Welcome to the first 2012 edition of Prospect Trends. As with last year, the goal each week is to identify which Pirates prospects may be changing their status with their performances on the field. We’ve got a week and a half worth of games for this installment. Without a doubt, the most attention-grabbing development in the farm system has been the strong start of some of the very young hitters at West Virginia. Josh Bell figured to be the headliner there and he’s been doing well after some strikeout problems in his first few games. He’s been upstaged so far, though, by some of the Latin American prospects who moved up from the Gulf Coast League.
Jeff Clement, 1B (AAA): A blast from the past. Clement is off to a hot start, hitting 424/525/606, with six doubles but no HRs in his first 33 ABs. His plate discipline has been improved so far, as he has seven walks to go with eight Ks.
Jordy Mercer, SS/2B (AAA): Mercer was slated to start the season at second, but has ended up as the Indianapolis shortstop for the time being while Chase d’Arnaud recovers from a concussion. Mercer struggled in 2011 after earning a promotion to AAA, but this year he’s hitting more like he did in AA last year, at 263/333/500. His average and plate discipline (four walks, nine Ks) aren’t great, but he’s probably at best going to be the sort of middle infielder who has some power but doesn’t get on base a great deal. If he plays well defensively, that should be enough for him to have a major league career.
Brad Lincoln, RHP (AAA): Lincoln is on the borderline of being relegated to AAA rotation depth status, but he’s gotten off to a strong start. Through two starts, he’s allowed just ten hits, no walks and three runs in twelve innings (2.25 ERA), with nine Ks.
Dan McCutchen, RHP (AAA): McCutchen is doing well in his quest to win back a major league bullpen job. He’s allowed just one run in seven innings (1.29 ERA) on six hits and two walks, with eight Ks.
Brock Holt, SS (AA): Holt got forced back to AA by a middle infield crunch in AAA, but he hasn’t let it get him down so far. He’s getting on base in half his plate appearances and hitting 357/500/393. He’s got only one extra base hit, a double, but power isn’t going to be his game. More importantly, he has eight walks and five Ks.
Nate Baker, LHP (AA): After struggling badly in spring training, Baker’s had no problems since the season started. In two starts he’s allowed just two runs, one earned, in 11 innings (0.82 ERA), on four hits (a .118 opponents’ average) and five walks. The one negative is that he’s still not missing a lot of bats, as he has only six Ks.
Tim Alderson, RHP (AA): Alderson got some attention in spring training when his low-90s velocity returned, although it remains to be seen how hard he’ll throw once he moves beyond two-inning outings. So far he’s pitching well out of the bullpen, allowing no runs, four hits and a walk, with seven Ks, in six innings.
Duke Welker, RHP (AA): Welker was a surprise addition to the 40-man roster, as a result of his mid-90s velocity and potentially good slider. His bugaboo has always been control. So far this year he’s walked only one in five innings, to go with four hits and one unearned run. He’s fanned six.
Mel Rojas, Jr., OF (High A): Bradenton so far has struggled almost as badly as the Pirates at the plate, but Rojas has made encouraging progress. He came into the season as a very toolsy player who hadn’t performed well as a pro, but so far he’s hitting 325/372/500, with three doubles and two triples in 40 ABs. The walk (2) and strikeout (11) numbers, though, have been less good.
Hunter Strickland, RHP (High A): Strickland has to be considered “trending up” solely by virtue of the fact that he’s healthy. He’s pitched well, too, with a 1.64 ERA in two starts. He’s allowed a dozen hits, walked two and fanned eight in eleven innings.
Casey Sadler, RHP (High A): The right-handed reliever had a big second half in 2011 and seems to be picking up where he left off. In five innings he’s allowed no runs, one hit and no walks, although he’s hit two batters. He’s fanned six.
Alen Hanson, SS (Low A): Hanson so far has been a minor sensation, as the slightly built infielder is raking at a 404/459/809 clip. He has ten extra-base hits, including four longballs, in eleven games. He’s also 4-4 as a base stealer. The one potential negative is that he can get too aggressive at the plate, as shown by eleven Ks.
Gregory Polanco, OF (Low A): The Pirates regard Polanco as a potential five-tool player, but the power so far hasn’t developed. Maybe until now. He’s tied with Hanson for the system lead in HRs with four, all in the last five games. Overall, he’s hitting 333/395/692. Like Hanson, he has eleven Ks.
Jodaneli Carvajal, 2B (Low A): Carvajal is a strong defender whose bat has been a question mark, but so far he’s been providing an answer. He’s hitting 333/366/538, with a surprising five extra-base hits. He even hit his third pro HR in his fourth season. He was slated at the start of the season to share time at second and third, but his performance so far should have earned him regular duties.
Josh Poytress, LHP (Low A): Poytress opened the season in extended spring training, but he’s pitched very well in long relief since joining the Power. In 8.1 innings, he’s allowed only one run (1.08), four hits and three walks, while fanning eight.
Nick Evans, 3B (AAA): Evans came to the Pirates with a solid track record as a utility player and looked like a good choice for the major league bench, but he had a miserable spring at the plate. His problems have continued in AAA, as he’s hit just 103/156/138 so far. On top of that, he’s now likely to lose playing time to Matt Hague.
Jeff Locke, LHP (AAA): Locke should have a shot at a callup later this year, but so far he’s not enhancing his chances. He’s been hit hard in his two starts, giving up sixteen hits and seven runs in nine innings. He hasn’t walked anybody and he’s fanned seven.
Andrew Lambo, OF (AA): At 23, he’s still young enough to revive his prospect status. Having spent parts of five seasons in AA, though, Lambo needed to get off to a good start to show he’s mastered the level. Instead, he’s hitting 226/250/290.
Alex Dickerson, 1B (High A): Based on his track record and a good spring, I thought Dickerson would be primed to dominate the Florida State League, but so far it’s not happening. He hitting 205/262/205. That means no extra base hits from a guy who’s supposed to be a power hitter.
Wes Freeman, OF (High A): Probably because he’s in his fourth full pro season, the Pirates jumped Freeman up to high A after he spent all but a few games in 2011 at State College. So far the promotion isn’t working, as Freeman is hitting 120/241/120, making him another ostensible power hitter with no extra base hits. The one positive sign is that his plate discipline, always a problem area, has been better so far, although his K rate is still too high; he’s drawn four walks and fanned seven times in 25 ABs.
Nick Kingham, RHP (Low A): West Virginia’s pitching has been as bad as its hitting has been good, and Kingham has been one of the culprits. It’s been surprising, because along with Dickerson he was a guy I thought was very impressive in spring training. He got hammered in his first two starts, failing to survive the second inning both times. He allowed nine earned runs and ten hits in a total of just three innings in those starts. Fortunately, his third start went much better, as he allowed just one run and three hits in four innings. Still, his ERA stands at 12.86.
Zac Fuesser, LHP (Low A): Fuesser is repeating low A and, for that reason, would be expected to get off to a good start. Instead, he’s battled control problems in both of his starts, walking nine in seven innings. He’s allowed only four hits and four earned runs, but control problems and finesse pitchers don’t go well together.
Stetson Allie, RHP (Low A): As most Pirate fans know, Allie lasted only six hitters on opening day, retiring just one while walking four, hitting one, and giving his catcher a strenuous workout with pitches launched all over the place. The start was discouraging after Allie showed much-improved command in spring training. He’s been shut down since with elbow stiffness.