A lot has changed since we last updated the top 20 prospects rankings after the draft. Mark Appel didn’t sign. Starling Marte was promoted, and will most likely lose his prospect eligibility by the end of the year. The Pirates traded Robbie Grossman, Rudy Owens, and Colton Cain. The short-season leagues started, giving us a look at what the younger prospects were working on in extended Spring Training. And some of those results were extremely surprising.
With all of the changes over the last two months, I decided it was time for one final update to this year’s top 20 prospects. The process was the same as usual. Everyone involved in the ranking of prospects submitted their top 20 lists. I then took the average of all the lists, made a few adjustments on close calls, and divided the rankings in to tiers and a straight top 20 list (which can be found below).
Players who are currently in the majors (Starling Marte, Jordy Mercer) didn’t qualify for this list. Marte should lose his prospect status by the end of the year. Mercer will probably keep his prospect status, but for now he’s not included.
Here are the breakdowns of each tier, with some analysis on each player in the tier.
Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon
Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon haven’t been dominating and putting up the numbers you’d expect from the pitchers with their stuff. But their stuff is still there, and still gives them a shot at their number one upside.
Cole has started off slow in Double-A, up until his most recent start. He started off slow in high-A before getting settled in a groove that lasted until his promotion to the next level. Anyone who has seen him pitch can tell you his arsenal is amazing. He throws an upper 90s fastball, touching triple digits, while seeing his velocity increase later in the game. He also throws a two-seam fastball which sits around 93-94. His changeup is in the 88-90 MPH range, with a lot of armside run, sometimes looking like a slider. His slider has a very sharp tilt, low and away from right handed batters. He throws the pitch as hard as 92 MPH. His final pitch is a mid-80s curve, which has slurve action.
He’s got an amazing arsenal, but that arsenal could also be a problem. Cole is focusing on narrowing that arsenal, and choosing which weapon to pitch off of. In college and in the lower levels, he can just throw any pitch and get results. As he moves up, he has to have a strong game plan to go with his selection of pitches. He’ll still throw all of his pitches, but he needs to find one to work off of, making his inside fastball more effective.
Taillon also has the stuff. He’s got an upper 90s fastball which has touched 99 MPH a few times this year. His curveball is a plus offering, although it has been inconsistent at times this year. He’s also come a long way with his changeup this year, throwing it in the upper 80s. The change has the look of a plus pitch at times, and profiles that way down the line as he continues to get comfortable and add consistency. That gives him three “plus” pitches to work with.
His issue is a maturity and decision making issue. He’s struggled this year with the difference between pitching and throwing. There have been times where he hasn’t trusted his stuff, and instead tries to blow the ball past the batter. That leads to his fastball elevating, and his curveball flattening out. He’s also dealt with some decision making issues on the mound, stemming from a lack of confidence in his stuff. Lately he’s gotten better at making decisions when it comes to pitch selection, leading to a better approach on the mound.
Starling Marte would have been in this tier if he was eligible for the list.
Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, Luis Heredia, Gregory Polanco
Since the last rankings, this tier has added Gregory Polanco. It has also moved closer to tier 1. Part of that is because of the struggles at various times from Cole and Taillon this year. A bigger part is how well most of these players have done.
The last rankings came out before State College started their season. Luis Heredia’s ranking at that time was all about potential, and not so much on his numbers, results, or his current stuff. When I saw him in Spring Training, he looked like a younger version of Stetson Allie. He had the stuff, but his fastball command was poor, and he didn’t have much of a changeup. Heredia made some amazing strides in the two months he spent in extended Spring Training. He’s got great command of his fastball, and his changeup came a long way, to the point where it looks like a future plus offering. Heredia works with a three pitch mix now, also throwing his curveball. I almost put him in tier 1, and the gap between him and Cole/Taillon isn’t that big right now. If he continues his progression, he could very well be the number one prospect in the system, and we’re talking a timeframe of sometime in the next year.
Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco are both having breakout seasons in West Virginia. Hanson is hitting for an incredible .316/.380/.551 line in 412 at-bats, and that’s even with a poor .255/.319/.425 line in the month of July. A big question on his future is his chance to stick at shortstop. He’s struggled on the field, with 35 errors this year. Minor league errors don’t mean much, but in this case they match the eye test. Hanson doesn’t have the best defensive awareness, making bad throws and taking poor routes on pop ups in the shallow part of the outfield. He’s still young enough to improve in that area. He’s also athletic enough and has the tools to stick at shortstop. But right now he’s a little bit raw on the field.
Polanco has put up just as good of a season, and has really closed the gap between himself and Hanson. I was high on him coming in to the year after watching him put up some impressive power displays all throughout Spring Training. The most impressive thing was that the left-handed hitter didn’t have problems with left-handed pitching. This year he’s actually doing better against southpaws, with a 1.066 OPS, compared to an .844 OPS against right-handers. Another impressive thing is his plate patience. He has a 61:40 K/BB ratio in 393 at-bats. That’s rare for players from Latin America, who aren’t used to taking walks, and are usually free swingers. Polanco has the power, seeing an increase this year after adding some muscle to his tall, lanky frame. He also has some very impressive speed, stemming from his long legs, allowing him to glide across a lot of ground. He has 40 stolen bases this year, and uses his speed for a lot of range in center field. He’s got a strong arm, which will allow him to stick in center.
Polanco has the ability to be a plus defensive center fielder, while putting up good numbers at the plate, including power numbers. He’s still got some room in his projectable frame to add more strength, which could lead to more power. This year has been a breakout season, but he’s not done improving. He’s a very exciting prospect to watch, and there aren’t many questions about his potential to stick in center field. That gives him an advantage over Hanson, who would lose a lot of value if he moved from shortstop to second base.
Finally, there’s Josh Bell, who has missed most of the year with a meniscus injury. Bell has been slow to come back due to swelling in his knee. His ranking right now is based entirely on his potential. This has become a lost year for his progression through the minors, and could result in him returning to West Virginia next year. But he’s just out of high school, and this injury does nothing to the tools and skills that make him a top prospect. Hopefully he returns to play during the final month of the season.
Robbie Grossman might have challenged for this tier, pre-trade, especially with his hitting since his suspension in June.
Clay Holmes, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson
The talent level from the New York-Penn League to the South Atlantic League isn’t that big of a jump. But for some reason the Pirates have seen pitchers put up great numbers in State College, only to bomb in West Virginia the following year. The NYPL is a very pitcher friendly league, so that could lead to some of it. But in some cases the pitchers have the talent and don’t need a pitcher friendly league to dominate. We saw Nick Kingham go from dominating every start, to putting up an ERA around 5 this year. Ryan Hafner went from numbers similar to Kingham, and good walk rates, to walking a batter an inning and having a disastrous season in West Virginia.
It’s probably not a good idea to look at this, and then rate another State College prep pitcher as a top ten prospect. But we’re doing it anyway with Clay Holmes. He’s got a three pitch mix, throwing a 90-93 MPH fastball which touches 94, as well as a curve and a changeup. All three of his pitches cut, and he’s been using them to dominate short season hitters this year, which are mostly players out of college. He’s another guy who really improved his stock in extended Spring Training. During that time he made huge strides with his changeup, which was non-existent in March. He also made big strides with his fastball command. Holmes has some projection left in his tall frame, and the build to be a 200 inning a year guy. He’s got a chance to be a number one starter if he reaches his potential, although he’s more likely to be a number two or three starter. We’ll see next year if he can avoid the drop in production that guys like Kingham, Hafner, and Zack Von Rosenberg have seen after going to West Virginia.
The trade that brought in Wandy Rodriguez sent out Rudy Owens, leaving Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson as the remaining left-handed pitching prospects in Indianapolis. Their values are about the same, although they’re different pitchers. Wilson has the stuff of a top of the rotation starter, but his control issues make him more of a number four starter, or a number three at best if he adds some consistency. He showed good control during a long stretch this year, but has recent seen his walk rate go back up. Locke has improved his command of his pitches this year, mostly due to a new turn in his delivery where he turns his back almost completely to the plate. That has allowed him to command his fastball, and has made it easier to snap off his curveball. He’s major league ready, and profiles as a strong number four starter, or a number three in a weaker rotation. Owens would have joined Locke and Wilson in this tier.
Kyle McPherson was expected to be in the majors by this point, but a shoulder injury in Spring Training put him out for the first few months of the year, and has kept him in Altoona since his return. He’s slowly coming back to being the pitcher that won the Minor League Pitcher of the Year award last year. His velocity is back, and he’s been showing the strong K/BB ratios that he’s known for in his last few outings. Because of the lost time, he’d be a prime candidate to pitch in the Arizona Fall League this off-season, recovering some of his lost innings.
Barrett Barnes, Matt Curry, Alex Dickerson, Nick Kingham, Wyatt Mathisen, Bryan Morris, Jose Osuna, Tony Sanchez
Two draft picks from the 2012 class made it in this group. Barrett Barnes shows a lot of potential. He has the tools to stick in center field, has plus power potential, and he’s got a good approach at the plate. He’s got the speed to add value on the bases and stick in center, but it’s not plus speed. He also doesn’t have a strong arm. He could stick in center field and be a power hitting center fielder. He also has the power to easily move to a corner outfield spot.
Wyatt Mathisen also came from the 2012 draft class, and instantly became the second best catching prospect in the organization. Mathisen is very athletic, to the point where he was used more as a shortstop by his high school coach. He’s shown some good hitting abilities in the GCL during his pro debut. He’s a gap hitter with great bat speed, and didn’t have any problem with the transition to wood bats. He’s been working with Tom Prince and Milver Reyes on his catching in the GCL, and has the potential to be a strong two way catcher one day.
Matt Curry and Alex Dickerson both have similar profiles, and they both have had similar stories this year. Both started off the season slow, but both have caught fire since the start of June. I usually don’t rate first basemen very high until they’ve had success above high-A. Neither of these guys will provide much defensive value, so all of their value has to come from their bats. Even though Curry is hitting in Double-A, Dickerson ranks higher because he’s got more power.
A first base prospect in the same mold is Jose Osuna, who has been on fire in West Virginia lately. Osuna just completed a great month of July, hitting for a .336 average and a 1.011 OPS, along with nine homers. Like Dickerson and Curry, he doesn’t have any defensive value, so his production needs to come from the bat. He’s got some raw power, with plus power potential, and the ability to hit for average. He’s a bit more raw than Curry and Dickerson, but has a higher ceiling in the long run.
I talked about the struggles that Nick Kingham has seen this year. While his numbers aren’t good, the stuff is still there. He throws a low-to-mid 90s fastball, touching 95. He’s struggled to hold his velocity in to the later innings, although that’s something that can change as he gets used to pitching every five days over a pro season. He’s got a good changeup and curveball, with the change being his best pitch. His stock has fallen a bit, but he’s still a very talented pitcher, and one of the standouts of the 2009-2011 prep pitching groups.
Bryan Morris is major league ready right now, and should see time in Pittsburgh by the end of the year. He throws his fastball 95-96 MPH, and has added a cutter this year which is already a devastating strikeout pitch. Morris also mixes in his mid-80s curve to get ground balls and swings and misses. He’s got the stuff to be a closer in the majors, and he’s ready to come up.
Finally there’s Tony Sanchez, who has been the subject of an interesting situation in the rankings. At mid-season I was the only one who didn’t have him rated in the top 11 prospects. I had him lower due to his hitting struggles, and ended up dropping him lower than where he was in the average rankings due to those concerns. Lately he’s been hitting better, showing a bit more power. His overall line isn’t strong, and the power mostly came during a small stretch of games, but that’s encouraging considering the lack of power he’s shown the last two years. He was hitting at the end of his time in Double-A, and had the power surge in Triple-A. Yet this time around I was the only one who had him as a top ten prospect, while everyone else switched and had him outside of the top ten. A big reason he’s moved up is more because of the number of people ahead of him who are no longer on the list. There are still concerns surrounding his offense. I have no doubts that he’ll make the majors, mostly due to his defense. But his offense will determine whether he’s a strong defensive backup, an average all-around starter, or better. Around mid-season I didn’t think there would be a “better” category in that description. His power surge in Triple-A is the most encouraging thing, since that was a big glaring weakness in his game the last two years.
Victor Black, Dilson Herrera, Brock Holt, Phil Irwin, Harold Ramirez, Mel Rojas, Robby Rowland, Adalberto Santos, Zack Von Rosenberg, Duke Welker
Only two players from this list made the actual top 20 below. Everyone on this list got at least one vote for the top 20. There’s been a lot of pull for Adalberto Santos with his numbers in Altoona this year. He’s hitting for an amazing .390/.486/.525 line. However, he doesn’t have a lot of power and his numbers are limited to 118 at-bats. I’d need to see a bigger sample size, or increased power at the plate to move him up. That said, the K/BB ratio is strong (21 walks, 16 strikeouts), which gives hope that he could continue putting up good numbers (although probably closer to his 2011 numbers in the long run).
Dilson Herrera and Harold Ramirez have a lot of upside, but playing in the GCL is a disadvantage, being too far off to give an accurate projection. Both have the potential to be next year’s version of Alen Hanson or Gregory Polanco.
Robby Rowland has made a huge turnaround from his numbers last year in the Arizona farm system. He’s been relying on his sinker ball, getting a ton of ground balls. He doesn’t get many strikeouts, which is a concern for his long-term success as a starter.
Brock Holt is putting up great numbers in Double-A, and probably should be moved up to Indianapolis by now. He profiles more as a utility player, with a good average, good on-base skills, a lot of speed, and the ability to play the middle infield positions. However, a lack of power will probably keep him from being a starter. He gets a lot of doubles, but most of his extra base hits are a result of his speed.
Mel Rojas is frustrating. He’s got the tools to be one of the best prospects in the system, but he lacks consistency. Every so often he will show flashes of his potential, with a big multi-hit night, bu that is usually followed by a slump over the next four or five days. He has really improved defensively in center field since coming in to the system, but the big downside is that his bat isn’t consistent. He’s getting close to the point where he needs to start being less potential and more results.
Phil Irwin has been putting up great numbers in Double-A, although he doesn’t have the same profile as some of the guys who have dominated the level in the past, such as Kyle McPherson or Jeff Locke. Irwin profiles more as a back of the rotation starter or a strong middle reliever, but there’s a good chance he makes the majors, with starting being his more likely role.
Duke Welker has a similar arsenal to Joel Hanrahan. He throws a fastball that sits 97-98 MPH, and has reportedly touched triple digits on one occasion this year. He also throws a hard slider in the upper 80s, which is a plus offering. Welker has dealt with control issues in Triple-A, after cutting down on his walks in Altoona. He’s currently out with a forearm injury, which will likely prevent him from being a September callup this year.
The two players who did make the rankings are Zack Von Rosenberg and Victor Black. Von Rosenberg has seen his struggles in the last year, getting hit hard in West Virginia, and being very home run prone. He’s shown improvements this year after spending time in extended Spring Training working on those issues. He’s still got a lot of upside, but his stock has definitely fallen, with these struggles taking him from a top ten prospect two years ago to a guy who barely made the top 20.
Black is dominating in Altoona. He’s got a 1.17 ERA in 46 innings, with a 63:21 K/BB ratio. He’s given up one earned run in 23 innings since the start of June. He throws upper 90s, hitting 96-98 with his fastball, and uses his slider as a strikeout pitch. There are some concerns with his control. He’s got a lot of movement on his pitches, and has a violent arm action, which can lead to him letting a few pitches fly wild. But his stuff is good enough that he’s going to continue striking out a batter an inning and limiting the hits allowed, countering the effects of the walks.
Top 20 Prospects
1. Gerrit Cole, RHP
2. Jameson Taillon, RHP
3. Luis Heredia, RHP
4. Alen Hanson, SS
5. Gregory Polanco, CF
6. Josh Bell, RF
7. Clay Holmes, RHP
8. Jeff Locke, LHP
9. Justin Wilson, LHP
10. Kyle McPherson, RHP
11. Barrett Barnes, CF
12. Tony Sanchez, C
13. Alex Dickerson, 1B
14. Matt Curry, 1B
15. Bryan Morris, RHP
16. Wyatt Mathisen, C
17. Nick Kingham, RHP
18. Jose Osuna, 1B
19. Zack Von Rosenberg, RHP
20. Victor Black, RHP
Just Missed the List (Players who received at least one top 20 vote, sorted in alphabetical order): Dilson Herrera, Brock Holt, Phil Irwin, Harold Ramirez, Mel Rojas, Robby Rowland, Adalberto Santos, Duke Welker.