The Pirates entered this year with a farm system skewed very strongly toward pitching. It’s surprising, then, that many of the players who’ve taken the biggest steps forward so far this season–with a month left to go–have been position players. For the most part, they haven’t had anybody suddenly establish himself as a premier prospect, but the system has more depth in hitters than it did a few months ago. Depth matters, something we’ve seen as injuries have forced the Pirates to reach into the system repeatedly this year. They’ve gotten varying levels of performance out of players like Alex Presley, Josh Harrison, Chase d’Arnaud and Eric Fryer, but at least they haven’t, for the most part, needed to make desperation pickups from outside the organization to fill holes. It’s also helpful that the players they’ve turned to are ones who are getting their first exposure to the majors. It’s better for the Pirates to be looking now at players who might be pieces of the puzzle further down the road, rather than players who are just short-term rentals.
What follows is a look at the areas where the system is stronger than it was at the start of the season, and the areas where it’s not.
Catcher: The catching in the system has gone through an about-face, although not in completely good ways. The Pirates started the season with Tony Sanchez as the presumed catcher of the future, but nobody else of real note. Now, however, nearly every catcher in the system is performing well except Sanchez. Eric Fryer continued to hit well in AA and handled a promotion to AAA well, then reached the majors. He still needs more experience behind the plate, but it’s not hard now to see him as a backup in the majors. Both catchers at Bradenton, Ramon Cabrera and Carlos Paulino, have had very good seasons with the bat, and Paulino offers excellent defensive tools. Paulino is hitting .303 with pretty good gap power, while Cabrera is now hitting .352. At West Virginia, Elias Diaz hasn’t hit, but he’s shown good defensive skills. Like Paulino, Kawika Emsley-Pai has recovered well from a rough 2010 season offensively and currently has a .435 OBP. The strong seasons extend to the lowest levels. Samuel Gonzalez is hitting .305 for State College. In the GCL, Jonahan Schwind, a 2011 draftee who’s converting from the infield, has an OPS of 1.148. Of course, the hitting numbers have to be viewed with caution because Schwind was drafted out of college (Marist, specifically).
Unfortunately, Sanchez has been struggling more and more as the season has gone along. His OPS is now just .657 and it’s just .539 in June and .615 in July. Catcher development can be unpredictable, though, so it’s too soon to write Sanchez off. We’ve seen with Chase d’Arnaud that a good prospect can have bad year.
First Base: First base prospects aren’t generally popular with scouts. The view is that a player who’s limited to first probably lacks the athleticism to be a good major leaguer, and in any event will have to hit a ton. Most major league first basemen move there from other positions, so you don’t see a lot of prospects who are strictly first basemen.
The Pirates do, however, have a couple who’ve stepped forward this year. Matt Hague is hitting 318/379/476 in AAA. He has more gap than HR power and he’ll be 26 in late August, so the deck will be stacked against him when it comes to reaching the majors. We’ve seen that with the Pirates’ failure to call him up this year. Matt Curry made a two-level jump after tearing up low A and is currently hitting well in AA after a slow start. He isn’t tearing the level up, though, and has had trouble making contact at times. Neither Hague nor Curry is likely to provide the Pujols/Fielder level of offense that teams want at first, but they could provide just enough offense to protect against a repeat of the fiasco the Pirates had this year with Lyle Overbay, or they could be useful bench bats. The system also has another possibility in 2011 third rounder Alex Dickerson, who’s off to a good start at State College.
Middle Infield: After d’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer both struggled in 2010, the middle infield looked pretty barren. D’Arnaud bounced back very well in AAA, though, and reached the majors. Mercer returned to AA and turned on the power, hitting 13 HRs and slugging .487 before moving up. Josh Harrison also stepped up his game in AAA and is currently hitting .301. The trick will be finding positions for these players. D’Arnaud was very shaky at short during his trial with the Pirates, while Harrison is really a bat of the bench who’s of limited use defensively. Mercer is the best defensive player of the three, but so far is struggling with the bat in AAA.
After the upper levels, the middle infield ranks in the system thin out considerably. Brock Holt is having a decent year in AA, but looks like a utility player at best. Jarek Cunningham is hitting for a lot of power at Bradenton, but still has massive issues with the strike zone and lately hasn’t been able to stay on the field. He’s also limited to second base. Gift Ngoepe showed major signs of improvement early in the year at West Virginia, but has missed most of the season with a wrist injury. The middle infielders at State College have been awful.
There are some signs of promise in the GCL. Alen Hanson and Yhonathan Barrios have hit well. Jodaneli Carvajal hasn’t, but he has good defensive skills.
One other issue in the infield, though, is the absence of a single, legitimate third base prospect. This is still further evidence of the lack of power in the system. If there’s a prospective third baseman in the system, it’ll have to be somebody like d’Arnaud or Harrison, neither of whom fits the normal profile for the position.
Outfield: The outfield was not a strong spot in the system coming into the season, and it’s still not. The results this year have been mixed, with several players stepping their games up and others going the wrong way. Overall, the system remains devoid of a classic, power-hitting corner outfielder, which will be a major handicap for the Pirates over the next few years.
Several outfielders have had outstanding seasons. As Pirate fans all know, Alex Presley continued his 2010 breakout and made a big splash in the majors before being stopped by a mysterious thumb problem. It’s still open to question, though, whether he’ll be more than a fourth outfielder. Starling Marte is hitting .315 and starting to show some power, with seven HRs and a .464 slugging average. His plate discipline remains very poor. With great speed and plus defense in center, including a powerful arm, Marte won’t have to put up corner outfielder numbers to be an asset in the majors. Robbie Grossman is having a semi-breakout season in his second year in high A. He leads all of organized baseball in runs with 101 and has a .429 OBP. His power is also improving gradually, but it’ll have to continue improving if he’s going to be a major league regular because he probably lacks the speed for center. One other outfielder who’s stepped his game up this year is Gorkys Hernandez, who’s recovered from a weak showing in AA and a slow start this year in AAA to get his OPS up to .733. He’s another plus defender and could be useful as a fourth outfielder.
Other outfielders in the system have gone in the opposite direction. Andrew Lambo flopped in AAA and is currently struggling back in AA. Quincy Latimore’s tendency to swing at everything proved his undoing against the tougher pitchers in AA. Mel Rojas, Jr., and Dan Grovatt are having mediocre seasons in low A, although Rojas has shown some signs of life lately. All of the outfielders at State College are struggling badly. In fact, the outfields at West Virginia and State College are indicators of a significant problem in the farm system: a large gap with very little hitting talent.
Some relief may come from the GCL Pirates, who have some toolsy outfielders with significant potential. Willy Garcia has been improving as the season has gone along and is showing good power. Gregory Polanco also has shown some power lately, although he has a long ways to go. Jose Osuna has been one of the best hitters in the GCL and is only 18.
Pitching: The Pirates came into the season with pitching depth as the strong point of their system. On the whole, the pitching hasn’t been as good as hoped and nobody has really stepped forward in a big way, although there have been good performances. Given the near-complete emphasis on pitching in their last three drafts, they needed a better showing than what they’ve gotten.
Much of the pitching in the system is concentrated in two groups. One centered around the “Altoona four” of Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke. At the start of the season, it seemed likely that one or two of these pitchers would be in the major league rotation around mid-season, but none has had a good year. Wilson and Owens have struggled in AAA, the former suffering control problems while the latter has simply gotten hit hard. Locke returned to AA and has been erratic all year. Morris was shifted to the bullpen and has pitched well most of the time, but still has issues with his command. There have been a few successes at the upper levels—Tony Watson is pitching well in the majors and Kyle McPherson has been improving rapidly since a promotion to AA—but the upper level pitching depth the Pirates appeared to have isn’t there now.
At the lower levels, the focus was on Jameson Taillon and the prep pitchers from the 2009 draft at West Virginia, and the prep pitchers from the 2010 draft at State College. The results there are mixed. The two big names, of course, are Taillon and Stetson Allie. Taillon has generally pitched well, but his fastball has been surprisingly hittable at times. Allie has run into major control issues, leaving open the question whether he should have started off in the GCL instead of at State College. Of the 2009 group, Colton Cain, Brooks Pounders and Zac Fuesser have pitched reasonably well without anybody breaking out, and Zach Dodson has pitched well but missed part of the season with arm problems. Zack Von Rosenberg and Trent Stevenson, on the other hand, have struggled badly. Apart from Allie, the other 2010 prep pitchers at State College, Nick Kingham and Ryan Hafner, have mostly pitched well. The one other big name pitcher at the lower levels, Luis Heredia, has been erratic in the GCL. He’s been hard to hit but has had some control problems, but that’s hardly surprising for a 16-year-old.
It’s still a little hard to reach a judgment about the pitching in the system because of the unpredictable nature of pitching prospects and the time it can take a prep pitcher to figure out pro ball. The Pirates’ reliance on pitching in their drafting, however, has been so heavy that it’s vital for some of their prospects to break out. Otherwise the weakness of the hitting in the system, and especially the lack of power, will become an increasing problem. It’s very hard to obtain anything of value for B-/C+ level pitching prospects. The Pirates don’t just need pitching depth; they need to develop top-flight pitching prospects in quantity. So far that’s not happening.