The Pirates have seen a slow and gradual build to their farm system over the last 7-8 years. For some, this build has been too slow, although that kind of pace is expected when you spend so many resources on very raw prep players. They’ve seen top guys get promoted to the majors the last few years, such as Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. Those guys have been joined by players with smaller roles, like Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, and Jeff Locke.
You may have noticed a trend in my early previews of the 2016 minor league rosters (if you missed them, you can read the pitching, outfield, and infield articles at those links). At almost every position in the full season leagues of the Pirates’ system, there is a logjam of talent. The Pirates are left with a lot of tough decisions, and are basically forced to aggressively promote a lot of players, at the risk of holding back talented players at the same position below those players.
This creates a bit of a sink or swim situation with some guys. It also keeps pushing talent up closer to the majors, meaning we’re getting close to seeing the farm system start to really produce from that heavy focus several years ago. That can be seen in the potential promotions this year. While the 2012-14 seasons saw Marte, Cole, and Polanco, the 2016 season could see Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, and Elias Diaz moving up, which would be five of the top ten prospects in the system. And that doesn’t even consider all of the role players like Keon Broxton, Gift Ngoepe, Chad Kuhl, or others who could make the jump this year.
But to get to this point, the Pirates are going to have to move away from an approach they’ve taken the last few years — signing minor league free agents for early season depth. It’s a process that every single team practices, and I’m not saying the Pirates should abandon it completely. That said, they’re getting to a point now where they are some positions where they need to rely on the prospects, rather than having an experienced veteran who is more of a “safe” option than a quality option.
At some positions, it would make sense to add the minor league free agent. At others, it makes no sense at all. To get an idea of which position is which, I broke down each spot for the expected 2016 Indianapolis Indians roster, looking at where the Pirates could seek outside help this off-season, and where they can’t afford to block players.
The Pirates could have an all-prospect pitching staff, going with Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, and Steven Brault. The only problem with this is none of those guys will be ready for the majors in April. Even a spot start would be difficult, especially since the last three have a combined four starts in Triple-A, when you include the post-season.
In previous years, the Pirates have left some prospects down in Double-A at the start of the year, even though they looked ready for Triple-A. This was due to a numbers crunch, with the team wanting early season depth for the majors. I see the same thing happening again this year.
The most likely candidate to be left in Altoona would be Steven Brault. He could come up to Indianapolis by mid-season, and keeping him back in Altoona won’t hurt him. If he’s needed in the majors, he’ll get his shot, although his need in the majors means that the Pirates would be at least on their 11th starting pitching option.
I could see the Pirates adding several pitchers to compete for the MLB bullpen and the Triple-A rotation, with most of them ending up pitching in relief in Triple-A. If there’s one area where the Pirates will probably go big on minor league free agents this off-season, it would be pitching, in order to add bullpen depth. That would especially be the case if Mark Melancon was traded.
Overall, with the pitching, I see a starter and several bullpen options coming from the minor league free agent side.
The Pirates have a lot of prospects in their infield, to the point where they might have to shift some guys around just to find playing time. Unlike the rotation, I don’t see a need for early season depth. Elias Diaz could take over at catcher if Francisco Cervelli or Chris Stewart go down. Josh Bell won’t be ready at first if an early season injury occurs, but I see the Pirates going with multiple first base options in Pittsburgh. Alen Hanson would probably be the top depth option at second or third, with Gift Ngoepe taking the shortstop depth. Here is a breakdown of each spot:
Catcher – Elias Diaz will be the starting catcher. I doubt Tony Sanchez makes it through waivers to join him in Indianapolis, so I could see Jacob Stallings backing him up, with a minor league free agent serving as the third catcher and allowing Diaz to DH on occasion to give Stallings some additional time.
First Base – Josh Bell will be first baseman in Indianapolis until he is called up, and there would be no need for a minor league free agent, or a minor deal like last year’s addition of Hunter Morris. When Bell goes up, Jose Osuna can take his spot at first, with Osuna potentially being blocked in Altoona until that happens.
Second Base – Alen Hanson will be the starter here, and Max Moroff could also get some time at the position. The Pirates will have no shortage of prospects for second base, with Erich Weiss expected to return to Altoona after moving up at the end of the 2015 season.
Shortstop – Gift Ngoepe is on the 40-man roster, and assuming he doesn’t make the MLB roster, he would be a top candidate for shortstop work in Triple-A. Adam Frazier could also get time here, along with some time at other positions, including the outfield.
Third Base – I’d expect Hanson or Moroff to get some time here, just to get everyone in the lineup. You could also see Dan Gamache at third.
A lot of this will depend on how the MLB roster shapes up. The candidates would be Keon Broxton, Jaff Decker, Willy Garcia, and possibly Jose Osuna. Adam Frazier could find time in the outfield as well.
Not all of these guys will make it to Indianapolis. One of them could end up in Pittsburgh. Decker is out of options, and could be lost to waivers. I think Garcia is the most likely to start the season in Triple-A, and it could be him and two open spots. In that scenario, I think Osuna would be promoted, rather than keeping him in Altoona to split with their crowded outfield and Edwin Espinal at first base.
I’d expect at least one minor league free agent signed to play a somewhat big role in the outfield. This is what the Pirates have done the last few years with Gorkys Hernandez, Chris Dickerson, and Felix Pie. It doesn’t look like they’d be blocking anyone on Opening Day if they took the same approach this year. You can also expect some minor league free agent outfielders to be signed to compete for the bench outfield spots.
Minor League Free Agent Needs
Overall you’ve got 1-2 big needs in the rotation and the outfield. The rotation could be less of a need if they decided to go with all prospects, but the reality is that those guys won’t be ready on Opening Day, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a minor league free agent adding early season depth.
There would also be a need for minor league free agents in the bullpen, along with a third catcher and another infield or outfield bench option. The latter spots could be filled by upper level organizational players, although it seems like this would be a prime spot for the fallout from the MLB outfield bench battle.
**Pirates Release 2016 Spring Training Schedule. They finish up with a home game against the Reds in Indianapolis, which will be cool. I guess we know where Ryan Palencer will be on April 2nd.
**The Pirates Have a Lot of Talented Players to Protect in the Rule 5 Draft. This will lead to a lot of moves later in the week, and several talented players getting added to the 40-man roster on Friday.
**AFL: Steven Brault Retires Final Eight Batters in Last Fall Start. If you missed it, check out my article on Brault from the AFL from last week.
**Winter Leagues: Harold Ramirez Moves to Colombian League. One of the guys who needs to be protected on Friday.
**Early Look at the 2016 Pirates Minor League Rosters – Pitching Edition. From Sunday, the early breakdown of the minor league pitching staffs in 2016.
**Using the Craig Kimbrel Trade to Figure Out Mark Melancon’s Trade Value. From Saturday, a look at what the Pirates could expect from dealing Melancon.