Pittsburgh Pirates Mid-Season Top 20 Prospects, Minus Gerrit Cole

We usually release our mid-season prospect rankings right after the MLB draft. This not only shows the updated rankings with half of the minor league season in the books, but it also shows where the new draft picks fit in.

This year we held the rankings for a few days due to Gerrit Cole making his major league debut. Cole was included in the rankings that were submitted, and was the consensus choice as the top prospect in the system. However, I removed him from the rankings due to his promotion in the majors. I’m not sure if Cole will be up long enough to exhaust his prospect eligibility. He would need 50 innings, which amounts to about 120 more pitches based on his performance last night. We know that Cole will be up for a few more starts with Wandy Rodriguez on the disabled list. After that, if the Pirates send him down, he’d take over as the number one prospect again. For now, it’s time to see how the system looks without Cole, and with the new picks. Before we begin, here are a few notes.

**I prefer tiered rankings to a top 20. We included the top 20 below, but the feature here is the tiered rankings, since it shows the groups of talent levels.

**The rankings are made up of the average of the top 50 prospects from myself, John Dreker, John Eshleman, and Wilbur Miller. We average our lists together, come up with a master list, then debate players up or down.

**Players who exhausted prospect eligibility this year, and who weren’t included: Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson. We also didn’t include Bryan Morris in the rankings, since he’s projected to lose his eligibility. Don’t ask me where these guys would rank, since I have no clue. I didn’t get the rankings on these guys from anyone else, so I have no idea where they’d end up on the master list. Plus, it’s nearly impossible to grade guys currently performing in the majors against prospects who have the hope of one day performing in the majors. Maybe we’ll eventually do a “top players in the system” list.

**Tier 4 include guys beyond the top 20 who were in the same talent group as guys in the top 20. If anyone drops off the top 20 list, these guys will move up as replacements.

**To learn about players beyond the top 20, buy the 2013 Prospect Guide, which is on sale for one more day with the code “2013DRAFT”.

Jameson Taillon is the top prospect in the system with Gerrit Cole in the majors.

Jameson Taillon is the top prospect in the system with Gerrit Cole in the majors.

Tier 1

Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon

There was some debate over whether Gregory Polanco should take the top spot over Jameson Taillon. By “some debate”, I mean I played Devil’s Advocate and asked everyone why they had Taillon over Polanco. I didn’t want a situation where people were writing down Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and then thinking about their list. I wanted to make sure everyone was reworking their top 50 lists with an open mind, rather than just listing Taillon ahead of everyone because that’s where he naturally goes.

The main argument in favor of Taillon is that we still believe he has the potential to be an ace in the majors. The argument for Polanco is that he’s got the potential that you can dream on, and doesn’t have many flaws in his game. Every scout I talk to down here in Bradenton loves him, with one scout noting that he improves a different part of his game every time that scout sees him. So Polanco is a legitimate contender for the top spot in the system.

That says a lot about how we feel about Taillon. Taillon didn’t win out over Polanco because of a flaw with Polanco, but because of the potential from Taillon. He’s been excellent this year, commanding his four pitches well, displaying the potential for at least three plus pitches, and really showing his intelligence on the mound. One of the development focuses with Gerrit Cole was that he had the stuff but needed to learn how to pitch as he was making his way up. Taillon might be further along than Cole in that department. He still flattens out a few fastballs, and he’s always going to struggle throwing consistently at the knees with his drop and drive delivery. However, he’s got the frame, the stuff, the demeanor, and the ability to pitch, which all combined gives him the chance to be another top of the rotation guy in Pittsburgh.

If Polanco makes the jump to Altoona and starts dominating there, or if he starts adding even more power (and there’s more power that could be added), then we might revisit this discussion in the off-season. For now the Pirates have two great prospects at the top of the system, even without Cole being considered in this list.

Tier 2

Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, Alen Hanson, Luis Heredia, Dilson Herrera, Nick Kingham, Reese McGuire, Austin Meadows

There was a debate on where to draw the line in the top 20 rankings. There was a bit of a gap between Nick Kingham and Josh Bell. However, you could make the argument that Kingham, Herrera, and McGuire were closer to this tier than the next tier. There was some consideration given to creating two smaller groups, but the difference in talent between the two groups wouldn’t have been as big. You could also look at the current tier 3 and argue that many of those guys could join this group, since they’re close to the guys in the bottom of the group.

Tyler Glasnow is the reason this tier didn’t get any bigger. You could make the argument that there’s not a huge gap in value between Glasnow and guys like Kingham and McGuire. But I’m not sure you can make that same argument about Glasnow and guys like Kyle McPherson or Stetson Allie. Glasnow is having a breakout season, and could move up to the top tier next year if he improves his control numbers and carries his dominating results over to Bradenton. He’s got the potential to be another ace starter, but has a lower floor than guys like Cole and Taillon.

Alen Hanson struggled at the start of the 2013 season, looking horrible both offensively and defensively. He was given a few days off to clear his head and work on his defense with Pirates infield coordinator Gary Green. Since that time off he’s hit for a .299/.372/.458 line in 177 at-bats, and has just six errors in 47 games. His fielding is looking really smooth, and is a complete 180 from what he was doing at the start of the year. Some doubt that Hanson can stick at shortstop, but that’s not the consensus. I’ve seen the tools needed to stick at the position. Ultimately he’s going to have more value with his bat, and he’s not going to provide a lot of defensive value. At the same time, he won’t be a liability to the point where it will negate the value of the bat. The problems at the start of the year were more mental than skill related, and ever since he’s been showing his skill on both sides of the game.

We had Austin Meadows ahead of Josh Bell, despite Meadows having never played a game. Bell is having a good season, although he’s not exactly tearing up the South Atlantic League. He has shown improvements as the season goes on, with a .293/.393/.471 line in 140 at-bats since the start of May. His walk rate has been excellent, although his strikeout rate has been bad at times. He doesn’t get a lot of good pitches, and can often get impatient and swing at bad offerings in the dirt and out of the zone. There is also a concern that he gets a late start to his swing due to a high back elbow, preventing him from tapping into his potential plus contact skills.

Meadows, on the other hand, grades very well from a contact and plate patience perspective. He also is more athletic than Bell, with the capability to play center field (although he’ll probably end up at a corner). Meadows also has raw power potential, and could end up being the better all around player. It was a close decision, but ultimately the concerns about Bell’s swing, and the fact that he’s not really dominating his current level is what gave Meadows the edge.

You could debate between Nick Kingham and Luis Heredia for the fourth best pitcher in the system. I’ve seen them both a lot this year, and ultimately decided to go with Kingham over Heredia in the final rankings. The average rankings were close, but the consensus was that Heredia was ahead of Kingham. The argument in favor of Heredia is that he’s still very young and has a ton of upside.

The reason I went with Kingham is because he has a good upside as a number three, innings eating pitcher. He’s a very safe pitching prospect, if you can say that about any pitching prospect, and has a high floor. Kingham also brings a lot of velocity with a mid-90s fastball that has touched 97 this year, plus command, and two off-speed pitches which could be above-average offerings.

On the other side, Heredia definitely has a higher upside, but is an extreme risk with a low floor. While Heredia’s upside is a number one starter, he has a ton of work to get there. He showed up to camp out of shape this year, preventing him from making the jump to West Virginia. He’ll make one more start down here in Bradenton, then will get his assignment next week. It’s expected that he will go to West Virginia, although that’s not a guarantee. Heredia has the potential for three plus pitches. Right now he has no plus pitches. He throws his fastball in the low 90s, focusing more on his command than throwing with velocity. He has the potential to throw in the upper 90s, but he doesn’t have command at that level. He switched from a slower curve to a mid-80s sharp slider last year, aimed at getting more strikeouts. He’s still working on commanding the pitch, and it’s got some potential, but it’s not a plus offering yet. He’s also showing a good feel for a changeup, but needs more work on that pitch as well.

That sounds like a lot of negatives, but the key here is that Heredia is extremely young, and very raw. By comparison, Tyler Glasnow spent the entire year in the GCL at Heredia’s age, and didn’t start hitting 96 MPH consistently until later in the year. So the fact that Heredia hasn’t mastered his command, and still has a lot of work to do isn’t unusual. It’s just a reminder of how young he is. At the same time, you don’t want to assume everything will go right with his development (just like you don’t want to assume nothing will go right). He’s a riskier option and has a lot of work to do. He’s got the upside of a number one starter, but that’s extremely volatile at this point. Meanwhile, Kingham is a much safer pick to be a strong number three starter, and might have the chance to be more if he continues to show the improvements we’ve seen over the last two years. It’s a lot of splitting hairs, but if I could pick one right now, I’d go with Kingham. I should also note that in each of the last two years I’ve bumped Kingham’s ranking up, despite a lower average ranking, just because I’ve been higher on him than most. It seems this year there are more people joining me on the bandwagon.

Dilson Herrera and Reese McGuire rounded out the tier, and the top ten. McGuire has the potential to be a good two-way catching prospect. People don’t doubt his defense, but there are some questions about his bat. As far as our rankings, the consensus was that he’s got the hitting skills to be the best catching prospect in the system, and has a better shot of being a two-way catcher than Tony Sanchez. Guys like Wyatt Mathisen and Jin-De Jhang have a shot, but both are raw.

Herrera is putting up some impressive numbers at the age of 19. Last year we moved Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco ahead of Josh Bell because those two had a lot of tools and were already putting up the numbers in West Virginia. You could make the same argument with Herrera. I think this year Bell wins out because his numbers have been slightly better (especially the walks), but Herrera is doing enough to put himself in the conversation, and definitely enough to make a very talented top ten.

Tier 3

Stetson Allie, Barrett Barnes, Kyle McPherson, Tony Sanchez

Very rarely do I see the consensus in voting that I did with Stetson Allie. Normally with first basemen there is a split. Some have the tendency to favor first basemen, even in the lower levels. Some have the tendency to rate them lower until they’ve at least done something at Double-A. I fall into that latter category. In this case, the rankings for Allie were 16, 16, 17, 18. It’s rare to have that kind of consensus on any player in the middle of the rankings, first base or not. Keep in mind that everyone submits their rankings not knowing where anyone else will rank a player.

After the rankings were submitted, there were actually people arguing why they had Allie where they had him. I had to point out to everyone that no one was on the other side of the debate. Everyone had Allie relatively in the same spot. There seems to be some pressure to rank Allie higher, since he’s the breakout hitter of the year so far, and has amazing numbers in low-A. The reason he’s not ranked higher is because those numbers came in low-A. Allie is going to show that he can hit for average and power in the upper levels. Right now there are some red flags, specifically his 31% strikeout rate. Last month I pointed out other 22-year-old players who were having the same dominant SAL seasons Allie is having. Those seasons didn’t result in big power hitting major leaguers. Most of those seasons resulted in average major league production at best.

Allie crushing SAL pitching doesn’t mean Allie is going to one day do the same to MLB pitching. He’s got the best power in the system, but until he has success in the upper levels, he’s going to be viewed with skepticism. That’s just how it is with any hitting prospect who is posting a 31% strikeout rate in low-A. As for that jump, Allie is definitely showing that he needs to be moved up. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another “Matt Curry” jump, with Allie skipping over high-A and going straight to Double-A. If Allie hits anything close to this in Double-A, he’d easily jump into the top ten. For now, that’s a hard jump to make due to the quality of players in that group, and due to his strikeout issues in low-A.

Tony Sanchez has strong defense behind the plate, and has been hitting exceptionally well in Triple-A this year. You could make the argument that he’s the top catching prospect in the system ahead of McGuire, simply because Sanchez is currently doing this in Triple-A, while McGuire has yet to play a game. However, there are doubts about Sanchez’s hitting ability going forward. That’s mostly because he struggled for the last few years. Was that because of the broken jaw? If so, it would explain why he was hitting like this before the first injury, and is now resuming the hitting a year after his most recent jaw surgery. We’re going to need to see more than 159 at-bats to make the claim that Sanchez’s hitting this year is legit, and his hitting over the last two years in a much larger sample was a fluke due to an injury.

Barrett Barnes and Kyle McPherson both have the potential to be top ten guys, and tier 2 guys. However, both have dealt with injuries over the last year. With Barnes, it has been a few minor nagging injuries. In McPherson’s case it has been more serious, with elbow and shoulder problems over the last year. If healthy, both have the upside to be ranked in the 6-8 range of the system.

Tier 4

Vic Black, Elvis Escobar, Clay Holmes, Phil Irwin, Jin-De Jhang, Wyatt Mathisen, Stolmy Pimentel, Harold Ramirez, Blake Taylor

A lot of the guys on this list are rated more for their upside than their numbers. That’s the case with Wyatt Mathisen and Clay Holmes. Both have struggled this year with West Virginia, but both are being rated here for their tools and skills, and not so much because of the numbers. Mathisen is a very athletic catching prospect with a plus arm and good agility behind the plate. He also has great contact potential, and the potential to hit for some power. He’s very raw, and got an aggressive promotion to West Virginia this year, so we’re ignoring the numbers and focusing more on the potential and the skills. Holmes has been hit around and has struggled with his control. However, he’s got a great frame, touches 96 MPH with his fastball, and has the stuff to be a number three, 200 innings a year workhorse. Not every pitcher figures it out as fast as Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow. In fact, in Kingham’s case he struggled at first with West Virginia, then dominated the second half.

Stolmy Pimentel got off to an amazing start this season. Then he went on a run where he looked horrible. He has started turning things around lately, and his potential is probably somewhere in the middle. He’s older than Holmes, and has been in Double-A for a few years, but he’s rated here for a lot of the same reasons. He’s got a great arm, touching 97 MPH with his fastball, and throwing it with good command in the 94-96 range. He also has a slider which has developed into a good out pitch. The Pirates have been focusing on teaching him to pitch off his fastball and pitch inside. He’s got the stuff that he could be a number two starter, but he’s probably a strong number four due to consistency issues. He could also be a really good late inning reliever with the fastball/slider combo, and that might be how he enters the majors, since he’s out of options next year.

Vic Black┬áhas a very high floor, and is almost certain to be a Major League reliever, with the ceiling to be a closer. We’re usually lower on relievers in the rankings, so you might see Black ranked higher elsewhere. I think everyone agrees that the report is the same, but the value of a relief pitching prospect is where the disagreement comes in. There are some concerns with Black’s control, but he’s got such dominant stuff that he’s going to have success even with the poor control.

Harold Ramirez made the top 20, while Elvis Escobar did not. There’s not much difference between the two players, which is why I included Escobar in this tier. I’ve been impressed with both guys this year in extended Spring Training. They both have quick bats, make solid contact, hit to the gaps, and feature a lot of speed on the bases. They also both play all-out on the field, and have the speed and range to play center field. There’s some concern over whether they can hit for power. They’ll have extra base power, but might not hit a lot of homers. That’s not out of the question, since they’ve got the bat speed to run into a few pitches, and I’ve already seen them crushing a few homers down here at Pirate City. I actually have Escobar rated slightly higher in my personal rankings, since I think his skills in center field are better. Both will be guys to watch this year in Jamestown, and they’re easily the top two prospects at the level going in.

Another guy to watch, and a guy who didn’t make the top 20, is Jin-De Jhang. He’s similar to Mathisen in that he’s got the potential to be a two-way catching prospect, but he is raw. Jhang is one of the better pure hitters in the system, and has some power potential due to his big frame. The downside is that his frame would limit his positional options if he eventually has to move off the catching position.

Rounding out our top 20 was 2013 second round pick Blake Taylor. We liked Taylor for his upside, and his young age (he’s only 17). Taylor has the potential to throw in the 92-94 MPH range as a lefty, and already can touch 94. He’s also got a good curveball, and the potential for a good changeup. Taylor has the upside to be a mid-rotation lefty starter, but is obviously all potential right now.

Phil Irwin just missed the list, mostly due to his arm injury, and his history of minor injuries throughout his career. He’s got an inflamed ulnar nerve, and is currently on the 60-day disabled list. I spoke with Irwin today, and he said the hope is that he’s back pitching with Indianapolis in six weeks, which puts him back in late July. If he didn’t have the injury issues throughout his career, he’d be a tier 3 guy, and definitely in the top 20.

Top 20 Prospects

1. Jameson Taillon, RHP

2. Gregory Polanco, CF

3. Tyler Glasnow, RHP

4. Alen Hanson, SS

5. Austin Meadows, CF

6. Josh Bell, RF

7. Nick Kingham, RHP

8. Luis Heredia, RHP

9. Reese McGuire, C

10. Dilson Herrera, 2B

11. Tony Sanchez, C

12. Barrett Barnes, CF

13. Kyle McPherson, RHP

14. Stetson Allie, 1B

15. Wyatt Mathisen, C

16. Clay Holmes, RHP

17. Stolmy Pimentel, RHP

18. Vic Black, RHP

19. Harold Ramirez, CF

20. Blake Taylor, LHP

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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