyatt Mathisen, Jin-De Jhang, Eric Wood, Max Moroff and Willy Garcia all having a chance to start there. Mathisen is the headliner of the group and is considered by some to be the Pirates 5th or 6th best hitting prospect. He is an athletic young catcher who is learning the position and has a good solid bat. Jhang split catching duties with Mathisen in rookie ball last season and had a very good season there. It is possible the Pirates choose to split the two up but I think they will both be promoted to A ball and will continue to split the catching duty. Wood and Moroff also played in rookie ball last season manning 3B and SS respectively. Wood had a surprising debut after being a relatively unknown 6th round selection and Moroff showed why the Pirates went overslot to sign him after the Appel signing fell through. Garcia played at A ball last season and wasn’t horrible but he was inconsistent which makes me believe the Pirates will start him back at the level. All the players in this group are candidates to break out and become top hitting prospects. The chances of all of them doing so are slim but I expect at least 1 or 2 of them will do so.
Other Pitching Prospects
The Pirates are lacking a little in the middle levels in the second tier of pitching prospects. Only three names Robby Rowland, Zach Von Rosenberg and Adrian Sampson really catch my eye. Rowland and Von Rosenberg are likely to begin the year in A+ ball. Rowland was acquired last offseason when the Diamondbacks traded him to the Pirates in exchange for the rights to Rule V selection Brett Lorin. Rowland was an underwhelming prospect but he put up a solid season in A ball last year to get on the map. He is one to watch although I think he is going to struggle in the jump to A+. Von Rosenberg is actually one of my under the radar breakout picks. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 6th round of the 2009 draft and he was the most high profile of the large lot of high school arms the Pirates went overslot for to sign. To date Von Rosenberg hasn’t been that impressive as he repeated A ball last year and while his numbers were decent they weren’t exactly what one would hope to see. The Pirates are likely to try him at A+ and I’m going to predict he will have a good season and reemerge on the prospect map. The other pitcher Sampson was drafted by the Pirates last season and sent to A- ball where he pitched extremely well and was one of the few pitchers at that level to actually have a high strike out rate. I’m not really sure what to expect from him in 2013 but I think he has a chance to develop into a good pitching prospect.
Prospects To Watch
I already picked a few of the middle tier prospects who I think have a strong chance of breaking out. I didn’t say which hitters I’d specifically lean towards but if pushed I’d probably go with Jin-De Jhang and max Moroff and on the pitching side I’m expecting a big step up from Von Rosenberg. Digging a little deeper though I see a few under the radar names who could emerge as quality prospects. On the pitching side two players I like are Dalton Friend and Joely Rodriguez. Friend was drafted by the Pirates last year in the 12th round and looks like just a relief pitcher but his stuff is fairly good and he had success last year in A- so I think the Pirates will push him to A+ to see if he has success there and I’m expecting him to rather well and take on the look of a good relief prospect. Rodriguez has been underwhelming so far in his pro career but showed some positive signs in A- last year. I’d be a fool to say I’m expecting a breakout but I like some of what I saw and if the Pirates push him to A ball in 2013 I think he could put up a nice season and become the Pirates second best international pitching prospect (behind Heredia); that in itself won’t be much of an accomplishment but I do think he’ll raise his stalk this year and take on the look of a fringe prospect instead of an organizational arm. On the hitting side under the radar guys are a little harder to find because the Pirates have a lot of top prospects or second tier prospects filling spots. In all honesty I really don’t see too much there but one player I like who I think could surprise if he can get the playing time is Taylor Lewis. Lewis struggled last year in A ball and might repeat the level and if he does he should have a reasonable chance of getting some time in center field but the Pirates might push him to A+ ball and they do he’ll probably serve as a 4th outfielder there. Lewis came from a small school so he probably needs a little more development time than your typical prospect but the talent is there and given a chance I think he could turn himself into a nice prospect this season.
Just Missed the Top 30
Jose Osuna: Osuna was signed by the Pirates late in 2009 out of Venezuela. He was originally signed as an OF but it was a widely held belief that he would eventually need to move to 1B and he has indeed done so. When he was signed Osuna was already touted as having good plate discipline and some good raw power. He has shown both of those tools rather well so far in his pro career. Osuna played in the VSL in 2010 and had a good showing leading the league in HR at only 17 years old. Osuna was promoted to the states in 2011 and raked down in rookie ball posting a .911 OPS in 178 AB. He continued to show very good plate discipline although his power did take a slight hit. It was also at this level that Osuna shifted to 1B. This past season the Pirates used him as the regular 1B at the A ball level and he did fairly well. Osuna posted a .778 OPS in 482 AB. He also continued to keep his strike outs low but his walk rate dipped slightly. The power Osuna was said to possess was flashed a few times as he hit 16 HR. Osuna had an amazing month of July in which he had a 1.011 OPS and belted 9 HR. Osuna will only be 20 years old next season and already appears to be a fairly advanced hitter. The power potential along with solid plate discipline is there and could make Osuna a good 1B prospect for the Pirates moving forward. Going forward he needs to get better (more comfortable) at 1B and he needs to show that he can keep hitting as he moves up the ladder.
Dan Gamache: The Pirates drafted Gamache in the 6th round of the 2011 draft. He played primarily 3B in college but the Pirates announced him as a 2B and that is where they have been using him. Gamache is a solid defender and he has the ability to hit to all fields and has shown solid plate discipline but he lacks power. Gamache made his pro debut in rookie ball last season and in a very small sample size hit very well. The Pirates promoted to A- and things didn’t quite go so well. This season the Pirates promoted him to A ball and he quietly had a good season. He was overshadowed by his middle infield partner of course but he more than held his own. Gamache posted a solid .780 OPS while adapting very well to his new position as a full time 2B. It wasn’t a dominating performance from him and as an advanced college player a better showing could have been expected but he played the season at only 21 years old so he wasn’t exactly old for the level. Due to his limited power Gamache will most likely need to show he has what it takes to stick at 2B if he is to move forward as a prospect but so far things are looking good in that regard. The Pirates will most likely want to see Gamache continue to hit and play solid defense as he moves up to A+ next season.
Jarek Cunningham: The Pirates drafted Cunningham in the 18th round of the 2008 draft, he was one of their many over slot picks. He was a fairly highly regarded prospect but missed his senior season at high school because of an ACL tear so it was expected he would go to college. He was originally drafted as a shortstop but he was never really expected to stick there and his since moved to 2B and some are convinced he could move again possibly to 3B or a corner outfield spot. Cunningham’s pro career started out great with a strong showing at the rookie level but unfortunately he injured his knee and was forced to miss all of the following season. In 2010 the Pirates sent him to A level with mixed results. Cunningham showed some good power and actually finished 3rd in the league in extra base hits but he also showed a huge strike out problem and had very inconsistent plate discipline. The Pirates sent Cunningham to the A+ level in 2011 and he started out on fire in April and May before eventually cooling off and slumping through July. In July of that year Cunningham suffered a concussion and the only appearances he made the rest of the season were a few rehab stints in rookie ball. This past season Cunningham played at AA and was disappointing. On the plus side he did manage to stay healthy most of the year and was better defensively but his bat was just nowhere to be found. Cunningham is in an interesting prospect because of the power potential he provides for a 2B but his constant injuries and disappointing showing in 2012 has really hurt his prospect stock. This upcoming season will be a big test for Cunningham.
Tyler Gaffney: The Pirates drafted Gaffney this past year in the 24th round out of Stanford. The most noteworthy thing about him was that he was also Stanford’s backup RB for the football team. Gaffney is a very solid hitter but his draft stock was hurt as he doesn’t have the power of a typical corner outfielder or the speed of the typical center fielder. Basically he is your classic tweener in the outfield. Gaffney made his pro debut at the A- level this season and hit very well. He posted a crazy .483 OBP which was fueled by an astonishing 13.2 HBP percentage. He also completed a weird trifecta registered exactly 20 strike outs, walks and hit by pitches. Gaffney has been described by most as a very good potential 4th outfielder but I believe he has a good enough bat and good enough OBP skills to force a team to consider using him as a regular despite his lack of power. Gaffney missed the end of the season with a shoulder problem, which considering the HBP, really isn’t surprising but his .924 OPS this season should easily be enough to earn him a promotion to A ball if not A+ ball next season.
Ramon Cabrera: Cabrera was signed by the Pirates in 2008 out of Venezuela. He had just converted to catching so his defensive game is raw. Cabrera made his pro debut in the VSL in 2008 and had a very solid season. The following year he started back at the VSL but received a rare in season promotion to the United States. Once in the states Cabrera had a strong year showing off his good contact and plate discipline abilities which is what carries him as a prospect. Cabrera took a step back in 2010 when upon being promoted to A ball his walk rate took a hit. He still managed to keep his strike out rate low and show decent contact but his good plate discipline wasn’t there. In 2011 Cabrera moved up to A+ and had a breakout season offensively positing an .881 OPS. Unfortunately Cabrera’s shaky defense caught up with him as he threw out only 13% of runners trying to steal. The good offensive showing in 2011 was enough to earn Cabrera a promotion to AA this past season. He started the season serving as the DH and backup catcher to Tony Sanchez and struggled in that role but once he became the regular catcher he started to hit much better and even showed improvements defensively. Cabrera’s strengths are his ability to make good contact and his plate discipline but his shaky defense behind the plate and small stocky stature (he is listed at 5’7″ 202 lbs) make some question whether he has the defensive and durability needed to hold up behind the plate for a full season. Cabrera like a lot of other prospects I have discussed so far is Rule V draft eligible this season but unlike the rest he has a decent chance of either being added to the 40 man roster or if not added being selected by another team. If he is still with the Pirates next season he could be an interesting one to watch in AAA.
Phillip Irwin: Irwin was drafted by the Pirates in the 25th round of the 2009 draft by the Pirates. His selection came with very little fanfare as he has nothing that makes him stand out. He is a right handed pitcher who tops out in the high 80s and his secondary pitchers are just really average. He was selected out of college so he wasn’t really all that projectable either. Irwin plain and simple just doesn’t have the stuff of a good pitching prospect but what he does have is the results. Irwin made his pro debut in 2009 at the A- level and was great. Irwin moved up to A ball in 2010 and once again his stuff wasn’t impressive and his ERA was only decent but his peripherals nonetheless were very good. The Pirates moved Irwin up to the A+ level last season and once again he pitched well despite not having the greatest stuff. He pitched well enough to earn an in season promotion to AA where he did get hit a little harder but once again his ERA wasn’t horrible (3.81) and his peripherals suggested he was pitching about the same if not better than he did in A+. He lowered his walk rate and raised his strike out rate (his WHIP did take a minimal step forward though). This season the Pirates started him back at AA and you all know the theme by now, he pitched well once again. The Pirates gave him a shot in AAA near the end of the season and he finally did see a significant uptick in his walk rates and WHIP but it was coupled with a significant rise in his strike out rate so it is quite possibly just a sample size issue. Irwin is Rule V eligible this season and despite not having the stuff of a top pitching prospect he has clearly shown enough where the Pirates will undoubtedly protect him.
Casey Sadler: Sadler was drafted by the Pirates in the 25th round of the 2010 draft. He throws a low 90s fastball with a cutter and a curve to compliment it. He started his pro career in the A- level and pitched well but in only 24 innings. The Pirates promoted him to A ball the following season and he pitched primarily out of the bullpen. Sadler pitched well all season but got particular better as the season went along. Sadler was near unhittable in the second half posting a 1.51 ERA and 0.70 WHIP. The Pirates promoted him to A+ for the 2012 season and once again he started off in the bullpen. He pitched well out of the bullpen but was for several reasons eventually forced to join the rotation. Sadler pitched decently as a starter but there is little doubt that relief work fits him better. Sadler posted a far better K rate out of the bullpen and it was clear the extra innings from starting wore him down as his outings began to get shorter in August. Amazingly despite starting the year in the bullpen Sadler had the most innings pitched for the Pirates at the A+ level which means they want to see him pitch which in turn means they like him as a prospect. There has always been something about Sadler I like and while it is very unlikely he’ll ever make it in the majors as a starting pitcher he does seem to clearly possess the ability to be an effective reliever. Nonetheless with limited options to start in AA next season Sadler is likely to remain in the rotation.
31.) Jin-De Jhang: It took me a while to pare my top prospect list down to just 30. The last 7 players I went over all have a good case to be part of it but the player that was most difficult for me to leave off was Jhang. Jhang was signed by the Pirates out of Taiwan in June 2011. The Pirates gave him 250K to sign and thought highly enough of him to bring him right to the states instead of starting him off in one of the instructional leagues. He has just moved to the catching position full time so he is still raw behind the plate but he has shown the tools including a good arm which make most believe he could one day be a good defensive catcher. Jhang’s strength is not his glove though, it his bat and he got to show that off in rookie ball this season. Jhang posted a very solid .780 OPS and actually received more playing time behind the plate than the Pirates 2nd round draft choice, Wyatt Mathisen. Jhang didn’t show the power potential this season but displayed a good contact rate, good plate discipline and surprisingly fairly good defense and speed. There is no doubt the Pirates consider Jhang a very good prospect and they could easily decide to jump him straight to full season ball next year. Jhang’s upside defensively and more importantly his upside offensively couple with his strong debut this season makes him a prospect to keep a very close eye on and a potential breakout candidate for next season.
Rod Barajas – Barajas came to the Pirates as a free agent this past offseason and at the time was widely considered one of the better options available. To put it bluntly his 2012 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates was just plain awful. Outside of a strong month of May Barajas struggled to hit and was horrible at throwing runners out all year long. I will give him credit for working with the pitching staff well and appearing to be a good game caller overall. When he was signed I thought it was a good move and I still think it was the Pirates needed someone to fill the catcher role and Barajas was amongst the best available. The problem I have was the continuation of giving him 60% of the starts when it became apparent he had lost it he should have gotten the smaller portion of the share meaning about 40%. Barajas has a 3,5 million dollar option for next season and while I see no way the Pirates pick it up I am dismissing the possibility of him resigning at a lower amount for next season. Overall Grade: D
Michael McKenry – Pittsburgh’s favorite catcher. The one a large percentage of the Pirates fan base, at one point this season, would have lead you to believe was amongst the best in the game. Sadly McKenry isn’t that good and all the talk about him needing to start 4 out of every 5 games was overblown (I believe only Yadier Molina, AJ Ellis, Miguel Montero and Matt Weiters approached that ratio). Still McKenry was without a doubt the Pirates best catcher this past season and has shown himself perfectly capable of being the smaller part in a catcher time share (he may be even able to handle the larger share but I’m not fully convinced of that yet). His offense outburst was surprising and probably unsustainable for following seasons but still a very positive sign. It was kind of funny this season to hear people saying he should be the “starter” this season because of his offense when the same people said last year he should be the “starter” because of his defense. Like Barajas, McKenry struggled mightily at throwing out runners. I expect McKenry will be back next season possibly even as the “starting” catcher. Overall Grade: B
Eric Fryer – Fryer did not play one single game at catcher for the Pirates which considering he is by far better than Barajas and McKenry at throwing out runners is a bit of a shame. Fryer simply doesn’t have the skill set to stick around the majors for a long period of time, he appears to be a very good depth option in the minors because he is a solid defensive catcher and can also play multiple positions but that is pretty much all. My expectations are that he will be removed early on from the 40 man roster. Overall Grade: C
Tony Sanchez – Sanchez did not have the greatest year in AA and AAA but did have a better showing than last season. He was steady but not spectacular in AA which earned him a promotion to AAA where he flashed a bit of power but overall struggled. Sanchez has a great arm and is an all around solid defensive catcher. His bat leaves some question marks and without a little bit of power he will probably struggle to hit well enough to remain a starting MLB catcher. Sanchez is eligible for the Rule V draft this season and I fully expect him to be added to the roster. There is an outside chance Sanchez starts the year with the Pirates in a time share with McKenry behind the plate but I fully expect him to get more seasoning at AAA. Sanchez will probably get a chance to claim the starting catcher job at some point next season though.
Wyatt Mathisen – Mathisen was the Pirates 2nd round draft pick this past season. He signed relatively quickly and started to play in the GCL. In high school Mathisen was the most athletic player on the team so he usually played shortstop but he did have some experience catcher and most scouts believed that is where his future was the brightest. Mathisen split time in the GCL between catcher and DH this season and put some very strong numbers. He has the look of a strong two way catching option and is one to watch for the next few seasons. There is a chance Mathisen could start next season in full season ball but I expect with catching being a relatively new full time thing for him we will see him in A- next year.
Jin-De Jhang – Jhang was the catcher splitting time with Mathisen this season and he too is relatively new to the catcher position. Jhang coincidently put up numbers very similar to Mathisen this season and profiles as a similar less athletic catcher. This was Jhang’s first season out of Taiwan and he handled himself well. Chances are either Jhang or Mathisen will make the jump to full season A ball next year and for some reason I get the sense that it will be Jhang but we will just have to wait and see.
Other Prospects – Charles Cutler (AAA*), Ramon Cabrera (AA*), Carlos Paulino (AA*), Jacob Stallings (A+*)
The * denotes my projected level for the player next season
Since the catching position is struggling in the major leagues for the Pirates I thought now would be a good time to look at what is down in the minors in terms of catching prospects.
At the rookie league level there are two interesting prospects sharing most of the catching duty. They are Wyatt Mathisen and Jin-De Jhang.
Mathisen: Wyatt Mathisen was selected out of high school in the second round of this past draft. While in high school Mathisen rarely played catcher instead moving all around the field and spending most of his time as a shortstop. His skill set best projects as a catcher though and that is how the Pirates and most other teams viewed him. Mathisen has the potential to be a strong two-way catcher who can play both good defense and hit for power and average. He also possesses average speed which would be a plus in a catcher. So far during his pro debut he is off to a good start with a .789 OPS in 152 PA. Mathisen figures to start 2013 in A- but could be pushed to A ball.
Jhang: Jin-De Jhang was signed out of Taiwan in 2011 and at the time was considered one of the best prospects in that area. That was reflected in the $250,000 bonus he received from the Pirates. Like Mathisen Jhang hasn’t spent much time at catcher so he has some skill sets to work on. So far this season in his pro debut Jhang has posted good numbers with an OPS of .798 in 133 PA. He has also received more playing time at catcher than Mathisen showing the Pirates really view him as a legit prospect. Like Mathisen, Jhang should start at A- next season but to separate the two, him or Mathisen could be pushed to A ball.
At this level the majority of the playing time behind the plate has went to one player with a bunch of other receiving a handful of starts as well. Jacob Stallings has received the majority of the playing time and his main backup appears to be Ryan Hornback.
Stallings: Jacob Stallings is another 2012 draftee as he was selected in the 7th round this season out of the University of North Carolina. He was a college senior and signed for way under slot at $10,000. Unlike the catchers I have mentioned previously Stallings is a very polished catcher and has a good bit of experience behind the plate. Stallings strengths are his ability to handle a pitching staff, play solid defense and yes throw out runners. He set an NCAA record in 2011 with 32 caught stealings. At the plate Stallings has good plate discipline but is overall a weak hitter. He has already received praise from his coaching staff being called another pitching coach out on the field. So far this season Stallings has put up a respectable .717 OPS in 223 PA. Due to his weak bat Stallings projects only as a backup catcher. With a lot of young pitchers having a guy like Stallings is valuable to the Pirates and he should start next season in A ball or A+ depending on how the Pirates choose to push Mathisen and Jhang.
Hornback: Ryan Hornback was a 27th round pick in 2011 out of San Jacinto College. He was viewed as a solid defender and was an average hitter at college. In his first year of pro ball he played in the rookie league and didn’t do a whole lot. This season Hornback has caught only 13 games and has received only 86 PA. He has done respectably in those at bats posing a .696 OPS. It appears the Pirates view him as an organizational player now so expect him to either stay in A- or possibly move up to A ball in a backup capacity. Essentially he will go where the team needs him.
In West Virginia the catching job has been shared by two players with the last name Diaz. Elias Diaz and Francisco Diaz have caught nearly all the games played at this level.
E Diaz: Elias Diaz was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in 2008. He wasn’t viewed as much of a prospect at the time but the fit the Pirates mold of an athletic catcher with a guy arm and potential in his bat. Diaz put up good numbers in his first year of pro ball in the VSL with a .781 OPS and was promoted to the US in 2010. Since coming to the United States Diaz has struggled. In 2010 he put up an OPS of .590 in Rookie ball. The next season he was surprisingly moved to A ball and put up a .607 OPS. He has repeated the level this season and has put up a .543 OPS in 329 PA. At only 21 years old there is still time for him but he will need to move quickly. With no real options for A+ next season the Pirates could choose to push Diaz but most likely he’ll return to A ball for a 3rd season.
F Diaz: The Pirates selected this Diaz in this year’s minor league Rule V draft and he appeared to be nothing more than some middle level catching depth. Diaz was part of the Phillies organization from 2007-2011. He came to the states in 2009 and was immediately used as an organizational player playing everywhere from Rookie ball to A+ ball. He never put up good numbers with the Phillies. Surprisingly though Diaz is only 22 years old which is a touch old for A ball but not overly so. He has put up great numbers this season with an .822 OPS in 140 PA. Diaz did struggle in a short stint in A+ though with a .377 OPS in 39 PA. At this point there is nothing to get excited about here but his strong numbers in A ball this season at least give him some hope of continuing to move up the ladder. If he is still around next season I suspect he will be A+ ball.
With the exception of Francisco Diaz’s short stint the catching duty at this level has been handled by Carlos Paulino and Kawika Emsley-Pai.
Paulino: Carlos Paulino was acquired by the Pirates at the start of the 2011 season for a player most Pirate fans probably either never heard about or have forgotten about, Jim Negrych. The only reason Pirate fans may have even heard about Negrych was that he was a Pitt guy. Anyway as for Paulino at the time he was acquired Paulino didn’t appear to be much of a prospect just a good solid defensive catcher for the middle levels but last season Paulino at 21 years olds broke out in A+ posting a .790 OPS in 301 PA. That production would under normal circumstances earn you a promotion but the Pirates were full at catcher at AA with Sanchez repeating the level and Cabrera having actually outperformed Paulino at A+. So Paulino repeated A+ this season with hopes of farther cementing his prospect status but that hasn’t happened as he has posted a .676 OPS in 308 PA. Paulino remains one to keep an eye on because of his good defense and the fact he does have a breakout offensive season on his resume but right now he is on the back burner. I suspect he’ll start next season in AA.
Emsely-Pai: Kawika Emsely-Pai was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 10th round of the 2010 draft in June and was kind of strangely released by them in December 2010. He did have a poor showing in A- but it was only 103 PA and was his first pro season. The Pirates signed Emsely-Pai to a minor league contract in January 2011. The Pirates place Emsley-Pai in A ball and he had a good season posting a .725 OPS in 250 PA. The performance was good enough to earn him a promotion to A+ this season where he backs up Paulino. Unfortunately in limited playing time (150 PA) Emsely-Pai hasn’t produced great numbers posting an OPS of just .608. I suspect he will be back at A+ next season possibly even as the starting catcher next season.
Tony Sanchez started the year as the starting catcher for the Altoona Curve but since he was promoted I’m covering him in AAA. Outside of Sanchez the two players who have manned the catching position in AA this season are Ramon Cabrera and Charlie Cutler.
Cabrera: Ramon Cabrera was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in July 2008. He had just transitioned to catcher at the time so he was relatively raw at the position at the time of the signing. He spent all of 2008 and part of 2009 in the VSL putting up strong numbers with an OPS in 2008 of .771 and in 2009 of .868. He then came state side where he continued hitting well in rookie ball and was promoted to A ball in 2010. Cabrera struggled in A ball to the tune of a .654 OPS but was nonetheless pushed to A+ in 2011 where he broke out with a .881 OPS in 396 PA. Ordinarily that would have earned him a chance to be the starting catcher in AA but Sanchez was blocking him. Cabrera did catch some games while Sanchez was in AA and has caught most since he has left and has been ok offensively posting a .692 OPS in 396 PA. The knock against Cabrera has always been his defense and his durability behind the plate. He is relatively small for a catcher at 5′ 7″ 202 lbs and has had trouble throwing out base runners already. So what needs to carry him is his bat and his ability to hit line drives and consistently make contact. Cabrera will likely repeat AA next season.
Cutler: Charlie Cutler was another player taken in the minor league Rule V draft but he did appear to have a little bit of upside. Cutler was drafted by the Cardinals in 2008 and put up good numbers at every level in their organization. To be fair he was old for each level but that is still a pretty solid performance. Last season at 24 years old in AA Cutler put up an .874 OPS in 232 PA. He struggled the year before in AA posting only .581 OPS in 140 PA. At 24 years old he was probably a touch older than you would like for players in AA but that isn’t egregiously old for the level. This year with the Pirates Cutler remained in AA acting as a 3rd catcher and has once again had a solid season posting a .824 OPS in 159 PA. Of course at 25 years old he is now definitely too old for the level. Cutler’s reputation defensively is not good but his bat can’t be ignored. He has a career .800 OPS in the minors and .782 OPS in AA. The Pirates should push him to AAA next year to see what they got here as he is worth keeping an eye on.
Three catchers have shared nearly all the playing time for the Indianapolis Indians. Tony Sanchez has received the most games behind the plate but prior to his promotion Jose Morales and Eric Fryer were handling the work load.
Morales: Jose Morales was signed by the Pirates this offseason to a minor league deal to compete with Micheal McKenry for the team’s backup catching position and to at least serve as the 3rd catcher. Unfortunately he got injured early in Spring Training and never really got a chance to compete. Morales is your typical AAAA player. He spends a lot of time in the minors in AAA and when the need arises can come up and adequately fill a role with the major league roster. Morales started off the year decently but has struggled as of late. Since he hasn’t been added by now I don’t envision him joining the big league club unless it is for an emergency. Chances are he won’t be back next season.
Fryer: Eric Fryer is an interesting case. Fryer has never been highly regarded as a prospect and has nearly always been blocked by a better catching prospect but yet he just kept performing well enough in a limited sample to keep moving up. The Pirates acquired Eric Fryer and Casey Erickson from the Yankees for Eric Hinske. When he first came to the Pirates Fryer actually showed enough to warrant a look as a starting catcher for the first time in his career posting a .730 OPS in 187 PA in A+ but the Pirates had just drafted Sanchez and once he was promoted Fryer went back to being a backup. Fryer continued to hit well though posting an .865 OPS the following year in A+ and then a .976 OPS in AA the following season. Fryer received a quick promotion to AAA in 2011 where it appeared he was going to get a chance to start some games but injuries forced him to Pittsburgh. Fryer sparingly played in Pittsburgh and when he was sent back down to AAA struggled hitting for only a .647 OPS. This season Fryer has been worse posting a .513 OPS. Fryer is a candidate to be removed from the 40 man roster this offseason and since he has already been removed once can opt for free agency if he clears waivers which he almost assuredly will. I expect him to stay though and be back at AAA next season but not really as a catcher instead he will be using his versatility and playing some 1B, 3B and OF.
Sanchez: Tony Sanchez is the Pirates best catching prospect and realistically speaking short of trying to project out Mathisen or Jhang is the Pirates only hope of having a strong two-way starting catcher in the majors relatively soon. Sanchez was drafted by the Pirates 4th overall in 2009 and was definitely a reach at that position but with no real clear-cut options the Pirates opted to go for high upside later round selections. Sanchez started off his pro career strong posting an OPS of .976 in 188 PA at A ball. The next season he also put up good numbers in A+ ball with a .870 OPS in 250 PA. It was beginning to appear the Pirates made the right choice in drafting him but then in June he fractured his jaw ending his season. In 2011 Sanchez started in AA and was not good leaving a lot of people to question his top prospect status. This season Sanchez once again opened in AA and while he wasn’t great he fared much better and earned a promotion to AAA. Sanchez started slow in AAA but had a great July and appears to be back on track for a 2013 arrival. Sanchez’s strength is his defense. He is a good game caller and great at blocking pitches. His ability to throw out runners gets mixed reviews from average to very good but the average reviews mostly stem from the troubles he had in A+ ball when he was playing with a hurt shoulder. The question surrounding Sanchez has always been whether his bat would be good enough to be a starting catcher. Sanchez is not going to be a player who supports a very high average but can be good and he has the ability to provide plus power from the catching position. In short if you want the Pirates catching problem fixed internally this is your hope. Sanchez will likely start 2013 in AAA and if things go according to plan be called up to the majors near the middle of next season.