2011 Indianapolis Indians Preview: Starting Pitchers

Owens is projected to start the 2011 season in Indianapolis, and could be in the majors by the end of June.

So far we’ve looked at the infielders and outfielders who could be playing in Indianapolis during the 2011 season.  Today we’ll look at the biggest area of focus for the 2011 Indians: the starting pitchers.

It’s no secret that the biggest need for the Pirates in the majors is starting pitching.  The first wave of starting pitching prospects should start to arrive this year, with most of the top pitching prospects either starting off the year in Indianapolis, or expected to reach the AAA level during the season.  Here is a look at all of the pitchers who could potentially be at the level this year:

The Big Five

The ideal opening day rotation, from a prospect standpoint, would include Rudy Owens, Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson.  However, only Owens and Lincoln seem like guarantees to start the season in Indianapolis.

The Pirates could opt to hold Morris and Locke back in AA at the start of the season, similar to what they did last year when both pitchers remained in high-A.  The reason for this would be to give them a little more experience at the level before moving them up to AAA, and then to the majors.  Justin Wilson could also be held back due to his control issues, especially at the end of the season.

All five pitchers should end up in Indianapolis at some point this year.  Lincoln and Owens would be the most likely candidates to get the call to the majors before July rolls around, but that doesn’t rule out the other three from arriving in 2011.

The AAAA Starters

Brian Burres, Sean Gallagher, and Fernando Nieve were all added to the AAA roster this off-season to add starting depth.  It’s possible that one, or maybe all three, of these pitchers will start off the year in the Indianapolis rotation.  Some might wonder why the Pirates would hold prospects like Morris, Locke, and Wilson back in AA just to give playing time to these pitchers, who pretty much amount to emergency depth.  I feel it’s more of a case where the Pirates added these guys to fill out the rotation in AAA because they knew guys like Morris, Locke, and Wilson could remain in AA at the start of the season.

All three players are in the same boat.  They could be used as starters in Indianapolis, but they won’t be starters in the majors, unless the Pirates run in to serious trouble with their rotation, like we saw last year.  They could serve as bullpen depth out of the majors, and I feel that all three will either be traded, or moved to the bullpen in Indianapolis by the end of the season.  Burres could actually opt out before that, as he has a stipulation in his contract allowing him to leave to play for an Asian team.

Other Prospects

The Pirates have a few guys who have been starters in their AA/AAA careers, but who project more as relief pitchers in the majors.  It’s hard to say whether the Pirates will keep those options as starters in AAA, or if they will move them to the bullpen to get them ready for their eventual roles in the majors.  The players in question for the 2011 Indians are Tony Watson, Michael Crotta, Aaron Thompson, and Cesar Valdez.

Crotta and Watson seem to have the best chance of starting out the year in the Indianapolis rotation, especially if all three of the Morris/Locke/Wilson group remain in AA.  Thompson could start out in the Altoona rotation, but is a candidate to make Indianapolis by the end of the year, possibly as a starter, but most likely as a reliever.  Valdez hasn’t had success as a starter, and the Pirates could choose to move him to the bullpen in Indianapolis.

All four players fall behind the options like Owens, Lincoln, Locke, Morris, and Wilson.  Odds are that none of them will be in contention for a future rotation spot in Pittsburgh, which means that the Pirates won’t be losing much by converting them to relievers.

One other prospect that will play in Indianapolis this season is Donald Veal.  Veal is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and should be ready to return by mid-season, ideally around the time that Lincoln or Owens is ready to move up to the majors.

Prospects Who Could Arrive in Late 2011

The Pirates have a few guys who project to start in AA in 2011, and who could arrive in AAA late in the season.  Nathan Adcock was lost in the Rule 5 draft, but the odds that he makes the jump from high-A to the majors are slim.  The best case scenario would be for him to return to the Pirates before the season begins, allowing them some time to make sure he is ready to start the season in AA.

Aaron Pribanic and Brian Leach both pitched in the Arizona Fall League this winter, and both should start off in the Altoona rotation.  Pribanic is an extreme ground ball pitcher who has had strong results so far, but lacks the ideal strikeout numbers you want from a starter.  Leach has good velocity, usually sitting in the 94-96 MPH range, but projects more as a relief pitcher in the long term.  In order for Pribanic, Leach, or Adcock to arrive in AAA this year, the Pirates would have to graduate a few players from the Lincoln/Owens/Morris/Locke/Wilson group.

Tim Alderson is a sleeper to make it to AAA this year.  He’s been written off by a lot of people, and my own opinion based on his performance last year is that his chances of making the majors are between slim and none.  That said, reports out of Spring Training are good, leaving open the possibility that he could surprise a lot of people this year.  Even if he does bounce back, I don’t see his future being anything more than a #4-5 starter.

Opening Day Projection

The estimated opening day starters:

SP1 - Brad Lincoln

SP2 - Rudy Owens

SP3 - Michael Crotta

SP4 - Sean Gallagher

SP5 - Brian Burres

Candidates to join the rotation in May/June: Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Donald Veal

Could be a late season arrival: Nathan Adcock, Brian Leach, Aaron Pribanic, Tim Alderson

Could pitch in the major league rotation in 2011: Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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