The 2014 minor league regular season wrapped up today. The only thing left in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system is in High-A, where the Bradenton Marauders will start their playoff series on Tuesday night. A minor league season is guaranteed to bring success stories, where players break out, or continue a positive development while moving up in the system. You’re also going to see players who take a step back, get injured, or do things to lower their potential upside, or even wash out. The big question is whether you had more of the good than the bad in a given year.
The Pirates were plagued with injuries this year. Almost all of their top prospects missed time with an injury. In fact, out of the top 10 prospects heading into the season, only two players didn’t spend time on the disabled list. Only five players from the top 20 didn’t spend time on the DL (excluding Blake Taylor, who was traded).
Injuries can hurt for the long-term. Fortunately for the Pirates, a lot of the injuries they had this year didn’t really impact the long-term upside for the players who were injured. And despite so many injuries, the Pirates had a good season in their minor league system. There were players who had bad seasons, and players who took a step back, but the majority of players in the system either took steps forward, or continued playing well. Very few players saw their future upsides impacted in a negative way. We’ll be doing season recaps over the next few weeks, but to get a feel for how the system did at the end of the season, here is a look back at the pre-season top 20, and how those players performed in 2014.
1. Gregory Polanco – He was fantastic in his time with Indianapolis, although he’s still working on making the jump to the majors. Despite those struggles, it’s hard to call Polanco’s season as a prospect anything but a success. He became one of the top prospects in the game, and looked even more like a future impact player. His progress as an MLB rookie is another issue, but I don’t think there should be concerns about his upside this early.
2. Jameson Taillon – He went down at the start of the year with Tommy John surgery. If all goes well with his recovery, he should be ready to return for the start of the 2015 season, and could be in the majors by mid-season. The injury pretty much delayed his timeline by a year.
3. Tyler Glasnow – Glasnow had an amazing season in West Virginia in 2013, and it looked hard to top those results as he moved up a level. He did just that, posting a 1.74 ERA in 124.1 innings, with a 157:57 K/BB ratio. His strikeout rate was still ridiculous, but his walks dropped a bit, and he showed improvements with his changeup, all at a higher level.
4. Austin Meadows – He missed the first three months of the season with hamstring problems, then returned to West Virginia for almost two months. In that time, he showed why he was a top prospect, hitting for a .322/.388/.486 line in 146 at-bats. It will be interesting to see if he moves up next year. Josh Bell didn’t move up in 2013 after missing half of the 2012 season. However, Bell didn’t hit nearly as well as Meadows did, and that’s counting both of his years in the SAL. Meadows could stay down, as there’s no reason to rush him, but I think he’s got a good chance of reaching Bradenton next season.
5. Alen Hanson – Hanson didn’t have a good year from a defense perspective. He continued to have problems with routine plays, and was eventually moved to second base. The move was partly made to speed his bat up to the majors, although I can’t see him moving to shortstop with Jordy Mercer playing so well in the majors. He’s still a top prospect at second base because of his bat. He had a .768 OPS, although if you take out a horrible April, he had an .804 OPS on the season, with an .831 OPS in his final two months. He was definitely trending the right direction with his offense.
6. Nick Kingham – Kingham had a great season in Altoona, eventually making the jump to Indianapolis. He started off dominating the level, but struggled down the stretch. He had issues with his control at times, which isn’t usually a concern for him. Kingham continued moving up the system without major concerns, and while maintaining his upside of a strong middle of the rotation starter. He should have a shot at the majors next season.
7. Reese McGuire – Defensively, McGuire lived up to the hype, showing that this part of his game was strong. Offensively, he needs some work. He had a .642 OPS on the season, and only one month out of the year was over .700. He’s got some good skills that didn’t show up in the stat lines this year, and he’s way too young to rule out future success. This is a case where the player didn’t have a great season, but also didn’t see his upside changed at all.
8. Josh Bell – Bell took a huge jump in the rankings, finally starting to show some of his potential at the plate by crushing in Bradenton. He struggled in his jump to Altoona, although that is to be expected, since that’s a difficult jump to make. A closer look shows that he was hitting for average (.287), got on base at a good rate (.343), but didn’t hit for power (.309). Bell has the power aspect in his game, and 94 at-bats without power at a new level doesn’t change his upside. Overall, this was a great year for him. The Pirates must think he’s close, since he will be making the move to first base this off-season.
9. Luis Heredia – Heredia missed about two months with shoulder discomfort, and didn’t have great results when he was healthy. He did improve in the second half, posting a 3.97 ERA in 70.1 innings, including a 3.06 ERA in 35.1 innings in August. He didn’t do a great job with the strikeouts, and had control issues, although those were two things that improved in August. I could see Heredia moving up to Bradenton next year. This year was a disappointment, and it lowers future expectations for several reasons, but Heredia is still young enough to rebound in future years.
10. Harold Ramirez – Ramirez missed a lot of time with multiple leg injuries, going down with a hamstring injury and shin splints. He hit well when he was healthy, with a .309/.364/.402 line. The power wasn’t there, but Ramirez was also in his age 19 season, and doesn’t turn 20 until Saturday. His injuries don’t impact his upside, although they could keep him in West Virginia next year for at least part of the season.
11. Tony Sanchez – Sanchez didn’t have the best season. Defensively he struggled, especially with his throwing. He carried those struggles over to the plate, with a .758 OPS with Indianapolis. The Pirates eventually moved him to first base at the end of the year, showing that he might have been passed by Elias Diaz on the depth charts.
12. Clay Holmes – Just like Taillon, Holmes missed the year with Tommy John surgery. He should go to Bradenton next year.
13. Stolmy Pimentel – He was out of options and made the jump to the majors, working out of the bullpen. The results haven’t been good, although Pimentel has been used like a Rule 5 pick most of the year. This is his first time working as a reliever, and he’s not getting regular appearances. You can be concerned with his performance, but that performance has to come with the disclaimer that he was in a bad situation.
14. Andrew Lambo – Lambo has shown a repeat of his 2013 minor league success, and he’s finally getting a shot in the majors. He had a .952 OPS this year for Indianapolis, but didn’t get an opportunity for various reasons, whether it was Spring Training struggles, a thumb injury, or certain players ahead of him playing well. He might get an extended look with the Pirates after his hot start in his first four games since being called up.
15. Joely Rodriguez – Rodriguez was disappointing this year, getting hit pretty hard, and even being removed from the rotation at one point. He will probably return to Altoona next year, and might eventually have to move to the bullpen full time if those struggles continue. I’ve liked Rodriguez for a long time, since I first saw him at the end of the 2010 season. I’m not writing him off after one bad season, but this bad season at the Double-A level does make me question whether he will make it as a starter in the majors.
16. Blake Taylor – Taylor was traded to the Mets for Ike Davis.
17. Cody Dickson – He quietly had a good season, with a dominant second half that featured a 2.45 ERA in 69.2 innings, along with a 57:29 K/BB ratio. Dickson finished strong in August, with a 2.28 ERA in 27.2 innings, along with a 29:11 K/BB ratio. He will almost certainly move up to Bradenton next year. He fell out of the top 20 after a slow start in the first half, but a strong second half, plus his arsenal, could put him back at the end of the list going into next year.
18. Barrett Barnes – Barnes has missed so much time in his three-year career due to injuries, and that was the case once again in 2014. He only had 50 at-bats this season, after missing time with a hamstring injury, followed by an oblique injury. From an athletic and tools standpoint, Barnes is a prospect. When you factor in the fact that he’s injury prone, he drops in the rankings. Right now those injuries are preventing him from developing his game, which you have to count against him.
19. JaCoby Jones – Jones had a huge season, although I don’t think he’ll make a massive jump in the rankings. We were high on him coming into the year, putting him in the top 20. He moved up to 14th by the mid-season rankings, which isn’t a big jump when you consider that a few of the guys ahead of him either graduated from being a prospect, or dropped a bit in the rankings. The thing to be concerned about with Jones is the strikeout rate. That might not prevent him from reaching the majors, but it does mean you can’t take his .847 OPS in Low-A at the age of 22 and project big things in the majors one day.
20. Michael De La Cruz – He looked like the next big breakout from Latin America, but struggled with a minor injury, along with the reality of being a young kid playing in a foreign country away from home. There’s still a lot of upside here, but this was obviously a disappointing year for De La Cruz, who only managed a .485 OPS.
The Pirates didn’t have many bad seasons that led to future upsides dropping. And when they did see struggles, they also saw other players stepping up to fill the void. Tony Sanchez struggled, but Elias Diaz had a breakout season. Luis Heredia struggled, but Adrian Sampson and Buddy Borden emerged as top 20 pitching prospects, and future middle of the rotation starting candidates. Alen Hanson moved to second base, but that was always a risk, and Jordy Mercer’s improved defense just means we’ll still be in line for that future Hanson/Mercer middle infield, just with Mercer at short. Barrett Barnes is a risk due to his injuries. Austin Meadows and Harold Ramirez might have had their paths delayed due to injuries. Michael De La Cruz didn’t have a great jump to the US. But none of this is major because the Pirates certainly aren’t hurting for outfielders.
The most important thing is that the Pirates are still set up to graduate top prospects over the next few years. Nick Kingham will be up in 2015. Jameson Taillon will join him once he gets healthy and spends some time in Triple-A. Adrian Sampson could be a sleeper option to join them, along with Elias Diaz. Alen Hanson was moved to second base with the intention of getting his bat to the majors in 2015. It’s even possible that Josh Bell could be in the majors by mid-season next year if he takes the Gregory Polanco path through winter ball. If he doesn’t make it in 2015, then he’s definitely in line for 2016, along with Tyler Glasnow, and possibly guys like Cody Dickson, JaCoby Jones, and others who could take a step forward next year.
You want more good than bad in a minor league season, and you want the bad to be mostly limited to one season, rather than negatively impacting the future. The Pirates got that this year.
Links and Notes