One of the top starters in the minor league system this year has been Andy Oliver. His start last week was the highest game score in the minor league system this year, and it was the second of three weeks where he was the top pitcher.
Oliver was acquired from the Detroit Tigers over the off-season in a one-for-one trade for catching prospect Ramon Cabrera. He was a second rounder in the 2009 draft, taken by Detroit 58th overall. He made it to the majors in 2010, his first year as a pro, although he didn’t have the best results due to poor control. Baseball America rated him their 87th best prospect prior to the 2011 season. However, control issues have lowered Oliver’s stock the last two years.
It hasn’t been uncommon for top pitching prospects to struggle in the Detroit system. They have a habit of rushing top pitchers, leading to some promising arms underperforming. It has happened with Jacob Turner, Oliver, and Rick Porcello. Turner looked like he had turned things around thanks to a change of scenery in a trade last year to Miami, although he’s off to a bad start in Triple-A this year.
The hope is that a change in scenery for Oliver will help him out. The Pirates are also working on a few things with his game. So far the results look promising. Oliver has a 2.11 ERA in 21.1 innings, with a 12.2 K/9 and a 5.1 BB/9 ratio. The walks are still too high, but Oliver is countering that with a low hit total. He has only allowed 12 hits this year, for a .164 BAA. Last year he had a 4.88 ERA in 118 innings in Triple-A, with an 8.5 K/9, a 6.7 BB/9, and a .235 BAA. So far in the early part of the 2013 season his strikeouts are up, and the walks and opposing average are down, which is a good sign.
Oliver is showing flashes of doing what Justin Wilson did in previous years. Wilson has always been plagued by control issues, but has countered that with a lot of strikeouts and a low opposing average. Oliver also has good stuff for a lefty, with a fastball that usually sits 92-94 and can touch 96. Pirates farm director Larry Broadway agreed with the Wilson comparison.
“There’s some flashes of what Justin Wilson was last year, with effective wildness,” Broadway said in response to the Wilson comparison. “He’s got plus stuff. It’s tough enough for guys to square up when he’s got some effective wildness. Still some things going on. Still some things he’s working on, but he’s been better. He’s been effective.”
The Pirates have had their struggles in the major league rotation. Jonathan Sanchez has been off to a bad start, and Jeff Locke also isn’t doing well in the early part of the season. They’ve got Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton returning soon from rehab starts. If Oliver is needed before then, the Pirates won’t hold him back for developmental purposes.
“If the need comes open in Pittsburgh and he’s next in line, then he’ll go up,” Broadway said. “We’re not going to just hold him back because we’re trying to do something with him. He’s already been there. He’s already contributed there. If we have the need, he’s going to go.”
Oliver is slated to make his next start for Indianapolis on Wednesday.
Gerrit Cole Dealing With Command Issues
Gerrit Cole hasn’t gotten off to the best start this year with Indianapolis. He’s been removed early in three of his starts due to a high pitch count. In the fourth start he went 6.1 innings, but walked four. On the season he has a 14:11 K/BB ratio in 16.1 innings.
“He’s just getting deep in the counts, and trouble putting people away,” Larry Broadway said. “Too many deep counts, and too many pitches per inning.” Broadway added that Cole has been struggling with his command, leading to too many balls.
J.J. Cooper of Baseball America profiled Cole on Monday, looking at his issues this year. Cooper noted that 25 of the 49 strikes Cole threw in his last start were foul balls. 20 of his 42 strikes in his second start of the year were foul balls. Cooper noted that Cole was having problems putting batters away, and needed more time in Indianapolis. Cooper also described how Cole was up 0-2 on Emmanuel Burriss at one point with two outs, and 22 pitches later he had walked the bases loaded.
I don’t think this is a long-term issue for Cole. Pat Lackey also followed his start on Sunday, and noted that the opposing hitters weren’t really making hard contact. For now it’s just a command issue, and problems putting upper level hitters away. So often people look at the potential for a player and assume that’s automatic and already existing. Cole has the potential to be a number one starter, but he has to get there. There’s a reason the minor leagues exist, and that’s to develop players to their full potential. It seems that the recent opinion of Triple-A is that it’s an optional level, and only used to send players down for a few weeks to gain an extra year of service time and avoid Super Two status. I think these issues from Cole, as well as the previous struggles from Andy Oliver, are a reminder that Triple-A is just another developmental level, and not one that should be passed over.
Could Jordy Mercer Be the Shortstop of the Future?
Jordy Mercer is off to a good start in Indianapolis this year. The shortstop is hitting for a .303/.390/.409 line in 66 at-bats this year. He’s showing great plate patience with a 10:11 BB/K ratio. Coming into the year, Mercer had 33 walks in 435 at-bats in Triple-A. Mercer is also a capable defender at shortstop, to the point where he could be a starting option for the Pirates down the line.
“He’s very reliable,” Broadway said. “There’s nothing flashy about him. He’s a vanilla type and reliable. You can count on him to make the routine plays.”
The Pirates currently have Clint Barmes as their shortstop, although Barmes is a free agent at the end of the year. If the Pirates chose to replace Barmes with an internal option, Mercer would be the top choice.
“There’s a chance he’s going to put himself in that position to compete for that spot,” Broadway said, also noting that Mercer could come up whenever a need came up at the shortstop position.
The Pirates haven’t given a lot of playing time to Mercer in the past when he’s been in the majors. Eventually they will need to give him a chance, unless they’re content with always looking to the free agent market for a starting shortstop. That route usually doesn’t produce strong options for small market teams, usually being limited to Clint Barmes types with all defense and very little offensive production.