First Pitch: How the Pirates Can Benefit From a New Minor League Team

Today the Pittsburgh Pirates announced that they will be adding a new minor league affiliate for the 2014 season. The new team will be located in Bristol, and will play in the Appy League. That league is classified as rookie ball, but my guess is that it will be placed between the GCL and Jamestown in the Pirates system. I wrote about the new team earlier today, and a possible impact it could provide when it comes to additional playing time for some players.

In that article I pointed out that an additional team could have provided more playing time for guys like Enyel Vallejo and Danny Arribas. Vallejo didn’t get playing time until late July, and was on fire for the final month of the season. Arribas showed some potential, but had to find playing time at first base due to the presence of Reese McGuire on the same team. I thought about the situation a little more today, thinking about how an additional team could benefit the Pirates from a playing time standpoint. It’s going to be impossible to predict how the new team will help going forward, since a lot of the short-season rosters are determined by that year’s draft. But let’s look back at a few positions and see how one extra team could have changed things.

Starting Pitching

Obviously the biggest impact that a new team will have is the addition of five more starting rotation spots. This past year the Pirates had the following starters at each level.

Jamestown

Cesar Lopez could have gotten more innings this year with an additional minor league team.

Cesar Lopez could have gotten more innings this year with an additional minor league team.

Starters: Dovydas Neverauskas, Cody Dickson, Chad Kuhl, Isaac Sanchez, Jackson Lodge, Shane Carle, Buddy Borden, Colten Brewer

The first four players on that list were starters all season. Lodge was a starter most of the season, but was moved to the bullpen at the end of the year. Brewer was a starter at first, but went down with an injury. Borden joined the team late, and entered the rotation, which was right around the time Lodge was moved to the bullpen. Carle spent most of the year in a piggyback role.

The impact on the actual innings here probably wouldn’t be that great. A new team would allow Carle to start all year, but he had 50.1 innings and the full-time starters were in the 55-60 IP range. Lodge would have also remained in the rotation, but he finished with 57.1 innings, so it wouldn’t have made a big difference.

The key here comes with the guys who weren’t starters. Guys like Cesar Lopez, Axel Diaz, Henry Hirsch, and Roberto Espinosa all finished with good numbers but 30 innings or less. If Carle and Lodge are starting for the Appy league team, then those relievers get the chance for more innings in a piggyback role. They might not be starters, but as we saw with Carle (who had three starts), you don’t need to be in the rotation at this level to get a lot of innings, since starters are only going 3-4 innings.

GCL

Starters: Wei-Chung Wang, Jon Sandfort, Blake Taylor, Neil Kozikowski, Cesilio Pimentel, Billy Roth, Adrian Grullon, Miguel Rosario, Mervin Del Rosario

This is a similar situation to Jamestown. Most of these guys got their innings, even if they weren’t in the rotation. One interesting note here could be finding a new level for someone like Jon Sandfort. He pitched in the GCL in 2012, then returned to the level in 2013. There wasn’t much room for him in the Jamestown rotation, thus the return to the same level. In future years, the Pirates can take players like this and put them in the Appy League. It’s the same classification as the GCL, but the talent level is slightly higher. To illustrate that, in 2013 the average age by league:

GCL: 19.5

Appy: 20.5

NYPL: 21

So putting someone like Sandfort (or Billy Roth, Neil Kozikowski and/or Blake Taylor next year) in the Appy league is a step up from the GCL, but not quite the college league challenge that you would have in the NYPL.

As for the rest of the pitchers, this is another chance to get additional innings for younger players. The key here is that a lot of the players who are getting additional innings don’t look like strong options to begin with. Most of the guys who were under 25 innings in the GCL, and played there all season, were ages 21-22. That’s old for the level, but not quite as old if you’re one level up. These players are mostly roster fillers, but there might be some potential. For example, Yhonathan Herrand had plus fastball velocity and zero control. He only lasted 1.2 innings before he was cut due to roster space. The chances of him finding control with more innings are slim, but the Pirates have nothing to lose if he gets an extended look due to additional pitching spots that come from an additional team.

The Key Offensive Positions

Danny Arribas had to get time at first base due to Reese McGuire playing behind the plate.

Danny Arribas had to get time at first base due to Reese McGuire playing behind the plate.

Playing time isn’t necessarily the biggest factor here. When it comes to position players, you can still find playing time by moving a player to another position. The Pirates did that with Danny Arribas this year, moving him to first base for 28 games. Arribas trailed Reese McGuire by four games behind the plate, with McGuire playing 25 games and Arribas playing 21. That doesn’t sound like much, but it also doesn’t consider that McGuire didn’t start playing until the third week of the season. McGuire got more games than Arribas, and the same amount of plate appearances, but only played 80% of the season.

The other key positions are shortstop and center field. At shortstop in the GCL, the Pirates had 2013 fifth round pick Trae Arbet, and international prospect Carlos Ozuna. Arbet got more playing time, and showed some great defensive tools. Ozuna also showed some promise defensively, but had to play half of his games at second base.

Austin Meadows got most of the playing time in center field this year, and he definitely should get that time since he entered the system as one of the top five prospects. But it would have been nice to get Candon Myles some time in center field as well. Myles is an all-speed option who played almost all of his games in left field. The problem is that he will never have the power to play a corner spot. He only has a future in center as a speed/defense guy.

In Jamestown there were a few situations where playing time was hard to come by at premium positions. One key aspect could have been the Max Rossiter situation. It’s still unknown why Rossiter left, although if you look at the playing time, you could see a possible reason. The Pirates had catching prospect Jin-De Jhang at the level, and he needed time behind the plate. Rossiter was a college senior, but was looking at a best-case 50/50 split at the position with Jhang. I don’t know if this is why Rossiter retired, but I do know that if the Pirates had an additional team, they could have made Rossiter the full-time starter in Jamestown, with Jhang starting in the Appy league.

At shortstop, the Pirates had Adam Frazier starting most games, with Michael Fransoso splitting time between second and short. Frazier had a good average and on-base percentage, but didn’t show much power. Fransoso was the same way. That leaves two scenarios for both players. Either they hit for more power and move to second base, or they don’t hit for more power and develop their defensive skills at shortstop. And obviously you can only start one at the position, which is where the new team can benefit.

Elvis Escobar only played two games in center field for Jamestown.

Elvis Escobar only played two games in center field for Jamestown.

There was also center field, which was a bigger issue in Jamestown than anywhere else. Harold Ramirez got the most playing time in center field, but Jeff Roy was close behind. JaCoby Jones got some time in center, and also played at shortstop. If he wouldn’t have gone down with an injury, he would have crowded both spots even more. I’d place Jones ahead of everyone at shortstop and center field, with the exception of Ramirez and Elvis Escobar.

And that brings me to Escobar. He saw most of his time in right field, despite the fact that he provides more value in center. He also missed a lot of playing time early in the season, which could have been helped by three additional outfield spots on another team. Coming into the year I had Escobar and Ramirez rated about the same. Even with the big breakout from Ramirez, I still have them close. That’s because I’m still high on Escobar, despite the fact that he didn’t have the dynamic season that Ramirez did.

This is the poster scenario for an extra team. With an extra team, Escobar gets time in center field, and doesn’t see his playing time reduced. Meanwhile, the Pirates can still start Ramirez in center, find time for JaCoby Jones at center and shortstop at one level, and get Jeff Roy (another speed/defense type) time in center.

By adding a team in the Appy league, you’re adding 67 additional games for each position. That’s 67 games to divide up between Danny Arribas and Max Rossiter behind the plate. It’s 67 games for Carlos Ozuna, Michael Fransoso, and a healthy JaCoby Jones to split at shortstop. It’s 67 games to give Candon Myles, Elvis Escobar, and a healthy Jones more time in center field. None of these guys are the same quality of prospect as Austin Meadows or Reese McGuire, but the easiest way to improve a prospect’s stock is to improve their defense at a premium position. And the only way to do that is to give them more playing time at that position.

Links and Notes

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: First Base

**Jose Abreu Bidding Expected to Reach $70 M

**Pirates Graded With the Best 2013 Draft by Baseball America

**Pirates Add a New Minor League Affiliate in the Appy League

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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