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 West Virginia Power Preview
West Virginia Power
West Virginia will be one of the most exciting teams to watch in the Pirates’ system this year, all because of the pitching that will be at the level. The pitchers from the 2009 prep draft class will arrive at the start of the season, led by Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, and Zack Dodson. Later in the season, top prep pitchers Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie are expected to arrive, which should create one of the most talented rotations in the lower levels. With all of those guys, plus Tyler Waldron, Brandon Cumpton, and other prep picks from the 2009 draft, it’s going to be hard to get innings for all of the prospects in the system.
“We’ve got two or three guys in the pen, or maybe even four, that we need to get multiple innings,” West Virginia pitching coach Jeff Johnson told me, in reference to all of the prospects at the level. “It will be something I will be working on everyday, trying to get them in to games. The better our starters do, the less innings there are for the bullpen guys. Hopefully we’ll have that problem. But we’ll find ways, things will come up where they’ll all get plenty of innings.”
The Pirates preach fastball command at the lower levels, so most of the players here will be sticking to that. However, that’s not going to be as big of a focus for the 2009 prep pitchers, who have already spent a year focusing on commanding the ball, and keeping it down in the zone. The 2009 prep pitchers will working on mixing those off-speed pitches in with their fastball this year.
“All these kids have got good foundations from fastball usage,” Johnson said. “So if anything I’ll probably have to encourage them to throw more change-ups. Encourage them to throw more breaking balls early in the count. In the past we’ve had issues where we’ve had to challenge them to use their fastball more. With this group we probably won’t have that issue too much. It will be the other way around, I’d expect, based on what I’ve seen so far.”
The biggest story will be the arrivals of Taillon and Allie, although as I reported a few weeks ago, both will start off in extended Spring Training. They might not arrive until Tyler Waldron and Brandon Cumpton, two pitchers selected out of the college ranks in 2010, move up.
“We hope that those college arms stabilize that young rotation early, get into a rhythm, and can be pushed to the FSL at some point,” Kyle Stark told me, in reference to Waldron and Cumpton.
Both pitchers advancing will depend on how well they’re getting their fastball and secondary pitches over the plate, and their ability to pitch inside.
“Their ability to do those things will tell us when they’re ready to move,” Jeff Johnson said. “If they’re throwing the ball over, and they’re able to use the secondary pitch over the plate, then they’ll be certainly ready to go. Fastball command is the biggest thing, being able to use that in counts where it’s not to their advantage. In 1-0, 2-0 counts, we’ll see how they play. What kind of pitches they can make in those type counts with some consistency will tell us when they’re ready to move.”
As for Taillon, don’t expect him to hit the ground running when he arrives in West Virginia. The Pirates will take a slow approach with him, limiting his innings at first, and likely using him in a piggyback situation. As he gets in the groove, and as the season goes on, his innings should increase. Overall, I’ve been told that Taillon’s innings should be around 90 this year, although no hard number has been finalized.
That approach is pretty much the opposite of the 2009 prep pitchers, who won’t be limited in the early part of the season, and who will pitch until they’ve reached their limit, likely to be around 80 pitches in order to manage their innings over a full season. None of the prep pitchers from the 2009 class project to move up, unless someone really puts up shocking results with their work. The main goal with those guys will be to get them innings this year, and getting them used to pitching a full season.
As for the hitters at the level, the Pirates have a few interesting guys. Mel Rojas Jr. is one of those guys, drafted in the third round of the 2010 draft. Rojas Jr, the son of former major league closer Mel Rojas, struggled in his jump to the pros. That was mostly due to making the jump from aluminum to wood bats, and due to the everyday schedule in the pros, compared to playing mostly weekends in college. Rojas also dealt with a sore shoulder, a side effect from playing in center field for a longer season. His shoulder is fine heading in to the year, something I witnessed watching him make throws in Bradenton, and he could be a guy to watch in the lower levels this year.
Matt Curry was one of the top hitters in State College last year, after being selected in the 2010 draft out of TCU. He will look to move up this year, but is currently blocked by Aaron Baker in Bradenton. One of the biggest things Curry will be working on this year is his performance over a full 140 game schedule. That was especially apparent when I asked him about his 2010 season in State College.
“One thing that I don’t feel too good about is my performance at the end of the season. I started off hot, man I started off hotter than a firecracker,” Curry said, with his Texas accent. “I came out, I think I was hitting like .450 the first three or four weeks. Kind of hit a little wall. I think that the games took a toll on me, and that’s what I worked hard this off-season for, so I could push through that wall and play 140 games straight without having that big dip that I had in State College.”
Curry is a promising first baseman, and possibly one of the best first base prospects in the system. He has the ability to hit to all fields, and can even hit for power to the opposite field, which makes him a big power threat. His defense looked strong when I saw him in Spring Training, something he attributes to getting in better shape this year.
“I’m down to about 210 right now. That’s probably the lowest playing weight I’ve been in the last 3-4 years,” Curry said. “I can tell it’s helped my range from Spring Training, I’ve made some plays that I probably normally wouldn’t get to. I laid out for some balls down the line that I normally wouldn’t have got to in the past. I’m getting better at first base, and I think it will show this year.”
Eric Avila and Elias Diaz are two international prospects to keep an eye on. Avila is a third base prospect with some power, hitting for a .472 slugging percentage in the very pitcher friendly Gulf Coast League in 2010. He will make the jump to full season ball this year, and will be playing third base every day. Diaz is a rising catching prospect who the Pirates really seem to like, as evident by his usage last year over 2009 10th round pick Joey Schoenfeld. Diaz is a pull hitter, but can hit the ball the opposite way and up the middle, and has some power in his swing. His defense has been coming along behind the plate, and he could eventually emerge as the second best catching prospect in the system, behind Tony Sanchez, if he’s not there already from a tools standpoint.
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
All of the pitchers are pretty much age appropriate, with the exception of the two college pitchers from the 2010 class. As for the position players:
Elias Diaz – Diaz turned 20 in November, which shows how much the Pirates like him that they’d move him to full season ball this soon.
Eric Avila – Avila is a little older than Diaz, at 21 years of age in June, but is definitely age appropriate for the level.
Mel Rojas Jr. – Rojas turns 21 in May, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move up to Bradenton later in the year if he gets off to a good start.
Gift Ngoepe – Gift is still a project, but just turned 21 in January, so they’ve got time to work with him.
Now or Never
Matt Curry – Curry was a college senior, so he needs to be in Bradenton, at the least. He’s blocked by Aaron Baker, but should arrive at the level by the end of the year.
Drew Maggi – Maggi is in a similar situation as Curry, although he’s blocked by the middle infield options in Bradenton.
Tyler Waldron – I’d expect Waldron to move up, possibly by the end of May, or maybe sooner, depending on how he pitches.
Brandon Cumpton – Same situation as Waldron, and for each player, being in Bradenton this year isn’t bad.
Daniel Grovatt – Grovatt could spend a little bit of time in West Virginia, but ultimately he needs to be in Bradenton by the end of the year to establish himself as a legit prospect.
Jason Townsend – Townsend has great velocity on his fastball, although he lacks control. He was a college junior in the 2010 draft, which means he should be in Bradenton at least by the end of the season, just like Waldron and Cumpton.
Player of the Year
Tim: Mel Rojas Jr. – It’s a hard choice between Curry and Rojas, especially with Curry getting in better shape, and having better numbers so far. However, Rojas profiles to be a five tool player, and has displayed good speed and arm strength when I saw him. He also should see big improvements on his hitting, now that he’s made the adjustments to wooden bats, and now that his sore shoulder is behind him.
John: Matt Curry – Batting in the middle of this order he should get a ton of chances for RBI’s. If he bats 4th he will have guys in front of him that get on base well and protection behind him and with his power he should be able to put up 80+ RBI’s if he sticks around long enough.
Kevin: Matt Curry – It is my sincere hope that Curry continues to display his blend of power and plate discipline that he showed at State College in 2010. If that happens, Curry may force his way to Bradenton at the mid-point of this year.
Matt: Matt Curry – I am not as high on Curry as others are, but I think he will probably be the best hitter on this team. He is coming from a top college program, and should hit well against Low-A competition. Rojas has much more upside, but he is still a bit raw at this point.
Wilbur: Mel Rojas, Jr. – This may be wishful thinking, but Rojas is the one position player on the roster with a high ceiling. He looked much more comfortable at the plate in camp than when I saw him last August. A breakout season from him would be big.
Pitcher of the Year
Disclaimer: The obvious choice here would be Jameson Taillon, and for that reason, Taillon was excluded from the list of possible choices. So this is more of a “who will be the best pitcher, other than Taillon”.
Tim: Zack Von Rosenberg – Von Rosenberg might not have the best fastball, which I clock at 88-90 MPH. He does have a very nice curveball, which should help him a great deal this year. If he can add some velocity to his fastball, he could start to show why he commanded a $1.2 M signing bonus out of the 2009 draft.
John: Colton Cain – It was a toss-up between Cain and ZVR and I picked the hard throwing lefty over the polished righty. Since they will be working on fastball command and getting their first full season under their belt the big lefty with the workhorse body should be able to handle to jump better.
Kevin: Colton Cain – Cain has better present stuff than Von Rosenberg, especially a better fastball from the left side, so I’ll select Cain as my Pitcher of the Year. I think being a year removed from his back surgery and getting his teeth cut at the Fastball Academy of State College will only help when he unveils his full arsenal this year.
Matt: Zack Von Rosenburg – His velocity is reportedly down again this spring, but it was low last spring as well and increased as the year unfolded. If his velocity can tick upwards, he should see some very solid results in full season ball.
Wilbur: Colton Cain – As a lefty who throws hard, he may have a higher ceiling than Von Rosenberg. He had a promising debut last year and hopefully will take a step forward.
Tim: Eric Avila – Avila showed some power in 2010, and had good numbers when you consider that he was playing in a very pitcher friendly league, and also making the jump to the United States. He’s a guy to watch this year, mostly to see if he can repeat that power production in his move to full season ball.
John: Dan Grovatt – Struggled his junior year but still showed good plate patience and makes good contact. As a three year starter at a division I school who got a taste of the pro game last year he should be able to do well at low-A ball. I could see him hitting .300 with a lot of doubles, drawing some walks and stealing double digit bases.
Kevin: Dan Grovatt – Grovatt was drafted out of Virginia last year with the knowledge he had some previous shoulder concerns. He spent the greater part of his debut sidelined with various injuries. I’m not thinking that Grovatt is a consideration for a top-tier prospect yet, but I do think he can do enough with this opportunity to at least warrant consideration on the back end of the list next year.
Matt: Jason Townsend – The Pirates 31st round draft pick a year ago, Townsend’s fastball has touched the mid to upper 90′s. There is always the potential for an arm like that to have a breakout season.
Wilbur: Elias Diaz – The Pirates are high on Diaz and, based on what I’ve seen, he’s good defensively now. He hit well in the VSL, so he may just have needed a little time for his bat to come around.