In the second installment, we take a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates with special thanks to our very own Pat Lackey at Where Have You Gone, Andy van Slyke? and they guys at Pirates Prospects. If you didn’t see them, I explained how I go about making these lists, and then I made the Padres’ list.
Trying to end that terrible streak of 18 losing seasons in a row, the Pirates teased the fanbase by performing well into the summer before hitting a rough patch in August and rapidly fading away. While the early season surge was a bit of an aberration, it gave us a glimpse of the talent that the Pirates truly are developing as the Pirates have an impressive core built around Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Joel Hanrahan. The Pirates have more on the way as they’ve spent as much as anyone over the last 4 years in the draft and internationally.
Though there is talent coming, it may not come immediately. There was little major talent in the upper levels, and major prospects Tony Sanchez and Rudy Owens, who seemed to confirm scouts doubts about his stuff playing at higher levels, took steps back. Starling Marte was the shining star in the upper minors as he continued to hit, and he could be near a promotion to the majors. Jeff Locke was the other prospect in the upper minors who performed well, but as his cup of coffee indicated, there are doubts about him performing in the majors.
Further down, the Pirates had a bit more success. Jameson Taillon didn’t pitch much, but he performed well and wasn’t limited by injury. Robbie Grossman surprised many with an impressive season in High-A, and he continues to play well in the Arizona Fall League. All did not coming out smelling like roses, however, as Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie didn’t perform quite up to expectations, and Colton Cain and Zack von Rosenberg had somewhat puzzling seasons in Low-A.
Despite a somewhat roller coaster season in the minors, the Pirates have a fairly strong farm system bolstered by the recent draft that brought in Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell, and Alex Dickerson among others. There is a lot of star potential at the top, but it drops off fairly significantly after the first 6 or 7 prospects. If it didn’t seem to fall off so drastically, I might take the Pirates’ star power over the Padres’ depth, but the Padres are really deep.
Gerrit Cole SP
Age/Level (as of 4/2012): 21/High-A
Being the first pick of the draft comes with a lot of pressure and expectations, and saying no to the Yankees (’08) won’t keep you out of the spotlight. But Cole certainly has the stuff to match the expectations and the hype. His four-seamer sits in the mid-to-upper 90s, and he throws a two-seamer with significant movement in the lower 90s. In addition to the big fastball, his slider has hard break and sits in the mid-to-upper 80s, but his change-up could be his best pitch. That’s three plus pitches, and a few of them could be plus-plus if he can refine his command. And his command is his major weakness. With the Strasburg-esque stuff, you would expect a better college performance from Cole, but his command within the zone wavers and his fastball flattens out, making him more hittable than he should be. But that’s really just nitpicking. Cole has a huge arm, great stuff, and an excellent future, and with the three plus pitches, he takes the top spot.
Jameson Taillon SP
This is why I don’t like “ranking” the prospects. Here we have Taillon, who has amazing stuff as well. Advertised as a polished high-school righty, Taillon was expected to shoot through the system, but he, instead, pitched all of 92 innings in Low-A. The young Texan’s stuff wasn’t a problem as his mid-to-upper-90s fastball with sink, hammer curve, and above-average control came with him to Huntington. Neil Huntington and the Pirates, however, had other plans as they forced him to throw his change-up more and restricted his innings, but even while being limited, Taillon still struck out 97 and walked only 22. This is why I use tiers instead of numbers. Taillon and Cole are basically interchangeable, and you shouldn’t get too hung up on who’s 1 or 2.
Starling Marte CF
Projection: 3-5 WAR
While Marte still can’t take a walk to save his life, Marte is making scouts wonder if it matters that much. He continues to hit .300+, and he certainly can hit, with developing power as he hit 12 home runs, 38 doubles, and 8 triples after a career-high 25 extra-base hits in 2010. Going along with that, he has plus speed and a plus arm to help him in center. Marte has tons of tools and even a few skills, but he still needs some refinement, particularly in the pitch recognition, patience, and baserunning (12 CS in 36 attempts) departments. He could also stand to use a little more lower body in his swing to take advantage of his potential power, but he seems just fine as he is. The 23-year old (all next season) may need a full year in AAA to continue working on the small things, but he could make a huge difference soon enough.
Josh Bell LF/RF
Projection: 3-5 WAR
Bell slid to 61st in the draft because he seemingly had a strong commitment to Texas, but $5 million is basically impossible to turn down. Considered the best high school hitter in the draft by quite a few, Bell switch-hits, and he has the ability to hit and hit for plus power from both sides. Somewhat surprisingly, his swing looks good from both sides of the plate and are basically mirror images of each other. As a corner outfielder, the bat needs to come through because he’s a corner outfielder and not a particularly good one as he lacks speed or much of an arm. Bell certainly has enough talent to back up the price tag, but we need to see him against some professional pitching before we make too much of him. That being said, he could really move up the list with a big year next year.
Luis Heredia SP
Heredia has monster stuff, including a mid-90s fastball, but he had substantial control problems in 30 Rookie-Ball innings. That’s obviously not that bad for a guy who will be 17 for most of next season, but it is a reminder that he is a substantial project with tons of risk. Still, a 17-year old who can hit 97 on the gun along with an excellent curve and improving change is a treasure. His mechanics are fairly smooth, though he could use a lot of repetitions to get better at replicating it, and I expect that his control and command will improve with time. If he does that, he becomes an elite prospect, and he has plenty of time as he’s only 17.
Robbie Grossman OF
Projection: 2-4 WAR
While Grossman was repeating High-A, he made a substantial improvement, increasing his OPS by almost 200 points. He improved his pitch recognition and plate discipline, and he’s now adding secondary skills to an above-average hit tool, though his power may never be more than average. Grossman, however, will need to hit and utilize his OBP skills because, while he has speed, he’s going to a corner and probably left due to a below-average arm. Grossman’s improvement has given scouts a lot to believe in, but he’ll need to keep hitting as he heads to AA at age 22 because a bunch of walks while repeating High-A doesn’t prove much.
Tony Sanchez C
Projection: 2-3 WAR
When he was drafted, people were surprised that he was the 4th pick of the draft. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good. It was that no one thought he was that good. He responded by performing up to those standards in his first experiences in pro ball, but moved up to AA for 2011, Sanchez had substantial problems, hitting only .241/.340/.318. Sanchez’s calling card was always his defense as he is an above-average receiver and has a strong arm, but he’s not an offensive juggernaut. He makes strong contact, but he’s more of a gap hitter and may not hit double-digit home runs. This season certainly scared a few people, but he may not be fully recovered from breaking his jaw last season, during which he lost a lot of weight and playing time. Regardless, the Pirates will want to see more out of the 24-year old in a repeat AA trip or possible promotion to AAA.
Jeff Locke SP
Age/Level: 24/AAA or MLB
Projection: 4/5, Middle Reliever
Part of the Nate McLouth trade, Locke performed well in the minors before tanking hard in a brief cup of coffee. Locke has a fastball that sits 88-91 with some sink, but if he leaves it up, it’s very hittable. The lefty adds an above-average change and a decent breaking ball, but neither is a weapon. He may not generate a huge platoon split, but he’s not much more than back-of-the rotation fodder.
Kyle McPherson SP
One of those fun, switch-hitting pitchers, McPherson followed up a very solid 2010 with a breakout 2011 campaign. With a low-90s fastball that can occasionally go higher if he needs it and an average curveball and change-up, McPherson has the required 3-pitch repertoire necessary to start, but as you can see, they’re all average pitches. Still, he is what Zack von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, and Nick Kingham are looking to be, but he is that and has performed at the AA level. McPherson probably isn’t even a mid-rotation pitcher, but the Pirates will take all the pitching they can get.
Alex Dickerson 1B
Projection: 1-3 WAR
Dickerson can certainly hit, and he did an excellent job of it in limited duty in the New York-Penn League. But if you’re limited to first like Dickerson is, you have to really mash, and no one’s sure he will to that degree. Dickerson, however, can hit and has some power, though the tool is short of plus, and he does have an advanced approach. He seems like a guy that should make the majors in some capacity, but it’s hard to see any All-Star Games in his future.
Big Question – Stetson Allie
With their second pick in the 2010 draft, the Pirates took a gamble on the guy with the biggest fastball in the draft in Stetson Allie. Sitting in the upper 90s, Allie’s control was a huge question mark, and many saw his future in the back of a bullpen. A season later, Allie’s fastball is now in the low-to-mid 90s (mostly lower), and his control was abominable as he walked 10 (!) per 9. There’s having control issues, and there is what Allie had. If he can’t even begin to harness that, he’ll never sniff AA, but it’s hard to believe everything just went away. He’ll have another chance, but he’ll be 21 next season and hasn’t seen High-A yet. Time’s moving quickly, and a bullpen assignment is looking more likely.