The biggest impact from the Pirates’ farm system this year will easily come from the pitching side. Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are expected to fill the biggest short- and long-term needs, with guys like Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams right behind them. But the pitching staff isn’t the only group expected to get a boost from the farm system this year. The infield could very well receive a boost, with several interesting prospects expected to start the year in Triple-A.
The Pirates have a crowded infield lined up for the start of the Triple-A season. There’s a chance that Alen Hanson could start the year in the majors if Jung-ho Kang isn’t ready, although Hanson seems likely to start the year as the starting second baseman in Indianapolis. Max Moroff, who has also played second base the last few years, will be moving up from Altoona after a big season in 2015. Two other infielders who either have moved up or who will move up are Adam Frazier and Dan Gamache. With Josh Bell playing first base, and Gift Ngoepe also on the Indianapolis roster and the 40-man roster, it’s easy to see that there are more infielders than starting spots.
The Pirates seem to be countering this by using positional flexibility with each player. Hanson has been playing second and shortstop. Last year he made the switch to second base from shortstop, and saw much more consistency at the new position than the old one.
“I feel comfortable there,” Hanson said of the transition.
He also got some work at third base at the end of the year, and there was talk that he could get some looks in the outfield. However, the outfield talk has been put to the side for now, and he’s been sticking to middle infield with not much work at third in the early part of 2016.
The defense looks good enough for Hanson to make the jump to the majors, although his offense needs some work. He needs to show more consistency, and not let outside factors impact his game (the main thing right now is that he needs to stop worrying about doing something special and doing too much to make the jump to the majors). Hanson has also struggled a bit more from the right side of the plate, and told me that he spent a lot of time last year focusing more on the right side than the left side.
It seems that Hanson could get the priority at second base, which means that Max Moroff would need to find other spots. That’s exactly what he’s been doing so far heading into the 2016 season. Moroff has been playing second, shortstop, and third base, and spent the entire off-season working at all three positions. Moroff said that the reason for the flexibility is due to the amount of options the Pirates have in Triple-A.
“I guess you can’t control how many players there are,” Moroff said. “Everyone is playing everywhere right now.”
Moroff got on the radar with a big season at the plate in Altoona last year. He always showed the raw hitting skills coming up through the minors, but never put it all together on the field. That changed when he added some rhythm to his swing early in the season, making the change after the first two weeks of the year.
“I was making solid contact whether I got out or got a hit,” Moroff said about when he noticed the change. “That’s what I try to do when I’m up there, make solid contact. That’s what I was doing, so I stuck with it and carried it throughout the season.”
Moroff said he doesn’t anticipate any changes to his approach at the plate this year, since last year’s changes worked so well.
Third base would seem to be the priority for Moroff, with Hanson getting most of his time at second. Moroff could move to second when Hanson gets time at shortstop. But those two would make it difficult for Dan Gamache to find regular playing time in the infield. Gamache has played mostly second and third base in the past, while also adding first base last year. He had a big season in Altoona, posting an .835 OPS, although he had a .607 OPS in his time in Triple-A. With Moroff and Hanson ahead of him on the depth charts, and Josh Bell at first, Gamache will need to move around constantly in order to find regular playing time.
“I think I could pretty much move around anywhere,” Gamache said. He mentioned that he got some tips on this from Josh Harrison last year when Harrison was rehabbing in Triple-A. “I talked to J-Hay last year about [moving around] when he was rehabbing in Indianapolis. He helped me a lot with that.”
Gamache is stronger offensively than he is defensively. Hanson and Moroff have shots at being starters in the majors, while Gamache has an upside of an offensive-minded utility infielder.
The final infielder in this mix is Adam Frazier, who is another utility option like Gamache. The advantage Frazier has is that he added experience in the outfield last year, meaning he could break out of the current infield mix and get playing time all over the field.
“I don’t know what led to it, just kind of being a utility guy,” Frazier said of the move last year. “I had never played outfield before. They threw me out there, it wasn’t too bad of an experience. I didn’t mind it at all. When you can play different positions, it adds value to the team and for yourself.”
The change came after Frazier missed the first month with a broken finger. The Altoona roster was very similar to the upcoming Indianapolis group. Max Moroff was starting his breakout at second base. Dan Gamache was doing well at third base. Gift Ngoepe was holding down the shortstop position. And that led to a need to get creative with Frazier, who hadn’t yet broken out at the plate himself, and send him to the outfield.
Frazier did break out at the plate, although his offensive numbers in 2015 were fueled by a high BABIP. He should be a good average and OBP guy going forward, although his lack of power will make it difficult for him to be a starter in the majors. He also doesn’t have the hands or glove work to be a starting shortstop, which is the position where his bat would play the best as a starter. That makes his positional flexibility so important, as that would be his path to the majors.
The Pirates don’t have the elite-level talent in the infield that they’re currently seeing with their future rotation members. But they’ve got a lot of talent in this group. Two of the guys who will start in Indianapolis have a shot at being starters in the majors, with that second base position being the biggest long-term opening in Pittsburgh. The other two have a shot to be utility players, with Frazier having the chance to be a super utility guy who can play all over the field. All four of these guys have a shot at being up in 2016. The biggest challenge until that happens would be finding playing time for all of them in Indianapolis before the promotions start taking place.