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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