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.
Maximo Rivera: Rivera was a fairly highly touted signing in 2009, signing for 165K out of the Dominican Republic. He was believed to have a lot of power potential and his best defensive positions was said to be third base. In 2010 Rivera struggled during his first year of pro ball and then last season his struggles continued but he started to show signs of the power everyone believed he had. This season Rivera had a big breakout season posting a .902 OPS. The Pirates seem unsure of where to play him though as he played every position in the infield this season but spent most of his time in the outfield. Rivera did show some struggles against left-handed pitching this season but he bats right-handed so they may be just an oddity in his stat line. At 19 years old Rivera had his breakout season just in time. He only has one year of eligibility left in the DSL so the Pirates may choose to bring him to the states.
Ulises Montilla: Montilla was an unheralded signing of the Pirates in 2009. He started his career off with a shaky performance in the VSL in 2010 but seemed to have broken through with a great showing the following season. Surprisingly though the Pirates opted not to bring Montilla to the states and instead sent him to the DSL. Montilla had another solid year this season posting an .864 OPS. Montilla has some power and has good speed but his best skill appears to be making contact. The Pirates seem to be moving him around a lot as he played primarily OF in 2010, primarily 2B in 2011 and primarily 3B this past season. He does have another year of eligibility left for the international leagues but he is already 20 years old so if the Pirates do not bring him to the states this season they must not see him as much of a prospect going forward.
Pablo Reyes: Reyes really came out of nowhere this season. I’m assuming the Pirates must have just signed him last season as this was his first season of pro ball. The Pirates thought enough of Reyes to play him at shortstop ahead of the talented and younger Jose Salazar who played SS last season ahead of the highly touted Dilson Herrera. Reyes didn’t disappoint posting a strong .767 OPS. Reyes showed good speed, good contact and good plate discipline this season. AT 18 years old he was a little old to be making his debut but who knows he could be a late bloomer. The Pirates will almost surely have him spend at least one more season in the DSL.
Jose Salazar: Salazar was essentially last year’s version of Pablo Reyes except he didn’t have a strong year with the bat last season. Salazar came out of nowhere last season and started nearly every game at SS ahead of the more highly touted Dilson Herrera. This showed that the Pirates had some belief in his prospect status. Salazar remains young having played this past season at only 17 but he has yet to show any real signs of being able to hit well. He did play a good shortstop last season and adjusted quickly and well this season when the Pirates switched him to third base. Despite two poor offensive seasons to date Salazar remains a player to watch because of how young he is and because the Pirates apparently view him as a player with some potential.
Tito Polo: Polo is another player that has seemingly just came out of nowhere. The Pirates signed him out of Columbia last season with very little if any attention. He served as a starting outfielder this season and posted a very good .798 OPS. He also showed some good speed on the base paths and even flashed a little bit of power but on the down side he did have a high strike out rate. This was Polo’s debut season in pro baseball at 17 years old so the strike out rate is of very little concern right now. Polo seems to have a lot of potential and is a player I am surely going to keep an eye on next season. The Pirates had him play primarily center field which is an indication they think he has some potential. He will undoubtedly repeat the DSL level next season at age 18 and is a prime breakout candidate.
Danny Arribas: Arribas was a fairly notable signing in 2011 signing for 110K. He made his pro debut last season in the DSL and struggled. This season he performed much better cutting down on his strike outs while also showing some gap power. The Pirates seem to be slowly trying to make Arribas a catcher as he played a couple of games there last season and more there this season. He also played some 1B and 3B this year. Arribas doesn’t have the greatest speed but that is typical for a catcher. His good showing this season at the relatively young age of 19 gives his prospect status some hope. Arribas will likely return to the DSL for a 3rd season where he will probably see his time at catcher increased again and since next year he will be 20 years old it could be a make or break season for him.
Carlos Ozuna: The Pirates signed Ozuna last season for 115K thousand so there is undoubtedly some talent there. The Pirates used him as a starting shortstop this season in the DSL (recall they now have two DSL teams). In the international leagues the shortstop position is usually reserved for one of the more talented guys so this is another positive. At 18, this was Ozuna’s first year in pro ball and he handled himself fairly well posting a respectable .726 OPS. He is said to be a good hitter with no power and a strong-arm from the shortstop position. He had a solid pro debut season but the Pirates will no doubt want to see him more at the DSL level.
Gustavo Barrios: Barrios made his pro debut this season at age 18 and really didn’t play a whole lot but he was fairly impressive when he did. Barrios posed a solid .788 OPS in 122 PA and reportedly played a very strong defensive 2B. Barrios didn’t show really any power and he was only average at best on the base paths but he showed a good contact rate. It is difficult to get a gauge on just how the Pirates view him but nearly every season someone who did very little the season before comes up and makes a nice stride forward and Barrios looks like a candidate to do that in 2013.
Yunior Aquiles: Aquiles was one of the Pirates more high-profile signings in 2010 but he hasn’t really shown much thus far. He is said to have a lot of power potential but hasn’t shown any signs of that so far during his pro career. He also struck out a lot for a DSL player this season. Right now Aquiles doesn’t look like he will develop but like I said there always seems to be at least one player who goes from looking like he won’t develop to breaking out in a big way. Next season will be Aquiles third season in the DSL and even though he will only be 19 he is going to have to show something.
Carlos Esqueda: Esqueda is the last position player I am covering here. Before this season Esqueda had played exclusively in the VSL and he had a great season there last year posting a robust .989 OPS. Unfortunately he did not carry that success over to the DSL where he posted a decent .748 OPS. Esqueda is another prospect who is said to have a lot of power potential but unfortunately that too took a step backwards this season. Esqueda will be 21 years old next season and assuming he returns to the DSL will be in his last season of eligibility so time is running out on him.
Omar Basulto: The Pirates signed Basulto out of Mexico last season. He obviously has some talent as he saw some action in the Mexican league last season which is a rather high quality of baseball and is often equated to AA or even AAA level. Let me put that in context though, he pitched only 4 innings so nothing can be gained from his results (which for the record were quite good) but his mere presence there is telling. Basulto pitched almost this entire season at the age of 19 and was arguably the Pirates best pitcher at the DSL level. He displayed great command of his pitches and even managed to miss quite a few bats. I don’t know too much about his stuff but it is safe to say he is the projectable type who will hopefully only get better as he ages. Considering he pitched sparingly in the Mexican league in 2011 and pitched well this season it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Pirates bring him to the states next season.
Oderman Rocha: If Basulto wasn’t the Pirates best pitcher in the DSL it was Rocha. TO be honest I really don’t know why Rocha didn’t pitch in the states this season. The Pirates brought him up for the Fall Instructional league, which usually means the player is going to stay and play in the states, but they oddly assigned him to the DSL level. Rocha pitched in the VSL last season posting very good numbers but he improved upon all of them this season putting up a near dominant season. His walk rate did remain probably a touch too high but it improved. He is 19 years old and a 6’ 3” righty so he fits the Pirates model of the projectable right hander. Rocha should no doubt begin next season in the states.
Mervin Del Rosario: Rosario despite being a little old at 18 was a highly touted signing for the Pirates in 2010. He made his pro debut last season in the DSL and pitched decently but showed some control problems and had a very low strike out rate. This season he improved upon his numbers showing much better control but once again struggling to strike people out. From his groundball rate I’m assuming he must be a sinker ball pitcher of some sort so the low strike out rate comes with that caveat. Rosario is another tall 6’ 3” pitcher who fits the Pirates projectable model but to be fair he is left-handed which does differentiate him somewhat. Rosario will be 21 next season and when you couple that with how he was touted when signed the Pirates may decide to push him to the states next season.
Cesilio Pimental: Pimental made his professional baseball debut last season, seeing limited action in the DSL. He pitched great in 23.1 innings showing good control and striking out a lot of hitters. This season he saw his strike out rates come back down to a good but more typical level but his control remained fairly good. He also proved to be slightly more hittable. Overall his numbers were still good but they were a step back from his showing the previous season. Pimental is another tall, 6’ 2”, projectable left hander, which appears to be a type of Latin American prospects this current regime likes. He will only be 20 years old next season and I really can’t get a read of how the Pirates view him so I would expect to see him back in the DSL next season.
Leandro Rodriguez: The Pirates signed Rodriguez last season and he made his pro debut this season. He started this past season off little shaky but started putting things together in June and was dominant in July onward. He showed good control and also missed bats at a fairly good rate. He is another 6’ 3” righty so he fits the Pirates typical model. He turned 19 during this past season and considering this was his first year of pro ball the Pirates will almost assuredly send him back to the DSL next season.
Richard Mitchell: The Pirates really seem to view Mitchell highly. He pitched most of this past season at only 16 years old and showed some good signs namely a good fastball. The results weren’t there though as his strike out rate was average and his walk rates were way too high. Since Mitchell went straight to pro ball as a 16 year old the Pirates must see something in him so he will no doubt be around for a while. He appears to be a project at this point but one with a considerable upside. He should return to the DSL next season and will probably be given a larger share of innings.
Julio DeLaCruz: DeLaCruz was one of the Pirates big signees for this past season. He signed with the Pirates for a signing bonus of 700K. He obviously has yet to play with the Pirates but the size of his bonus suggests the Pirates view him highly. DeLaCruz is an athletic third baseman who has an advanced approach to hitting. He is a lean player at 6’ 1”, 190 lbs and scouts believe that as he fills out he will add power. Right now he is an average power hitter but possesses great contact skills. He also is reportedly a very solid defensive player. DeLaCruz seems relatively advanced so the Pirates may skip him over the DSL and send him straight to rookie ball in the states.
Michael DeLaCruz: In a strange coincidence the Pirates other major international signing this year also has the last name DeLaCruz (Michael like Julio received a 700K signing bonus). The two players are not related. Like the previous DeLaCruz, Michael his projected to add power as he fills out. Right now he is an athletic center fielder with great speed, a great arm and good defensive ability. He is left-handed batter and is considered to have five tool potential, which is a phrase I often see overused but still it speaks of his upside. This DeLaCruz doesn’t seem to have quite the advanced plate approach as the other so I would expect him to play a season in the DSL.
Yoel Gonzalez: Gonzalez is another signee from the 2012 class and why he isn’t as high-profile as the DeLaCruzes he still received a signing bonus of 350K and signed the first day he was eligible to on his 16th birthday. Gonzalez is a bit of a rarity, he is an international prospect who signed as a catcher and is actually a catcher. Usually teams sign Latin American prospects and convert them to catcher but Gonzalez actually has experience there and appears to be rather good defensively. His offense is all projection right now but he has shown the ability to hit to all fields which is a plus. From the reports I seen Gonzalez appears to be very raw so he should play next season in the DSL.
Johan Herrera: Herrera is the Pirates most recent big international signee. He signed early in November for 300K dollars. Unfortunately at this point I have seen very little about him. He is a third baseman who is called a stand out as a left-handed power hitter. His bat seems to be relatively advanced compared to his defense and he might end up having to change positions. It seems logical with a more advanced third baseman already signed ahead of him that Herrera has no chance of heading directly to the states so he should play next season in the DSL.