The Arizona Fall League schedule gets underway on Tuesday and the Pittsburgh Pirates will have seven players take part in the league, including two of their top prospects, Jameson Taillon and Alen Hanson.
The AFL is a six team league that runs through the middle of November and each team will play a 31 game schedule. The Pirates players are assigned to the Scottsdale Scorpions of the East Division. Scottsdale will also have prospects from the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees.
Even with the emergence of Tyler Glasnow and steady progress of Gregory Polanco, most people still consider Jameson Taillon the top prospect in the Pirates system. Last year the Pirates didn’t send any of their top prospects to the AFL, but with right-handed pitcher Jameson Taillon and shortstop Alen Hanson going this season, they have two of their top five prospects headed to the league.
Taillon began the season with Altoona and pitched well, though he wasn’t as dominating as some people expected. He had one very poor outing that really skewed his numbers, but he still finished with a 3.67 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 110.1 innings. He also posted a 1.38 GO/AO ratio, his best rate at any stop in three pro seasons. Taillon was promoted late to Indianapolis, where he made six starts and one relief appearance in the playoffs. He had a 3.89 ERA, which came with an impressive .223 BAA and 37 strikeouts in 37 innings. In the playoffs, he threw five shutout innings, pitching one-hit ball.
Tim Williams: The AFL will give Taillon the chance to increase his innings totals this year. He will be pitching as a starter, which means he should be getting anywhere from 20-30 additional innings. This year he saw an increase of 10.2 innings over his 2012 totals, which gives him plenty of room for an increase. Taillon is making the Opening Day start, so he should get seven outings. Last year the AFL starters who had seven starts had between 21 and 30 innings of work. This will give Taillon enough innings to prepare him for 2014, which is a year where he will probably spend the second half of the season in the majors.
Alen Hanson had a slightly disappointing season, though his overall stats weren’t bad. One thing to remember is that he played the season as a 20-year-old, so just the fact he was able to hold his own in AA is impressive. The numbers just weren’t up to the standard he set the previous season at West Virginia, where he posted a .909 OPS and showed a good combo of power and speed. This season, he hit .274/.329/.427 in 127 games, collecting 48 extra-base hits and stealing 30 bases.
Tim Williams: The key to Hanson’s game is going to be his defense. There are questions of whether he can stay at shortstop, or move to another position. He should get some extra work at the position in the AFL. One interesting aspect about this is that the AFL is more of a showcase league. A lot of people base their opinion of Hanson’s defense on his errors and what other people say. He actually has good defensive tools, and the errors are due to lapses in concentration on easy plays. This league will put Hanson on a national stage, giving more people the chance to see his defensive skills. It will be interesting to see the opinions on his game after the league is over.
The third best prospect among Pirates players going to the AFL is outfielder/first baseman Alex Dickerson. It should be interesting to see where he gets his playing time in the AFL. The Pirates could use a bat like his at first base, but during the regular season, he spent almost all of his time in right field after playing only first base in his first two pro seasons. Dickerson had a tough first half, then exploded after the All-Star break, hitting .326 with a .919 OPS in the last 48 games. He finished the year with 17 homers and 36 doubles.
Tim Williams: One question I have with Dickerson is whether his hitting was legit this year. Two years in a row he struggled in April and May, exploded in June and July, then faded in August. You could explain away the April/May stats by noting that he was playing at a new level each year. The problem is you can’t explain the late season fade. His time in the AFL will give him more experience against upper level pitching. If he really has adjusted to the upper levels, then his bat should play well. The AFL is also extremely hitter friendly, so Dickerson should have success with the bat. Because of that, I’ll still be skeptical if he hits, and if he doesn’t hit I’ll have more concerns about the way his 2013 season played out.
Two other players going to the AFL are repeats from last season, Tyler Waldron and Gift Ngoepe. Both missed a large chunk of the 2013 season and had disappointing overall years, so both players are trying to get back on track. It is interesting that the Pirates are sending two shortstops to Scottsdale, with Ngoepe being the better defensive player, though his bat is well behind Hanson. He hit .177 in 72 games for Altoona this year, then missed time for personal reasons. When he returned, Ngoepe went to Bradenton, where he hit .292 in 28 games to finish the season.
Tyler Waldron made three early season starts for Altoona, then missed half the year with a shoulder injury. When he returned, he threw a total of 17.1 innings over ten relief outings, splitting his time between Bradenton and Altoona. He will be looking to make up for lost time, so he could see extended work.
Tim Williams: I haven’t been high on Waldron, although he fits the Pirates theme of a guy who can potentially generate a lot of ground balls and have success in their system. That’s not an exciting prospect in the minors, but they’ve had success with that type of pitcher before, so I won’t rule Waldron out as a potential middle reliever in the majors. Ngoepe has the defense to be a backup in the majors, and also has plus speed. His problem is that he’s been completely overmatched at the plate in the upper levels. This will give him another chance to hit against upper level pitching. Even against high-A pitching he was striking out 30% of the time, which is a number that would prevent him from reaching the majors, even with the defense.
The final two players are two right-handed pitchers further down on the prospect charts, Zack Thornton and Matt Benedict. Thornton quietly had a strong season, splitting his time between Bradenton, Altoona and Indianapolis. In 75.1 innings, the 25-year-old had a .204 BAA, 2.28 GO/AO ratio and 90 strikeouts, while walking just 12 batters. His ERA at each stop went up the higher he went. Thornton was shuffled between Indianapolis and Altoona numerous times, so considering the circumstances, his stats look even better.
The 24-year-old Benedict got hit hard as a starter, so he was moved to the bullpen, where he had some success. First, the bad with Benedict. In 86.1 total innings, he had a 4.17 ERA, 48 strikeouts and .310 BAA. The good was his decent control and 1.51 GO/AO ratio, plus strong finish. In his last ten games, he had three wins, four saves and a 2.04 ERA.
Tim Williams: Thornton and Benedict are similar to Waldron. They’re not exciting prospects, but they both fit in well with the Pirates system of collecting ground ball pitchers. Thornton was acquired for Chris Resop last year, and had success in the upper levels. He could draw depth consideration next year if the Pirates need a middle reliever from Triple-A. Benedict had horrible numbers, but I’m not sure those were entirely his fault. He’s a sinker ball pitcher and Bradenton had a horrible infield defense. Not every bad play was ruled an error, which really drove up the numbers of sinkerball guys like Benedict and teammate Robby Rowland. Those two wouldn’t have been dominating with a better defense, but they also wouldn’t have horrible numbers with an improved defense behind them.
Phil Irwin was also named as a player going to the AFL, but that has changed recently. He had two strong starts for Indianapolis, with a spot start for the Pirates in between, then he missed the rest of the season with an elbow injury that required surgery. He will pitch in the instructional leagues, and his off-season will be TBD after instructs.