The Pirates appear pretty set up the middle and there is little to talk about there. Sure the Pirates could seek upgrades but right now they seem content with what they have. A Martin and McKenry tandem behind the plate should provide adequate production, maybe even major league average offense and major league plus defense. Clint Barmes should continue to provide great defense and will hopefully rebound from last season and put a non-horrible OPS somewhere in the .650-.670 range. Not great but adequate. The other two up the middle players Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are of course key cogs in the Pirates machine.
All of this leaves the corners as the part of the lineup that will determine how well the Pirates do offensively this season. The only certainty appears to be Pedro Alvarez who should once again be manning 3rd base. Even with him there are questions about whether he is ready to hit cleanup and if he can handle left handed pitching well enough to not need platooned. Outside of Alvarez the next closest thing to a certainty is Garrett Jones. There is some speculation he may get dealt before the season begins but right now I doubt that will occur. It seems to be a little unclear whether Jones will be playing 1B or RF and how much he will be allowed to face left handed pitching. Logic seems to suggest he will platoon at 1B and be largely protected from left handers but only time will tell.
With those guys out of the way we are left with a very interesting assortment of players. The Pirates have some prospects who may be ready to help at some point this season, some depth players of varying levels who may at some point get a chance to prove themselves and 5 players fighting for what will likely be 4 positions out of Spring Training.
There are only two real prospects who look like they may be ready to significantly contribute to the major league team some time this season. They are Matt Curry at 1B and Adalberto Santos in the OF. Neither is a great prospect but both have shown some ability and could possibly become solid major leaguers. Curry hasn’t shown the ability to hit for as much power as you’d like from a 1B and his defensive ability limits him to the position but even so should Jones be traded for any reason the Pirates would probably consider giving Curry a shot if he shows he can handle AAA pitching. Santos is a slightly different breed. Like Curry he doesn’t profile to hit for much power but throughout his minor league career he has shown a good ability to just plainly hit. With a good showing in AAA anything is possible but it appears Santos may be limited to a bench role and with a little bit of versatility (he has also played 2B) he could be a decent option. The remaining prospects include players such as Quincy Latimore and Andrew Lambo who are probably actually closer to minor league depth at this point but either one could enter into the corner OF, or in Lambo’s case maybe even 1B, equation with a good showing in AAA. It is not a certainty that either will start the season in AAA though. The only other possibility for a corner player would be Alex Dickerson, who will be making his AA debut, but he would need a few very hot months to even realistically enter the conversation.
The Pirates have numerous depth options who could be called upon should injury or ineffectiveness arise. Jeff Larish and Matt Hague seem to be the most uninteresting of the group. Larish is coming off a poor 2012 campaign and Hague as we saw last year is limited in what he can do. The Pirates did bring in two minor league outfielders who it wouldn’t be shocking to see get a chance at the majors some time this season in Felix Pie and Darren Ford. Ford is a pure speedster and Pie is a once top prospect who has fallen from grace. Both have some talent and either one might be called up if the Pirates sense a need. The last depth player is actually technically still a prospect in Clint Robinson. Robinson has never really gotten a chance to prove himself at the major league level but has hit exceptionally well in the minor leagues. Defensively he is limited to 1B but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as he has shown some decent power and surprisingly even has shown good plate discipline. Should Jones be traded or forced to play extended time in the outfield expect Robinsons to get the first crack at the 1B job.
Major League Options
The Pirates have 5 major league options who figure to be fighting for 2 starting spots and two bench spots. Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and Gaby Sanchez will enter this spring fighting for playing time. Marte appears likely to start the season as the everyday LF but he has no track record and while he was respectable in his brief minor league stint last season it would not be crazy if the Pirates felt he could benefit from some time at AAA. Snider as things stand right now figures to be the starting RF but his spot appears to be in a little bit more jeopardy than Marte’s. Snider performed well immediately after coming over at the trade deadline but struggled after getting injured. It is not quite clear what the Pirates plan to do with him. He is out of options so he will surely make the team but he could be relegated to bench duty should the Pirates opt to start Jones in RF. Jose Tabata is coming off a disappointing season but actually finished the 2012 season rather strongly which gives some hope that he is back to being the Tabata we seen in earlier seasons. As a right handed hitter Tabata figures to probably make the team as the 4th outfielder and platoon with Jones or Snider in right field. If his performance at the end of the season was a sign that he has turned things around Tabata could quickly regain his starting job in RF as his ability to leadoff is something the Pirates are sorely missing. The last outfielder of the group is Alex Presley. Presley has an option remaining so the Pirates will likely use it and send him back to AAA to start the season but he will be given a chance to show what he can do. Presley looks like the prototypical 4th outfielder who can do a little bit of everything but doesn’t really stand out in any area. His skill set is probably better suited to a 4th outfielder role than Tabata’s but given the facts he has an option left and that of Snider and Marte it is most likely that the left handed hitting Snider will need a platoon partner he is probably below Tabata on the depth chart. The last option is Gaby Sanchez. As things stand right now Sanchez appears slotted to be Jones platoon partner at 1B. As someone who has consistently hit very well against lefties that is probably a good position for him. If Sanchez performs well he could be given a chance to start everyday at 1B which would force most likely Snider out of the lineup.
The four corner positions are likely to have a huge impact on the Pirates this season. With Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones the Pirates hope to have some stability and certainty at 2 of the 4 positions but the other 2 remain rather big question marks. The Pirates are undoubtedly planning to give Marte and Snider the two highest upside players of the bunch a chance to fill those question marks but should they fail the Pirates do have some other alternatives who will hopefully step up and take advantage of the opportunity. Assuming the Pirates actually do add a good starter for the middle of the rotation is is my opinion that the performance of the players I have discussed is what will decided whether this team once again finishes below 500, makes the playoffs or anything in between.
Borderline Outfield Prospects
Andrew Lambo:Lambo was acquired along with James McDonald in the 2010 trade of Octavio Dotel. Like a lot of Neal Huntington acquirees Lambo was once a top prospect who his old team had soured on. Lambo is not strong defensively but he has the potential to be a very good power hitter. Going into 2009 Lambo was the Dodgers #1 prospect and was rated #49 overall. The Dodgers drafted Lambo is 2007 and he started off strong hitting very well in rookie ball and then moving up to A ball the following season where he continued to hit very well. The Dodgers jumped Lambo to AA before the end of the 2008 season just to get his feet left and started him there in 2009. Lambo had not a spectacular season but a very solid one for a 20 year old in AA. The Dodgers sent him back to AA in 2010 and he started off on fire but then he got suspended 50 games for what is believed to be testing positive for marijuana. After returning from the suspension his play tailed off and this is when the Dodgers decided to send him to Pittsburgh. After coming to Pittsburgh Lambo hit well until he injured his shoulder and that seemed to affect him through his end of season slump. The Pirates sent him to AAA in 2011 (he was still only 22 at the time) and he was awful so he got demoted to AA. He started slowly there but finished the year strong. 2012 was pretty much a lost season for Lambo as he suffered a hammate injury early in the season and only had 92 AB at the AA level. The good news he finished the season strong after returning. Lambo is with the Pirates one last season before he becomes a minor league free agent so 2013 is likely make or break for his prospect status.
Quincy Latimore: Outside of Pedro Alvarez and Josh Bell there is probably no one in the Pirates organization that has better raw power than Quincy Latimore. The Pirates drafted him in the 4th round of the 2007 draft for that very reason. Latimore is actually on the small side for a power hitter at only 5’10” 175 lb but he drives the ball really well. Latimore’s defense and speed are probably average but what he struggles with is plate discipline as he strikes out a ton and often looks bad doing it. The start of Latimore’s pro career was just so-so as he had decent season in 2007 and 2008 at the rookie level and A- levels respectively. It was in 2009 he became the hitter we know him as today as he started show some great power, putting up some great hit streaks but also showing some really cold cold streaks and striking out a ton. In 2010 Latimore basically had a repeat of the 2009 season with the exceptions that he showed more power and struck out even more. In 2011 he got promoted to AA and essentially did it again positing a few great months but overall striking out a lot and posting a rather unimpressive overall line. Latimore repeated the AA level this past season and while his overall stat line was only slightly better than 2011 he showed solid improvement in his walk and strike out rates and managed to keep his power numbers up. Latimore has some big holes in his game, namely his plate discipline but his great power potential has kept his prospect status alive and he should move up to AAA next season with a chance to prove himself.
Dan Grovatt: Grovatt was drafted by the Pirates in the 11th round of the 2010 draft. He was described as a solid all around player with the exception that he had limited power but there was a thought that the limited power could have been due to his unusual swing. Grovatt is a very good defender with a plus arm and he has above average speed. After signing with the Pirates Grovatt appeared in 3 games at the rookie level; his numbers weren’t good but it was only a sample of 11 AB. In 2011 the Pirates pushed Grovatt to A ball and he had a very odd season. In the first half of the season Grovatt showed great plate discipline. He drew a lot of walks and struck out at a very low rate but he also showed next to no power. At some point Grovatt must have changed his approach because in the second half Grovatt had just the opposite line as his walk rate dropped, his strike out rate rose and his power numbers also rose. The Pirates promoted Grovatt to A+ in 2012 and he decided to continue going with the aggressive approach as his walk rate stayed low. He displayed a little power and actually managed to improve upon his K rate but I think it’s rather apparent Grovatt is at his best when he decided to be disciplined rather than aggressive at the plate. Nonetheless Grovatt had a decent season and will likely move up to AA next year. I’m hoping we see the more discipline approach come back as that Grovatt is at least interesting compared to the aggressive Grovatt who just looks like a typical organizational player.
Jesus Vasquez: The Pirates signed Vasquez out of the Dominican Republic in 2008. Vasquez has very good power potential and has pretty decent speed as well. In his first two seasons as a pro ball player in the DSL Vasquez put up solid numbers for a 17 and 18 year old but outside of showing some of that power potential really did nothing to stand out. That changed in 2011 though as in his 3rd season at the DSL Vasquez was arguably the best hitter in the league finishing second in HR and slugging percentage and first in OPS. He also showed improved plate discipline as his walk rate rose but his strike out rate also remained high. The Pirates brought Vasquez stateside this season and started him at the rookie level. Due to a very crowded outfield Vasquez played primarily 1B but he does have the defensive ability for the outfield. He showed some pretty good plate discipline but the power wasn’t there. Later in the season the Pirates sent Vasquez to A- because of opening in the outfield and he flourished defensively, showing off a good arm by recording 10 assists in 33 games. His power returned at the A- level but his plate discipline took a serious hit. Vasquez’s power potential makes him interesting but like a lot of these outfielders his plate discipline hold him back.
Harold Ramirez: Ramirez received the second largest bonus the Pirates have ever given out to a Latin American prospect behind only Luis Heredia. The Pirates signed him in 2011 for just slightly over 1 million dollars. Ramirez skipped over the DSL and came directly to the states which was an aggressive placement for the 17 year old. Ramirez has good potential in his bat, excellent speed and has the defense to stick at center field, although his arm is somewhat questionable. Ramirez missed the start of the season with a leg problem and because of that lost his chance to claim CF and was instead relegated to playing the corners. As a 17 year old making his pro debut and adjusting to a new country he held his own. His season wasn’t great by any stretch but it was a rather decent showing considering his circumstances. Ramirez no doubt has a ton of potential and going off strictly that is a better prospect than I am giving him credit for but right now he is also very raw and very far away from having an impact on the majors. Ramirez is definitely one to keep an eye on and he has the potential to shoot quickly up the prospect lists with a strong showing in the next couple years.
Elvis Escobar: Essentially everything I just said about Ramirez applies to Escobar. He is a Latim American prospect signed last season for a big bonus (his was only 570K) and he skipped over the DSL this season in favor of starting his career in the states. There are some differences though of course. Escobar has only good speed not outstanding like Ramirez’s and his power potential is thought to be significantly less. Those are the negatives regarding Escobar but on the positive side he appears to be a slightly more advanced hitter plate discipline wise. Escobar started the season off at the rookie level playing center field and established himself at that position before Ramirez came back which is why Ramirez despite being the slightly better prospect was forced to a corner. Escobar did more than hold his own this season as he actually had a very solid showing at the rookie ball level. Escobar started off slowly but finished strong and is actually now probably considered a slightly better prospect than Ramirez because he seems slightly more polished but the difference is not really important at this point. Both Escobar and Ramirez should move up to the A- level next season and both have the potential to quickly shoot up the prospect list.