Last offseason I did a 15 part preview of the Pirates upcoming seasons focusing on what I expected to see out of various positions at the major league levels, the minor levels, the coaching staff and the front office. The series went over fairly well with my readers so I have decided to bring it back for a second year. I’m not sure how many parts this year’s series will include but I will do my best to cover every key player I can think of.
At the very top of my personal top Pirates prospects list the Pirates have a group I call the top 6 and a group I call the next 6. Two of the top 6 prospects and 1 of the next 6 prospects will be beginning the 2013 season either in AA, AAA or perhaps the major leagues. The two top prospects are of course Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. The next 6 prospect is Kyle McPherson. Cole is likely to garner the most attention and will likely start the season out in AAA but with a few adjustments and a strong start to the season he could see Pittsburgh fairly early on. Big things are expected from Cole and I fully expect we will see him in Pittsburgh come June or July. Cole may be the ace the Pirates are sorely lacking but it is not realistic to expect him to be that right out of the gate. I expect his major league time to be solid but lacking the elite quality we all will hope to see. Taillion should start the year in AA with a chance for a mid season promotion to AAA. I have high hopes that 2013 will be the year he unleashes his full arsenal and starts putting up the dominant minor league numbers we all hoped we would see. McPherson is competing for a major league rotation spot this spring but barring injuries I see him starting the year in the AAA rotation. McPherson will definitely get some time in the majors this season and I would like to see him perform well enough to earn a 2014 rotation spot. I think McPherson has the upside of a solid middle of the rotation starter and I have reasonably high hopes he will take the first steps towards establishing himself as one this season.
The Pirates upper levels aren’t exactly brimming with hitting talent. The top prospects are probably Tony Sanchez, Adalberto Santos, Alex Dickerson, Gift Ngoepe and if he is promoted to AA Mel Rojas Jr. Sanchez I have already discussed this is a pivotal year for him to have a solid season in AAA and in the likely event of one of the Pirates two catchers suffering an injury this season I would expect Sanchez to be a candidate to be called up to the majors. My expectation is Sanchez will have a solid but not great year in AAA and struggle offensively during any brief major league stint. Santos, Dickerson and Ngoepe I could see all starting in AA this season. Santos has a case to move up to AAA but the crowded outfield will likely hold him back. Hopefully one or more of these three will show something this season that lets the Pirates believe they could be contributors to the 2014 team. My expectations aren’t really high for any of them as I expect Dickerson’s numbers to be solid but again not where they need to be for an all bat player, Santos to regress from his good contact ways and Ngoepe to show only minimal improvement with the bat. The remaining hitting prospects with some intrigue are Ivan De Jesus, Matt Curry, Clint Robinson and Carlos Paulino. De Jesus, Curry and Robinson should start the year in AAA and could be called upon to serve as major league depth this season. Of the 3 my expectations are the highest for De Jesus who I think could develop into a nice middle infield utility player.
Outside of the top 3 pitching prospects I discussed the Pirates have a bunch of interesting arms projected to begin the season in one of the top two levels or the major leagues. Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Andy Oliver, Phillip Irwin and Victor Black are all very intriguing arms with some degree of chance of making the major league squad but most likely for all except Morris and possibly Wilson they will start the season in AAA. I have previously discussed Morris and Wilson so I’ll focus on the other 3. Oliver to me looks like another Justin Wilson type project who the Pirates will try to fix his control this season. Irwin has the look of a crafty righty with a know how to pitch and a good enough arsenal of pitches where he could be an effective back of the rotation starter. Black has the makings of a late inning shut down reliever but needs some fine tuning before he gets there. My expectation is that Oliver won’t show much improvement with his control and will wind up in the bullpen and the other two will show positive signs of improvement and I wouldn’t be shocked if either or both of them spent a fair amount of time in the majors this year. In AA the pitching talent is a little less deep outside of Taillon but two guys I’ll be watching are Stolmy Pimentel and Casey Sadler. With this being Pimentel’s last option year I expect the Pirates to move him to the bullpen and Sadler shown enough the Pirates are likely to keep him starting but I think they see him as a reliever long term. I don’t have high hopes for Pimentel this season but I think Sadler will show enough promise the Pirates will add him to the roster at the end of the season. There are a bunch of other semi-interesting pitching prospects in the upper levels but the 4 that catch my eye are Duke Welker, Brandon Cumpton, Tyler Waldron and Hunter Strickland. Welker and Strickland are on the 40 man roster and will need to show something to prove they belong there. I think Strickland will surprise people but my expectation is that Welker will struggle. As for the other two I think both will be converted to relief roles this spring to see if either is worth protecting from the Rule V draft this upcoming offseason. I suspect one of these two will wind up being the Pirates yearly surprise addition to the roster.
Prospects To Watch
I already mentioned that I think De Jesus, Waldron and Cumpton are a couple under the radar names to keep an eye on but I want to dig a little deeper and mention a few players who look like organizational players at this point who interest me. Jared Goedert is having a solid spring and while I don’t expect a whole lot out of him if he hits well in AAA he could get a chance in the majors and I think he has a chance to find a niche there as a good pinch hitting option. Michael Colla has flown under the radar but he has had moderate success at essentially every level. He could potential earn a chance to pitch as a middle reliever some time this season. A few other players I plan on keeping an eye on down in AA are Justin Howard, Kelson Brown and Tim Alderson. Howard is a 1st baseman with limited power but a pretty good knack for making contact. The Pirates have tried using him in the outfield some and with no real option to man 3B in AA I wouldn’t be shocked to see him trotted out there. If he can manage to be competent defensively in the outfield and third base his good contact ability could gain him some traction as a potential bench option down the road. Brown is the type of player who is solid in all aspects of the game but wonderful in none. He plays multiple positions, makes decent contact, shows a little power and is sound defensively. However he does none of those things at a high or low level. He has been fairly successful at every level and as I said with Howard the opening at 3B provides him with a chance to get some playing time and if given a chance he could surprise some people. Alderson has been written off by nearly everyone at this point and with very good reason but he is still relatively young. The last two seasons he has shown progress in converting to a reliever and a more finesse pitcher. He isn’t ever going to become what the Pirates hoped they were acquiring when they traded Freddy Sanchez for him but maybe there is enough talent left in him to develop into a marginal relief prospect. Now for the standard disclaimer my expectation of the players I discussed at length here is that they will continue on their path as organizational guys but of that group the names I noted I believe have the best chance to surprise in 2013.
When it comes to evaluating how well a draft worked out for a franchise be it baseball, football, hockey, basketball or really any other sport I am one who always feels that 5 years is a fairly reasonable time frame. Of course in baseball and to some extent hockey the evaluations have to be done a little differently because not everyone from those drafts are going to be established players but for the most part we should have a fairly good idea as to what kind of player they are. Typically speaking I think the 5th professional year for a draft class, particularly and MLB one is a huge year. The quick risers are likely in their 3rd pro season or so, the slow risers are likely entering their first full season or just ready to contribute and the wildcards are likely on their final chance. Its been five years since Neal Huntington’s first draft class and of course 2013 will be that class’s 5th full year of professional baseball experience. So according to my rule of thumb it should be a big year for them and indeed it is. To my research there are twelve players who still have at least some level of significance to the Pirates franchise, I have broken down those 12 into 6 different categories and will discuss what the 2013 season holds for them. Think of this as a primer for what to look for out of the 2008 draft class this season.
Organizational Players: Benjamin Gonzalez, Jeremy Farrell, Zachary Foster
Essentially this group has no expectations for the 2013 season. The three above players were drafted and signed in 2008 but have evolved into organizational filler; they will likely serve as bench depth or bullpen arms for one or multiple levels in 2013. They aren’t expected to contribute to the major league team and at this point really have no discernible prospect value. +
Wildcards: Jarek Cunningham, Quinton Miller
Cunningham and Miller are not that far from bien organizational players but both remain in the system and unlike the three organizational players I have listed do have somewhat of a ceiling. Cunningham is capable of playing 2B and has plus power for the position and Miller was a fairly highly regarded prep pitcher at the time he was drafted. Both of them face uphill climbs to ever make the majors let alone become a significant contributor there but each of them have enough upside that they will have essentially one last chance to rebound in 2013 and show they have some value. Miller is likely to work out of the bullpen at A+, a level he’ll be playing at for a 3rd season and at 23 years old is pushing the high side for a prospect at that level. If he shows signs of progress the Pirates may opt to send him to AA early on to give him one last chace but that appears highly unlikely. Cunningham is a little farther along than Miller as he will likely repeat AA this season and should be the starting 2B. At 23 years old he isn’t a terrible age for the AA level but another failed year could prove costly to the little prospect status he has remaining. There is a little more hope for Cunningham than Miller as he showed progress last season with his plate discipline, if he can manage to build off that, refind his power and stay healthy (something that has been a struggle for him) there is a chance he could regain his prospect status. Cunningham is facing an uphill climb but it appears he at least has a fighting chance.
Major League Depth: Matt Hague, Michael Colla
Not much to say about these two. Hague and Colla are essentially organizational players but they have advanced far enough along that either one could be potential non horrible at the major league level meaning they will serve as depth in 2013. Hague is well known by Pirates fans because of his hot spring training last year and the fact he subsequently made the Pirates bench. He struggled with his chances with the big club though and spent most of 2012 in AAA. Hague doesn’t really profile to hit for much power so his ceiling at the major league level is limited. Hague will almost certainly start the 2013 season off in AAA but this year he won’t have a starting position and will be forced into a utility role. The utility role could be a good thing for Hague though as his best chance of making it back to the majors is probably as a utility player who can make decent contact. Colla has spent the last two years in the AA rotation. His numbers over that time are actually fairly decent. In reality he doesn’t profile as a starter and unless he returns to AA for another season will not be one in 2013 but as a reliever he has a chance to become a decent depth middle reliever who could fill in at the major league level when injuries or ineffectiveness occurs. Colla and Hague don’t come with much upside and aren’t really players that will determine if the 2008 draft was a success or failure but 2013 will be a pivotal year in determining whether either one can carve out some sort of a major league career.
Slow Movers: Justin Wilson, Jordy Mercer, Chase d’Arnaud
Wilson, Mercer and d’Arnaud are ultimately going to play a large role in determining how well the 2008 draft worked for the Pirates. A good rule of thumb is that a good draft should give you 3 solid major league contributors. Well the Pirates have one who we will discuss later and have one more who could pay some dividends for them at the major league level but if they are to get any additional help from this class it is going to have to come from these three players. Wilson undoubtedly has the highest upside of the bunch as if he were able to find some control he has the stuff to be a top of the rotation arm. Mercer and d’Arnaud look like their ceiling is likely a major league average shortstop and that may be pushing it. At the end of the day three solid major league contributors doesn’t mean three superstars essentially if the team is able to draft one very good regular, a solid back end reliever and a good bench option it has had a decent year. None of these three except maybe Wilson look like they will develop into a solid regular but they all look like potential secondary pieces. Each player has two options remaining meaning they could in theory be brought back next season if they fail to establish themselves but in reality this is a big year for all three. Should any of them not establish themselves as at least a serviceable major league player they will be in great risk of being removed from the roster after the season and unless claimed by another team that usually severely hurts a player’s chances of having a good major league career.
Traded: Robbie Grossman (Wandy Rodriguez)
The importance of Robbie Grossman who was the key piece in the Wandy Rodriguez deal might often get overlooked when discussing the success or failure of the 2013 draft but it shouldn’t be. Grossman may no longer be in the system but the reason teams have prospects is not for only developing them for their own use but for using them to acquire major league talent through trades, in short they are assets. How Grossman performs this season is largely irrelevant to how the Pirates 2008 draft should be viewed but how his return, Wandy Rodriguez, performs is in my mind a critical part of it. Rodriguez is an established major league and a good performances by him in 2013 will help push up the value the Pirates were able to get out of the 2008 draft. As I stated this will be often overlooked but in my mind the return for Robbie Grossman may very well end up being the 2nd most important aspect of the 2008 draft.
Fast Movers: Pedro Alvarez
At the end of the day the performance of the other 11 players I’ve discussed mean very little compared to the draft 1st round pick. The success or failure of that draft will forever be linked to how Alvarez performs in his career as a Pirate. Last season saw some encouraging progress from Alvarez at the major league level but the strike out rate was too high. Alvarez at this point is an established major league player and looks like he has a strong chance of developing into a regular however his upside is so much more. He possess the power needed to develop into a true impact bat. This upcoming 2013 season will be crucial to his development. If he is able to build off his success in 2012 Alvarez begins looking like a cornerstone player but if he struggles like he did in 2011 he will once again look like a big bust. As his fortunes go so will the fate of the 2008 draft. Even in an optimist scenario where Wilson develops into a solid middle of the rotation arm, Mercer is able to be a decent place holder at the shortstop position for a year or two, d’Arnaud starts to hit and becomes a good spark plug off the bench, Cunningham regains his prospect value and Hague or Colla carves out a major league niche for themselves the 2008 draft will still feel light on talent if Alvarez fails to produce. In order for him to be a success and by extension the 2008 draft Alvarez doesn’t have to perform all that much better than his 2012 numbers going forward but he has to prove that he can that type of player and not be subject to wild down seasons like 2011; building off of 2012 and taking another step, even a small step forward would go a long way in proving just that.
Tim Williams at Pirates Prospects has a the 2013 Minor League Spring Training Roster for the Pirates on his site. Every year I look over this list to see if there are any interesting developments like a player being shifted to or from the mound, notable absences or even notable additions from the DSL. For some reason this year nothing like that caught my eye but what did catch my eye was that Tim had the player’s ages listed beside their names. Usually this wouldn’t be a big deal but for some reason it caught my attention. Some players were a few years older or younger than I thought. The I got to thinking about how age plays in a role in how I and everyone else define prospects. I looked over the list and gave this some more thought and concluded that ordinarily a player 25 years old or older is usually considered a non-prospect. Of course there are plenty of exceptions but as a basis it seemed like a good start.
I decided to turn my attention to see just how many players on the roster were indeed 25 and over and what sort of prospect ability they had. In all I counted 27 such players ranging from my base line age of 25 all the way up to 33 years old. Some of these 27 are of course no longer prospects not just because of their age but because of time they have spent in the majors but for most of the dream of reaching the show hasn’t happened yet and at this point for many of them likely never will. Still I thought I’d give a look at them. I didn’t intend to learn in an in-depth profile on each player just gain a casual idea of where they are as a prospect and a professional ball player.
The majority 15 of the 27 players age 25 or over are pitchers. The below list contains no true prospects but there are some intriguing names. I have also included their ages and a little blurb about their background.
Nathaniel Baker, 25: Baker was a 5th round draft choice by the Pirates in 2009. He projects to start the year in AA and remains mildly intriguing mainly because he is left handed pitcher with decent velocity. Baker has split time between starting and relieving but appears best suited for relief.
David Bromberg, 25: Bromberg was signed as a minor league free agent. He has spent the last 3 seasons in the upper levels and has been mildly effective. He looks like a fringy relief pitcher who should serve as minor league depth.
Michael Colla, 26: Colla was drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the 2008 draft. He has spent the last two seasons in AA and has put up solid numbers. He has almost purely been a starter in the past but could move to relief in AAA this season.
Roman Colon, 33: Colon had a few seasons as a middle reliever in the majors with poor to average results. For the last three seasons he has hung around in AAA and even played in Korea and served as emergency depth for teams. That appears to be his role going forward.
Zachary Foster, 26: Foster was drafted in the 49th round of the 2008 draft. He has struggled so far in his professional career spending most of his time in A or A+ ball. At this point he is an organizational player and one not likely to make it past the middle levels.
Ethan Hollingsworth, 26: Hollingsworth was taken by the Pirates in this year’s minor league Rule V draft. He has split the last two seasons between AA and AAA and has been decent in AA and poor in AAA. The Pirates likely selected him to serve as depth for the upper levels.
Jeffrey Inman, 25: Inman is one of the more interesting names on this list. He was taken in the 12 round of the 2009 draft but was a more highly regarded pitcher who slipped due to a shoulder injury. He really hasn’t stayed healthy much in his professional career but posted a decent season in AA last year. Considering all his injuries he probably should get an additional year of being considered a borderline relief pitcher prospect.
Kenn Kasparek, 27: Kasparek was drafted by the Mariners in 2008 but found himself in an independent league to begin 2012. The Pirates signed him when they had an opening in A+ ball. He figures to continue serving as a depth reliever for the middle levels.
Elecier Navarro, 25: Navarro is one of Littlefield’s leftovers. He is a small finesse left handed pitcher whose finese stuff has served him well through the lower and middle levels but he has now probably reached his ceiling.
Aaron Poreda, 26: Poreda is one of only two pitchers on this list who has pitched in the majors. He is however a bit different from Colon. The Pirates acquired him in 2011 minor league Rule V draft but before that he was once a highly regarded prospect. He was a key part of the Jake Peavy deal between the Padres and White Sox but when Poreda arrived with the Padres he suddenly lost his control. Since the trade Poreda has spent most of his time pitching in AA or AAA and putting up some very high walk rates, his other numbers though have been relatively speaking fairly solid.
Aaron Pribanic, 26: Pribanic is the last player remaining the Pirates got from the Jack Wilson trade. His first three years with the Pirates were fairly solid but he essentially lost all of 2012 due to injury and that has greatly hurt his prospect status. He will likely begin 2013 in AA with one last chance to avoid become an organizational guy.
Luis Sanz, 25: Sanz was signed by the Pirates as a minor league free agent. He has yet to advance past A+ ball and if he does this year it will likely only be because of an extreme lack of depth for AA.
Zach Thornton, 25: Thronton was acquired for Chris Resop this past offseason and is at least a little intriguing. Thornton played last season at the A+ level which he was old for but posted a very high K rate. His ability to miss bats make him a tad bit interesting. He should start the 2013 season in the AA bullpen.
Erik Turgeon, 26: The Pirates signed Turgeon to a minor league contract last year to fill in a hole at the A+ level. He pitched well at the A+ level but had already logged significant playing time above that level. He has some ability to miss bats but at this point looks like an organizational player.
Philippe Valiquette, 26: Valiquette was signed by the Pirates as a minor league free agent this offseason. Usually he would fall into the same category as the others but he is a little special as he is a left handed pitcher who has hit triple digits with his fastball in the past. That skill alone will keep teams hoping on for at least another season or two.
In addition to the 15 pitchers I have discussed there are 12 position players who fit the description of being 25 years or older and in the minor league camp.
Charles Cutler, 26: Cutler was selected by the Pirates in the minor league Rule V draft in 2011. Last season he served as a backup catcher in AA and put up some decent numbers. Cutler put up strong numbers in the lower levels but struggled in his first trip to AA in 2010. He has repeated the level the last two seasons and done well. I would like to see what he could do at AAA but the consensus seems to be that he is an organizational catcher.
Devin Ivany, 30: Ivany was signed by the Pirates as a minor league free agent this offseason. Over the last three seasons he has spent most of his time at AA where he has been fairly average. Ivany is proof that minor league catchers tend to hang around for a while due to teams always needing them to help work with young pitchers.
Miguel Perez, 29: Perez is another organizational catcher but he did get a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2005. His playing days appear to be over, short a string of injuries as he is slated to serve as a bullpen coach and bullpen catcher in one of the upper levels in 2013.
Kelson Brown, 25: Brown is one of the more interesting players on this list. He was drafted in the 34th round by the Pirates during the 2012 draft. Since starting his professional career the Pirates have used Brown as a utility player/ organizational player but he has hit well at each level including AA last season. There doesn’t seem to be a spot for him at AAA to begin the season so he will probably repeat AA at some point in 2012. He has the look of an organizational player but he has no glaring weakness so he can’t be completely written off.
Jeremy Farrell, 26: Farrell is the son of the Boston Red Sox manager and was drafted by the Pirates in the 8th round of the 2008 draft. He has spent the last two seasons in AA where he has been average at best. The Pirates really don’t have a clear-cut choice for 3B in AA this year though so he might get one last chance at some consistent playing time.
Jeff Larish, 30: Larish played in the majors from 2008-2010 spending some time in AAA as well and had his moments but was a below average player overall. He has hung around the last two years serving as a AAA utility player and that will be his role once again in 2013.
Alex Valdez, 28: The Pirates signed Valdez as a minor league free agent this offseason. He spent 2010 and 2011 putting up mediocre numbers in AA and AAA but in 2012 he played in the Mexican league and put up a fairly impressive line. As I stated earlier the Pirates don’t really have a stand out option for 3rd base at the AA level so Valdez could see some playing time there.
Andy Vasquez, 25: Vasquez is a leftover from the Littlefield days. He appeared to be on his way out of baseball in 2009-10 but he has rebounded by putting up two solid seasons the past two years in A and A+. He looks like a decent utility player for A+/AA and will likely compete for a spot there in 2013.
Brett Carroll, 30: Carroll has the most distinguished major league career of anyone on this list to date. That isn’t to say it was good but he has appeared in a major league game at least once every year since 2007 so he has at least been hanging around the fringes. Carroll hasn’t hit well in his major league time and outside of a 2011 stint with the Brewers AAA teams hasn’t even hit well in AAA the past four seasons. He’ll compete for time in the AAA outfield in 2013 but faces an uphill climb.
Justin Howard, 25: Howard is a player I like a fair amount. The Pirates drafted him in the 24th round of the 2010 draft. He isn’t really much of a prospect because defensively he is limited to 1B (or maybe RF) and he has very little power. He is a fairly decent hitter though as he was probably one of the best hitters the Pirates had the A+ level last season. Still he profiles as an organizational guy and will likely serve as a bench player in AA in 2013.
Carlos Mesa, 25: Mesa defected from Cuba and was signed by the Pirates in 2011. He was relatively old when he defected and in two seasons hasn’t made it past the A+ level. He really hasn’t been good either but he will likely continue to serve as a backup option for the A and A+ levels in 2013.
Adalberto Santos, 25: The exception that proves the rule that 25 year old players aren’t typically prospects. Santos was drafted by the Pirates in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft. He was red-shirted as a freshman so he spent 5 years in college and was nearly 23 when selected. Obviously not much was expected from him but Santos has raked at every level. A knee injury kept him out for a significant amount of last season but he still hit very well at the AA level. Santos is deserving of a chance to prove himself at the AAA level this season. His lack of power limits his ceiling as a major leaguer but his good contact ability could make him an intriguing 4th outfielder and bat off the bench.
So there you have it the 27 players 25 years and older currently in the Pirates minor league camp. They will undoubtedly be joined by more as players get sent down but those will be players with slightly better pedigrees and better chances of making it back or in some rare cases to the show. The players I listed, for the most part have either seen their major league days come and go or are likely to never the big leagues but yet they keep playing for what must be the love of the game. I have always been a little fascinated with the career minor league. If he reaches a high enough level he might get a decent pay check but these guys by and by aren’t bringing in huge sums of money and the dream I’m sure they all had of reaching the show is out of their grasp but yet they continue to solider on filling an important but often overlooked role in professional baseball. The above 27 players aren’t glamorous and feature one average prospect, a couple of fringy prospects, a few past their prime fringe major leaguers and a fair amount of minor league veterans. It may not seem like an inspirational group but I always take a little bit of solace in knowing that these kind of professional athletes exist.
With Jeff Karstens now back on the Pirates payroll there are 6 pitchers with a reasonable chance of starting the year in the major league rotation. They are A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. In addition to those six there are quite a few other players who could factor in at some point this season. There are a handful of pitchers who look like they could be non-horrible spot starting options in Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro and Zach Stewart but none of them would ideally be counted on. There is also the two reinforcements, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole, who will hopefully both be ready to help contribute by mid season. Then there is even Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver who have the stuff to be good starters if they can figure out their control. Finally the Pirates also have a stable of AAA pitchers who look like they should be ready to step up and make a handful of starts later in the year in Phillip Irwin, Brandon Cumpton and even Michael Colla. That is undoubtedly a lot of arms but I still believe the Pirates need to bring in another starter and I’ll explain why.
Let’s first take a look at the depth. A lot of the pitchers making up the Pirates depth, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Phillip Irwin, Brandon Cumpton and Michael Colla are going to probably need a couple of months before they would be ideally counted on to help the rotation. Two more Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver will need time to prove that they have improved their control before being ready to move up. What this means is that a lot of this depth will not be ready to help out should a problem arise in say April or May. Now with six starters ready to start the year that ordinarily wouldn’t be a huge deal but the Pirates have risk factors with all six of their starters.
Burnett – AJ will be 36 years old this upcoming season and had two poor seasons prior to his good year last season. A pitcher nearing his late 30s is always at risk of breaking down especially one with as much use on it as Burnett.
Rodriguez – At 34 years old Rodriguez isn’t as old as Burnett but there is a cause for concern as his strike out rate has been steadily dropping the last few seasons. The bottom really fell out in 2012 as he dropped from 7.8 K/9 to 6.1 K/9. He is going to need to show he can transition into being successful as a finesse pitcher.
McDonald – The biggest question mark of them all. Which McDonald is the real McDonald? Is he the Cy Young candidate we saw the first half of last year, the AA arm we saw in the second half or somewhere in between. A complete collapse can not be ruled out.
Karstens – The reason the Pirates didn’t offer Karstens arbitration was his injury history. Karstens has been a very consistent starter for the Pirates but the question is how long can he stay healthy? The Pirates really shouldn’t be counting on Karstens for more than about 120 innings max.
Locke – I feel pretty good about Locke but the issue with him is that he has no track record of big league success and has struggled when given his few chances. Locke has been a very successful AAA pitcher and while that probably should transition over to him being at least a solid 4/5 in the majors you never know until he actually does it.
McPherson – McPherson has had shoulder soreness twice in the past year and last time it cause him to miss a decent chunk of the season. Add in the fact that he has only made 3 starts at the AAA level and you have a pitcher who the Pirates should probably proceed cautiously with.
With all those question marks and the real possibility that a starter outside of those 6 might be needed the way the Pirates are currently constructed they would need to give the chances to one of the spot starter options in Gomez, Stewart, Leroux or Mazzaro. If those 4 are forced to make a combined 2-3 starts this year, ok stuff happens the team should be fine but if one of them is needed to move into the rotation in April or May it could very well likely signal bad things for the Pirates. For the Pirates and all teams really one of the most important keys is depth in the rotation and while that is coming for the Pirates it isn’t there yet. Ideally come midseason the Pirates will have a surplus to trade for needs in other areas or will be able to convert some starters into bullpen arms but you can’t go on expecting the ideal the Pirates need to prepare for the very real possibility that they may need an extra arm to help the rotation get through April and May. As long as health holds out Burnett, Rodriguez and McDonald should all start the season in the majors. McPherson would ideally start the year in AAA to get a few more starts and a little more polish. This leaves two rotation spots for Karstens and Locke. I would really like to see those two battle it out for the 5th spot with Locke going to AAA if he loses and Karstens being the swing man if he loses. The las rotation spot needs to go to someone on the outside. Perhaps the Liriano deal can be reworked and he can fill the last spot (his upside would really fit nicely with what the Pirates need) or perhaps another free agent such as Marcum or Saunders can be had or maybe a trade for someone like Capuano or Porcello but the bottom line is another arm needs to be added so the Pirates can have some reasonable security that they will be able to make him through April and May with their in house rotation options.
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.