Now that the 2012 Draft is over, it’s time to update the Pittsburgh Pirates top 20 prospect rankings. This update not only takes in to consideration where the new draft picks fall in to the system, but where the current players rank after two months in the 2012 season.
I put a focus on the tiered rankings, as they give a better indication of the talent levels of each player, and where the drop offs in the top 20 are. At the bottom of the article is a numerical top 20. I changed the order of this roughly 1562 times, but in the end the tiers are all that matter, as any order inside the tiers is just splitting hairs, especially when you get to tiers three and four.
Two notable players aren’t on this list. Jordy Mercer drew consideration for the list, being ranked in everyone’s top 20. However, I removed him from the rankings as he’s currently in the majors. If he would have been ranked, he would have been in tier 4, ranking near the top of that group, right ahead of Tony Sanchez at number 15 on the list below.
Stetson Allie also wasn’t included. Five writers, myself included, submitted their own personal top 20 lists. None of them had Allie on the list. I can’t speak for the other four writers, but I didn’t include him for two reasons. First, I liked him better as a pitching prospect. Second, we haven’t seen him as a hitting prospect, and he’s gone two years without hitting, and three years since he was a full-time hitter. His status is up in the air until we see what he can do with the bat.
Mark Appel, Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, Jameson Taillon
At the start of the year the top tier in the system was populated by two players: Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Both had the upside of number one starters, and the ability to be impact players. So far this year, both have lived up to that ranking. There have been some rough outings — early in the season for Cole, more recent for Taillon — but they’re living up to the hype.
Mark Appel has the same upside as those two pitchers, although he’s not as polished. He needs some work on his command, and needs to do a better job of hiding the ball. It’s a positive that he’s got a clean delivery, but the downside is that his delivery is slow and gives hitters that extra quick look. He’s got a fastball that touches 98, a sharp slider, and a changeup which can be viewed as a plus pitch at times. That’s a good recipe for a number one starter.
Starling Marte started the year in the next tier down — not quite an impact guy, but a potential impact guy. I debated on which group he would fall in this time around. He was right in the middle of Tier 1 and 2, almost in a group by himself. I put him in the “impact” group for a few key reasons.
Marte doesn’t have a dominating stat line in Triple-A this year. He’s hitting for a .260/.318/.451 line in 204 at-bats. However, dig deeper in to the numbers and he’s showing improvements on a lot of things that were previously question marks. His isolated power last year was .168. So far this year it’s at .191. By comparison, Andrew McCutchen had a .190 ISO in his final year of Triple-A. Marte has also done well with his plate patience. He’s drawn walks at a 5.8% rate, and his strikeouts are at a 24.5% rate. That’s compared to 3.8% and 18.7% last year. His numbers this year aren’t great, but they aren’t horrible.
His main issue this year is that he isn’t hitting consistently for average. When he does hit, he goes on a tear. But he can mix in some poor stretches. This past week he went 8-for-15 with a double, two triples, and a homer in a four game stretch. He followed that with a three game stretch, going 0-for-13 with seven strikeouts. Defensively he’s great, and I maintain that he’s good enough to move Andrew McCutchen to left field. Once he gets some consistency with his bat, we’ll be looking at an impact center fielder in the majors.
Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, Luis Heredia
This group has guys who have the potential to be impact players, but who are kind of raw and not quite there yet. We haven’t seen Luis Heredia yet this year, as he’s been working on his fastball command and repeating his delivery down in extended Spring Training. He’ll be starting his season when the short-season leagues begin in a few weeks, and could end up in State College. That would be an aggressive assignment, as it would put the 17-year old in a league dominated by college hitters.
Josh Bell struggled this year in the early part of the season after seeing a heavy diet of changeups. That led to some alarming strikeout rates, and low numbers. He was starting to come around with the bat, hitting for a .300/.310/.450 line in his final ten games before going down with a knee injury. The outfielder had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He’s expected back this year, and he’s rehabbing in Bradenton, but the Pirates are quiet about a time table for his return.
The biggest breakout prospect in the system this year — and maybe in all of baseball — has been Alen Hanson. The shortstop is hitting for a .328/.385/.572 line in 229 at-bats in West Virginia, and got off to an amazing start to the year with a .410/.441/.695 line in 105 at-bats in April. To put those offensive numbers in perspective, here are some other top prospects in the South Atlantic League in recent years.
Bryce Harper: .318/.423/.554 in 258 AB
Jurickson Profar: .286/.390/.493 in 430 AB
Manny Machado: .276/.376/.483 in 145 AB
All three of those hitters were 18 years old in low-A. Hanson is a year older, but is putting up similar numbers to Harper, and better numbers than Profar and Machado. That doesn’t necessarily mean Hanson projects the same as those guys (he’s definitely not on Harper’s level), but it shows that he’s been hitting as well as some of the top prospects in the game.
The big question with Hanson is whether he can stick at shortstop. There are concerns with his arm strength, although I believe he does have the strength to stay at the position. A bigger concern is his awareness at the position. Minor league errors mean very little, but Hanson has 22 already this year. That matches up with the live reports that he doesn’t look sharp on the field, with some poor relays, and indirect routes on pop-ups that have him drifting back to the outfield.
In the majors, you typically have a shortstop who can hit, or a shortstop who can field. Rarely do you have one who can do both. Hanson’s defense probably won’t prohibit him from playing the position one day, but he’ll have to prove this hitting is legit to provide value at the position and make up for his defense.
Robbie Grossman, Nick Kingham, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Rudy Owens, Gregory Polanco
This group is made up of guys who could be average-to-above average starters in the majors, or could be as high as number three starters.
Robbie Grossman is hitting for a .217/.315/.345 line in 203 at-bats so far. Grossman had a breakout season last year, but the jump to Double-A is the hardest to make for a hitter. It’s hard to say whether his struggles have been because of that jump, or because of his off-season hamate injury. He started off slow in April, then went on a tear in the first half of May. He then reverted back to his slump, which has carried over in to June. While his average is down, he’s still drawing walks at a 12% rate, and his .128 ISO isn’t that far off from the .157 he put up last year.
Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens have excelled this year in Triple-A. Owens has his command back, with a 2.35 ERA in 72.2 innings, along with a 51:10 K/BB ratio. Locke has added a new turn to his delivery, giving him some deception and better command of his pitches. That has led to a 3.10 ERA in 61 innings, with a 53:11 K/BB ratio. Both are left-handers who would fit well in to PNC Park. Their likely upside is strong number four starters, although they could each have a shot at being a number three, and they could put up number three stats thanks to PNC Park.
Kyle McPherson has been out all year with a shoulder injury. He’s been on a throwing program, but it has taken a while for him to return. Surgery isn’t an option, so there’s no concerns with the injury, and the fact that he’s throwing is a good sign. The Pirates are working to build up his arm strength, and get him stretched out to start again. He’s got a higher upside than Owens or Locke, but the injury raises some questions about his future.
Nick Kingham has had a few rough starts this year, but his secondary numbers have been strong. He has a 5.51 ERA in 49 innings, but a very solid 47:15 K/BB ratio. The big issue has been a high home run rate, with 11 homers so far this season. He’s got great stuff, with a fastball that can touch 95 MPH, and a curveball and changeup that can both be above-average pitches at times. He needs to work on the consistency of his secondary stuff, and eventually needs to maintain his velocity in the later innings. He reminds me a lot of McPherson, and could eventually be a number three starter.
Alen Hanson has received a lot of attention in West Virginia, and in the process he’s over-shadowing another breakout hitter, Gregory Polanco. Polanco is hitting for a .313/.372/.502 line in 211 at-bats, and leads the system with nine homers. He’s been consistent all year, and has stepped it up in June thanks to a nine game hitting streak that has him 16-for-34 with two doubles, a triple, and a homer. He’s also showing great plate patience, with a 17.1% strikeout rate and an 8.7% walk rate. Polanco is tall and lean, and added some power this year after adding some muscle to his frame. There’s potential for more projection with his body. He doesn’t have the best swing, but he makes contact well and drives the ball hard when he does. He’s got a lot of speed and good range in center field, along with a strong arm. He does have some awareness issues, specifically with routes and setting up for throws after the catch, but overall he has the defensive tools to stick in center field.
Barrett Barnes, Alex Dickerson, Wyatt Mathisen, Bryan Morris, Mel Rojas, Tony Sanchez, Justin Wilson
This group either contains players who have strong tools and are waiting for a breakout season, players who have put up good numbers but need to do it on a more consistent basis or at a higher level, or players who have potential but have just struggled with certain aspects of their game.
The group also includes two of the 2012 draft picks. Compensation pick Barrett Barnes is a switch hitting center fielder with plus power from the right-handed side of the plate. He could stick in center field, but the power gives him the chance to play a corner spot, likely left field due to a lack of arm strength. Second round pick Wyatt Mathisen is a prep catcher who profiles as a potential two-way player. He’s got strong defense behind the plate, with a plus arm, and he’s very athletic. He also has good bat speed with some raw power. Once signed, he will become the number two catching prospect in the system.
Tony Sanchez was hitting for a .277/.370/.390 line in 141 at-bats in his second run through Double-A. At the age of 24, and in his second run through Double-A, he should have been putting up better numbers. He got hot in his final two weeks at the level, which was enough to send him up to Triple-A. His path is similar to the one Jordy Mercer took. Struggle in year one in Altoona, start slow in year two, then take off around the middle of May. The biggest concern with Sanchez is that he’s not hitting for power. In his two seasons at Double-A he combined for an .087 ISO. He improved this year, with a .113 ISO, but once again it was his second year at the level. Until he shows improvements, I’d put his upside as an average starter, with his value fueled by his defense.
Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris are both in Indianapolis this year. Wilson has struggled with his control, which is the story of his career. He has the stuff to rival any pitching prospect in the system, but his control issues lower him to this level. So far he has a 4.23 ERA in 61.2 innings, with a 62:33 K/BB ratio. He’s been slightly better since going to more of an over-head delivery, with a 4.38 BB/9, compared to his 4.82 on the season. When his control is on, he absolutely dominates. However, if you give him ten starts, he’s going to walk a batter an inning in about 3-4 of those outings.
Morris has been pitching in relief, and has been dominating. The right-hander has a 2.72 ERA in 36.1 innings, with a 37:8 K/BB ratio. He’s had a lot of success this year with a new cutter, which is a devastating strikeout pitch. He’s a late inning relief prospect, and has the stuff to be a strong closer. We could see Morris up in the majors this year, as he’s in his final option year. The Pirates will need to see what they have with him this year, as he absolutely has to be in the majors next season.
Alex Dickerson has struggled this year in high-A, and hasn’t put up the power numbers you want to see from a bat-first college hitter. He had a good week this past week, and hopefully that’s a sign that he’s breaking out of his early season slump. I don’t like to rate first base prospects high until they’ve had success at the Double-A level, as most of their value comes from their bat. In the past I’ve seen Dickerson rated near the top ten, but I’d need to see the numbers from him before moving him that high.
Mel Rojas has improved every year in the system, but he’s still more tools and projection than results. This year he’s hitting for a .283/.332/.395 line in 223 at-bats. He’s got power potential, but that hasn’t really broken through yet. One positive is that he’s hitting well lately, with a .306 average in May, and a .316 so far in June. He’s also putting up around a .350 on-base percentage in each month. Both trends are good signs. He’s got good defense in center field, so if he can add power to his game, he could become a breakout prospect.
Top 20 Prospects
1. Gerrit Cole, RHP
2. Jameson Taillon, RHP
3. Mark Appel, RHP
4. Starling Marte, CF
5. Alen Hanson, SS
6. Josh Bell, RF
7. Luis Heredia, RHP
8. Rudy Owens, LHP
9. Jeff Locke, LHP
10. Robbie Grossman, CF
11. Gregory Polanco, CF
12. Kyle McPherson, RHP
13. Nick Kingham, RHP
14. Justin Wilson, LHP
15. Tony Sanchez, C
16. Bryan Morris, RHP
17. Mel Rojas, CF
18. Wyatt Mathisen, C
19. Barrett Barnes, CF
20. Alex Dickerson, 1B
Just Missed the List (Players who received at least one top 20 vote, sorted in alphabetical order): Victor Black, Colton Cain, Jarek Cunningham, Matt Curry, Willy Garcia, Clay Holmes, Jose Osuna, Zack Von Rosenberg.