Minor League Depth — Pitching, Part 1 (Upper Level Starters)

For the last three drafts, the Pirates have focused heavily on pitching, mostly of the high school variety. Combined with a number of trades that brought in pitching prospects, they now have a great deal of pitching depth throughout their farm system. The prospects who project as front-of-the-rotation starters are largely below AA, while the upper levels have a number of pitchers with the potential to be major leaguers, but who may never profile as more than 4th or 5th starters, or as relievers.

This installment will focus on the pitchers who will, or may, open 2012 as starters at the top three levels in the system. It’ll become obvious pretty quickly that there are more pitchers at every level than can fit in a rotation. Too many pitchers is seldom a problem, though, as there are almost always pitchers hurt.

Parentheses indicate the pitcher may not open at that level. LHPs are marked with an asterisk (*).

Indianapolis (AAA)

(Brad Lincoln), Rudy Owens*, Jeff Locke*, Shairon Martis, Jo-Jo Reyes*, (Kyle McPherson), (Aaron Pribanic), (Mike Colla)

Even more than the position players, the AAA pitching staff serves two distinct purposes: developing prospects and providing depth in case of need in the majors. With a lot of pitching prospects finally reaching the top level, the Pirates tend to have more of the former than the latter these days.

Lincoln may open the season in the majors due to Charlie Morton’s hip surgery, although the Pirates will have little need for a fifth starter for most of April due to off-days. If not in the majors, he’ll be in the Indianapolis rotation with Locke and Owens. Owens will be trying to rebound from a rough season in AAA, while Locke started slowly in AA before finishing strongly after a late promotion to AAA. Both will look to position themselves for callups when the inevitable need arises. The other prospect who could be in the AAA rotation is McPherson, who’s the team’s best upper level starting prospect, but he’s had only half a season in AA.

The Pirates have brought in two starters on minor league deals, Martis and Reyes. Martis is somewhere in between prospect and minor league veteran. He’s two years younger than Lincoln, but needed to reboot his career after struggling with his conditioning. Reyes was once a top prospect with the Braves, but has struggled throughout extensive major league opportunities. The two figure to join Locke, Owens, and possibly Lincoln and/or McPherson in the AAA rotation. Given the uncertainty about where Lincoln and McPherson could end up, it’s conceivable the Pirates could sign another starter to a minor league deal.

If more starters are needed in AAA, Pribanic and Colla could move up from Altoona. They both had solid years there in 2011, but neither has shown a high ceiling. Pribanic is a very hittable sinkerball pitcher, while Colla probably profiles better as a reliever. Another possibility is that the Pirates could move Justin Wilson or Bryan Morris from the bullpen.

Altoona (AA)

(Kyle McPherson), Phil Irwin, Nate Baker*, (Aaron Pribanic), (Mike Colla), Mike Loree, (Ty Waldron), (Brandon Cumpton), Matt McSwain

The headline pitcher at Altoona, if he’s there, will be McPherson. The rest of the rotation will be filled out mainly by pitchers who project as 5th starters or relievers. There’s a good chance of Pribanic and Colla returning. Irwin and Baker, college teammates who were drafted in 2009, will probably be in AA as well. Irwin spent the majority of 2011 there, while Baker has advanced more slowly and spent all year at Bradenton. A potential dark horse is Loree, who washed out of the Giants’ system in 2009 but may have turned things around with a big year in independent ball in 2011, before signing with the Pirates near year’s end. He also could pitch in relief.

Two other college pitchers, 2010 draftees Waldron and Cumpton, are long shots to open at Altoona. They both reached Bradenton in mid-2011 and were more solid there than outstanding, but the Pirates could push them aggressively to make room for younger pitchers at Bradenton.

McSwain is an organizational pitcher who’s been useful as a swing man.

Bradenton (High A)

Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, (Zack Von Rosenberg), Colton Cain*, Zack Dodson*, Zac Fuesser*, (Ty Waldron), (Brandon Cumpton), Quinton Miller, Jeff Inman, Hunter Strickland

Bradenton will be the focus of attention in the Pirates’ farm system, as the Marauders are expected to open the season with Cole and Taillon in their rotation. Cole probably won’t be there long, but while he is, the team will have probably the most impressive pair of pitching prospects in the minors and certainly the most impressive pair the Pirates have had in modern times.

The rest of the rotation will feature at least some of the prep pitchers the Pirates drafted in 2009. Dodson and Cain pitched well in 2011 at West Virginia and will certainly move up. Von Rosenberg struggled mightily and could go back to low A, but he finished the season strongly. Fuesser (who actually was drafted out of junior college) pitched well but ran out of steam late in the year. He could conceivably move to relief, especially if Waldron and Cumpton both return to Bradenton. The Pirates will have a tough time choosing a rotation from among these pitchers.

Bradenton also figures to have several pitchers trying to get their careers back on track. Inman missed all of 2010 and much of 2011, but finally managed to pitch 36 innings, mostly late in the year. Strickland has been out since early 2010, while Miller has struggled the last two years with injuries, command issues and inconsistent velocity. All three profile as starters, but may have to try to turn things around in relief unless a surprising number of vacancies opens up in the rotation.

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Wilbur Miller joined the site in July 2010. He has long been known for his excellent Player Profiles, which he brought to the site in February 2011, combining them with the existing Pirates Prospects Player Pages. Wilbur maintains the player pages section of the site, and provides regular articles to the main portion of the site, including a weekly Prospects Trend piece, featuring the best and worst prospects from the previous week.

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  • Anonymous

    Why isn’t Irwin a candidate for the Indianapolis rotation? He put up a good FIP (3.58) and a fantastic K/BB ratio (6.91) in 87.1 innings at AA, not to mention the fact that he’ll be 25 this season and needs to be moving through the last levels of the system quickly if he is to have any legit shot of being a major league starter someday.

    • Anonymous

      I think with Irwin it’s just a numbers game.  There are guys ahead of him the Pirates need to see again (Owens, Locke, Wilson) to determine their roles.  McPherson is more talented.  Plus they always have a vet stashed in AAA or someone like Martis.

      Irwin’s stuff is just “pretty good” not great.


    I really think the pirates are taking too much of a conservative approach with Gerrit Cole.  He should start the season in AA considering he was a COLLEGE PITCHER and a Arizona Fall League Stud.  Unless the weather in Altoona at the start of the season is a concern. 

    • Nate

      I would agree that the Toon Town weather would be an early season factor.  I’m excited to see Taillon actually get to use his curve this year.  If ZVR and Heredia pan out as well, the Bucs could eventually have a stellar, stellar rotation. 
      Life would be decent (potentially) with a rotation of Cole, Taillon, ZVR, Locke, McPherson (Heredia down the road) and a pen of Wilson, Lincoln, Allie, Cain, Irwin, and Dodson.
      It would be nice if 2014 were this season ;)   

    • Anonymous

      Tom – the vast majority of college pitchers start out their first full season at A+.  It’s generally considered that college is the equivalent of Low A.  I would imagine that Cole will be at Altoona by Memorial Day.

      • Lee Young

        Nate………first I ever heard it called “Toon Town”. :)
        Charlie Tuna, the cartoon, used to promote Star Kist Tuna, so we always called it Charlie’s brother, Al Tuna.

        • Anonymous

          Home-tawn of one of my favorite jazz/world music innovators, Paul Winter, who has spun decades of wonderful “toons” on his Al-toona sax.

  • Robert S. Myers

    It is possible that the future Pirate rotation consist of Cole, Tallion, Morton, McDonald, and McPherson.  That, if they pitch up to there potential, could be a very good rotation.  Throw in a lineup of Presley, Tabata, McCutchen, Pedro, Walker, McGee, Sanchez, and Mercer and they could score some runs.  2014 baby….

  • Anonymous

    Where is Tim Alderson, the pitching prospect we received in the deal for Freddie Sanchez?

    • Lee Young

      He’s a reliever…… longer a starter……..and potentially an organizational player. 88 MPH FBs do that to you. :)

  • Lee Young

    I thought it kind of interesting that we have the potential for 3 LH starters in Indy, Reyes, Locke and Owens.
    I personally feel that McPherson will end up in Altoona to start the year.

    Since I live near Harrisburg and get to see the Curve when they come to town (with the occasional road trip to Al Tuna), I can’t wait for the Bradenton Baby Buccos to get promoted.

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