The Pirates had five homers on the night in Seattle, showing some power at the major league level. It wasn’t just in the majors though. Andrew Lambo hit his 19th home run of the year tonight, with 14 coming in Altoona and the last five coming in Indianapolis. That’s notable since it already beats last year’s high of 18 homers, set by Willy Garcia. It also matches the 2011 high of 19, set by Jordy Mercer.
The Pirates haven’t seen a lot of power in their system the last few years. In fact, that statement might go beyond the last few years. The last time someone had more than 25 homers in a season in the minors was in 2009 when Pedro Alvarez hit 27. Jamie Romak also hit 25 in 2008. Ahh, the days when Jamie Romak was the best power hitter in the system. Memories.
The last time the Pirates had a minor leaguer with 30+ homers was in 2007 when Steve Pearce hit 31 between three levels. Jonel Pacheco hit 27 that year as a 24 year old in A-ball.
If we assume 450 at-bats in a minor league season (which runs one month shorter than a major league season), then Lambo would be on pace for 31 homers this year. But it’s not just Lambo. Stetson Allie trails him with 17 homers, and would be on pace for 29 in a 450 at-bat season. All of Allie’s homers came in the South Atlantic League, and he’s now playing in the pitcher friendly Florida State League, so that could impact the totals. Jarek Cunningham has 14 homers, and is on pace for 26 homers from the second base position in Altoona. Willy Garcia has ten homers, and is on pace to finish one shy of his 2012 total of 18. Tony Sanchez is currently in the majors, but should return to Triple-A where he is on pace for 17 homers this year, with nine on the season already.
The power is nice to see, although it doesn’t necessarily say much about the future of each player. For example, while Andrew Lambo has a .284 average and a .920 OPS between two levels this year, the numbers are mostly because he’s crushing right-handers. The numbers against lefties aren’t horrible, with a .708 OPS, but there’s a clear platoon split here, as he had a 1.006 OPS against right-handers prior to tonight. The power is great to see, and might be putting Lambo back on the prospect map since he’s only 24. If Travis Snider continues struggling, or if Jose Tabata continues being injured all the time, Lambo could emerge as an option in right-field. The Pirates would still probably have to pursue a platoon. If Snider or Tabata work out, or if the Pirates pursue an everyday right fielder, Lambo would be expendable in a trade.
Cunningham and Garcia are similar stories. They both have a lot of raw power, but they also don’t hit for average and have plate patience issues. Fortunately in each case the Pirates can take their time. There’s no reason to try and rush the development of Cunningham, since Neil Walker is under team control for a few more years. Like Walker, Cunningham struggles against left-handers, although he does have six of his homers this year against lefties (and that’s about all he has against them). Garcia is prone to hot streaks, and is currently in one right now, with a .333 average, a 1.051 OPS, and six homers in the month of June. He’s only 20, and the Pirates could have a long-term outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. Therefore, they can take their time with Garcia and hope he improves his strike zone issues.
Sanchez hitting for power is a good sign. He’s got the defense to be a starter in the majors, but his bat has been a question mark up until this season. The power in Triple-A isn’t new. He hit eight homers in 206 at-bats last year in Triple-A. This year he has seen a slight increase in power, but has also added to his average. That’s increasing the chance that he could be an everyday starting catcher. Even without the batting average, Sanchez could be an average starting catcher with power and defense.
Allie has the best power in the system, but he’s also unproven at the higher levels. He just made the jump to high-A, and as I pointed out last month, his dominating numbers in low-A don’t really give any indication of what type of player he could become in the future. Still, the power is impressive at this point, especially since he’s in his first full year of making the jump to being a hitter.
Power isn’t everything, and a lack of power at a young age in the minors doesn’t mean you won’t eventually hit for power in the majors. Andrew McCutchen never hit for more than 17 homers in a season in the minors. Starling Marte’s high was 12 (although he had 17 combined when you count the majors last year). If you look at the prospects this year, Gregory Polanco has seven homers, but has as much future power potential as anyone in the system.
When a guy is hitting for power, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a top prospect. Allie, Sanchez, and Lambo would stand out as prospects. Garcia and Cunningham have potential, but the odds that they’ll reach their potential is much lower. Those two are the newest Quincy Latimore type prospects. They’ve got amazing power, but nothing else in the hitting side of their game is developing, which will probably hold them in Double-A. You hope that they break out and add some average or the ability to get on base. That tends to be more difficult than a guy like Polanco adding some power to his ability to hit and get on base.
At any rate, all five of these guys are bonus prospects. None of them finished in our mid-season top 10, although Sanchez and Allie were top 15 prospects. None of these players are guys who the Pirates are depending on. The Pirates are depending on guys like Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, and Alen Hanson. You might add Sanchez to that list, since he’s the only upper level catcher. But if you get something out of Allie, Lambo, Cunningham, and Garcia, that only adds to a strong system. As we’ve seen from the performances of guys Jordy Mercer and Brandon Cumpton this year, the production from guys in the lower tiers of the prospect rankings can be just as important as the production of top ranked prospects.
Links and Notes
**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 10: More Stanton Talk and Should Polanco Be Called Up This Year?