Baseball America released their 2009 Eastern League top 20 rankings, home of the Altoona Curve, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ class AA affiliate. Topping the list was top Pirates prospect Pedro Alvarez, who ranked third in the Carolina League rankings earlier in the week.
Pedro Alvarez is the top Eastern League prospect
Alvarez took the top spot mostly due to his success in AA, which came as a surprise, despite his top prospect status. Alvarez struggled in Lynchburg, then received a promotion to Altoona, despite a .247/.342/.486 line in high A. So when Alvarez was promoted, no one expected him to put up a .333/.420/.589 line in 219 at-bats.
Alvarez beat out top pitching prospects Madison Bumgarner and Kyle Drabek in the rankings, although it was mentioned that Brian Matusz would have finished ahead of Alvarez if he had qualified for the list. Matusz did finish ahead of Alvarez in the Carolina League rankings.
Also included in the rankings were Brad Lincoln and Jose Tabata. Lincoln finished tenth in the rankings, thanks to his huge comeback performance in Altoona. Lincoln returned from Tommy John surgery in 2008, and didn’t exactly light the world on fire in his 103.2 innings between Hickory and Lynchburg last year. In his 75 innings in Altoona he posted a 2.28 ERA, with a 1.08 WHIP, and a 65:18 K/BB ratio. Lincoln was promoted to Indianapolis in late June, where he put up good control numbers, but struggled overall with a 4.70 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP.
An interesting pattern with Lincoln emerged. In his first four starts in Altoona he put up a 4.26 ERA and a 1.42 WHIP. In his remaining 56 innings he posted a 1.61 ERA, an 0.96 WHIP, and doubled his control numbers, going from a 2.7 K/BB ratio in his first four starts to a 4.1 K/BB ratio in his last nine starts.
Lincoln had a 5.76 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP in his first four starts in Indianapolis, with a 5.8 K/9 ratio and a 1.6 K/BB ratio. From that point forward he posted a 4.17 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP, with a 6.4 K/9 ratio and an amazing 14.5 K/BB ratio, thanks to a 29:2 K/BB ratio in 41 innings pitched. Lincoln’s only horrible start in that stretch was a three inning, seven run outing on August 9th.
I could see Lincoln heating up in AAA next season, much like we saw in Altoona this year, and getting promoted to Pittsburgh by mid-season.
Jose Tabata ranked 15th on the list, after hitting for a .303/.372/.404 line in 228 at-bats in Altoona. Tabata was also bouncing back in some way, as he saw his top prospect status fall last year, hitting for a .248/.319/.310 line in the New York Yankees’ AA system, before coming over to the Pirates and hitting for a .348/.402/.562 line in just 89 at-bats in Altoona. Tabata’s 2009 performance showed that the short time with Pittsburgh in 2008 was no fluke.
Tabata was promoted to Indianapolis in August, and hit for a .276/.333/.410 line. Tabata has yet to hit for a lot of power, although he just turned 21 in August, and power is usually the last thing to develop for a hitter. Everyone assumes he will be up in the majors in June, although I can see three factors that would keep him in AAA the entire season:
1. Tabata is only 21. Calling him up in June would make him a free agent at the age of 28, right at the start of his prime. Why pull an Aramis Ramirez and call him up early, only to be paying him the big bucks right when he starts his prime years?
2. Bringing up Tabata, Alvarez, and Lincoln at the same time keeps them all on the same arbitration scale. If they all become the players we expect them to be, then it could be very costly to put a team around them in their final years of arbitration. Keeping Tabata back a year would make it so they’re not all making big money in the same year.
3. Tabata hasn’t really shown that he can hit for power yet, and he hasn’t hit for an astonishing average at AAA. The Pirates kept Andrew McCutchen in AAA for a year and a half. McCutchen hit for a .283/.372/.398 line in 2008, which could have warranted a call-up. In fact, I was sure he would be called up after the Jason Bay and Xavier Nady trades. Instead the Pirates waited, and maybe it’s just a coincidence, but McCutchen bumped up the slugging percentage 100 points in 2009, and the Pirates promoted him.
Now if Tabata comes in to next season and has a slugging percentage around .500 by June, I would expect the Pirates to promote him. However, I don’t think it’s as much of a guarantee of Tabata making it to the majors next season as it is with Alvarez and Lincoln. I could even see the Pirates signing a free agent for two years in order to give Tabata some more time to develop, only to deal the free agent away once Tabata is ready (and we’ve already heard the Rick Ankiel talk begin, so this could be in the plans).
Overall, these three are pretty much the consensus top three prospects in the Pirates’ system, and represent the first wave of the rebuilding process, along with most of the heavy lifting, with Tabata and Alvarez the potential 3-4 hitters, and Lincoln the potential ace of the rotation.