The Pittsburgh Pirates are a team that builds their core through the farm system. The starting lineup includes seven players who came up through the system, along with one player (Francisco Cervelli) who was acquired by a player who came up through the system (Justin Wilson). The rotation has two pitchers who came up through the system (Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke), with the other three spots going to guys who have been reclamation projects in recent years. The balance there should start to change in the future, as the Pirates are starting to see their pitching depth reach the top levels of the minors, spilling over to the Majors in 2015.
Throughout the 2015 season, you can expect a lot of prospects to come up and contribute in Pittsburgh. To get an idea of who could come up, here is a look at each position, along with the prospect(s) who could make an impact in the majors.
Elias Diaz is the top catching prospect in the upper levels, but will need some time to develop in Triple-A. He broke out at the plate last year in Altoona, and will look to see if he can carry the success over to the upper levels and eventually the majors. His defense behind the plate is some of the best in the system, and pitchers in the Pirates’ system love working with him. If Francisco Cervelli goes down or struggles by mid-season, and if Diaz is ready by that point, he could take over as the starting catcher, propelling past Tony Sanchez and Chris Stewart.
Andrew Lambo still has prospect eligibility, and would be the top guy in line to take over at first base if something happens to both Pedro Alvarez and Corey Hart. Lambo won a bench spot on the Opening Day roster, and looks to be the number three option on the depth chart for first base. He has crushed the ball the last two years in Triple-A, and will look to see if he can do the same in the majors.
Don’t expect Josh Bell in the majors this year. The earliest he projects to arrive will be mid-season 2016.
Alen Hanson was moved to second base last year so that he could arrive in the majors sooner, with the goal being the 2015 season. If Neil Walker goes down at second base, the Pirates have Jung-ho Kang and Sean Rodriguez as options to replace him. However, they could eventually get to Hanson later in the year, especially if there are injuries at other positions.
As for shortstop, there aren’t many options to take over for Jordy Mercer. The Pirates would probably still turn to Kang or Rodriguez, and Josh Harrison could also factor in the mix here if there was an option to take over at third base. I doubt Hanson will get a look at shortstop, since he was moved off the position due to inconsistent play and throwing problems. Those probably won’t improve after time away from the position. The guys in the minors are glove-only options, like Gustavo Nunez and Gift Ngoepe. Pedro Florimon is another one, if he can clear waivers, although he doesn’t have prospect eligibility.
There aren’t many options here from a prospect standpoint. Deibinson Romero got a lot of attention because he was rated as the best minor league free agent by FanGraphs. That came one year after Yangervis Solarte received the same recognition and went on to have a breakout season. But the Pirates have been splitting Romero between first and third, giving the alternate time to Brent Morel. So it doesn’t look like they’re as high on him as the Steamer projections that led to the FanGraphs ranking.
The Pirates have a lot of outfield options, although most of them look like bench depth, rather than someone who can take over as a starter. Andrew Lambo will be the top depth option at the start of the year, winning the final bench spot, and splitting outfield reserve time with Corey Hart and Sean Rodriguez.
Jaff Decker should enter the mix as a depth option at some point, although he will start the season on the disabled list.
Mel Rojas and Keon Broxton both had breakout seasons in Altoona last year, and profile as future bench players. Rojas is ahead of Broxton, getting the push to Indianapolis last year, and starting the 2015 season at the level, while Broxton returned to Altoona. Both players could arrive in the majors this season, if needed, although Rojas will be ahead of Broxton on the depth chart.
I don’t expect Willy Garcia to arrive this season, as he will need some work on his strikeouts and low walk rate in his return to Altoona.
The biggest depth impact will come from the rotation, which is good, since that’s the area where the Pirates look the weakest at the Major League level. The top prospect who could make an impact this year — in the rotation and for the team in general — is Nick Kingham. He will return to Indianapolis this year, where he hopes to improve his command issues from the 2014 season, while also mixing in a two-seam fastball a little more often. Kingham should be ready by mid-season, becoming one of the top depth options at that time.
Another mid-season depth option will be Adrian Sampson. He had a breakout season in Altoona last year, thanks to an improved changeup and better command of his fastball. He moved up to Indianapolis, but struggled a bit at the new level. Sampson has the makings of a good three-pitch mix, and will start factoring his curveball into that mix a little more often this year. He’s got the upside to be a middle of the rotation starter, but will fall behind Kingham on the depth charts.
Jameson Taillon is a better prospect than Kingham and Sampson, but his conservative return from Tommy John surgery will likely put him in Indianapolis by mid-season. He could be an option for the Pirates later in the season, possibly as a September call-up.
In the early part of the season, Casey Sadler will serve as a depth option. If they need a guy before Clayton Richard is ready, and before Charlie Morton returns from the DL, then Sadler could get an early season look. He profiles as a back of the rotation starter or a strong reliever.
The top prospect in the system is Tyler Glasnow, but don’t expect him up in 2015. He will go to Altoona and get a full season of work at the level, possibly arriving in Indianapolis by the end of the year. He won’t be ready for the majors until mid-season 2016 at the earliest.
Bullpen depth can be tricky, because it often includes guys who also fit in to the starting pitching depth. Casey Sadler is one example of a guy who could serve as either depth for the rotation or depth for the bullpen. John Holdzkom will be a top depth option, especially after how great he looked in a limited appearance in the majors at the end of the 2014 season.
The Top Prospects by Potential 2015 Impact
There are a lot of scenarios for each prospect to arrive in the majors. The list below looks at the most realistic best case scenario for playing time and impact that a prospect can have in 2015. The list is not a typical top prospect list. If it was, then Jameson Taillon would be at the top, rather than number seven. Jung-ho Kang is technically a prospect, but wasn’t included in this list.
1. Nick Kingham
2. Elias Diaz
3. Andrew Lambo
4. Casey Sadler
5. John Holdzkom
6. Adrian Sampson
7. Jameson Taillon
8. Jaff Decker
9. Mel Rojas
10. Alen Hanson