I came to a realization last night as I was doing the game recap for the Indianapolis Indians. With Pedro Alvarez getting called up by the Pittsburgh Pirates today, there isn’t much talent remaining at the top level. The first wave of talent has officially arrived, but it may until this time next year before we see any more additions.
Alvarez joins top prospects Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln, who were both called up last week. The Pirates have also recently called up Neil Walker, who is kind of a surprise this year, breaking out in AAA and having success so far in the majors, after struggling in AAA in prior years. Alvarez, Tabata, and Walker join Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones at the top of the Pirates lineup, giving a strong 1-5 part of the order, assuming everyone plays up to their expectations.
So what about that next wave of talent? Currently, Indianapolis doesn’t have many prospects. The guys that are there are potential bench players like Erik Kratz, Brian Friday, or Jim Negrych, back of the rotation starters like Daniel McCutchen and Brian Burres, or middle relievers like Justin Thomas and Vinnie Chulk. I could see some of these guys getting the call to the majors this year, but none will provide anything close to the impact that we will see from the first wave of prospects.
I would say the second wave of prospects really starts in Altoona, although it may be awhile until those guys are even in Indianapolis. Let’s run down the list of guys who I could see in the majors by this time next year.
THE SECOND WAVE
Bryan Morris - Morris has really bounced back to top prospect status this year, and will probably end up as a top five prospect at the end of the season, if not top three. Morris started the year with an amazing 0.60 ERA in 44.2 innings, with an 8.1 K/9 and a 1.4 BB/9 ratio in high-A. After being promoted to AA, Neal Huntington said that Morris could end up in AAA by the end of the season. So far, Morris looks to be on pace for that, posting a 2.33 ERA in 27 innings at the AA level, with a 9.0 K/9 and a 2.3 BB/9. If he reaches AAA by the end of the year, he could arrive around the same time Lincoln arrived.
Rudy Owens - Owens has been spectacular again this year, posting a 2.79 ERA in 71 innings with Altoona, along with a 6.8 K/9 and a 1.6 BB/9. I talked to Owens back in early April, and found out that he had a minor injury over the off-season. The injury wasn’t enough to have any lasting effects, but it was enough to keep him out of the instructional league. That’s where Owens was supposed to learn to throw a two seam fastball. Owens has since learned the pitch, although as of early April, he hadn’t thrown it much. I’m guessing that he’s thrown the pitch more since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s held in AA a bit longer to continue working on the pitch. Owens has three plus pitches, but doesn’t throw with much velocity. Adding a fourth pitch, and making it effective would be huge for his development. Even if he is in AA until August, I could see him making it to the majors by June 2011.
Justin Wilson - Wilson has looked very promising this year, with a 3.02 ERA in 62.2 innings, along with an 8.8 K/9 and a 4.2 BB/9. The walks are a concern, as that has always been the downside of Wilson’s game. That said, Wilson might be over the walks. Since the month of April, Wilson has posted a 2.15 ERA in 50.1 innings over nine starts, with an 8.9 K/9 ad a 3.4 BB/9 ratio. In that span, Wilson has only had one outing where he has walked more than three batters in a game, with only three instances of walking three or more batters in a game. Like Owens and Morris, I could see Wilson in AAA by the end of the year, and in the majors by next June.
Chase d’Arnaud - D’Arnaud hasn’t had the best season, so it might be a surprise that he’s on this list. However, when you look at the season a little closer, you’ll see that he’s been the victim of some bad luck. D’Arnaud combined for a .209/.301/.308 line through the month of May, although he had a BABIP of .255 in that stretch. Hitters usually maintain the same BABIP range throughout their careers, regardless of the level. D’Arnaud’s range has been in the .330-.345 area in the lower levels. With a normal BABIP, D’Arnaud would have put up something in the .275/.359/.405 range, which is much better than his early numbers. So far in the month of June, D’Arnaud is hitting for a .340/.417/.509 line, which is a huge improvement. It’s only fair to point out that he has been lucky, with a .439 BABIP in this small sample size, although ironically enough, if he goes on an 0-for-12 stretch with a walk in the next three games, he will not only have a normal BABIP, but a .277/.356/.415 line, similar to his normal April/May results. I’d take that level of performance from a guy who is regarded as a very good defensive shortstop.
Tony Sanchez - Sanchez is still in high-A, possibly due to the shoulder injury he had at the beginning of the year, followed by getting beaned in the head with a pitch in the last month. However, it’s not out of the question that he could be in the majors by next season. His defense is said to be major league ready when healthy, something that Sanchez has not been this year. The one concern with him has been hitting, although he is hitting for a .309/.405/.438 line in Bradenton this year. Part of that is due to his .372/.487/.564 line at home. On the road, Sanchez is hitting for a .250/.322/.320 line in the pitcher friendly Florida State League. If Sanchez is in Altoona by mid-July, I could see him starting the 2011 season in Indianapolis, with a chance to arrive in the majors by mid-season.
THE NEIL WALKER’S
There is one more thing to consider: what about the Neil Walker’s of the upper levels? Heading in to this season a lot of people, myself included, had written Walker off as a utility player. His bat wasn’t cutting it, even at the AAA level, and the Pirates had a better long term option at third base in Alvarez. I did provide the disclaimer that Walker was young enough to be a surprise, which is exactly what happened this year. So what about those young players who have been disappointing, but who could surprise us with a breakout performance in AAA in April and May 2011?
Gorkys Hernandez - Hernandez was acquired in the Nate McLouth trade, and has been on a downward spiral ever since. At the time of the trade
, Hernandez was hitting for a .316/.361/.387 line in 212 at-bats at the AA level. After the trade, Hernandez dropped to a .262/.312/.340 line in 344 at-bats in AA with the Pirates. So far this season, Hernandez is hitting for a .243/.320/.300 line in 230 at-bats. Hernandez is looking great in the month of June, with a .313/.404/.479 line, although that’s a small sample size considering his numbers in the past year. He does have the tools to succeed, but so far we haven’t seen them put to use. He’s only 22 years old, so there’s still time.
Tim Alderson - I saw Alderson early this year, and while I don’t like to make a final decision based off of one game, I didn’t come away thinking Alderson could be anything more than a 3-5 starter. Alderson has struggled this year, with a 4.70 ERA in 69 innings, and a 42:19 K/BB ratio. He showed some promise recently, with a 2.03 ERA in 31 innings in five starts from May 19th (coincidentally his first start after I saw him) to June 10th. He also posted a 15:3 K/BB ratio during that stretch. However, Alderson fell apart last night, allowing five runs in four innings, with two walks and two hits. Alderson really needs an increase in his strikeout numbers. If that happens, he could find himself in the Morris/Owens/Wilson mix next June. There’s a lot of time left for Alderson to develop, as he’s only 21, turning 22 in the off-season.
Matt Hague - Hague hasn’t really been disappointing. He hit for a .321/.384/.470 line in 215 at-bats in State College in 2008. In 2009 he hit for a .293/.356/.412 line in 454 at-bats in Lynchburg. So far this year he is hitting for a .295/.382/.410 line in 217 at-bats in AA. Hague hits for average, and gets on base at a great rate, but he has had trouble hitting for power. Right now he has five homers this year, although to be a legitimate first base prospect he should have at least twice that amount. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hague moved to right field eventually. He has a very strong arm, which is wasted at first base, and with his poor range, right field seems like the best place for him to play. A .295 hitter with an .800 OPS and 15 homers a year wouldn’t be bad out of right field, although Hague could cement himself as the Pirates’ first baseman if he increases his power production.
The first wave of prospects was dominated by hitters, with Alvarez, Tabata, and Walker leading the way, and with all three following Andrew McCutchen by a year. The good news is that the second wave has some promising pitching, which has been the downfall of the Pirates this season. The Pirates could have a rotation that includes Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, and Justin Wilson this time next year, which gives them a lot of options when considering that Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, and Charlie Morton will still be under control, and will most likely be in the mix. I could see Maholm getting dealt if those three are ready to arrive, with Ohlendorf taking the final rotation spot. It would be a huge bonus if Morton bounces back, either this year or next year.
The best news of all is that the Pirates have a team that will be together for years. A lineup that includes McCutchen, Alvarez, Tabata, Jones, Walker, Sanchez, and d’Arnaud, plus a rotation that includes Lincoln, Morris, Owens, and Wilson could be together through the 2015 season. That’s enough time to not only let these players develop together, but to add to this group (Jameson Taillon anyone?) and still have a few years to compete with the group together. That’s something we haven’t seen with the Pirates in a long time.