At every level this year there was at least one consensus top ten prospect. Indianapolis had guys like Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata to start the year. Altoona had the top pitching prospects in the upper levels, and some of those players also played in Bradenton. Bradenton also had the top hitting prospects, Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte. State College saw a lot of the 2009 prep pitchers. The only team that didn’t have a top prospect was West Virginia.
The Power saw some interesting prospects this year, but none really stood out as the overall package. Guys like Quinton Miller, Victor Black, and Brett Lorin, who could be top pitching prospects, all saw their seasons affected by injuries. Jarek Cunningham and Evan Chambers led a group of hitters who had two or three skills working for them, but at the same time one or two weaknesses working against them.
Overall, West Virginia had a lot of guys in the 11-30 range, with several guys who have the talent to jump in to the top ten next year. The depth of prospects at the level was good, despite the lack of a top prospect to lead the team. Here are the stats for each of the players from the 2010 team. While I only saw West Virginia once this season, Wilbur and John saw them several times, making their input very valuable in evaluating these prospects.
West Virginia didn’t really have a standout prospect in this group. Instead there were a lot of prospects with one or two tools, and little else to work with. Quinton Miller is easily the top pitching prospect at the level, although Miller saw what would have been his first full season shortened due to injuries. Miller put up respectable ratios, with a 5.7 K/9 and a 2.9 BB/9, but he was hit around a lot, leading me to believe he was probably on a heavy fastball diet.
Hunter Strickland was a disappointment, having a down season after having success at the level the year before. Jhonatan Ramos started off slow, was demoted to State College where he put up excellent results, then returned and pitched four shutout innings, allowing one hit and striking out five.
Jarek Cunningham an Evan Chambers were the top prospects at the level. Cunningham showed some power potential playing in his first full season after missing the entire 2009 season with an ACL injury. Chambers drew a ton of walks and stole a lot of bases, although he didn’t hit for average.
West Virginia had several other position players who can do a few things right. Benji Gonzalez had 18 steals and plays strong defense, but is a weak hitter. Rogelios Noris showed a lot of power potential, but was a very weak hitter otherwise, with a ton of strikeouts. Ramon Cabrera is an interesting catching option, although his offensive numbers didn’t look the best this season. The most interesting player to emerge was Elevys Gonzalez, who might just end up being a utility player at the major league level.
Some of the most interesting pitchers were in this group. Nathan Baker and Phillip Irwin, two draft picks from the 2009 draft, pitched most of the season in West Virginia. While each pitcher had excellent numbers, both pitchers came from the college ranks, making them too old for the level. Neither pitcher has above average stuff, so their numbers should be adjusted accordingly.
Kyle McPherson and Eliecer Navarro were two surprises. McPherson had a breakout season, with one of the best strikeout ratios in the entire farm system. He advanced to Bradenton at the end of the season and had success in a limited time on the Bradenton staff. McPherson should start in Bradenton next year, and could jump to Altoona quickly if he continues this success. Navarro emerged as an interesting left handed option, with decent K/9 and BB/9 ratios. Both McPherson and Navarro are eligible for the Rule 5 draft this winter, although neither stand a huge risk of being selected out of low-A.
Probably the biggest disappointments came via injuries to this group, specifically to Brett Lorin and Victor Black. Lorin had excellent numbers at the level last year, and probably would have moved up to Bradenton had it not been for his injury. I saw Lorin at the end of the season, and he was working on a heavy fastball diet. Black showed some potential, but missed the majority of the season with injuries. Fellow 2009 draft pick Jeff Inman also missed the entire season with injuries. All three pitchers have potential, but see their stock drop due to the injury issues.
The most intriguing hitter from this group was Aaron Baker. Baker showed some power, and got on base at a good rate considering his average. Baker doesn’t really stand out compared to some of the other first basemen in the system, and might be pushed next year by Matt Curry. David Rubinstein had a great year at the plate, although he doesn’t hit for much power and is a little old for the level, taking away some of his appeal.
This group is mostly organizational depth, although Welker is an interesting situation. Welker was throwing his fastball in the upper 90s this year. I talked to a National League scout who saw Welker earlier in the season and said Welker definitely has a major league arm. The big problem is the lack of control. Welker allows way too many walks, striking out over a batter an inning, but also walking a batter an inning. He may have a major league arm, but without control, he won’t be a major league player anytime soon, and the scout I talked to agreed.
Top Hitter: He only hit for a .239 average, but Evan Chambers gets this award for me. The reason is because of his amazing walk ratio, leading to a team-high .384 OBP, plus his 34.58 AB/HR ratio. Chambers showed some pop in his bat, and an excellent walk rate. That’s something I’ll take over a guy with a higher average and a lower on-base percentage. I feel that a strong walk rate is easier to reproduce at the upper levels, compared to a strong batting average, and no one on this team really had a strong average this year.
Top Pitcher: Kyle McPherson easily took this award. Then there’s also…
Biggest Surprise: …Elevys Gonzalez was a surprise, but I don’t think anyone expected the season we saw out of McPherson. Heading in to the season he was viewed as depth, and maybe a possibility to be a back of the rotation starter. His 2010 season will have many wondering if there’s some potential there for McPherson. He should be an interesting guy to watch heading in to the 2011 season.
Biggest Disappointment: Wes Freeman seems to be the popular choice here, but I’m going a different direction, simply because I didn’t expect Freeman to be good in his jump from the GCL to West Virginia (although I didn’t expect him to be this bad). I’m taking Brett Lorin. It’s not entirely Lorin’s fault, as he was injured this season. Without the injury, Lorin probably starts the 2010 season with Bradenton, and either ends up in Altoona, or looks to head to Altoona to start the 2011 season. Lorin could have joined the wave of pitching prospects immediately behind the big four in Altoona. Now he’s behind guys like Nathan Adcock and Aaron Pribanic, which means he has some catching up to do next season.
Top five prospects:
1. Evan Chambers – A lot of people like Cunningham here, but I’m a sucker for a guy who can do everything well, even if he’s hitting for a low average. If Chambers hits for a higher average, he becomes a consensus top 10 prospect. I’m not convinced that his low average and high OBP aren’t due to the lower quality of pitchers at the level.
2. Jarek Cunningham – Cunningham is very close to Chambers in my overall rankings. He could be one of the top middle infielders in the system, although I’m not giving him that just yet. Cunningham is only in his first season, so expect better numbers going forward. He faded towards the end of the year, but that could have been fatigue from the long season.
3. Brett Lorin – Despite the down year and the injuries, I still like Lorin. He had amazing numbers last year at the level, and all it takes is a split season between Bradenton and Altoona next year to get him back on track. It was only one start, but he looked good when I saw him this year, even if it was mostly fastballs he was throwing.
4. Quinton Miller – Miller has a lot of upside, but he was limited this year by injuries. That possibly held him back from jumping up to Bradenton during the season, as he spent time in West Virginia last year. Miller hasn’t emerged as the top pitching prospect a lot of people hoped he would become when the Pirates gave him a $900 K contract in the 20th round of the 2008 draft, but there’s still time.
5. Victor Black – I rate Black in this spot on stuff alone. He’s had some injury issues, but when healthy he is a lights out pitcher. Black will probably start in the lower levels, but he’s a relief prospect who could end up being a back of the bullpen reliever. He could also move fast through the system, assuming he stays healthy from this point forward.
The Power probably had the fewest high-visibility prospects of any team in the Pirates’ system in 2010, and it showed. Nobody had a really outstanding year and the team was easily the weakest of all of the Pirates’ affiliates.
Offensively, West Virginia had a peculiar lineup. They seven hitters reach double digits in HRs, which is highly unusual for this level and this league. They finished second in the South Atlantic League in longballs, but they also had one of the highest strikeout totals, with a staggering six players, some of them just part-timers, reaching triple digits and another coming close. The Power also finished near the bottom in batting average, but they were near the top in walks, thanks mainly to walk machine Evan Chambers. The walks and HRs allowed them to come in only a little below average in runs.
On the pitching side, West Virginia wound up last in the SAL in staff ERA and strikeouts. The problem here was a bit different, as the Pirates were beset with pitching injuries in the lower minors, most of which impacted the Power. Victor Black missed nearly the entire season, while Jeff Inman did miss all of it. Quinton Miller and Brett Lorin battled back from injuries with only partial success. The Power also lost Hunter Strickland to a puzzling promotion after he’d been hammered over eight starts, and then he got hurt. With the team’s top 2009 draftees all at State College, the only reliable starters were Nate Baker, Phil Irwin and Kyle McPherson. The team had no reliable relievers, so leads were hard to hold. The biggest surprise on the pitching staff was Duke Welker, a former second round draft who’d never shown much performance-wise. Welker didn’t exactly pitch well, as he had major control problems, but his fastball went from the low-90s as a starter to the upper-90s in relief. He was promoted to Bradenton at mid-season.
Top hitter: No hitter on the Power really stood out, as nearly everybody in the lineup, even including a singles and doubles hitter like David Rubinstein, struggled to make contact. Here’s a list of the K rates (expressed as ABs per K) of the team’s regulars and semi-regulars:
David Rubinstein: 4.6
Elevys Gonzalez: 4.9
Jose Hernandez: 4.6
Ramon Cabrera: 8.1
Jarek Cunningham: 3.7
Aaron Baker: 4.0
Evan Chambers: 3.6
Benji Gonzalez: 5.7
Rogelios Noris: 2.8
Kyle Morgan: 2.9
Jesus Brito: 3.0
Among the prospects, the top hitters were 1B Aaron Baker, 2B Jarek Cunningham and CF Evan Chambers. The team’s best overall hitter, though, was LF Jose Hernandez. After a slow start, he provided good power (by SAL standards) and very good on-base ability. He was also one of the few regulars not to whiff at an alarming rate, although he wasn’t exactly a contact machine, either. Hernandez was drafted as a college senior and also red-shirted a year, so he turned 24 before the season even started. He’s very unlikely to be more than an organizational player.
Top pitcher: As noted above, there were only three reliable pitchers. Of those, Nate Baker turned in the best season, which earned him a late promotion to Bradenton. Baker is a lefty finesse pitcher who doesn’t miss a lot of bats, but keeps the ball in the yard (or at least did so in the SAL) and doesn’t hand out free trips to first. He’s neither a groundball nor a flyball pitcher and started allowing more HRs once he moved up, although he otherwise pitched about the same as he had at West Virginia.
Biggest surprise: There weren’t any real breakout players at West Virginia, but the biggest surprise had to be infielder Elevys Gonzalez. He opened the season in extended spring training and joined the Power as a utility player only when injuries at Bradenton forced Adenson Chourio to move up. Gonzalez divided his time for a while, backing up short, second and third, but he eventually took away most of the thirdbase time from the struggling Jesus Brito. Gonzalez doesn’t excel at any one thing, but he made significant progress with his patience at the plate, enough to move into the leadoff spot. He also started to show a little power, and he improved markedly as the season went along. He won’t turn 21 until October.
Biggest disappointment: There were plenty of disappointments. Brito flopped, Wes Freeman ended up all the way back in the GCL and couldn’t hit even there, Rogelios Noris showed good power but had massive problems with the strike zone. But I’m going to say the biggest disappointment was the injury-related struggles of what should have been the core of the pitching staff. Black appeared in only two games due to shoulder problems that morphed into biceps tendonitis. Inman never appeared at all due to shoulder problems. Lorin and Miller both managed to get in some time, but were inconsistent and alternated between good and bad outings. Lorin was coming back from hip surgery and Miller struggled off and on with biceps tendonitis, which may have resulted from a high effort delivery. These sorts of problems come with the territory when a team is trying to develop young pitchers. Hopefully all four will have better luck next year.
Top five prospects:
1. Jarek Cunningham, 2B. It’s hard to say whether Cunningham will be able to address his struggles with offspeed pitches, but he has serious pop in his bat and could profile as a strong offensive infielder.
2. Brett Lorin, RHP. Lorin dominated this level last year. His struggles this year are hopefully due to the recovery from surgery.
3. Quinton Miller, RHP. Like Lorin, Miller still has upside if he can get and stay healthy, although it’s a much bigger “if” in his case.
4. Evan Chambers, OF. Chambers is still struggling with his approach at the plate. The huge walk total is nice, but he gets in too many two-strike counts by taking so many pitches. At 21, he was at an appropriate age for the level and still has the potential to improve.
5. Nate Baker, LHP. Baker doesn’t have a high ceiling, but he could reach the majors as a middle reliever or back-of-the-rotation starter.
Honorable Mention: Victor Black, Elevys Gonzalez. Jeff Inman didn’t actually pitch anywhere, so I’m not including him.
West Virginia started the year with almost a full lineup that I thought had potential, but by the end of the year it was a guy who I didn’t expect much from who impressed me the most, Elevys Gonzalez. I didn’t rank him in the top prospects because I’m not sure what the Pirates plans are for him. He was playing all over the infield, but wasn’t playing as much as anyone else despite outplaying Benji Gonzalez and Jesus Brito by a large margin. That’s the only thing that kept him off my list because when I saw him play live he impressed me. Other guys like Ramon Cabrera who looked good, but is very small for a catcher, and Brett Lorin, who missed most of the year and struggled when he came back, also got consideration before I made my final list. The team played .500 ball for a good portion of the season but a slow start left them nine games under .500 on the year and well below the first place team. Overall I had hoped for more from this squad but most of these guys played slightly below what I thought they could do.
Top Hitter: Aaron Baker, 1B – Baker finished 2nd on the team in OPS and first in both homers and RBI’s while batting in the clean-up spot most of the year. His 18 homers ranked him 6th in the SAL and his 34 doubles was good enough for 7th place while his 79 RBI’s were 22 more than the next highest total on the team.
Top Pitcher: Philip Irwin, RHP – Irwin was a teammate of Nate Baker in college and thanks to the promotion of Baker he was able to squeak past him for my choice as best pitcher. His 3.35 ERA, 111 strikeouts and 1.05 WHIP all ranked 2nd on the team. His 5.5 K/BB ratio was outstanding and he struck out nearly a batter per inning. The only thing that works against him is his age, at 23 with major division I college experience he was definitely too old for the league but the numbers over a full season are hard to overlook.
Biggest Surprise: Kyle McPherson, RHP – I have seen McPherson now two years in a row and at no point did I think he could do what he did this year. He struck out over a batter per inning while posting a 1.05 WHIP which earned him a late promotion to Bradenton where he added another 7 K’s in just 4 innings. His 131 total K’s in just 121 ip were 42 more than he had last year in 5 more innings. That strikeout total also ranked him right up with the big boys just behind Jeff Locke,Justin Wilson and Rudy Owens and right ahead of Bryan Morris. Definitely elite company and all of them had more innings pitched.
Biggest Disappointment: Wes Freeman, OF – When he made the West Virginia roster to start the year I hoped the potential five tool player had finally turned a corner but the only turn he made was a right, as in right back to the GCL where he also struggled. When he was drafted he was as raw as they come, but a big kid with all the potential in the world, and truth be told, he’s still only 20 years old. The problem is he hasn’t got better since being drafted back in 2008 and the strikeouts are just piling up, with 44 in 84 at-bats at West Virginia before they mercifully sent him down, and another 35 in just 79 GCL AB’s. He’s going to need a major turn around to get back on anyone’s prospect radar again.
Top five prospects:
1. Quinton Miller, RHP – He didn’t put up the best stats but I saw in person the potential this year when he threw five shutout innings in late July and was hitting 93 on the radar gun with consistency. Still just 20 years old, his season was sidetracked by an arm injury before it could even get any steam lasting just 6 innings in April. He only pitched 66 innings on the year and that was spread out over 14 starts and three levels. Besides the game I saw the one bright spot of his year was improving his groundball ratio from below 1:1 his first year up to a very good 1.64 this year. Next year is a big season for him and his prospect status, a 3rd season like he’s done so far would drop him far down my list.
2. Nate Baker, LHP – Nate had a great year at West Virginia, putting up a 2.99 ERA and the 4th best WHIP in the SAL with 1.01 before getting promoted to Bradenton mid-July. At 22 years old with major division I experience he probably should’ve started the year at Bradenton but once he got there he almost matched his low-A totals. He held batters to just a .226 BAA and walked just 37 batters in 25 starts, plus being a LHP always helps.
3. Jarek Cunningham, 2B – Here is where the list gets a little cluttered for me. I had seven guys for these last three spots and changed them numerous times before settling on the current order. His BB/K ratio is horrible and he can’t hit a curveball but he has great power potential and he’s still just 20 with a full season missed due to injury. If you go back he even missed a full season in high school ball as well. When you add in the inexperience and the fact he’s a middle infielder, he seems to have tons of potential, but he’s going to need to learn to hit a curveball, especially next year in the FSL, a big time pitchers league. Right now he slides past the similar Rogelios Noris who somehow had a worse BB/K rate but at the same age has the same power potential (and a nice outfield arm too!).
4. Aaron Baker, 1B – Best hitter on the team this year in his first full season of pro ball but what keeps him low on this list is his college experience and age. Chances are he will move one level at a time, but if that power bat continues to improve, as it did this season compared to his State College stay last year, he could be pretty good by the time he makes the majors. The fact he did improve in the power category and the OPS put him slightly ahead of the next guy on the list…
5. Evan Chambers, CF – Evan showed the best plate patience in the organization, some say he took too many pitches which I saw in person a few times as he would strikeout or walk on 5-6 pitches without taking the bat off his shoulder. He has good speed, showed decent defense and has great power potential with a short but very strong body but I have a feeling that speed and defense won’t last as he gets older which will hurt his overall value. Chambers played college ball so that works against him spending his first full season all at low-A and his OPS even dropped a little from his half year last season at State College, not good signs. I also considered the aforementioned Lorin, Cabrera, E.Gonzalez and Noris for this list before settling on the last three guys I chose.
I’m a big supporter of what Kyle Stark and company are doing with the minor leagues, but if I had one minor gripe it is that they are overly conservative with initial placement of prospects and then moving those prospects to higher levels. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue too strenuously though because our prospects are achieving great degrees of success and when they come to the majors they are prepared to compete right away. The reason for my semi-rant is that I am mildly disappointed that Zack Von Rosenberg (and to a lesser extent Colton Cain) did not appear at West Virginia this year. Quinton Miller was at WV in 2009 and we were told that ZVR and Cain were 1 cut of meat higher than Miller. That not withstanding, West Virginia had a nice concentration of interesting prospects pass through the clubhouse doors this year.
Top Hitter: Aaron Baker, 1B — Baker is caught in this interesting daisy chain of 1B the Pirates all of a sudden have stashed in the minors. Matt Hague (AA), Calvin Anderson (A+), Baker (A), Matt Curry (SS) are all linked with each other and forcing a one-level-at-a-time advancement. I think Anderson is the odd man out, which will free up a spot, but for now each of them is just ever-so-slightly too old for their current level. But back to Baker…he had a 793 OPS, led the team with 18 HR’s, and had an over 10% BB rate and a manageable 25% K rate for his power output.
Top Pitcher: Nate Baker, LHP — The other “Fabulous Baker Boy” had an extremely solid season at West Virginia. In 16 starts over 87 IP, Baker only gave up 3 HR’s and had a WHIP of 1.01. The K rate wasn’t fantastic, as it was hovering under 7 K/9 IP, but the walks were low too at around 2 BB/9 IP. It was pretty close in my mind between Baker and Kyle McPherson.
Biggest Surprise: Elevys Gonzalez, SS/3B — Gonzalez was a low-profile Latin American signing who had an unspectacular 2008 VSL season and an unspectacular 2009 GCL/State College season. But in 2010 after joining the Power out of extended spring training, Gonzalez had a very nice campaign. His stat line of .275/.354/.424 (778 OPS) was nice, but not eye-popping. It was his ability to play 3B, SS, and 2B that was pleasant to see. Also, he hit 6 HR’s (4 more than his first 2 years combined) and drew walks at a 12% rate after being allergic to them last year. He could be a real breakout candidate next year.
Biggest Disappointment: Wes Freeman, OF — I hate to bang this drum a second time, but Freeman nearly split his AB’s equally between the GCL (where I had him as a disappointment) and West Virginia. I have referred to the some of the players drafted in 2008 as an oasis to Pirate fans unaccustomed to seeing high-end high school talent under Dave Littlefield. Freeman was part of that rebirth, along with Quinton Miller and Robbie Grossman. So far, it has been a colossal failure with Freeman. He struck out in over half his at-bats and put up a 461 OPS in Low A.
Top 5 Prospects
1. Jarek Cunningham, 2B – I am a huge fan of Cunningham’s and not afraid to display my pride. His 2008 GCL season was one of the finest by any recent Pirate high-school player, which made his lost season in 2009 that more disappointing. His 2010 season allowed him to put up a .258/.309/.436 (745 OPS) line. He did only walk in 6.1% of his AB’s and struck out in 27% of his AB’s, but he showed power (37 2B’s and 12 HR’s) out of a middle infield position. The positional difference from say, an OF, is what allows me to be more comfortable with the 745 OPS and low BB rate.
2. Evan Chambers, OF — Chambers is without a doubt the most difficult prospect to rank in the Pirates’ system for me. His .239/.384/.386 (770 OPS) does not jump off the page at you, but his 92 walks (22.2% of AB’s) and 35 steals are encouraging. But then you have to balance his 28% K rate, too. To me, the hit tool is the most important and seeing his low batting average does not give me a warm fuzzy for future success.
3. Nate Baker, LHP — Baker had a fantastic season, as I discussed in the Top Pitcher section. He got a callup to Bradenton in July which is also a good sign, but there are conflicting reports on his current velocity and ultimate velocity. It would be very nice if he starts in Altoona next year, but even if he starts in Bradenton he should get a mid-season callup to AA.
4. Quinton Miller, RHP — I’m starting to get ever-so-worried about Quinton Miller, at least a little bit. He was part of the afore-mentioned “oasis” of 2008 high school draftees, but in his Pirates’ career he has pitched only 129 total innings. In both 2009 and 2010, he was beset by injuries that took away valuable potential starts. It was already a little bit disappointing that he was repeating Low A in 2010, but Miller only had a 5.4 K/9 IP ratio. He did keep the ball on the ground (1.5 GB/FB) and walked only 2.6 per 9 innings, but his velocity reports were uninspiring. 2011 will be an inflection year of sorts for Miller.
5. Elevys Gonzalez, 3B/SS/2B — In the Top Surprise section, I explained my rationale and showed Gonzalez’s stats. Latin players, typically, do not have high walk rates so to see Gonzalez improve his from 4% in 2009 to 13% in 2010 is very encouraging. His positional flexibility is intriguing as well, even if can’t stick at shortstop. He is definitely a player that can make some prospect waves in 2011.
Top 10 Prospects at the Level
I personally have Chambers higher, as I’m not totally sold on Cunningham, but I’ll defer to the people who saw Cunningham more than I did and put him higher on this list.
1. Jarek Cunningham
2. Evan Chambers
3. Quinton Miller
4. Brett Lorin
5. Victor Black
6. Nathan Baker
7. Aaron Baker
8. Kyle McPherson
9. Elevys Gonzalez
10. Rogelios Noris