If there is any minor league team I’ve given a ton of coverage to this season, it’s been Lynchburg. There are two reasons for this. First, I live near Lynchburg. Second, the Hillcats have been one of the most important teams in our system this year.
The Cats started the season with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ top prospect, Pedro Alvarez, along with some other top draft picks from the 2008 draft, like Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson, and Matt Hague. Later in the season, guys were added via trade, and a few top performers were brought up from West Virginia, like Chase d’Arnaud and Rudy Owens.
The Hillcats won the first half of the season, earning a playoff appearance at the end of the season. The team capitalized on that chance, winning the Carolina League Championship by sweeping the Salem Red Sox in a best of five series. I could go on about the Hillcats, but it would probably be best if I just linked to the various interviews and video recaps I did on the team and the prospects there.
The Pitchers: This group contains the entire playoff rotation (Jeff Locke, Nathan Adcock, Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, and Justin Wilson), along with Ronald Uviedo, who was the closer in the playoffs, and a starter leading up to the end of the season. All six pitchers are legitimate prospects, and all will likely rank in most top 30 lists after the season.
Owens is the big breakout pitcher this year, dominating hitting in the South Atlantic League, and showing some success in Lynchburg. I’d expect him up in Altoona next year, and maybe even at AAA by the end of the 2010 season.
Locke and Wilson struggled at times this year, but both really turned it on the last few months. Adcock has struggled in every chance he’s gotten in high A, but has the potential to be a back of the rotation starter, or a back end reliever.
Morris was a key piece in the Jason Bay trade last year, and has faced injury issues since the trade, while failing to put up the numbers expected of a top pitching prospect. I feel this is mostly due to some big changes in his mechanics, designed to reduce injuries to his arm that have pretty much held him back. Morris started showing some success at the end of the season, and will be one to watch next year.
Uviedo showed good composure as the closer at the end of the year, and could end up in the same role in Pittsburgh in a few years. He throws low 90s, but has good movement on his pitches, and some good off-speed stuff that touches the mid-70s.
2009 first round pick Tony Sanchez made a brief appearance, coming up at the end of the season, and catching every game in the playoffs. Sanchez showed some good hitting ability in West Virginia, and showed some power potential with a lot of fly balls to the wall, and one key home run in the playoffs that sent the Hillcats to the deciding game five of the opening round against Wilmington.
Chase d’Arnaud and Josh Harrison both provide middle infield depth, something the Pirates lack. d’Arnaud has stepped up as a top option to be a future starter for the Pirates in the majors with his play this year. Harrison doesn’t have a lot of plate patience, but makes good contact, has good speed, and plays good defense.
On offense, there’s not much that needs to be said about Alvarez. Tony Sanchez will probably return to Lynchburg in 2010, although I could see him on the fast track to the majors, which means he may not be in Lynchburg long next season. Chase d’Arnaud will play in the Arizona Fall League this year, and will most likely start in AA next year. The jump to AA will be a big test, and will tell us if d’Arnaud’s performance this year is legit. I could see Josh Harrison returning to Lynchburg because of the plate patience issues, and because of the potential log jam in the middle infield at Altoona next year.
The Pitchers: This group mostly consists of relief prospects. Dubee was acquired for Andy Phillips early in the year, had a lot of success with Lynchburg, and moved up to Altoona, where he hasn’t been quite as dominant. Tom Boleska was lights out, and should move up to Altoona next year. Matt McSwain served both as a starter and a reliever this year, and was named the Pitcher of the Year for the Hillcats in 2009. I could see him ending up like Jeff Karstens, a “utility pitcher” that can make the occasional start, or pitch in any role out of the bullpen. Ramon Aguero was a key part out of the back of the bullpen in the playoffs, and could eventually end up pitching in the late innings in the majors one day.
Jamie Romak was demoted from AA to high A this year, and didn’t improve his average in Lynchburg. Romak is still young, but needs to cut down on the strikeouts in order to stop his fall on the prospects lists. Eric Fryer was brought in from the Eric Hinske trade, and adds some nice catching depth to the system.
iv> Kris Watts adds more catching depth to the system, with a very strong on-base percentage, and some decent power. Miles Durham and Ray Chang were key parts of the first half success, and each player carried their success to Altoona after a mid-season promotion. I’d consider both a little old for AA, so their success in Lynchburg shouldn’t be weighed too heavily. Final Thoughts… The first wave of prospects in the Pirates’ rebuilding plan will come from this team, with the first guys likely coming as soon as the 2011 season (not counting Pedro Alvarez, who will likely arrive in Pittsburgh next season). If I did a top ten list with Alvarez, he’d end up as the number one prospect hands down, which is why I’m going to leave him off. My top ten prospects from the 2009 team: 1. Tony Sanchez, C
The Prospects: I could see Boleska, McSwain, and Aguero as potential bullpen options in the majors, with all three likely starting out in Altoona next year. Mercer and Hague could be two very interesting prospects to watch if they turn those doubles in to homers down the line. I think they will both start in Altoona next year as well. Dubee, de los Santos, Romak, and Fryer are all fringe prospects, with each having having a key strength, although it’s questionable whether that strength would be enough to adjust to anything above Lynchburg (as we’ve kind of seen with Dubee and Romak so far).
The Long Shots: The pitchers were all successful relievers at various points in the season for Lynchburg. Dustin Molleken got promoted to Altoona early, and is now representing Canada in the World Cup. Robles also moved up to Altoona in mid-season. Both were too old for high A, and neither carried their success over to AA ball. Noah Krol and Harrison Bishop both put up nice ratios, but like Molleken and Robles, they might be a year too old for the level.
2. Rudy Owens, LHP
Kris Watts adds more catching depth to the system, with a very strong on-base percentage, and some decent power. Miles Durham and Ray Chang were key parts of the first half success, and each player carried their success to Altoona after a mid-season promotion. I’d consider both a little old for AA, so their success in Lynchburg shouldn’t be weighed too heavily.
The first wave of prospects in the Pirates’ rebuilding plan will come from this team, with the first guys likely coming as soon as the 2011 season (not counting Pedro Alvarez, who will likely arrive in Pittsburgh next season). If I did a top ten list with Alvarez, he’d end up as the number one prospect hands down, which is why I’m going to leave him off. My top ten prospects from the 2009 team:
1. Tony Sanchez, C
4. Jeff Locke, LHP
6. Jordy Mercer, SS