With the minor league season roughly half over and some leagues holding All-Star games, this is a good time to look back at the first half and see which Pirate prospects managed to alter their status, for good or ill. In Part 1 I’ll cover the position players; pitchers tomorrow.
Josh Harrison, UT (MLB): Harrison will always face questions due to his small size, and his lack of power and weak defensive skills will keep him from claiming a regular job. But he actually improved his hitting from AA to AAA, adding over 70 points of OPS, and hasn’t been at all overmatched since the Pirates called him up. Just three strikeouts in 49 at-bats in his first taste of major league pitching is a difficult feat, although the fact that he’s walked only once indicates another potential limitation if he doesn’t start taking more pitches. He’s at least established that he has a future in the majors. He may even turn the Cubs trade into a wash.
Chase d’Arnaud, SS (AAA): After a disappointing 2010 season in AA and a slow start this year in AAA, d’Arnaud was starting to look more like a possible utility player than a potential starting middle infielder in the majors. After April, though, he started turning things around. He’s hit over .300 in both May and June with solid gap power and decent, although not good, plate discipline. He’s also continued to show good base stealing skill (14-for-17). Overall he now stands at 283/348/425. Maybe most importantly, he’s cut his error rate in half after a shaky season in the field in 2010. With the Pirates getting no production at all from short and third, it’s a good time to start asking whether d’Arnaud should get a promotion.
Alex Presley, OF (AAA): Presley has staked an even stronger claim to a major league job than d’Arnaud. There still had to be questions about his breakout 2010 season, given how much he’d struggled in the minors before that, as well as the fact that he struggled in the last month of the season in AAA. This year, however, he hasn’t stopped hitting, posting a 333/384/509 line so far. He also hasn’t had much of a platoon split — his OPS is .865 against lefties and .905 against righties. It’s unlikely he could be more than a 4th outfielder in the majors, but there’s no reason now to question whether he’s for real. The only real question remaining is why the Pirates continue to insist on maintaining an empty roster spot rather than giving Presley a chance to help lift the team’s offense out of its miserable slump. And, yes, that’s a reference to Pedro Ciriaco.
Gorkys Hernandez, OF (AAA): Like d’Arnaud, Hernandez faced questions about his prospect status–in his case whether he was a prospect at all–after a weak showing in AA and a slow start in AAA. He hit .283 in May and .323 so far in June, though, and is up to .283 overall. He’s even been hitting for good gap power in June. His ceiling is going to be limited due to his lack of power, which also means he won’t walk much because pitchers won’t be afraid to throw him strikes. His speed and outstanding defensive ability, though, mean he’ll probably have some sort of major league career, most likely as a fourth outfielder.
Eric Fryer, C (AAA): After an outstanding half season at Bradenton in 2010, shortened by a beaning, Fryer went unselected in the Rule 5 draft, most likely due to his age (25 shortly before the season’s end). He’s done what he needed to do this year, which was to move upward without stumbling. He posted an OPS of .976 in AA and .913 so far in sixteen games in AAA. He’s a good defensive catcher and can also play the outfield, and might be a better option as a backup for the Pirates than Dusty Brown. The Pirates will almost certainly need to add him to the 40-man roster after the season, if not sooner.
Matt Curry, 1B (AA): It was expected that Curry, as a senior from a major college program, would dominate low A. He did what he had to do and has gotten off to a solid start in AA after a two-level promotion. As a 16th round draft pick, he was a long shot to establish himself as a prospect, but if he keeps handling AA well he’ll have to be taken seriously.
Jordy Mercer, SS (AA): Returning to AA was a setback for Mercer and it looked even worse when he hit .154 in April. Since then, he’s gotten hot and stayed hot, hitting for surprising power–he already has over four times as many HRs as he hit all last year–while also reducing his K rate. Mercer’s a solid defensive shortstop, so he should be back on the prospect track, but he’ll be 25 just before the season ends and needs to move up to AAA.
Ramon Cabrera, C (A+): Cabrera is the catching version of Josh Harrison. He’s only 5’7″ and hits for average, but probably won’t have much power. Unlike Harrison he’ll take a pitch, and he fans even less often, just a dozen times in 146 at-bats so far this year. Overall, he’s hitting 327/400/422, after posting an OPS of only .654 in 2010, so this season is a significant step forward. His size may limit him on defense, too: he has only two errors and five passed balls, but he’s also thrown out only 14% of opposing base stealers. He’s only 21, which is a good age for that level.
Elevys Gonzalez, 3B (A+): Gonzalez turned a bench job into an everyday spot in low A last year by hitting 275/354/424, but nobody seemed to consider him a prospect due to the fact that he lacks any outstanding tools. This year he’s hitting a similar 309/369/424, although his plate discipline has slipped a little. Defense hasn’t been a strong point as he doesn’t have especially great range or a strong arm, but he’s managed to cut his error rate at third in half. Like Cabrera, he’s only 21 and maybe should be taken a little more seriously.
Jarek Cunningham, 2B (A+): It’s been a season of extremes for Cunningham. He’s previously shown good power potential, but this season has begun to realize it. He’s tied for the Florida State League lead in extra-base hits despite missing some time with minor injuries. (It’s not the ballpark, either. He’s hit exactly half his HRs on the road and his slugging average is only 29 points higher at home.) He has a dismal 61:8 K:BB ratio, however, and his .176 average in June may show that pitchers are starting to figure out that he won’t take pitches. He also has 16 errors in 54 games, which is alarming for a secondbaseman. Cunningham has some large holes in his game, but the impressive power for a 21-year-old in high A deserves some attention.
Gift Ngoepe, 2B/SS (A): You’d have to be skeptical of the first native South African signed by a major league team, even more so after he struggled mightily with offspeed pitches in the New York-Penn League in 2010. It was a little surprising to see him open 2011 in full season ball, but he got off to a 306/359/459 start in 25 games before going out with a hand injury. Ngoepe cut his K rate in half and was showing surprising power, all of which is a big bonus for a guy who has excellent speed and defensive ability. If he can keep it up after he returns, which is expected to be soon, he’ll definitely deserve a spot on the prospect map.
Kawika Emsley-Pai, C (A): Emsley-Pai’s prospects seemed to reach an early end when the Diamondbacks cut him just half a season after drafting him in round ten. He opened this season as a backup, but hit his way into more frequent playing time. So far he’s hitting 301/442/398. He’s athletic and has the potential to be a good defensive catcher; he’s thrown out 40% of opposing base stealers in his brief career. It’s too soon to call him a prospect, but he’s earned a shot at establishing himself as one after appearing dead in the water three months ago.
Andrew Lambo, OF (AAA): After a 2010 season that was marred by a drug suspension and a late-season shoulder injury, Lambo looked like a breakout candidate following a good showing in the Arizona Fall League. Instead, he’s gone rapidly in the opposite direction. He’s hitting just 185/259/293 overall, including .103 in June, and is spending more and more time on the bench. If he doesn’t start hitting, his prospect status will quickly become a thing of the past.
Pedro Ciriaco, UT (AAA): After a good spring, Ciriaco was the subject of some consternation in certain circles when he failed to make the Pirates’ roster. Now we know why. In AAA, he hit a dismal 190/193/255, with an amazing total of one walk in 143 plate appearances (together with 22 strikeouts). Even more amazingly, he’s now spent a month in the majors, during which he’s accumulated a grand total of four plate appearances and four innings in the field. The reason this continues on a team that is getting no offense at all from its bench has yet to be revealed. Sometimes, the truth is not out there.
Tony Sanchez, C (AA): With their catching situation completely unsettled for 2011, the Pirates were no doubt hoping to see Sanchez earn a mid-season promotion to AAA, but it’s not happening. He hasn’t been overmatched in AA, as his plate discipline has been solid, but his power has completely disappeared. He’s hitting 256/356/326. Sanchez has also had problems defensively, as he’s thrown out only 22% of base stealers and committed ten errors. Sanchez is still the Pirates’ catcher of the future, but it’s not going to happen as soon as everybody hoped.
Mel Rojas, Jr., OF (A): A third round draft pick who was considered to have five-tool potential, Rojas has shown little as a pro so far beyond good speed and a strong arm. At the plate he’s done almost nothing beyond hit singles, resulting in a .588 OPS. There may be some positive signs recently, as he’s hit .351 in his last ten games, with four extra-base hits, four walks and seven strikeouts. In his previous 54 games, he had four extra-base hits, eight walks and 55 strikeouts.