The 2011 minor league baseball season starts tomorrow. Pirates Prospects follows every team in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, from the start of the year in April, all the way until there is no more baseball to be played in September. The four teams that begin their play tomorrow are the Indianapolis Indians, Altoona Curve, Bradenton Marauders, and the West Virginia Power. To start off the season, we will be previewing every level, taking a look at some of the top prospects, some prospects who are a bit behind schedule, and our predictions for the top player, pitcher, and sleeper at each level.
2011 Indianapolis Indians Preview
Leading up to the season we’ve covered the all of the players who were projected to be at the level, along with the Opening Day roster. Here is that coverage:
The Indians are largely made up of the same team that won the 2009 Carolina League championship with the Lynchburg Hillcats, and the 2010 Eastern League championship with the Altoona Curve. Ten of the 24 players on the Opening Day roster played with either Lynchburg or Altoona during those championship years. That group includes six of the eight projected starters, and two of the five pitchers in the starting rotation.
Last year the Indians produced Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Neil Walker for the major league team. This year, the Pirates will hope to see more additions, especially for the starting rotation, shortstop, and first base/right field. Indianapolis has a few candidates at each position, although not many of the Alvarez/Tabata type, who are almost guaranteed to be starting in the majors by July. Instead, they will need more players stepping up as unexpected starters, similar to what Neil Walker did last year.
The starting rotation will only have two top prospects on Opening Day, with Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson making the jump from AA last year. Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke were both left in AA to start the season, although both could arrive before June, similar to what they each did in 2010 when they both started in high-A. Brad Lincoln is on the major league 15-day disabled list, and should join the rotation when he is activated. Of that group, Owens and Lincoln have the best chance of arriving in the majors this year, possibly before July. Morris also has a shot, especially if he moves quickly from Altoona to Indianapolis.
There are a few shortstop candidates at the level. Pedro Ciriaco is strong defensively, but has a weak bat. His defense is good enough that he could be considered as a starting candidate in the majors if the Pirates decide to move on from Ronny Cedeno. Chase D’Arnaud is the best shortstop prospect the Pirates have, and a good all-around player at the position. He’s coming off a down year in 2010, although he did rebound at the end of the year, and carried his success over to the off-season, when he played with Team USA. Brian Friday is still in the mix, but would need a Walker-like breakout year in order to be a strong candidate for the majors.
The Indians have an outfield full of prospects, with Andrew Lambo, Gorkys Hernandez, and Alex Presley expected to get regular playing time. Lambo and Hernandez are both former top prospects who saw their stock drop, which allowed the Pirates to pick them up in separate trades. The Pirates need one of these three players to step up and take their third outfield position, beside Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata. The Indians also have Matt Hague at first base. Hague’s upside is more of an average starting first baseman, and he could emerge as a candidate to start in Pittsburgh, at least in the short term until Pedro Alvarez moves over, or until a better option arrives.
A few weeks ago, Matt Bandi took a look at the typical minor league timeline for players who eventually went on to have successful major league careers. Using that timeline as a guide, here are some guys who are age appropriate for this level, and some guys who have fallen behind and need to step up this season.
Age Appropriate Prospects
Andrew Lambo – You could make an argument that Lambo was rushed in the lower levels, so despite his struggles the last two years, he’s still age appropriate, especially since he will be 22 this year at the AAA level.
Rudy Owens – Owens turned 23 in December, and could be a candidate to arrive in the majors in June.
Justin Wilson – He came out of the college ranks, but has moved quickly through the system, and turns 24 in the middle of August.
Josh Harrison – Also a guy who came from college, in the same 2008 draft as Wilson. Harrison turns 24 in July.
Gorkys Hernandez – Another guy who has stalled at the AA level, although he’s only 23 years old this year.
Chase d’Arnaud – He turned 24 in January, and could arrive in the majors at some point this year.
Now or Never
Daniel Moskos – He was a first round pick out of college in the 2007 draft. His fastball velocity was up last year, and now is the time for him to finally arrive in the majors.
Brian Friday – He’s struggled at every level since high-A, but still has an outside shot. This could be his last chance, and he’s got a lot of competition to pass in the middle infield.
Matt Hague – A college senior in the 2008 draft, Hague has moved a level per year. That combination leaves little room for error, although he’s done well in each of his first two full years in high-A and AA.
Tony Watson – Watson has his career stalled with an injury in 2009, and spent the entire 2010 season in Altoona.
Pedro Ciriaco – He stalled for a year in high-A, and will return to AAA for his second year in 2011, although he could crack the majors at some point this year.
Alex Presley – He had a breakout year in 2010, and 2011 will give him a chance to prove that wasn’t a fluke.
For the most part, this group is made up of bench and bullpen players. Hague and Presley are the only two who have a shot at being starters, although neither player looks to be more than an average major league stater if they can make the successful jump from AAA.
Player of the Year
Tim: Chase d’Arnaud – He had a down year in 2010, although his power, walk rate, and stolen bases were all good. I’ve seen him enough over the last three years to know that he is better than his 2010 numbers at the AA level. I think he rebounds this year, putting up numbers closer to his 2009 season between low and high-A ball.
John: Andrew Lambo – I expect him to have a great season after leading the AFL in RBI’s last year, and looking impressive in the few spring appearances I saw. Wouldn’t be surprised if he hit for some power while hitting close to .300, and with the outfielders in Pittsburgh he should spend the whole season in AAA.
Kevin: Chase d’Arnaud – In his first two seasons, d’Arnaud demonstrated excellent plate discipline. His 2010 season left something to be desired in AA (708 OPS), but his K/BB rate was still 20%/10% even in a down year. The speed was still there as shown by his 33 stolen bases in 40 attempts. There is a crying need at shortstop in Pittsburgh and as long as d’Arnaud presents even passable defense he should be in consideration at shortstop.
Matt: Andrew Lambo – He is the most talented hitter on the roster, and has shown signs of finally taking that next step. He has a chance to force his way into the Pirates’ 2012 plans with a big year.
Wilbur: Andrew Lambo – With serious weaknesses in right and at first, few things could be more helpful to the Pirates than a breakout by Lambo. (Well, a shortstop and a bunch of pitchers, maybe.) He hit well at young ages for a couple years, but got sidetracked by injury and suspension issues. Now would be a good time . . . .
Pitcher of the Year
Tim: Rudy Owens – It’s hard to not pick a guy who won the pitcher of the year award in each of the last two seasons. I could see him arriving in Pittsburgh by June, as he has very little to work on. His fastball was still in the 90-93 MPH range when I saw him in Spring Training, which is very encouraging.
John: Rudy Owens – I think some people are going to be disappointed at the amount of time he spends in AAA as people are looking at him as a guy they call up as soon as he is safe from super-two status. I don’t think we will see him until after the trade deadline passes and in that time he should be able to put up some good stats with his great control and nice stuff from the left side.
Kevin: Rudy Owens – This category may have been more interesting if Morris or Locke made the squad, but Owens may have been the choice anyway. As John stated, he may not come up any sooner than July to Pittsburgh, but his low 90’s fastball and pinpoint control will be welcomed with open arms.
Matt: Rudy Owens – Owens has been dominant the past two seasons, and I see no reason to doubt that he will continue having success at Triple-A. His increased velocity down the stretch in 2010 will only make him more effective.
Wilbur: Rudy Owens – I’ve been hesitant to pick players for the other affilliates when I thought they’d likely get mid-season promotions, but in AAA any player who performs extremely well usually gets promoted, so I’m changing the rules a bit. It’s hard to bet against Owens because he’s already been named the system’s pitcher of the year twice in a row. After a slow start in camp, he was sitting at 93 toward the end, just like late last year. There’s no reason to think he won’t figure this level out quickly like he has all others.
Tim: Gorkys Hernandez – He might not be a true sleeper, more of a bounce back candidate, but I could see him having a good year. He started hitting prior to his finger injury in 2010, with a .306/.369/.414 line in 186 at-bats from June until the injury. I think all of the trades have had an adverse effect on his career, and he should be able to settle in now that he’s been with one team for more than one year.
John: Matt Hague – He should be able to continue to hit like he has in the past due to his advanced age, and slow progress through the system despite that age. He will likely hit around .290 with 30 doubles and 15 homers, but still be considered a fringe prospect. It’s possible if he hits as well as last year and with strong defense they might consider him for the open 1B job next year in the majors.
Kevin: Josh Harrison – Harrison seems to get better wood on the ball than most other players I’ve seen live. His ceiling may be only that of a utility guy, but there is some value in that, too. He has enough useable speed to be helpful on the bases as well.
Matt: Josh Harrison – Harrison does not have huge upside, but he can be a very effective super-utility player at the big league level. He makes consistent contact, and I think there is a bit more pop in his bat than the numbers show. He is inconsistent defensively, but he has the tools to be a mediocre fielder at multiple positions.
Wilbur: Tony Watson – I think he’ll earn a callup by mid-season. He had a tremendous season in relief last year and there certainly isn’t much blocking him.