With the first half of the season behind us, and Indianapolis starting back play after the All-Star Game at the end of the week, there are several situations that catches one’s eye from the first half of the season that leads to more questions in the second half. Here are the top five storylines from the first half.
The Catching Situation
When Tony Sanchez was optioned to the level in April, Indianapolis ran into a sticky situation of getting Sanchez enough at bats to stay ready, while still cultivating top catching prospect Elias Diaz.
While it has been a challenge at times in series against National League affiliates with the DH not in use, both players have remained fairly fresh behind the plate, getting two starts in a row, and then taking two games off. Diaz has also been quite strong with the stick as well, while Sanchez had his annual June struggles.
This season, Sanchez hit .091 for the month of June, with a .399 OPS. In fact, Sanchez matched his total from last season with five hits in 55 at bats. While his throws have been much more accurate behind the plate, he still has not thrown out many attempted base stealers.
On the contrary, Diaz has a caught stealing rate just north of 25 percent this season, and showcases his patented throwing arm from behind the plate on a nightly basis. He has also made it a focus this season to work with the members of the pitching staff, which he has taken pride in over the campaign.
At the dish, Diaz has still not put up the power numbers that some project him to eventually have, but he has still been consistent nonetheless. After hitting just .203 in April, Diaz heated up in the next two months and has gotten his average up to .265 for the season with a .700 OPS. While he has 13 doubles in 223 at bats in the first half, he still only has three home runs.
Even though the platoon has messed with the routines, neither player has pointed to it as an issue and plan to move forward with the plans of the organization. With this, each player has something to eye in the second half as it comes to overall improvement.
With the success that Diaz has been seeing, along with the growth at the plate, the storyline for the second half of the season is whether Diaz has passed Sanchez in the Pirates brass. That answer will be known whenever the Pirates need a catcher in the majors.
Pitching Depth Taking a Hit
From the beginning of the season, Indianapolis has seen injuries from starting pitchers. Prior to the season, it was announced that Brandon Cumpton would have Tommy John surgery. Shortly thereafter the season started, he was joined by top pitching prospect Nick Kingham.
Jameson Taillon, who was expected to return from Indianapolis after rehabbing the same ailment, has seen a rash of injuries that have prevented him from making his return to Triple-A. He has seen a couple of setbacks and it now unlikely to join the squad before the season is over. The most recent was a hernia that caused surgery and is expected to sideline Taillon for a couple months.
Casey Sadler has also spent some time on the DL with a forearm strain, which he admitted has hampered him since Spring Training. Prior to going to the DL, Sadler had been one of the more consistent starters with Indianapolis and had himself primed for a spot start in the majors if needed. While Sadler’s ERA sits at 4.22 for the season, it jumped over a point in his last two starts when he was battling the injury and trying to stay off the DL.
Clayton Richard joined the Indianapolis rotation as well this year. However, after seeing success in his first couple of months, Richard took advantage of an out clause in his contract and moved on to the Cubs. With Sadler going down on the DL around the same time, many would have like to see Richard stay with the organization as pitching depth, but the opportunity was too great and he jumped for greener pastures.
Adrian Sampson has been the steadiest option for Major League depth this campaign, until he really struggled in June. In June and July, Sampson has posted a 4.86 and 4.73 ERA, respectively. He has fallen victim to big innings over the stretch in the month and really struggled at times to keep the ball down in the zone.
Even with the losses, Indianapolis still has found other options for rotation depth with the promotion of Angel Sanchez and the movement of Radhames Liz into the rotation. Both players have been very strong in the past month, and have provided some depth in an otherwise light hole.
The Progression of Alen Hanson
Alen Hanson has been working to learn a new position, in his first full season at second base, while also looking to maintain the same abilities on the offensive side of the ball at an elevated level of Triple-A.
Hanson has not disappointed in either of these situations. The International League player of the month in May, Hanson hit .362 with a .998 OPS for the month. On the season, Hanson is hitting .286 with a .751 OPS in 301 at bats.
He missed a couple of weeks with a finger injury, but has put up a strong season with 10 doubles, eight triples, and five home runs on the season. Hanson has also done an excellent job on the base paths as well, as he has stolen 23 bases on 33 attempts. He also has shown the ability to get around the bases well and hustling to take the extra base.
In addition, he has been solid defensively at second. Hanson brings the tremendous range that he possessed at shortstop to second base, while being more accurate with his throws. The errors are down and the fundamentals are up.
Additionally, there have not been any character issues with Hanson this season, like he has seen in the past.
While he is blocked at the next level for the time being with Neil Walker, Hanson has certainly showed that he is closer than maybe the schedule would indicate.
More impressive than the offensive success that he has seen at a new level his how quickly he has adjusted to a new position. Some do not have as quick of a transition and his continued growth is something to keep an eye on in the second half.
The Ups and Downs of John Holdzkom
After losing a numbers game in the Pirates bullpen, John Holdzkom was optioned to Indianapolis out of spring training. While he came on strong last season after being discovered from Independent ball, Holdzkom did not have the same control and movement after joining the Indians.
After the early season struggles, Holdzkom missed about a month of action after being shut down with shoulder fatigue. Prior to the injury, he was only throwing around 55 percent of his pitches for strikes. He was also not seeing the same movement on his ball that allowed him to crack the Pirates bullpen last season.
Holdzkom pointed to a lack of good health as the reason for the early season struggles. He said that this led to a lack of confidence in his stuff.
When he returned to action, the movement was back, but the velocity was down 4-5 MPH. This has since led to Holdzkom being shut down again. It was alarming when the fastball for Holdzkom, which is normally consistently at 96 to 97, was down to 92 and 93. However, he was throwing strikes and getting outs, which was encouraging.
Only time will tell if Holdzkom can return to pitching his best ball at the end of the season, like he was last year. It is also unclear if that will be enough to get him to the big league roster in September like last year. The main goal now is just to get the tall right hander back on the hill and feeling good. If he can accomplish those two things, the second half of the season should inherently see more success.
Despite Turnover, the Outfield Depth is Still Packed
To begin the season, Indianapolis had an outfield packed with Jaff Decker, Gorkys Hernandez, Mel Rojas, Jr., Jose Tabata, and Steve Lombardozzi. The most difficult aspect was getting at bats for the players, and keeping everyone fresh.
Rojas was eventually reassigned to Altoona, after struggling at the level and not seeing many at-bats in the process. Since going down to Altoona, Rojas has seen some of the success that allowed him to appear on the scene as a potential prospect for outfield depth last season.
Hernandez, Lombardozzi, and Tabata have all spent time in Pittsburgh.
There was a lot of hype prior to the season about Hernandez improving his approach and swing at the plate. The speed and defense has always been there, but he struggled to hit and get on base enough to be a real weapon. This was not the case prior to his call up.
Lombardozzi has also been strong at the plate all season, but did not have the same consistency with his throwing in the infield. Due to this, he was forced to create an even larger log jam in the outfield. Tabata created much of the same, when he was called up, designated for assignment, and outrighted again.
While the depth is a good thing, it is still necessary to get enough at bats to go around. Hernandez and Lombardozzi are currently on the big league roster, but Indianapolis has still added Keon Broxton and Willy Garcia from Altoona to further muddy the situation.
Since coming to Indianapolis, Broxton and Garcia have each struggled with the stick. Each have seen extremely high strikeout rates, while flirting with the Mendoza line since the promotion. It is vital to get the pair at bats to gain valuable experience to break out of the slump. This will also prevent a loss of confidence that would come with bench time.
The second half of the season will certainly show who has made it into favor with the organization, while also showing who may be on the same route as Rojas.