The Loaded Altoona Roster is Blocking These Two Prospects in A-Ball

Jose Osuna has been absolutely destroying the ball lately. This is his third year in Bradenton, and some of the hits he has had lately are some of the hardest hit balls I’ve seen from him during that three-year span. This includes a home run on Monday night that he crushed over the center field wall, almost hitting the batter’s eye beyond the 400 foot sign. He’s looking like a guy who belongs in Altoona, rather than a guy who should be spending his third year in High-A.

A similar story is playing out in West Virginia. Chase Simpson, taken in the 14th round of the 2014 draft, currently has a .305/.424/.475 line in Low-A. This follows a strong debut in Jamestown last year, where he hit for a .286/.369/.481 line. When I saw Simpson while in West Virginia a little over a week ago, he easily looked like the most polished hitter on the team. Just like Osuna, this was a case where you had a player who should be playing a level higher than where he is currently playing. Nothing about Simpson’s hitting suggests he should be in West Virginia right now.

In theory, it would make all the sense in the world to move Osuna up to Altoona, which would create a spot for Simpson to move up to Bradenton. I don’t know if either player has a strong possibility for a solid MLB career, but they both have bats that are intriguing, and they’re both guys who you’d want to give a chance to see what they become.

Unfortunately, the reality is that both players are blocked, with the log-jam in the system coming from the strong Altoona offense. This has led to both players learning new positions, although even with the new positions it is hard to move up.

Osuna has been a first baseman the last few years, and finished the 2014 season with a strong performance at the plate, worthy of him moving up. But with Josh Bell moving to first base in Altoona, there was no spot for Osuna to move up. As a result, the Pirates moved Osuna to right field, which was a position he hasn’t played since 2010, when he was in the VSL.

“The position move there hurt him a little bit,” Bradenton manager Michael Ryan said about Bell moving to first base in Altoona. “They decided to get him some time in the outfield this year to get him ready to go there. He’ll be doing both when he gets there. It’s just a matter of time before he will be there.”

Ryan said that Osuna doesn’t have much to work on, outside of getting more comfortable in right field. He noted improvements in his routes and jumps. From what I’ve seen, Osuna also has a plus arm. But there are aspects that will be a weakness for him, such as speed and range, which can’t exactly be taught. There’s no timetable for a promotion to Altoona, but Ryan thinks it will happen this year.

Pirates Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway said that the team expects to get him up to Altoona at some point this year, although that will probably require someone from Indianapolis to move up.

“He’s playing well,” Broadway said. “Ideally we’d get him up to Altoona at some point. Some things are out of his control, because that club is stacked up there.”

Osuna is blocked at first base by Bell, but it doesn’t end there. He might have normally been able to learn right field in Altoona, although Stetson Allie is currently learning right field at the level, after moving off the first base position for Bell. Osuna has played left field on a regular basis as recently as 2011, and has played a few games in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues the last few years. However, that’s not an option with Willy Garcia at the position.

Keon Broxton, who Sean McCool wrote about today as being a blocked prospect, is another fixture in the outfield, preventing Garcia from moving over to center field to make room.

You could argue that Osuna could get enough time playing all around the field, while also getting work as the designated hitter. However, Altoona currently has a few other guys doing the same thing. Adam Frazier, normally a shortstop, is getting time in center field and as the DH. Edward Salcedo, an interesting hitter acquired from Atlanta, is getting time in right field.

Until someone moves on from Altoona, there isn’t a spot to be found for Osuna. Once he does move up, that will create a spot for Simpson, who is in the same situation.

Simpson was drafted as a third baseman, and played first and third last year in Jamestown. This year he has split most of his time between first base and DH, with Jordan Luplow getting the priority at third base. And now with Connor Joe in the mix at first base, expect Simpson to get more playing time as the DH. So far, Simpson said the move to the new position has worked for him.

“The positions are relatively the same,” Simpson said on the move from third to first. “It’s kind of the same idea. They’re both hot corners. It was an easy transition…I’ve been all in as far as learning it, and it’s been good so far.”

Moving up to Bradenton isn’t an option for Simpson, as he’s blocked at every position. Third base features Wyatt Mathisen, who has shown some great pure hitting skills, and has a better chance to stick at third than any other third base prospect in the lower levels, Simpson included. Edwin Espinal is at first base, and while he has struggled from a stats perspective, he features a ton of raw power. When Espinal isn’t starting, the first base job goes to either Osuna or Jordan Steranka, with the latter being more of an organizational player.

With Mathisen and Espinal at the corners, there’s not much of a difference from Simpson’s current situation with Luplow and Joe. That is until you get to the designated hitter position. The Marauders have a split between Reese McGuire and Jin-De Jhang behind the plate. McGuire gets the priority for catching, but Jhang has a good bat, and has been showing that off a lot this year as the DH, hitting for a .347/.388/.407 line in 118 at-bats.

Simpson is blocked like Osuna, and that should be the case until someone moves up to Altoona. In this case, he might need two guys to move up, or for Edwin Espinal to go back down to West Virginia if he’s still not putting up strong numbers by the middle of the season.

There’s no easy solution to this. You don’t want to rush Josh Bell, and you don’t want to prevent him from learning first base. He’s the best prospect of this entire group, and the best option for the Pirates for their future at first base. Other options like Allie, Osuna, Espinal, and Simpson are interesting bats, and all have good power potential, but they’re all fliers. You hope that one of them breaks through to be a starter in the majors one day, and you give them playing time to see if that will happen. But right now, no one in that group is currently projected as a starter.

Overall, this is a good problem to have, because it’s a symptom of a very strong farm system. There aren’t many organizational players in Altoona and Bradenton, and in fact there are more prospects than there are positions. This means that the guys who used to be guaranteed for playing time and promotions a few years ago are now struggling to find time in the lineup, and are playing at lower levels than where they should be playing.

Eventually, Osuna and Simpson will move up, and most likely that will happen this year. Until that happens, expect continued strong results, as both players are playing at a lower level than where they should be right now.

  • Catching/DH seems like it could be freed up a little bit by pushing Jhang to Altoona. A similarly aggressive push for him last year hasn’t seemed to retard his development as his repeat performance this year shows.

    Also don’t think Josh Bell is the type of hitter that would suffer from making it to AAA without a full season of AA at bats, which would also free up a bit of space.

    The hardest part of this “back log” seems to be that only a few of these prospects are particularly good. The rest seem to be floating around together as good enough to develop, but not good enough to differentiate themselves from one another, yet.

    • I would rather see Deibinson Romero at 1b in AAA right now to see if he can handle the position.

      • They’re going to need a replacement for Corey Hart sooner rather than later, so yeah, I think that’s a great idea. Can’t hurt.

  • I love it…this will be the article you point back to Tim when/if a trade would ever occur for ML ready player(s). You can’t draft on need in MLB, or really any sport…you have no idea how a young player will evolve in a new level. As I coached college, you run into the same trap of saying you havery 3 RS players at position X,Y, and Z so I wont recruit there even though I can get the best talent there. You should ALWAYS take the best talent first and the shifting normally takes care of itself…IMO

  • May the best men win!

  • And meanwhile Hunter Morris is rocking a .333 OPS in Indy, so bad that the ghost of Brent Morel is playing 1B more and more often despite his stellar .583.

    Tim, would it really be so outrageous to promote Bell to Indianapolis within the next few weeks? He has shown excellent plate discipline, he’s managing contact well, and the incumbents at Indianapolis are not in the Pirates’ long-term plans, and not even on the 40-man roster. Bell’s had the equivalent of 1/2 season in Altoona, about the same as Gregory Polanco had.

    Not that I’m suggesting the Pirates should alter the development plan for their #4 prospect in order to relieve a logjam that impacts guys outside their top 30.

    • There’s no need to rush Bell, and they shouldn’t rush Bell. If Polanco is justification, then I’d point to how he is currently doing in the majors right now as a disclaimer against rating minor league stats too heavily. Bell still has work to do before being rushed. We’ll be detailing that later this week.

      • But the question isn’t whether or not to promote Bell to the Majors, it’s whether or not to promote Bell to AAA.

        Seems absolutely fair to ask, given that is the level where your hitters are going to see pitching closest to the Major League level. Bell most certainly isn’t being overwhelmed with stuff in AA; at which point it’s at least worth asking if it is better for his development to face better pitching for a longer period of time. I believe it would.

        • That’s what I’m talking about. The original comment mentioned that Polanco had limited time in Double-A.

          • I think Bell is a much more polished prospect then Polanco to be honest. Polanco has a high ceiling and was an exciting looking prospect but Bell I think has a much higher floor than Polanco and I feel like the odds of him having success faster in the majors in more likely than it was with Polanco. Bell’s walk and K rates are really impressive. I think if he was at first base right now in Pittsburgh, he wouldn’t do any worse than Pedro and he might actually be an improvement. He’s not an easy out and he has the look of a player who will annually bat .310 or above. Pedro, on the other hand, seems to only hit homers when the game is already decided and is a very easy out. Case in point, was anyone surprised last night when he struck out on 3 pitches to end the game. I wasn’t. I like Pedro but he’s becoming a liability.

            • You don’t have a clue if you think Bell can’ t be made to look bad at times. Till he shows some signs of developing some over the fence power he is right where he belongs.

              • Major League lefties are gonna eat up that swing from the right side, too.

              • Considering I didn’t say that in the first place you don’t really to insult my intelligence on something I didn’t even say. I just said I don’t think he can do any worse than Pedro. I’m not worried about his over the fence power when he’s hitting .325 with a .400 OBP. Power isn’t the Pirates’ problem, it’s baserunners and timely hits. Pedro never comes up with the big hit. Bell might look bad sometimes but I’m pretty confident he can hit major league pitching right now if given the opportunity and at a more efficient clip than Pedro.

                • Mercer can't hit RHP
                  May 22, 2015 8:18 pm

                  Leo is a cranky old dude. Let it go on one ear and out the other.

            • Polanco in AA: 12.6% strikeouts, 12.6% walks, .144 ISO
              Bell so far this year: 8.8% strikeouts, 11.3% walks, .125 ISO

              Both very advanced with the plate patience. Bell had fewer strikeouts, Polanco had more walks and more power and was a year younger.

              Polanco was considered a very good prospect when he was in Double-A, and for good reason.

      • Thanks Tim, looking forward to the piece on Bell. I guess my question really is “would it be rushing Bell to promote him now” and from your response is yes, it would be.

        With respect to Polanco, if the NH & co. could re-do his development path, do you think they’d have him spend more time at AA or at AAA?

        • Stephen take a look at the number of ABs McCutchen had at AA and AAA , then compare that with Polanco’s total. That will give you an answer to your question.

          • Respectfully, I don’t think that gives us much insight. Cutch had already been promoted to Indianapolis (as a 20 year-old) when Neal Huntington took over and cleaned house in scouting and development. So the first half of that AA-AAA equation was dictated by the Littlefield administration, and I haven’t seen or heard anything publicly to indicate whether this regime was in accord with that schedule. We only know that he spent another year-plus (to stay clear of Super-2) in Indy after that promotion.

    • Lambo will be back playing 1st base at Indy real soon adding to their strong roster as well. I don’t think it will take him long to remember how to hit. Isn’t it great to see the Pirates fielding strong teams at many minor league levels.

      Tim, the only thing you did not mention is that do you see the Pirates looking to trade to maximize our strength at all positions in the pipeline they have right now.

  • This again shows you how important it is- once you get to this point of organizational richness with prospects, is that you have to start putting drafting prospects based on position at a higher importance. Their lack of willingness to do that, is currently forcing everyone to play musical chairs with their positions, and while versatility is good, I think that players progress better when they can focus on mastering “their” position versus trying to learn a new position while trying to get better and better at the same time to progress. Its asking to burn out kids when you put this much on them. We simply have nowhere else to put first baseman or catchers, and will not for some time. The outfield is getting quickly to that same point since we are forcing infielders to the outfield.

    Its time to look at the depth charts and really pay attention to the players you are drafting in rounds 1-10.

    • Other than the fact that no MLB organization has ever actually been successful drafting for need, sure.

      • I love hyperbole positioned as fact NMR, you really told me!

      • Succesful at drafting for need on their major league roster? Yes i’m sure you are right
        – I’m talking about organizational need, not MLB need. I don’t believe any analysis has been done to show whether or not anyone has done that and whether or not they’ve been succesful. SO sure, lets keep wasting draft picks instead for players who will have to split their playing time, get blocked, and really just waste away while we have fringe prospects or organizational depth at other positions. Sure that makes more sense NMR- thanks for the input. One more strike against logic

    • Or you package multiple prospects for a MLB player at a position of need.

      • which we don’t have- ” a need”

      • That’s the whole issue- With other teams that works, but what do we need at the MLB level that we can afford from a salary point of view? We will never be able to use that strategy. Players we want we can’t afford. Players we can afford, we don’t need. The only “needs” our organization has, is prospects to fill the few gaps we have in our minor leagues, and as Tim said many times, Prospects are rarely traded for prospects.

        That statement in itself, is the only reason why drafting for future needs 2-4 years down the road is a good thing to do once you have good talent and depth in ML’s and AAA. I think its something you do strategically, you don’t give away value, but if its close, you need to pick the player you need more at least for now. Maybe not forever, but it is a good way to keep us having another player ready at every position when free agency comes calling. ….or do you want to end up with another player with the skill of Clint Barmes playing short or LaRoche playing third again in a few years because we were too stubborn to pick from a position of need. Meanwhile we could have 5 future all-star caliber outfielders in AAA that we have to discount to trade because we have no leverage in terms of their value.

    • I don’t agree. Prospects emerge, and flop, and get injured, and get traded so frequently that I don’t think it’s wise to play that game. Having too many guys for the roster at any given level is a short-term issue that can be easily resolved. I think the right approach is to maximize the future value to the org. from each draft pick, so you have to draft the player who will have the highest future value.

      • No- it isn’t easily resolved at all. There are only two ways to resolve the issue, and both are worse than simply drafting to fill your organization depth chart up with prospects. 1 is to try to trade prospects for other prospects which very rarely happens and 2 to move them to positions that they aren’t as good and probably won’t ever have as much value as they had playing their primary position, this delaying their progress and potentially hurting their long term value. All of the articles we’ve seen this year about logjams goes a long way toward showing my point. Everyone is out of position, some players are losing time, and its affecting development and value of these prospects all throughout the organization. I don’t ask anyone to agree with me, I just ask you all to think for yourselves based on the merit of the argument, not stand on the shoulders of everyone who just mindlessly says it shouldn’t be done. Don’t be lemmings.

      • The player with the highest future value is the player that fills a need your team has. A player’s value is completely dependant on the value of the players and prospects you already have playing the positions.

        Lets do this another way. There are two players on the free agent list. They are both the same age, they play different positions. One player plays Center Field, the other plays first base. The Center fielders OPS has been consistently .820 while the First baseman has been .800. The players are asking for the same money. Given our needs, the most valuable player is DEFINITELY the first baseman in this situation. The fact that the center fielder by nature has more value is irrelevant because we don’t NEED a center fielder. What the Pirates have been doing instead during the draft is the equivalent of drafting the center fielder anyways, and then turning him into a first baseman later, forcinng him to learn a new position, decreasing his trade value, and also affecting his hitting because he is focusing on learning new positions. ALL of this is easily avoiding by just drafting the best player at the positions you lack depth unless there is a significant gap between the value of the players (and where we are drafting, there will not be)