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.
Borderline Relief Pitcher Prospects (Grade C-)
Jeff Inman: Going into the 2009 season, Jeff Inam was considered a potential first round talent by some scouts. However he suffered a shoulder injury which dropped his status and allowed the Pirates to pick him in the 12th round. They signed Iman for $425,000 which of course was overslot. Inman managed to pitch 4 innings below the close of 2009 and looked to be healthy getting his fastball up to the mid 90s (it was down in the low 80s before he was shut down in college). Unfortunately an elbow problem prevented him from playing at all in 2010. In 2011 he was sent to A+ and got some work as a starter, he was doing very well but then once again in May he was sidelined with an elbow injury and missed most of the rest of the season. This season Inman didn’t start out playing at any level but was assigned to A+ during the season and pitched very well in 9.2 innings out of the bullpen before being promoted to AA. At AA he continued to pitch very well and managed to remain healthy for the entire season. The only downside of all of this is that Inman’s strike out rates are not great and for a pitcher with his stuff they should be better. Inman obviously has some talent and could make a decent relief pitcher in the majors but the bi question mark about him is his health.
Tim Alderson: Alderson is the prospect that just keeps hanging on. The Pirates acquired him from the Giants in the 2009 trade of Freddy Sanchez. At the time he was considered a very good pitching prospect but his stock was beginning to slip a little bit. He performed decently for the Pirates in AA the remained of the season but before the 2010 season the Pirates and Alderson decided to try to change him back to his old delivery. The experiment was a disaster and Alderson put up some awful numbers. At the start of the 2011 season the Pirates decided to send Alderson back to AA once more but this time pitch him out of the bullpen. At first it seemed to work well Alderson was pitching better and had regained his low 90s velocity but as the year went on his results and velocity both slipped. This past season the Pirates assigned Alderson back to AA to pitch a 4th straight season at the level. Once again he began the year in the bullpen and once again he started off pitching well. He pitched so well in fact that the Pirates gave him a few starts and even promoted him to AAA for a short while. Oddly enough despite this being his 4th year of AA, Alderson upon being promoted to AAA was the youngest player on the Pirates AAA roster. After being sent back to AA Alderson missed some time with an injury and when he returned he once again struggled to finish out the year. He did show improvement this season and at 24 years old will still amazingly not be old for the AA level next season but time is certainly working against him at this point.
Jason Townsend: Townsend is one of those prospects that there is just something about him that makes me like him more than most other people. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 31st round of the 2010 draft and was just your typical late round selection so the Pirates didn’t go overslot to sign him. He played the 2010 season at the A- and showed great stuff with a 97 mph fastball but he displayed poor control. The Pirates promoted him to A ball the following season and he pitched much better. He still wasn’t as dominating as a guy with his stuff should be and his velocity dipped some but he still pitched well. This past season the Pirates sent him to the A+ bullpen and Townsend had another solid season. Unfortunately though his velocity stayed in the low 90s and his strike out rate fell even more, making his performance good but not dominating. He was promoted to AA and got into a few games but with largely the same results, meaning he pitched well but didn’t particularly stand out. As a power reliever Townsend needs to post a dominating stat line to be taken serious as a relief prospect. Even though Townsend really hasn’t had that big breakout season yet to establish himself as a good relief prospect there is still something about him I like but in order to be taken serious Townsend will need to start showing more hopefully as soon as this upcoming season.
Dalton Friend: The Pirates drafted Friend in the 12th round of the 2012 draft. He seems to be a rather interesting prospect as he is left hander with good velocity. His fastball is said to sit at 95 mph although it wasn’t there this past season but he missed nearly all of 2011 with a shoulder injury so that very well may be the cause of his drop in velocity. After signing with the Pirates Friend pitched for the Pirates class A- affiliate. His first appearance was awful but he seemed to settle down after that and pitched very well the remainder of the season. His future going forward is likely as a fastball/curveball lefty relief pitcher and he has the stuff to be a very good one. The Pirates had Friend start the season off throwing short relief appearances but appeared to be stretching him out near the end of the season so it is possible they want him to be a starter next season. If that is the case that is a good sign for Friend as that would mean the Pirates probably view him as at least a good prospect. He will likely go to a full season level next season and with a good showing he could establish himself as a real prospect.
John Kuchno: I’m really not sure what to think about Kuchno. The Pirates drafted him in the 17th round of this past draft and there was little to no attention paid to him until the Pirates signed him late into the signing period for slightly over slot. The Pirates evidently view him as at least some sort of prospect and there is some reason there as he has a good fastball and a good curve. His numbers in college were decent but not really outstanding so that leaves me to believe he is more a project the Pirates see some potential in. His late signing meant he didn’t get to pitch for the Pirates too much but he did get 5 innings at the A- level and he showed good stuff getting a lot of strike outs but he also was a little wild issuing a fair number of walks. Like most pitches this low in the minors Kuchno could probably start or pitch out of the bullpen next season but his stuff appears to be better suited for a relief role so my guess is the Pirates will take that route with him. The Pirates evidently see something in him so Kuchno is one to watch headed into next season.
Pat Ludwig: The Pirates drafted Ludwig in the 10th round of the 2012 as a signability pick to save money presumably for Appel. He received a signing bonus of only 5,000 considerably less than the 125,000 slotted for his spot. Still Ludwig showed good stuff in college posting a high K rate and is evidently a fairly smart fellow considering the Pirates drafted him out of Yale. Even with all that had Ludwig performed poorly after signing with the Pirates he would probably just be an afterthought right now but he went to the A- level and pitched outstandingly well. He showed great command and managed to post a good strike out rate while limiting hitters to a .196 average against him. The Pirates gave Ludwig a small taste of A ball near the end of the season and he continued to pitch well, even upping his strikeout rate. Ludwig’s results this season makes him an interesting one to watch, if he continues pitching like he did this season he should be viewed as a legit relief prospect regardless of the reason the Pirates drafted him. He seems relatively advanced for a college pitcher so the Pirates could try him at the A+ level next season.
Ryan Beckman: I almost didn’t include Beckman here but then I thought that since I included Inman here I had to include him. Beckman was drafted by the Pirates in the 18th round of the 2009 draft. The Pirates allowed him to pitch a lot of innings at the rookie level in 2009 and his results weren’t impressive. The Pirates moved him up to the A- level the following season and he pitched better but by no means did he put up great numbers. I should note at this point Beckman was a ground ball pitcher but evidently he changed something before the 2011 season. Beckman started the 2011 season at the A level but was quickly promoted to the A+ level. There he served as the closer and pitched substantially better than he had at any point in his pro career. He started allowing more fly balls but with that came a big bump to his K rate. The Pirates had him change his arm slot at some point so maybe that can be attributed to his quick change in pitching styles but whatever it was it made a sneaky breakout candidate for the 2012 season. Unfortunately that was not to be. Beckman started the 2012 season at the AA level but injured his elbow in his first outing and required Tommy John surgery which put him out for the rest of the season. Beckman’s sudden change in 2011 makes him interesting to watch but he will likely miss the first few months of next season with the injury as well.