Where Are the Hitting Prospects?

Josh Bell has the potential to be an elite hitting prospect, but what else do the Pirates have in their system?

A question that gets asked a lot about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system is: where’s the offense? The question isn’t asked in that manner every time. Sometimes it’s an indirect question, asking if the Pirates are going to focus on offense in future drafts. Sometimes it’s an observation that the Pirates have two pitching prospects in the top 20, but don’t have a standout offensive prospect. There’s also the concerns that current guys in the majors — like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker — won’t be around for the majority of the time that Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are in the majors.

A lot of focus gets placed on the draft when talking about the farm system. You don’t have to follow the draft closely to know that the Pirates have taken a lot of pitchers the last few years. In 2011 they took six pitchers in the first ten rounds, and four of the top five bonuses in the draft went to pitchers. Five of the six players signed out of the top ten in the 2010 draft were pitchers, and four of the top five bonuses again went to pitchers. The 2009 draft was all about the pitchers, with seven of the first nine picks and six of the top seven bonuses in the draft going to pitchers.

That’s where we get the question “when will the Pirates focus on the offense” in regards to the draft. It’s not as if the Pirates haven’t focused on the offense. The obvious thing would be to point out the $5 M bonus given to Josh Bell in the 2011 draft. The 2011 draft also saw Alex Dickerson taken in the third round, and several athletic center field types like Candon Myles and Taylor Lewis taken in the middle-to-late rounds.

The 2010 draft had Mel Rojas Jr. taken in the third round. The Pirates also took athletic middle infielder Drew Maggi in the 15th round, signing him to an over-slot bonus. Matt Curry went in the 16th round, and put up strong numbers in his first full pro season. In the later rounds the Pirates took first baseman Jared Lakind, giving the 23rd round pick a $400 K bonus.

In 2009 the Pirates took Tony Sanchez, Evan Chambers, and Brock Holt in the top ten rounds. The 2008 draft was focused more on offense, with Robbie Grossman, Jordy Mercer, Jarek Cunningham, Matt Hague, Chase d’Arnaud, and Wes Freeman taking up a bulk of the focus on the draft. Pedro Alvarez was obviously the biggest focus of the 2008 draft, but the purpose of this discussion is talking about who is in the farm system, so we’ll exclude him for now.

The common theme with a lot of these players is that they’re projects. Guys like Myles, Lewis, Rojas Jr., Maggi, Lakind, and Chambers all have good tools, but they’re all raw, which prevents them from being top prospects. This is to be expected. Anyone hoping for a strong all-around prospect in the middle rounds is probably expecting too much, at least this early in the process. The Pirates do have some good offensive players. Bell looks like he could eventually be an elite player. Dickerson rates as the top first base prospect in the system, although his prospect status won’t truly be known until he hits above A-ball. Tony Sanchez is coming off a down year in 2011, which hurts his value.

It’s a mistake to only focus on the draft, because that’s not the only source for talent in the minors. The Pirates have focused more on hitters on the international side of things. While their top bonus belongs to right handed pitcher Luis Heredia, they’ve added a lot of talent offensive players the last few years. Outfielders Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar received large bonuses in 2011. The 2011 GCL Pirates featured a lot of international talent, such as Willy Garcia, Gregory Polanco, Jose Osuna, Alen Hanson, Yhonathan Barrios, Jodaneli Carvajal, and Luis Urena.

The international scene presents a similar situation to the middle rounds of the draft. A lot of the talent is raw. There’s potential for a star player to emerge, but that’s more of a long term view, rather than something which can be expected by 2011/2012. The Pirates have added a lot of hitting talent on the international side, but they don’t have a Luis Heredia-type hitter.

The Pirates do have some top hitting prospects in their minor league system. Josh Bell, Starling Marte, and Robbie Grossman could all end up in the various top 100 lists this year. Those three are all outfielders, which is where I believe some of the concern over the offense comes from. A lot of the top prospects in the system are outfielders. The top three hitting prospects are outfielders. A lot of the toolsy draft picks are outfielders. Most of the international prospects are outfielders.

The main cause for concern about the offense stems from the major league team. The Pirates have long term holes at catcher, first base, and shortstop. They’ve got minor league options for each position. Tony Sanchez is the best option at catcher, although he’s coming off a down year. They don’t have a two-way shortstop, which is something that can be said about a lot of teams. They have some power hitting first base prospects, although none of them have had success above A-ball. The system also lacks a good third base prospect, which is a concern if Pedro Alvarez doesn’t pan out in the majors.

The Pirates don’t have the same problems in the outfield. Their best player on the major league roster is center fielder Andrew McCutchen. He’s flanked on either side by Alex Presley and Jose Tabata. In the next year or two the Pirates might see Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman added to the mix. For the long term they’ve got Josh Bell. Anything from the Chambers/Rojas/Freeman/Garcia/Polanco group would be a bonus at this point.

The Pirates have hitting prospects, but they’re mostly outfield prospects, which isn’t a position of need in the majors. So how much of a problem is this? Is it something to be concerned about? Definitely. You want to have as much talent in the minors as possible, and you want to have as many contingency plans as possible. Prospects aren’t a guarantee, and young major leaguers aren’t even a guarantee at times. But should the Pirates go out of their way to address this need?

If the talent is equal, the Pirates might want to consider taking an offensive player in the 2012 draft. The early reports on the draft show that the 6-15 range is heavy with talented position players, such as shortstop Gavin Cecchini, third baseman Trey Williams, and outfielder Victor Roache. But if draft day comes around and the Pirates have a top pitcher available to them, they shouldn’t pass that up because of need.

A lot of talk surrounds the outfield and what the Pirates will do with all of their options. It’s a good problem to have right now, but until the Pirates get three established outfielders in the majors, any talk of trades for other positional needs is a bit pre-mature. The same goes with trading pitching for offense.

The truth is that the Pirates aren’t in a position to worry about the lack of depth at a certain position. Until they get to a point where they have one or two needs on the major league team, they will need as much talent as possible. They probably should be closer to that goal at this point. It didn’t help that Pedro Alvarez struggled in 2011, putting the long term third base job in question. It also didn’t help that Tony Sanchez had a down year at the AA level, raising questions about the long term of the catching position. If either player fails to work out, that will provide a big blow to the Pirates, as there are very few strong options in the system at third base or behind the plate. The emergence of Ramon Cabrera last year, and the trade for Casey McGehee this off-season both help to add backup plans. But neither player can match the potential upside of Alvarez and Sanchez.

Even without Alvarez and Sanchez there are a lot of question marks on the team. There are questions about the consistency and the potential improvements from Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Alex Presley. The rotation will eventually be led by Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but Taillon hasn’t pitched above low-A, and Cole hasn’t even made his official pro debut. The Pirates need a long term shortstop from the group of Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Yamaico Navarro, Drew Maggi, and Brock Holt. They also need someone from the Alex Dickerson/Matt Curry/Jose Osuna/Matt Hague group to emerge as a long term first base option, preferably with some power.

Some of these questions can be answered in the next year. It would be a huge boost if Alvarez and Sanchez rebound in 2012. But until these things happen, the Pirates can’t be focused on positional needs. They need to take the best players available to them. I don’t think that’s possible if you’re focused on drafting for a specific need. The Pirates are at least a year away from worrying about addressing specific positions in the farm system. Right now they need to focus on adding as much talent as possible. That will make it easier for them to either fill a need internally or make a trade to fill a need with outside help.

Tim Williams

Author: 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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  • Richard Bierer

    As far as trading for immediate returns in offense, is it a viable option for the Pirates to go after someone like Mark Trumbo?  He’s not going to be the starting first baseman with Puljos there and they picked up C.J. Cron in the draft.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I don’t think either of those are concerns for the Angels. They could use Trumbo as a DH. Cron won’t be ready next year. So there would be no immediate need to trade Trumbo.

      I’m not a fan of Trumbo. He’s got power, but he doesn’t draw walks, which really limits his value. I think he’s got the same overall value as Matt Hague.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AAA6OIZ6BEXI4DX3XLNMN4ZVCY Robert

        Plus, the Angels are talking about giving Trumbo time at 3rd.  He does have power but little else.  Would rather give Hague a shot then trade what the Angels would want for him.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AGRPLJJRC5GNBYXDY6LHF2U6DU white angus

        im not a fan of Trumbo either, but a nearly 30HR season in the bigs while Hague barely even got added to our 40 man roster shows that Trumbo has more value

        but I agree for the most part

  • michael mawhinney

    What about trading for Anthony Rizzo?  Seems like the padres are definitely looking to trade him now that they have Yonder Alonso.  What would it take to get him in a trade?

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AAA6OIZ6BEXI4DX3XLNMN4ZVCY Robert

      I like Rizzo also.  I do think that they will deal him in the next couple weeks.  The bad news it I dont think it will be here.  I believe that the favorites are Tampa and the Cubs.  He is only 22 and does have a long swing at times but I would love to have him in a Pirate uniform.

  • Anonymous

    Tim, what would Anthony Rizzo’s trade value be?

  • Anonymous

     The only thing wrong with the system is that is has only been in business for 4yrs..

    It takes ten years to fully load the system from the draft and other means

    This is not the time to be trading off prospects when the system is trying to get up and running. It is like a farmer eating his seeds instead of planting them.

    This team will start being competitive when there are waves of players every year from the farm instead of waiting on a player in low A and yes that means a few more years of losing but that is not this FO fault ,it is the fault of the people who ran this franchise into the ground.for 15 yrs.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AGRPLJJRC5GNBYXDY6LHF2U6DU white angus

      i think the biggest problem is that the FO may be trying to load up the MLB roster completely internally, which is an extremely rare occurance.  i only worry that NH holds onto some of the prospects too long and if they struggle in the upper levels their trade value plummets.

      • Anonymous

        Everybody wants to win now. This team is not good enough to win the division even if you added Fielder.

        There is a question mark at almost every position Trading our best prospects will ruin everything they have done for 4yrs

        I repeat until the minors are stocked with quality prospects from top to bottom this team will struggle. Why take 1 step forward and 2 back.

         

  • Anonymous

    Pedro is the biggest problem they have right now. He is really tying up 2 long term positions at once. If hes the superstar they hope at the plate great. Even better if he can stay at 3b. But the fact that they all think he will end up at 1b kind of hurts them in trading for a long term solution at 1b. They might actually be better off looking for a long term 3b guy and forcing him to 1b, Faux hawk and all this kid is a real conundrum

  • Brian Bernard

    The progress and development of Pedro in my mind truly is one of the keys to the success of this team overall – beyond Cutch or anyone else on this team – his position and potential are typical of the leader of championship teams. 
    Rodriguez, Youklis, Evan, Freese 
    Of course it doesn’t have to be 3rd base, but it’s one of those corner spots that are crucial contributors to a winner.
    I’m not concerned though. I know a lot of people are – and many for the stupidest reasons I’ve ever heard – like weight or bad attitude – none of which have anything to do with his struggles or his ability to overcome them. I can name 10 players off the top of my head who were either fat or had bad attitudes and all were great players. The only thing Pedro needs is AB’s at the MLB level. Stick him in the lineup for 162 games and let him grow. He’ll be fine – because he’s got it – he’s just so young his head is all wrong. He’ll be fine and the Bucs will be the beneficiary when it all starts to click. I for one will enjoy watching it happen – That, as much as anything is one of the beauties of baseball. If you want instant production go watch a football game or some teenie bopper just use their athleticism to be great at their sport. Baseball is as much mental as it is physical – so many seem to discount that, but it’s true. 

    It’s such a great game, and patience may be it’s greatest virtue. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1483937936 Alicia Rothermund

      Brian, thank you.  I always hate when it’s either on websites like this, or sports radio when people call in just to comment that they agree entirely with the host or a previous caller.  However, I agree 110% with you comment. 

      I also dislike when people use percentages greater than 100%, that’s how much I agree with you.  I feel like you picked this out of my own brain.

  • Anonymous

    piratemike has the correct thoughts on trading prospects.There are a couple rules of thumb for drafting :you need 4 good drafts for every bad previous drafts,and you also need 4 pitching prospects to get one successful Major League pitcher. Read his comments and then do the math.

  • Anonymous

    Brian,I couldn’t agree more regarding Pedro. For what its worth,I think lack of patience is one of the biggest faults of many Major League Orginizations,and I hope the Pirates don’t give up on this guy too soon. I saw him hit for almost a half a season,and whne he squared it up,it sounded much different than most of the players I have seen over the years !