Out of Nowhere – Sleeper Prospects

Much of the discussion of the Pirates’ farm system the last couple years has centered on GM Neal Huntington’s efforts to restock the system after years of neglect under his predecessor, He Who Shall Not Be Named.  Naturally, it’s been easy to forget the players who were already in the system when Huntington took over, a tendency made a good deal easier by the fact that so few of those players have performed well.  This year, however, several prospects who’ve been in the system for some time stepped forward out of the gloom, possibly enough to get themselves on the prospect map.  In addition, a few lesser known Huntington acquisitions have also put in surprising seasons.  Here’s a look at some of this year’s sleepers.


Mike Crotta, RHP. Crotta attracted a little attention with a fast start at Altoona, as he posted a 1.78 ERA his first four times out.  A quick promotion to Indianapolis followed, but he wasn’t as successful in AAA.  In a dozen May and June starts, his ERA and K/9 were both an unimpressive 5.32.  Going into August 27, however, his ERA in July and August was 3.48 and his K/9, although still not exceptional, was a respectable 6.97.  At 6’6”, Crotta’s size no doubt appeals to the Pirates’ front office and he’s always been an extreme groundball pitcher, with ground out to air out ratios well over 2.0 in almost every season.  Most people are surprised to learn that his fastball sits around 94 mph and can reach a couple ticks higher.  He’s never missed a lot of bats, but he’s been less hittable in 2010 than previous years.  He doesn’t walk many hitters (career BB/9 of 1.8) and he keeps the ball in the park (career HR/9 of 0.5).  One interesting facet with Crotta is that he tends to pitch much better in his first two innings.  According to the unofficial data at www.minorleaguesplits.com, this is a career-long trend.  What’s especially pronounced is his groundball rate, which has been in the mid-60% range in innings one and two, but drops to the low- to upper-50% range after that.  Crotta doesn’t have the track record of the higher profile prospects making up most of the current Altoona rotation, so it’s unlikely he’ll get a shot at starting in the majors absent some unforeseeable circumstances, but he could become a solid middle reliever.

Alex Presley, OF. Presley’s gotten more press than the other players on this list thanks to a massive two months at Altoona in which he hit 350/399/533 after starting the season as a reserve outfielder.  He kept on mashing after a promotion to AAA, hitting three HRs in his first six games and batting .333 from late June to the end of July.  He’s slumped in August, hitting 228/283/370 through the 26th.  A good deal of caution is in order with Presley, as he’s 25 and his plate discipline remains only fair, although he’s cut down on his strikeouts this year (one every 6.8 ABs, as opposed to one every 4.7 previously).  His walk rate (37 in 516 plate appearances) has been just so-so.  The improved numbers aren’t a complete fluke, however, as he’s clearly hitting the ball much harder than previously in his career.  His line-drive percentage overall this year is 17.5%, a vast improvement over the 12.2% and 14.1% figures he posted in his two years at Lynchburg, and it’s been 19.0% at Indianapolis.  Presley runs reasonably well (12 triples and 13 steals in 19 tries in 2010) and is passable in center.  He’s a similar player to Skip Schumaker, who found a role in St. Louis even before he moved to secondbase (Presley throws left-handed, the same as he bats, so don’t get any ideas there).  It’s quite possible he could find a role in Pittsburgh as a 4th outfielder.

Tony Watson, LHP. Watson is tall for a lefty at 6’4”, but in spite of that doesn’t throw hard.  His fastball is generally around 87 mph and instead relies on location and changing speeds.  He had labrum surgery in college and missed most of the 2009 season with a strained elbow.  Possibly out of concern for his arm, the Pirates moved him to the bullpen in 2010.  He was wildly successful there, posting a 1.84 ERA and miniscule 0.80 WHIP in relief.  He also fanned over a batter an inning.  The team moved him to the rotation in late July and he got lit up in his first two starts.  The next five times out, however, he allowed just 21 hits, six walks and five earned runs in 28 IP, while fanning 26.  Those five outings included two six-inning shutout stints and one of seven innings, in which he allowed just eight hits total.  Watson is a flyball pitcher—his ground out to air out ratio is just 0.72 this year—and his stuff is less than overwhelming, so it’s uncertain how he’ll fare against higher level hitters.  Like Crotta, he’s unlikely to get a shot at starting in the majors due to the other prospects in the system, but he might find a role as a lefty specialist, as he’s been death on left-handed batters this year.  They’ve hit just .138 against him, with only nineteen hits and three walks in 41 IP (not including his start of August 27).

Eric Fryer, C. Unlike the three players mentioned above, Fryer was a Huntington acquisition, coming from the Yankees along with RHP Casey Erickson in exchange for Eric Hinske.  Although 2010 is only his fourth pro season, the Pirates are his third team, as he was originally drafted by the Brewers.  Milwaukee moved him to the outfield part way through his second season and the Yankees kept him there, but the Pirates moved him back behind the plate.  It’s conceivable that the position moves have hampered his development as a hitter, as he’s been very up-and-down at the plate.  In 2010, however, he’s been outstanding when he’s been able to play.  Unfortunately, in a bizarre irony he was hit in the face with a pitch in mid-June, just a few days after the same thing happened to Tony Sanchez.  He returned in late July but has mostly been out of action since August 21 for unknown reasons, although he’s not on the DL.  Through August 26, Fryer was hitting 310/399/500.  The big caveat is that he turned 25 on that same day, but catchers tend to develop slowly.  A major factor in his favor is that Fryer is strong defensively, so he won’t have to be an outstanding hitter to reach the majors.  He’s athletic and quick behind the plate, he runs well (39 steals in 51 attempts for his career), and he’s thrown out 44% of base stealers this year after nabbing 37% in 2009.

Elevys Gonzalez, IF. Gonzalez is another player acquired under Huntington.  He’s a Venezuelan who signed in 2008, four months shy of age 19.  That’s a later age than the better Latin American prospects generally sign, but Gonzalez has moved up quickly.  He hit .311 in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2008, then .253 between the two short-season levels in 2009, with little power or patience.  He appeared headed for a role as an organizational player, opening 2010 in extended spring training and moving up to West Virginia only when injuries created an opening.  The Pirates don’t usually handle the real prospects like that and Gonzalez started off with the Power as a bench player.  He played the three infield positions and occasionally served as DH, but with Jesus Brito struggling he’s taken over more and more of the thirdbase job.  Gonzalez has made strides with both his plate discipline and his ability to drive the ball, and was hitting 277/355/396 through August 26.  What’s more, after struggling early he posted an OPS of .773 in July and .831 in August.  He’s shown good patience, with 26 walks and 42 strikeouts in 236 plate appearances, a fact that’s helped him move into the Power’s leadoff spot on a regular basis.  Gonzalez is a switch hitter, but the unofficial stats at minorleaguesplits show him to be a dramatically better hitter from the left side, albeit in a small sample size.  Gonzalez is quick and has decent speed, but he’s struggled a lot with errors at short and third.  When I’ve seen him play he’s been a bit prone to mental blunders, mainly of the excess-of-enthusiasm sort.  It’s not clear at this stage whether the Pirates regard him as a possible prospect or have simply tired of Brito, but he’s made a lot of strides and hopefully will get a chance to prove himself in a regular role at Bradenton in 2011.

Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.

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