Prospect Notebook: Pirates Successful in the International Market
Since Neal Huntington and company took over in 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates have upped their amateur spending budgets each year. In the draft, no team spent more money than the Pirates from 2008-2011. In the international market, the Pirates have upped their budget to $3 M a year. They’ve gone over that budget the last two years to sign Luis Heredia in 2010, and Harold Ramirez in 2011. The Pirates have spent $9.09 M in the last two years, which ranks fifth in the majors.
The spending in the draft has been brought under some questions. For the most part it’s too early to expect any serious major league results from the four drafts. The 2008 draft class is the only one that’s really starting to produce major leaguers across the league, outside of the first round. But there have been some disturbing trends in the other Pirates’ draft classes. No one has really broken out from the 2009 prep pitchers, and Tony Sanchez is struggling at the plate. The 2010 class was heavily built around Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, and the organization has already moved on from Allie as a pitcher. It’s too early to make any judgements about the 2011 group, as most of them just started their seasons a few weeks ago.
Overall there’s been a ton of spending in the draft, but outside of the first round there haven’t been many big breakout performers. That’s not the case in the international market.
The Pirates have spent in the international market, and in the process they’ve seen immediate results. Most of these results have been limited to the lowest levels of the minors, so the stats have to be taken with the disclaimer that these players have a long way to go. But a lot of them have good scouting reports, so it’s always nice to see the numbers match up.
While the Pirates only upped their budget in 2008, the international scouting department led by Rene Gayo has been in place since before Neal Huntington arrived. They’ve seen more success in recent years since increasing the budget, although their biggest signing is currently on the verge of breaking in to the majors. Here’s a look at how all of the top international guys have fared this year, from top to bottom in the minor league system.
A lot of teams focus on big bonus players, handing out a lot of seven figure deals. The Pirates have only paid two amateur international deals worth seven figures: Luis Heredia ($2.6 M) and Harold Ramirez ($1.05 M). Their preference is to go for the quality and quantity approach. A big fallacy in the international market is that there’s a difference between the guys making seven figures and the guys getting paid five figures. The guys making seven figures are good, but that’s not saying there are guys making five figures who aren’t just as good.
Starling Marte is a prime example of this. The Pirates signed Marte in January 2007 for $85,000. He was eligible to sign in July 2005. Instead he waited a year and a half. After getting off to a slow start in 2007, Marte dominated the DSL in 2008, with a .296 average and an .822 OPS in a very pitcher friendly league. He made the aggressive jump to West Virginia in 2009, and continued hitting. He hasn’t stopped hitting, despite a broken hamate bone in 2010, questions about his K/BB ratios, or questions about his power potential.
This year Marte is currently hitting for a .287/.342/.493 line in 300 at-bats, with nine homers. He’s striking out at a 23% rate, and walking at a 6% rate. The big thing is the walk rate. In his career he had a 4.7% walk rate heading in to this year. Last year he had a 3.8% rate in Double-A. The power has also seen an increase for the second year in a row. Last year Marte put up a .168 ISO, which was an improvement over his .117 in high-A. This year he’s at .207. By comparison, Andrew McCutchen had a .190 ISO at the Triple-A level in 2009, before being promoted to the majors.
Marte is showing some positive signs, and if he continues his recent hot streak — which saw him hit for a .325/.385/.558 line in the month of June — he could be in line for a call to the majors this year.
West Virginia Power
One of the big stories in the Pirates’ minor league system this year has been the emergence of the international hitters in West Virginia. Alen Hanson, Gregory Polanco, Willy Garcia, and Jose Osuna all made the jump to full season ball this year, with all of them ages 19-20.
Two of those hitters have really broken out, despite the aggressive push. The biggest breakout performance has been by Alen Hanson. Not only has he been the biggest breakout performer for the Pirates, but he’s been one of the biggest breakout players in all of baseball this year. Hanson is currently hitting for a .334/.398/.601 line in 308 at-bats this year, along with 13 homers. He leads the Pirates’ minor league system in almost every offensive category: runs (63), hits (100), doubles (25), homers (13), average (.334), OBP (.398), and slugging (.601). He’s also second in triples (9), third in stolen bases (20), and fifth in walks (32).
Here’s an amazing stat with Hanson. He has 47 extra base hits on the year. Out of the 166 players who have one plate appearance in the Pirates’ minor league system, only 25 have 47 or more hits. And Hanson is one of those 25. The leader for the Pirates is Andrew McCutchen, who has 35 extra base hits. And to put his numbers in perspective, Hanson is hitting better than Bryce Harper did in the same league last year. Hanson is beating Harper by 16 points in average, losing by 25 points on OBP, and beating the phenom by 47 points in slugging. Hanson’s OPS (.999) is 22 points higher than Harper’s (.977).
The big question about Hanson going forward is his ability to stick at shortstop. He’s got the tools, but questions about his arm strength and his awareness in the field make him far from a guarantee. At the age of 19, he’s still got time to develop that part of his game.
Hanson has been so good that he’s overshadowed another impressive season in West Virginia. Gregory Polanco has been tearing the cover off the ball, hitting for a .308/.369/.507 line in 292 at-bats. Polanco has 11 homers on the year, which ranks third in the system behind Hanson and Stefan Welch (12). Polanco has been very consistent this year, with an .838 OPS in April, an .802 OPS in May, and an .872 OPS in June. All of this is a huge upgrade from last year, when Polanco hit for a .237/.333/.361 line in the GCL.
A big reason for Polanco’s success is that he added some muscle to his tall, lean frame. The center fielder checks in at 6′ 4″, 170 pounds. He’s got a lot of speed due to his long legs, allowing him to cover a lot of ground in center field, and making him tough on the base paths. So far this year he has a system leading 25 stolen bases in 32 attempts. The most impressive thing is Polanco’s 17.1% strikeout rate. Typically international hitters struggle in that department, and so do power hitters. That’s been a strength for Polanco, and indicates that he will be able to sustain his success in the upper levels.
Jose Osuna has shown a lot of power in the rookie leagues. So far this year he’s only had five homers, but has 23 doubles, showing that power potential. The first baseman is quick for his 6′ 2″, 213 frame, but he doesn’t provide much defensive value, so his offense will be fueled mostly by his bat. This year he’s hitting for a .269/.323/.402 line in 286 at-bats in low-A.
Willy Garcia has all of the upside of Hanson and Polanco. However, he hasn’t had the massive breakout season those two have had. Garcia is hitting for a .252/.303/.397 line in 282 at-bats, with ten homers. He’s shown flashes of his five tool potential, especially in the power department, but the overall numbers have been inconsistent. Garcia is only 19, and doesn’t turn 20 until September. On his tools alone, and without the numbers, he’s a borderline top 20 prospect in the system, ranking third in this group behind Hanson and Polanco.
The most amazing thing about this group of players is that none of them were huge bonus players. Polanco was signed in April 2009, well beyond the time he was first eligible. Hanson was a July signing, but he signed on July 14th, 12 days after the initial spending spree on July 2nd. Willy Garcia signed out of the Dominican Prospect League at the age of 17, signing for $280 K. Osuna was being tried out as a pitcher, but was struggling, and teams lost interest in him. The Pirates stuck him in right field and liked his arm strength. He impressed them by running a 6.7 60-yard dash. They decided to sign him as a hitter, and got him for $280 K after winning a small bidding war with the Boston Red Sox, who increased their interest after Osuna showed promise as a hitting prospect.
The biggest international signing in franchise history is Luis Heredia. The Pirates scouted him for years, and signed him to a $2.6 M bonus out of the Mexican Leagues. Heredia has been given an aggressive push, pitching in State College this year, and going up against players who are 2, 3, 4, and 5 years older than him. So far, that hasn’t seemed to bother him.
In three starts this year, Heredia has given up just one earned run in 14 innings. He’s posted a 10:2 K/BB ratio in that time. In his last two starts he’s gone five innings each time, due to his efficient work. He’s shown huge strides with his fastball command and his changeup, with most of that progress taking place in extended Spring Training this year.
Heredia has the upside of a 200 inning per year ace. He’s got the potential for four plus pitches. Right now he’s working with three of those pitches: his fastball, changeup, and curveball. He could add the slider back to the mix down the line, but the focus right now is on commanding the curveball. The Pirates have two potential aces in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but Heredia has the potential to be the best of the three. The biggest difference between Heredia and the other two was that Heredia was more of a risk and had a lower floor. If he continues the progression we’ve seen early in the season in State College, that risk will be lowered, and the floor will rise.
Next Wave in the GCL
The Pirates have been promoting players aggressively from the international leagues to the GCL the last few years. Last year it was Jose Osuna, Alen Hanson, and Willy Garcia. This year they sent Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar straight to the GCL at the age of 17, skipping them past the foreign rookie leagues. They also promoted Edwin Espinal and Dilson Herrera after just one year each in the international leagues.
Ramirez and Escobar were the top international signings last year. Ramirez signed for $1.05 M, but has yet to make his debut due to a leg infection. He should make that debut in the next week. Escobar is hitting for a .286/.390/.343 line in 35 at-bats, which is pretty good considering his age, this is his pro debut, and the GCL is very pitcher friendly.
Edwin Espinal is a huge third baseman with a plus arm. His 6′ 3″, 210 pound frame earns him the name “Tank”. He’s got some power potential, but so far he’s off to a slow start with a .182/.182/.227 line. Espinal signed for a $150 K bonus last year.
Dilson Herrera, on the other hand, is off to a great start. The middle infielder has a .279/.340/.698 line in 43 at-bats, and already has four homers. Last year Willy Garcia led the GCL Pirates with five homers. In 2010 the leader was Eric Avila with seven. Rogelios Noris led the team with six in 2009. Those were the only three players with more than four homers in the last three years. And that’s not just a Pirates thing. Only 23 players in the league had more than four homers last year, which is an average of about 1.5 players per team. Herrera is only 18, was signed for $220 K, and hit for a .308/.413/.472 line in the VSL last year.
Other promising hitters are Luis Urena, Jesus Vasquez, and Jin-De Jhang. Urena has the build of a major leaguer, looking like a young Derrek Lee. He’s finally hitting, with a .310/.375/.759 line in 29 at-bats this year, which follows a very strong Spring Training. Jesus Vasquez spent three years in the DSL before getting a promotion. He hit for a .324/.435/.572 line with 11 homers last year to earn the jump this year. Jin-De Jhang was signed out of Taiwan for $250 K last year. The catcher has a strong arm behind the plate, and is currently hitting for a .318/.500/.364 line in 22 at-bats. The most impressive thing is that the 5′ 11″, 220 pound catcher is deceptively fast and very athletic for his thick build.