First Pitch: Pirates Will Have Some Tough Roster Decisions in the Minors

BRADENTON, Fl. – This week, I’ve got to write a season preview on the Indianapolis Indians, which is featured every year in the program they hand out for each game. This is either the fourth or fifth year that I’ve done this, and the preview always is due way early due to print times. Fortunately, with the way the Pirates operate, it’s usually pretty easy to get a feel for the Indianapolis roster and the top prospects they will see throughout the year.

If you asked me to write previews for Altoona, Bradenton, and West Virginia this week, I think my brain would explode. I wrote today about all of the prospect depth the Pirates have this year, and that mostly focuses on the Indianapolis roster. But below that, they’ve got a lot of position battles, and a lot of tough decisions to make this camp, which doesn’t make it easy when trying to project a roster.

It’s very difficult to sort through all of these decisions, but in an attempt to make it as simple as possible, I’m going to break each decision down by position. I won’t include the outfield, since that’s a position where the Pirates can, and probably will be very conservative. They can be conservative because of their current MLB outfield, and they probably will be conservative, keeping most of the outfielders on a “one level per year” type of approach, only giving promotions at the end of the year for some players. So with outfield out of the way, let’s start with catcher.

Catcher

The key decision here comes down to where Reese McGuire will play. His defense is as advertised, but his offense struggled last year. He’s got good hitting tools, and makes solid contact to the gaps, but doesn’t drive the ball consistently enough to have his skills show up in the stat lines. The defense is worthy of a promotion to Altoona, but the bat hasn’t looked the same way. He did perform better at the plate in the Arizona Fall League, so maybe that could be enough for the Pirates to consider a promotion.

The reason a promotion would be needed is because McGuire would be blocking everyone below him. He’d block Taylor Gushue from moving up to Bradenton from West Virginia. Gushue is another guy who hasn’t seen his offensive skills fully translate to the stat line. And if he stays in West Virginia, then the Pirates would be blocking 2015 draft pick Christian Kelley (who they gave a $100,000 bonus to in the 11th round) from moving up to full season ball.

This is a case where the guys behind McGuire aren’t nearly the calibre of prospect that he is, so it’s not imperative that he moves up to keep the system moving. But he would be stopping those guys from advancing, which would make it difficult for them to eventually become legit MLB catching prospects.

First Base

Josh Bell has the first base position in Indianapolis, which creates a few minor problems if the Pirates send Jason Rogers or Jake Goebbert down to Indianapolis. Bell is also blocking Jose Osuna from a promotion to Indianapolis, creating a repeat scenario from last year.

Osuna will probably have to remain in Altoona, sharing time at first base with Edwin Espinal, while also trying to get at-bats as the DH and in the outfield. The latter was easier in 2015, as Harold Ramirez and Barrett Barnes were out at the start of the season, opening right field for Osuna. If those two and Austin Meadows are healthy, then it would be difficult to get Osuna playing time, especially since Jin-De Jhang would be getting some time at DH when he’s not catching.

There’s another problem below Osuna at Bradenton, although I’ll leave this for the third base discussion. As for West Virginia, that will be an interesting decision. Carlos Munoz definitely deserves the chance to play full season ball, but that would leave no spot for 2015 college picks Albert Baur or Jordan George. The last thing isn’t as bad, since both guys were later round picks.

Second Base

The Indianapolis situation will be a mess here, only because of all the versatile infielders at the level. Beyond that, it gets somewhat simple, as Erich Weiss would take over in Altoona. This could get somewhat complicated if one of the Indianapolis infielders gets sent down to Altoona due to a lack of space in Triple-A.

From there, the only decision would be between promoting Kevin Kramer to Bradenton, or putting him in West Virginia. Sending him to Bradenton would put Pablo Reyes back in West Virginia. Reyes is a converted shortstop who has a lot of range at second, and good power for a young middle infielder, but is very raw and wild at times on the field and at the plate. Both have played shortstop in the past, and have practiced there this spring, but we’ll get to why that’s an issue in a second. And if you’ve got one per level, then you keep Trae Arbet in short-season ball a year after he posted some strong offensive numbers with Bristol.

This move would also leave Mitchell Tolman without a home at second base, which is where he’s been playing exclusively this spring. He could fit in on either team, but it would require moving Kramer or Reyes around, which is difficult when considering the makeup of other positions.

Shortstop

Altoona doesn’t have any prospects here. Chris Diaz is a strong defender, but lacks the bat to go beyond Double-A. Michael Fransoso is very athletic, but has lacked the defense in the past to be a good shortstop option. This is one of the few positions on a team in the system where the Pirates don’t have a true prospect competing for the job.

Then you’ve got Bradenton. I could see Kevin Newman making the jump to the level, due to his advanced approach. And Cole Tucker is returning earlier than expected, and is also a candidate to go to Bradenton. If he goes to Bradenton, then you obviously don’t have enough playing time for both of your recent first rounders. If he heads back to West Virginia, then he blocks Adrian Valerio from making an aggressive jump from the GCL.

It would be interesting to see if the Pirates give Newman a really aggressive push, sending him to Altoona to fill that void. This gives the starting job in Bradenton to Tucker, and the starting job in West Virginia to Valerio. It would also make it easier for guys like Pablo Reyes or Kevin Kramer to sub in during certain games when they need more playing time.

The Pirates have been very selective when skipping guys over High-A, and it usually involves first basemen. Matt Curry made the jump after destroying West Virginia. Stetson Allie did the same thing. So it’s not out of the question that Newman could get that aggressive push.

Third Base

So far in practices, Wyatt Mathisen and Eric Wood have been taking ground balls together. That makes sense, as Wood and Mathisen project to be in Altoona this year. The other ground ball group has been Jordan Luplow, Connor Joe, and Ke’Bryan Hayes. This is where things get interesting.

I’d fully expect Hayes to get an aggressive push to West Virginia. The Pirates did this with Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, and Cole Tucker, so it would make sense for Hayes. This leaves Joe and Luplow in Bradenton.

Joe has been practicing at third base all spring, and I haven’t seen him at first base yet. It was a similar case last year, although Luplow got the third base job in West Virginia, while Joe played mostly first base and DH. Over on the first base side, the Pirates have Chase Simpson. And if someone like Tolman moves up to this level, then you’re taking the DH away. So which player would play third base when the season came around, and how much would that block some of the college guys from moving up to Bradenton at the start of the year?

The Rotation

The Indianapolis rotation is pretty much set. Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon will start there, and if I had to guess, I’d say Chad Kuhl is most likely to start at the level from the NGTs. I also think that Kyle Lobstein and maybe Wilfredo Boscan could start at the level early in the season, in order to provide depth for the majors at the start of the season.

This would push Steven Brault and Trevor Williams down to Altoona, at least for the start of the year. And this would create a ripple that would either keep pushing guys down, pushing guys to the bullpen, or both.

Altoona also has Tyler Eppler, Cody Dickson, Clay Holmes, David Whitehead, Luis Heredia, Frank Duncan, and Jason Creasy as starting options. Of that group, I think the first three have the best chance to start, which means the others would have to move to relief. Or, the Pirates could hold someone like Holmes back for a bit, allowing one more starter from that group.

The Bradenton group looks pretty loaded already. Yeudy Garcia and Stephen Tarpley lead the pack. Austin Coley and Alex McRae seem like two others who are locks for the rotation. The Pirates always send a college guy or two straight to Bradenton, and this year I’d say that Brandon Waddell and JT Brubaker would be the top options for that promotion. But unless McRae moves to long relief, they couldn’t promote both guys. And it would be more difficult if a starter stays back from the Altoona group.

West Virginia has roster situations from both directions. If Waddell and/or Brubaker don’t go to Bradenton, then they will definitely be in the West Virginia rotation. Then you’ve got the young guys moving up from the short season leagues, like Mitch Keller, Gage Hinsz, Luis Escobar, and Billy Roth. It’s not a guarantee that any of those guys move up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened with any of the four of them.

Seth McGarry has the upside of a late inning reliever, but the Pirates will probably use him as a starter until he arrives in Double-A. Bret Helton was a top ten round pick, and should get plenty of innings. West Virginia can piggyback starters, and if the young guys get promoted, I doubt they’d go more than 4-5 innings per start. So they can have all of these guys on the team. But there still might be spots needed for guys like Dario Agrazal, Scooter Hightower, Neil Kozikowski, Logan Sendelbach, Chris Plitt, or Nathan Economos. None of these guys are top prospects at the moment, but all interesting arms who have started before, and might be moved to the bullpen going forward. And I haven’t even mentioned Colten Brewer and Jose Regalado, who should both get a lot of innings in Bradenton if they move up.

The thing about the pitching group is that you can expect a lot of movement this year, with the chain reaction being set off when some of the Indianapolis prospects move to the majors. That would create the opportunity for anyone left behind to move up to the level they deserve to be at. But until then, we might see some guys on the starting rotation side starting the season a level too low, in a piggyback role, or flat-out moving to the bullpen.

**Everyday, Pirates Prospects posts more analysis and information on the Pirates’ system than any other outlet. We also post information that you can’t find anywhere else, as we’re the only ones who cover this team’s minor league system live on a daily basis. You can get all of this information for our low monthly, annual, or three-year prices. Subscribe today to get the best and most in-depth Pirates coverage there is. You can also purchase the 2016 Prospect Guide for profiles on every player in the system, with book discounts for subscribers.

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**Pirates Have More Prospects Set to Arrive in 2016 Than Any Year Under Hurdle. Hurdle said this is the most prospect-laden camp he’s had, and the guys are showing some of their potential with their daily late-game comebacks. Also includes notes on shifting and versatility, plus some lineup related notes.

**Will Tyler Glasnow’s Nerves Keep Him From Reaching His Upside? Short answer: No. But I go into detail about the history of his nerves impacting him, and why it won’t hurt his future. I wrote this in the article, but I’ll repeat it here: I don’t talk about the mental game, as that’s something you can never really know unless a player tells you. In this case, Glasnow has been talking about this for the last three years.

**Here Are the Big Pitching Prospects After the Indianapolis Group Graduates. Video from Saturday of some of the best young pitching prospects in the system, in case you’re wondering who is behind the current Indianapolis group.

**Cole Tucker is Now Throwing From Shortstop, Could Return in April. Great news, as this means he will probably play most of the 2016 season, rather than missing most of the year.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Funkhouser Back on Track With Strong Outing. John Dreker has the latest updates on the guys ranked around where the Pirates are picking.

  • Check my profile picture
    March 7, 2016 7:22 pm
  • Tim- I would almost like to see Max Moroff play SS everyday in Altoona for a month or 2. Max definitely deserves a promotion to Indy with the bat, but more reps at short would help his value. Then, push Newman to Altoona when Max goes to Indy. Just a thought.

  • Why do we draft catchers when we can keep screwing the Yankees

  • With all due respect to the Jose Osunas and Taylor Gushues of the word, prospect crunches really only matter when two legitimate kids block one another from development time. Otherwise this is only a matter of some simple organizational maneuvering, even if that’s not always done well (cough…TonySanchez/EliasDiaz…cough).

    Shortstop is the only positional I see with a bit of “problem”, but here is where the drafting of Kevin Newman *should* start to show benefits. A month in Bradenton splitting time with Tucker while he eases back from injury wouldn’t be a bad idea, but Newman is absolutely the type of prospect you should be able to aggressively push to AA. Advanced college bat with plate discipline and plus contact skills without much room for physical projection is the kind of player that should get to the upper levels quickly. Doesn’t mean immediate success in the form of counting stats should be expected, but a kid who walked more than he struck out in low-A with elite contact rates shouldn’t need significant time in high-A.

    If Newman is as some believe, this isn’t a kid who’ll need a lot of development time. Get him to AAA in ’16 and put him in a position to help the big club in the second half of ’17 if needed.

  • piraterican21
    March 7, 2016 9:00 am

    I believe that this is only problem early in the year and only this year. By May this situation should be truly resolve and by next year settle, hopefully this will prevent the team from signing or trading for players like Lobstein, Joyce, Rodgers, etc in the future and rely on the farm instead.

    • All MLB teams sign AAA depth. We will be doing our usual “dumpster diving”, as some folks are wont to call it.

      • piraterican21
        March 7, 2016 11:30 am

        That’s my point foo, if Kang mercer, Harrison and bell are the infielders next year then Hanson, Frazier, Moroff are depth or bench pieces instead of SRod, Florimon,,Rodgers, etc no need to sign a catcher with Diaz waiting in the wing. The outfield will have Garcia,,Osuna as depth and some of the arms will probably move to the pen. This is a good thing as it will free up money wasted on bench and pen pieces.

    • This was a problem in previous years as well, but on a smaller scale.

      A few years ago, the Pirates had Reese McGuire, Jin-De Jhang, and Wyatt Mathisen potentially in West Virginia. They skipped Jhang up to Bradenton and moved Mathisen to third base to solve the issue.

      Last year they had to move Stetson Allie and Jose Osuna to the outfield to get them playing time away from first base. They did the same for Adam Frazier, getting him time outside of the infield.

      • Yeah, where is Stetson Allie? Did he go to Japan or something?
        They should have made at least one last attempt to get him to pitch. Maybe the time away from it helped? Guy threw in the mid 90’s, I hate to waste him.

  • 1) Sounds like good problems to have. Sure beats the days of Brian Bixler and Kevin Haversham.
    2) Perhaps a trade or two will ease the logjam?
    3) May the best man (men?) win.
    4) Put all of the best prospects in Altoona so that I can watch them. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Bottom line is that it is nice to know that I can trust the Bucs to do the right things.

    • Watching just the outfield in Altoona should be worth the price of two days’ admission

    • They’ve made trades from this depth each year, and will probably do it again. Altoona has a hole at shortstop because JaCoby Jones was traded. The Indianapolis and Altoona rotations are less crowded because Adrian Sampson, Shane Carle, and Joely Rodriguez were traded away last year.

    • Line 4 looks like the best proposition to me .

  • IMO the Pirates are in a rebuilding year with 2 good starting pitchers and 2 starting infielders gone means they are in a rebuilding mode. This team is not going to see the light of day when it comes to the playoff discussion because of the rotation. It will improve once Taillon moves up from AAA, hopefully in June and then Glasnow in Sept.
    This all tells me then rebuild right now. Bell to 1st., Hanson to 2nd., and Diaz to replace Stewart with Cervelli traded as he would bring in the most. Stewart would take Cervelle’s spot till Diaz passes him up. That would be my catchers till R. McGuire advances out of the minors.

  • Here is my first attempt at a Survey Monkey Questionaire. Results will be posted next Monday.

    Pirate Prospects-centric, but also some MLB Bucco questions. I will post this here in an article all week.

    https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/9M2YZ7B

  • The Pirates could possibly look to trade a couple of these guys for a SP or a 3B/1B who can both field and hit. Obviously the Kang situation impacts 3B. If he is ready early and is healthy then fine, but if he is not ready and has a relapse we could be in trouble. I really have know idea what or who is available for a trade but this team has holes to fill and should look at actively filling those holes. Jaso looks less than impressive with his glove and the replacement candidates are all one-sided. The pitching could be harder to obtain, nobody wants to give up a good starter. But a trade could also free up spots in the minor league. I really do not think the PBC properly filled their roster spots this past winter

  • ArthurDayne
    March 7, 2016 5:43 am

    The Indy pen interests me. Of this group they brought in over the offseason, they probably lose a couple, maybe gain one. It always feels like some unknown comes along and gives you valuable innings. Long way to go…I think it would be nice to get an update eventually on who’s doing well and who’s not, who has options and who doesnt.

    I try not to get caught up in the hand wringing of “best 25” or “best 12 pitchers” going north. Roster flexibilty, I believe is the applicable Tomlinism.

    • John Dreker
      March 7, 2016 7:35 am

      Our 40-man roster tracker has options listed. Obviously if someone is signed on a minor league deal, it doesn’t matter whether they have options or not, because they are assigned to the minors, not optioned http://18.206.184.11/2016payroll

  • I suppose…it’s not a bad thing to have so many guys worthy of moving up that a logjam is created. But it is a headache, nonetheless.

    Based on his fall performance, I’d guess McGuire gets the promotion…but it probably won’t be the last season we see him at AA.

    First base sucks. I love Osuna and thinks he deserves a shot at AAA now. He won’t get it because there’s too much riding on Bell. The Pirates have too much invested in Bell and I’m guessing he’d have to totally tank, for more than one season, for Osuna to pass him on the depth chart. I’d rank Osuna as one of the top guys to be dealt in a prospects-for-veteran package.

    Middle infield: Moroff and Hanson at AAA 2B is hairy. After that, meh. For SS, Tucker coming back so quickly complicates the Newman situation. Neither seem to be world beaters, but I won’t be surprised to see them strangling each other for the next few seasons. It’ll be fun to watch how they develop with respect to one another.

    3B: There’s Hayes and then…who cares.

    OF: Meadows should be wherever his bat takes him. If he hits, he needs to take priority over anyone at AAA. If he continues to hit there, someone has to step aside at the ML level…he’s that promising. Garcia…meh…the luster is fading–he’s passed his max trade value and, most likely, won’t contribute…I see him packaged with Osuna and one of the following: Tarpley, Kuhl, or Holmes for someone at the deadline (if the Pirates are contending). Harold Rameriz: should start in AA and I won’t be surprised to see him and Meadows crushing AAA pitching by the end of the season.

    SP: Lobstein and Boscan are depth. Williams and Brault deserve the AAA starts over them…but that’s just the way it is. Williams, in fact, I’d take over Vogelsong right now…I don’t think he’s an ace, but I like his makeup and believe he’s a better option.

    • Admittedly, I have not seen Osuna play in person but from what others have said and from the videos and performance this kid looks like he has a chance to be a major league power bat and adequate fielding first baseman and corner outfielder.
      I don’t want to see him dealt because of Bell unless it nets a division title(how’s that for a condition?).
      So here is the developing issue….Jaso is a circus act so far at first base. Kang is not going to be ready. Rogers is a third baseman learning first. Morse is looking good. Bell looks like a stud at the plate and better than Jaso in the field…………but has an inadequate numbers of ABs in AAA.
      What do the Bucs do if Jaso is as bad as Pedro at first base?

      • If Jaso can’t cut 1B, then he will be the 4th OF and a good bat off the bench…albeit, an expensive 4th OF

        • Has he ever played outfield and well enough to beat out Joyce?

          • Yes, he has about 50 innings in the OF.

            • So he has less than a week’s worth of MLB experience in the OF and at first base……this man may end up a pretty expensive pinch hitter against right handers only. Ouch.

              • I have confidence that Jaso will be okay.

                My question is: What do we do with him when Bell is ready?

                • His play is being described as adventurous by the print media and play by play guys so far..I hope you are right.

                • That will be easy – If Jaso is doing good, they can trade him, if he’s doing bad, nobody will care as long as Bell does well, which I expect he will. If neither does well, then hey, I found a spot for Osuna. 🙂

      • I’d say Rogers is a first baseman learning third, more than the other way. At least I don’t think he’s ready to play third in the majors.

        I don’t expect Jaso to be anywhere near as bad as Pedro, but he may have some early trouble, as should be expected. But a catcher is used to all that action on the field, their reactions are already quick. Most catchers take to first base pretty easily, once they get used to it. Heck, Sangy did it easily.

        • Heck Willie Stargell, Don Clendenon (remember him) played 1st base and I think Jaso is much more agile than them. I am hoping
          for good things because from what I have seen early, Jaso can hit
          and get on base.

        • Good catch…my brain short circuited. I meant to say Rogers is the other right handed first baseman trying to learn third. I am not a believer in the assumption that athleticism automatically enables people to switch positions at the major league level. Catching is much different than playing the infield and Jaso is being thrown in the fire.

          • Couldn’t agree more with you.

            I’m not sure where this idea that pure athleticism should translate into the ability to play a Major League-quality infield position comes from, but it’s flat-out wrong. No amount of reps is going to teach even Usain Bolt to play a passable first base, and it doesn’t get more “athletic” than that. Prince Fielder could make some toolshed outfielders with sub-7 60’s look like a butcher in the infield. Some guys simply have the combination of skills and innate ability to play infield, and some don’t.

            There’s also far too much survivor bias to really claim that catchers inherently have an easier time converting to first base. How many folks account for the Tony Sanchez-type experiments that don’t even make the back page of the sports section? And even of the catchers that *have* successfully transitioned, specifically the ones referenced in this FanGraphs article (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/pirates-sign-john-jaso-obviously/), not a single one of them played more than 30% of their time at 1B in the first year of their transition. These moves are typically done gradually, not all at once, which inherently allows a team to pull the plug on the experiment before it completely fails (and thus become a data point nobody remembers).

            The Pirates and John Jaso do not have that luxury.

  • I think at this point it probably still falls into the “good problem to have” category, but I’m curious at what point is it just too crowded to adequately develop all of your prospects. There must be an optimal balance to strike between hanging onto as many prospects as you can, and risking shooting yourself in the foot by stifling some of their potential value individually. You want occasional opportunities available for the 2012 Polanco’s or even the 2015 Yeudy Garcia’s to emerge. Again, having a really deep farm system is certainly a good thing, but just a thought.

    • One thing about this article is that I included a lot of guys who aren’t really top prospects right now, but who could be the next 2012 Polanco’s or the 2015 Garcia’s (although some on a smaller scale). So they’re factored into all of this.

      • True, I think you accounted for most of them already, but to your point in the article, there may not be room for some of those guys you mention to play everyday.

        But, thinking about this further, maybe that’s ok because I guess you are still maximizing your chances of developing major league talent if you always favor the highest rated guys. Also, perhaps NH & Co. often see the signs of those pre-breakout players and start getting them more PT when they see something, and thus maybe the “unexpected” breakout is not as random and reps-oriented as it may seem to us fans.

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