The minor league season is roughly at the halfway point, so it’s a good time to look back at the first half to see which players surprised and which disappointed. There are going to be more of the latter than the former. To some extent, this is normal. Prospects are a game of attrition; a team starts off with a bunch of guys whom it believes have potential and they gradually fall by the wayside until–hopefully–just a few are left to make an impact in the majors. In the case of the Pirates, there’s the additional factor that the pitching at the system’s lower levels has been deeply disappointing so far this year. In most of its drafts under the current front office, the team placed a large percentage of its eggs in the “projectable prep pitcher” basket. At this stage, there’s growing reason to question whether that strategy might have been either misguided or poorly implemented.
Part One will focus on the two class A affiliates.
Alen Hanson, SS: Ironically, considering that they have a terrible W/L record, the Power have provided the biggest surprises in the system. As most fans know, Hanson has been the biggest of all, prompting Baseball America recently to proclaim him the top breakout player in the minors. Hanson’s not a big guy, but he’s shown serious pop in his bat, hitting 316/377/561. He’s also very fast and has 18 steals. Hanson still has a lot of rough edges in his game. He’s been caught stealing 12 times, has 27 errors and has fanned slightly less than once every four at-bats. He’s still only 19, though, and has plenty of time to smooth out those edges.
Gregory Polanco, CF: In some ways, Polanco’s season so far could be considered a bigger surprise than Hanson’s. The Pirates have believed since they signed Polanco that he had power potential, but he never showed it previously. Hanson, by contrast, had a good year last season in the Gulf Coast League. Polanco is now tied with Hanson for the lead in the farm system with ten HRs and is hitting 292/351/470. Polanco’s game is a little more polished than Hanson’s. He’s striking out a little less than once every five at-bats and is 17-24 as a base stealer. Polanco also has a good arm and the speed to stay in centerfield.
Robby Rowland, RHP: The Pirates acquired Rowland for Brett Lorin, whom the Diamondbacks had selected in the Rule 5 draft. Rowland is very similar to the Pirates’ many projectable prep pitchers, but was coming off a horrific year in rookie ball with the D’backs. A little surprisingly, the Pirates moved him from extended spring training to West Virginia, but he’s posted a 3.12 ERA in six games, five starts. Except for a very low walk rate, his other numbers are less impressive: he’s allowed more hits than he has innings pitched and he’s fanned only a batter every other inning, but he’s made huge strides beyond his 2011 season.
Nick Kingham, RHP: The Power’s pitching staff, as a whole, has been a fiasco and Kingham’s been no exception. He’s struggled in most of his starts, posting an ERA of 5.22 and allowing a HR better than once every five innings. It hasn’t been all negative, though: he’s had some good stretches, he has a K:BB ratio of 3:1 and he’s fanned just under a batter an inning.
Ryan Hafner, RHP: Like Kingham, Hafner was coming off a good season at State College, although his wasn’t quite as good as Kingham’s. He missed the start of the season with a hamstring problem, but now has pitched ten games, eight of them starts. He’s had serious control problems, walking 37 in 38.1 IP, while fanning only 17. His WHIP is 2.22 and his ERA 6.34. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hafner head back to State College at some point.
Zack Dodson, LHP: Dodson had a good season at West Virginia last year, although it was interrupted by a broken finger. It was a surprise to see him return to the Power this year, but it’s not a surprise any more. He’s struggled in most of his starts, with his ERA now sitting at 6.12. At times he’s struggled with his control, at others he’s gotten hammered. His WHIP is now 1.66 and he’s fanned only 39 in 57.1 IP.
Zac Fuesser, LHP: Like Dodson, Fuesser returned to the Power despite pitching well for them last year. This year has been different. Like Dodson, Fuesser at times has struggled to throw strikes and at others has gotten hit hard. He now has a 4.92 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. He’s been moved to the bullpen, but isn’t pitching much better there than he was as a starter.
Unfortunately, no Bradenton player has taken any significant step forward. Gerrit Cole has just been promoted to Altoona, but that was more or less what was expected of the first overall pick in last year’s draft. Mel Rojas, Jr., Gift Ngoepe and Drew Maggi have had good stretches, but none has put up very good numbers–although Maggi was promoted to AA anyway.
Jameson Taillon, RHP: Maybe it’s because he gets stubborn and tries to blow the ball by hitters with runners on base, leading to meltdown innings, but nobody expected Taillon to be sporting a 4.52 ERA at mid-season. And certainly nobody expected him to be stumbling along in a six-start stretch in which his ERA is 8.13. His peripheral numbers actually aren’t bad, although they’re far from dominant: his WHIP is 1.23 and he’s striking out a little under a batter an inning. It’s not a disaster and doesn’t change Taillon’s status as a top prospect, but it’s not what was expected and will probably keep him in the Florida State League all season.
Alex Dickerson, 1B: Dickerson isn’t having a terrible year, but he’s not doing what the Pirates would like to see from an advanced college hitter playing in class A. He’s shown pretty good plate discipline, but the hoped-for power hasn’t materialized, and what power he’s shown has all come literally in a handful of games. Overall, he’s hitting 289/356/409.
Colton Cain, LHP: Cain has come the farthest of the prep pitchers from the Pirates’ 2009 draft, but he hasn’t handled high A well. He has more hits allowed than innings pitched, has given up a HR nearly once every five innings, and has fanned only 28 in 38.2 IP. His ERA is 6.05.
Tyler Waldron, RHP: Coming from a major college program, Waldron should be able to handle high A, but he’s simply gotten hammered. Opponents are hitting .317 against him, leading to a 5.32 ERA.
Evan Chambers, OF: Chambers was repeating the level in his quest to get more production out of his ultra-patient approach at the plate. He’s still drawing large numbers of walks, but his power completely disappeared. At Bradenton, he batted 202/352/255. The Pirates still promoted him to AA a few days ago.