In my preview last week of the 2011 Indianapolis Indians infield, I pointed out this quote by Kyle Stark in the Altoona Mirror:
It’s possible, Stark said, that the entire starting infield of first baseman Matt Hague, second baseman Jordy Mercer, shortstop Chase d’Arnaud and third baseman Josh Harrison could be back with the Curve. Those four played together all of last season, with Hague and Harrison enjoying the most success.
“There is a chance that you could see all or none [in Altoona], depending on what happens with the big league team and the Triple-A team,” Stark said. “A lot of it may be outside of their control. Some of it may be within their control.”
That Altoona infield has been together for two full seasons, winning the Carolina League championship in high-A in 2009, and winning the Eastern League championship in AA in 2010. However, the 2011 season seems like the time to break the group up, even if it’s just for the start of the season. Matt Hague and Josh Harrison did enough last year to warrant promotions to AAA for the start of the 2011 season. Chase D’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer struggled, which does put them at risk of returning to Altoona for the start of the year.
With the season getting closer, let’s take a look at who else could be in line to play in the Altoona infield this year.
Tony Sanchez will be making the jump to AA at the start of the 2011 season, after missing half of the 2010 season due to a broken jaw. The injury set Sanchez back, as he probably would have made his Altoona debut in 2010 without the lost time, and could have been on pace for a mid-season arrival to the majors. Because of the lost time, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pirates’ top catching prospect get an extended stay in Altoona, making the jump to Indianapolis later in the year.
Who will back up Sanchez is up in the air. The three options are Wyatt Toregas, Eric Fryer, and Kris Watts. Of the three, Fryer has the most upside. He could also make the jump to AA, working either in an outfield role, or as the designated hitter to get additional playing time while Sanchez is the starter. After Sanchez moves to Indianapolis, it only would make sense for Fryer to take over the starting duties.
Watts or Toregas would be candidates to serve as the primary backup to Sanchez throughout the season, and probably Fryer once Sanchez gets promoted. The only way I see either starting is if Sanchez and Fryer both get promoted to AAA. Toregas could be an option to start out in Bradenton.
Despite the comments that Matt Hague could return, I don’t see that happening. Miles Durham should return to Altoona this year, where he could take over at first base, until an option comes up from the lower levels. The Pirates have Calvin Anderson and Aaron Baker both potentially starting in high-A, which creates a jam. However, neither seems ready for AA, with Anderson struggling last season, especially with his plate patience, and Baker needing to make the jump over high-A to get to AA.
I could see one of those two options making it up to Altoona later in the year, and there’s even a chance that Baker could make that surprise jump to Altoona to start the season. The most likely scenario has Durham as the starting first baseman, assuming Hague doesn’t return to Altoona at the beginning of the year.
The two Altoona infielders that seem most likely to return at the start of the year are Chase D’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer. Brock Holt will also be starting the 2011 season in Altoona, which creates a jam in the middle infield. The Pirates could opt to go with Holt at second base, easing him back from his knee injury last year. If they rotate players around, D’Arnaud and Mercer could also be options, as both have played second base in the past.
Shelby Ford could return to the AA level to fill out the bench, providing a backup at second base in the process.
The Pirates are in need of a shortstop upgrade at the major league level, and it’s very possible that all of their top shortstop options could be in Altoona at one point or another this year. D’Arnaud and Mercer are candidates to return to the AA level. Holt will be making the jump to AA. There’s also Elevys Gonzalez and Jarek Cunningham, who are both expected to start the season in high-A, and who could both end up in Altoona by the end of the year, depending on their performance.
The problem with this group is that, while there is talent here, none of these players have stepped up to claim the title of shortstop of the future. D’Arnaud and Cunningham are good all around players, although each struggled hitting for average last year, with Cunningham struggling at a lower level. Mercer has power potential, but saw his power dip last year, and again in the Arizona Fall League. Holt has done well hitting, but is unproven in AA. Gonzalez seems more like a future super utility player, rather than an everyday starter.
The Pirates need at least one of these guys to step up this season as the shortstop of the future. Ideally it would be someone who is close to the majors, like D’Arnaud.
Third base will most likely be taken by whichever player doesn’t play second or short out of the D’Arnaud/Mercer/Holt group, all assuming that D’Arnaud and Mercer do return. Backing those guys up should be Christian Colonel, who was just added on a minor league free agent deal last week.
Jeremy Farrell should arrive on the Altoona roster this season, but that might not happen at the start of the year. Farrell also missed a lot of time in 2010, and while that’s not stopping Brock Holt or Tony Sanchez from moving up to Altoona at the start of the year, it could hold Farrell back. That’s mostly because Farrell struggled prior to the 2010 season, while Sanchez and Holt had prior success. If one of the three could use more time in high-A, it would be Farrell, although only for a short trip at the start of the year.
Opening Day Projection
The estimated opening day starters, with bench players in parenthesis.
C - Tony Sanchez (Kris Watts)
1B - Miles Durham
2B - Brock Holt (Shelby Ford)
SS - Chase D’Arnaud
3B - Jordy Mercer (Christian Colonel)
DH - Eric Fryer
Could arrive in May: Jeremy Farrell
Strong chance at a late season arrival: Aaron Baker, Calvin Anderson, Elevys Gonzalez, Jarek Cunningham
Could reach AAA in 2011: Tony Sanchez, Chase D’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, and Brock Holt if he gets off to a strong start and doesn’t have any issues with his knee.