The 2011 minor league baseball season starts tomorrow. Pirates Prospects follows every team in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, from the start of the year in April, all the way until there is no more baseball to be played in September. The four teams that begin their play tomorrow are the Indianapolis Indians, Altoona Curve, Bradenton Marauders, and the West Virginia Power. To start off the season, we will be previewing every level, taking a look at some of the top prospects, some prospects who are a bit behind schedule, and our predictions for the top player, pitcher, and sleeper at each level.
2011 Bradenton Marauders Preview
Leading up to the season we’ve covered the all of the players who were projected to be at the level, along with the Opening Day roster. Here is that coverage:
If there’s one common theme among the prospects who will be with Bradenton in 2011, it’s that the team doesn’t really have a standout prospect. Instead, all of the prospects either excel in one specific area, have one glaring weakness, or have some good all around skills, but haven’t established themselves as a top prospect yet.
There are some top prospects at the level, just not many elite guys. Robbie Grossman, Quinton Miller, and Jarek Cunningham were all drafted out of high school in the 2008 draft, and all three signed for above-slot money. Had they gone to college, they would each be in their junior year right now, preparing to enter the 2011 draft. It’s likely that they wouldn’t have arrived in high-A until the 2012 season, so all three are well ahead of schedule. None of them have really broken out, but that alternate timeline shows just how early it is in their careers.
Grossman is a key player to watch from this group, as he looks stronger this year, after working hard this off-season to add some muscle and get in better shape. He was already in good shape before the off-season, but he really worked hard, and it showed down in Spring Training. The big question about Grossman: can he realize his five tool potential, which includes hitting for power? I asked Kyle Stark about this.
“I think it depends on what you are talking about from power”, Stark said. “Are you talking about the chance to hit some extra base hits and maybe have some average power? Then yeah, I think that is the case where that could happen. As far as having impact type power, above average type power, I don’t know if that’s ever going to be the case. But there is the ability for him to hit the balls to the gap and hit a few over the walls.”
Evan Chambers is an interesting prospect to watch this year, taken in the third round of the 2009 draft. Chambers does a lot of things well, like hitting for power, getting on base, stealing bases, and playing good defense. His problem is that he has a low average, and a very high strikeout rate. There are some pitch recognition and zone recognition issues with Chambers, although they’re issues he’s been working on over the off-season. I personally like Chambers, probably more than most, and spoke with Kyle Stark about him when I was down in Spring Training.
“I think the biggest thing for him is he lets a few too many balls go by that he should jump on and drive,” Stark said. “He’s actually shown more aggression this Spring. Not chasing, but when the fastball is in the zone he’s attacking. He has the ability to do damage. I think the strikeouts will come down and the average will go up as he does that more.”
There’s also the three middle infielders, with Jarek Cunningham, Benji Gonzalez, and Elevys Gonzalez. All three could be candidates to play shortstop, although Benji Gonzalez will probably get most of the time. I spoke with Kyle Stark about how the situation would play out.
“I think that Benji’s value is going to be his ability to play shortstop,” Stark said. “Jarek’s value is probably going to be tied a little more to his bat. I think that Jarek has really taken to second base. Part of the thing last year was the knee, part of it was to not put too much pressure on him so he could go out and hit a little bit too, and I think that played out. We’ll probably look to keep him primarily there, give him some reps on the other side of the bag, but primarily keep him there. And then Elevys is going to continue to get opportunities to bounce around, and do some different things, and what he does with it is going to be on his shoulders.”
A few weeks ago, Matt Bandi took a look at the typical minor league timeline for players who eventually went on to have successful major league careers. Using that timeline as a guide, here are some guys who are age appropriate for this level, and some guys who have fallen behind and need to step up this season.
Age Appropriate Prospects
Benji Gonzalez – Gonzalez just turned 21 in January, and ultimately his upside will be fueled by his defense. He’s basically similar to Pedro Ciriaco.
Jarek Cunningham – As I mentioned earlier, Cunningham would normally be in his junior year of college, and would be arriving in high-A in 2012.
Quinton Miller – Same as Cunningham.
Robbie Grossman – Same as Miller and Cunningham.
Ramon Cabrera – You could argue that he’s the number two catcher in the system right now. His small frame raises questions about whether he can make it to the majors. But he’s only 21, so that makes him age appropriate.
Elevys Gonzalez – He had a nice year in West Virginia in 2010, although ultimately his upside is that of a utility player.
Evan Chambers – Chambers just turned 22 a few weeks ago. He could still afford to go a level per season, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move to Altoona if he gets off to a strong start.
Hunter Strickland – Strickland has stalled his career at the lower level, with a down year in 2010, but at the age of 22 there’s still time for him to realize the potential of his projectable 6′ 5″ frame.
Now or Never
Victor Black – Black has been sidelined with injuries over the last year, and is a little old for high-A at this point. He will move to the bullpen this year, where hopefully he can get on the fast track and start moving up.
Nathan Baker – Baker has been somewhat held back, and probably should be starting off in AA at this point in his career. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him making the jump by the end of May.
Jeffrey Inman – Inman has also missed time due to injuries, and needs to get his career back on track. He can do that by rebounding this year, and trying to move up to Altoona by the end of the season.
Kyle McPherson – McPherson took awhile, but finally had a breakout year in 2010. Now he needs to get on a fast track, not only because he turned 23 in November, but also because he’s on the 40-man roster, and has to be in the majors by 2014.
Aaron Baker – Baker was a college hitter out of the 2009 draft, so he definitely should be in Altoona right now, at the least. That’s a goal for the Pirates this year, getting him up to the next level, but ultimately he needs to raise the average and cut down on the strikeouts if he wants to be a legit prospect.
Calvin Anderson – Anderson is a similar story to Baker, only he came out of the 2008 draft, and turns 24 in May. He will move to the outfield this year, and hopefully some adjustments with his swing will pay off and help him finally discover some power in his 6′ 7″, 240 pound frame.
Brett Lorin – Lorin looked promising after coming over in the Jack Wilson trade, but missed most of the 2010 season, and remained in low-A. He’s injured to start the 2011 season, but will go to high-A when he recovers. He turned 24 a week ago, and with all of the pitching right below him in West Virginia, it literally is now or never.
Phillip Irwin – Irwin had good numbers with West Virginia last year, but ultimately doesn’t have the best stuff. He’s effective, but he’s also 24, and a college pitcher from the 2009 draft, both of which gave him an advantage against low-A hitters. He needs to start moving faster if he wants to be a legit prospect.
Duke Welker – The second round pick from the 2007 draft has stalled in A-ball due to poor control issues. He re-discovered his velocity last year, although the control was horrible. He profiles as a reliever, and with his fastball, which can touch 98 MPH, it’s not really imperative that he arrive as soon as possible.
Player of the Year
Tim: Evan Chambers – I considered going with Grossman here, as he did look impressive in camp, although I already like the tools that Chambers brings to the table. If he can manage to raise his average, and cut down on the strikeouts to a reasonable level, he could have an impressive 2011 season.
John: Robbie Grossman – With the improvements he made in cutting down his strikeouts last year, and just filling out as he gets older, I expect him to finally break out this year and be the player we expected him to be. He should show his first signs of power while raising his average and stealing more bases.
Kevin: Jarek Cunningham – Cunningham’s 2010 was intriguing for two things. The first was his very impressive power display (.178 Isolated Power) of 37 doubles, 7 triples, and 12 homers as a 20 year old. The second was his poor K/BB rate of over 26% K’s and less than 6% BB. It was his first full season, though, as he missed all of 2009 with a torn ACL. 2011 will go a long way to determining his long-term value and his ultimate defensive position, as his defense at 2B was a little rough at times.
Matt: Evan Chambers – Chambers’ largest issue last year was a low batting average, a result of a high strikeout rate. It is very possible that the strikeout issues were due more to his approach than to problems making contact. Almost half of his strikeouts were of the looking variety, something that can be improved through a more aggresive approach. Chambers has stated that he plans to be less passive in 2011, which could lead to a big year.
Wilbur: Evan Chambers – Chambers and Jarek Cunningham both have good ceilings if they can make needed adjustments at the plate. Chambers has a good eye but needs to get more aggressive, while Cunningham hasn’t handled offspeed stuff well. I like Chambers’ odds better. Robbie Grossman appears to have bulked up and is repeating the level, so he could be poised to break out, but he’d likely get promoted by mid-season if that happened.
Pitcher of the Year
Tim: Jeffrey Inman – I’d pick a guy like Nathan Baker, but I don’t think he will be at the level for that long. Inman might not be at the level all season, but I was impressed with him in camp. He was throwing 90-93 MPH, and this could be the year where he finally rebound to his pre-2009 level, when he was considered a potential first round pick.
John: Phillip Irwin – I don’t think he’s the best pitcher on the team but he is definitely a solid pitcher and is likely to spend the whole season in Bradenton while guys like McPherson and Baker will get called up as guys like Morris and Locke move up.
Kevin: Quinton Miller – Miller has a lot of expectations upon him, as he was one of the first “overslots” of Huntington’s tenure. Since being drafted in 2008, he has dealt with injuries in both 2009 and 2010, but his talent is undeniable. Here’s hoping that his low 90’s fastball and mid 80’s slider combo can carry him to an injury free season.
Matt: Phillip Irwin – Irwin is coming off a very strong season at West Virginia, and will be older than most of his High-A competition. He is not the best pitching prospect on the team, but he will generate the best results this year.
Wilbur: Quinton Miller – He has good enough stuff and command, but hasn’t had good enough health. Considering that he’s been struggling with shoulder problems, his performance has been disappointing so far but not disastrous. A healthy season could make all the difference.
Tim: Duke Welker – He’s got horrible control, but on the flip side he throws in the mid-90s with little effort, and can touch 98. Plus, it’s not likely he’s always been without control, as he had decent numbers in 2008. If he can reverse whatever has been going on the last two years, and maintain his velocity, we could be looking at a late inning reliever in the majors, as his arm is already a major league arm.
John: Elevys Gonzalez – He plays the game right and if given the chance, with a regular job he should put up good overall stats. He’s a solid fielder, has some speed, hit for some power last year and took a decent amount of walks for the amount of time he played.
Kevin: David Rubinstein – Rubinstein is a true sleeper in the mold of the Rudy Owens/Alex Presley “Where the Heck did that come from” theory. Rubinstein had a so-so 2010 line of .289/.347/.409 (756 OPS), but as a 23 year old in Low A. He’s improved a little each year since being drafted in 2008 and has enough speed (23 of 32 in stolen bases) and contact ability to make him interesting to follow in 2011.
Matt: Jeffrey Inman – Inman has been a popular sleeper pick since he was drafted in 2009, as injuries continue to keep him off the field. He had first round stuff at one point, and finally appears to be healthy. If he can stay on the mound, he may surprise some people.
Wilbur: Jeffrey Inman – This whole team could qualify as sleepers. It’s loaded with players who have some intriguing tools but who, in most cases, haven’t quite performed at a good enough level to get firmly on the prospect map. Inman probably has the highest upside of all the pitchers and has impressed the Pirates in camp when he’s been able to pitch, so I’ll go with him.