After Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, manager Clint Hurdle talked positively about the depth that the Pittsburgh Pirates have coming into this season. That depth is filled with a lot of young players still making their way up the system, which led the Pirates to trusting their internal options, rather than signing minor league free agents this off-season to fill holes.
Going by our 2017 Prospect Guide, we could see 23 players from our top 50 prospects get time in with Indianapolis this season, with many of them scheduled to start their season in Triple-A. That doesn’t include Josh Bell, who will begin the season in Pittsburgh, and Alen Hanson and Tyler Webb, who are unlikely to make it to Indianapolis if they don’t make the Opening Day roster. That means more than half of our prospect list has a legit chance to reach Pittsburgh in 2017 or 2018. This type of young, talented depth sets the Pirates up well this year in case of injuries, and will help them for many years due to the amount of controllable players.
The current downside to so much talent at the top is that there are some areas of weakness in the system below Double-A. In this case, it’s not something to be overly concerned about right now. With so many players being on the cusp of the big leagues, you’re filling a lot of holes long-term with internal options who are cost-controlled. The Pirates will also have $15 M to spend this year between their draft class and the July 2nd class, so that could quickly strengthen the bottom of the farm system. You also have numerous players at the lower levels with breakout potential who didn’t make our top 50, plus the ability to have patience with those players if they aren’t as quick to develop.
But back to Indianapolis, which will be the team to watch this season. The rosters won’t be set for approximately another month, so this is more of a look at the players who expect to see time with the team this season for depth purposes, rather than a season preview.
We start at the top with the best prospect in the system. Austin Meadows should make his Major League debut sometime this season. A lot of that depends on what the Pirates end up doing with Andrew McCutchen. A strong start from the Pirates could end up meaning a later debut for Meadows. If the Pirates get off to a poor start and they are near .500 at the trade deadline, then you could see a McCutchen trade, with Meadows taking his spot.
There is also the health aspect to consider in the majors. If an injury pops up after early June, then Meadows will be the likely call-up. Since he is the type of player who you’d want to avoid Super Two status with, then someone else at Indianapolis would be a more likely replacement during the first two months of the season. Meadows still needs time to adjust to Triple-A pitching, so it’s unlikely he will be ready before early June anyway. That’s where the depth comes in handy.
The Pirates could go with someone like Adam Frazier full-time in the outfield for a short-term fix, then have a player like Max Moroff, Erich Weiss or Chris Bostick fill that infield utility role behind Alen Hanson. You also have players like Jose Osuna, Eric Wood and Barrett Barnes, who could see time in the outfield in Indianapolis. If any of them get off to a strong start, then they could be a short-term fix in the outfield. It’s not a group with any sure things included, but it gives you a lot of prospects who could take a step forward and temporarily fill a role while you wait for Meadows. Regardless of when the call comes, once Meadows is called up to the majors, the plan will likely be the keep him there for good.
The infield and outfield will have a lot of depth, and that doesn’t include non-prospects like Eury Perez, Jason Rogers, or Joey Terdoslavich, who all have big league time. Danny Ortiz, a minor league veteran who could at least hold his own on defense, is another short-term option. During the second half of the season, shortstop Kevin Newman could become an option in Pittsburgh. By then, it’s entirely possible that he is the third best prospect in the system, with Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow likely graduating from the list early in the season. Between the infield and outfield, you have eight top 50 prospects for seven positions.
The Pirates also have young depth behind the plate, with Elias Diaz slated to be the everyday catcher for Indianapolis and the first guy up if anything happens to either Francisco Cervelli or Chris Stewart. Based on recent experience, the third string catcher could see decent time and Diaz is a nice option to have in Triple-A. Behind him you have Jin-De Jhang, who will likely be the everyday catcher at Altoona. You also have Jacob Stallings, who didn’t make our top 50, but his defense alone makes him a solid fourth option with Major League experience. Jhang should see some time at Indianapolis this season, just like Diaz will get time in Pittsburgh, and those moves could happen simultaneously.
On the pitching side, Indianapolis will be loaded with pitching prospects, regardless of who ends up being the fifth starter for the Pirates. Drew Hutchison isn’t a prospect, but he does qualify as a depth option if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster. Let’s assume that he’s the fifth starter to make the Indianapolis prospect depth easier to talk about. They would have a rotation of Tyler Glasnow, Trevor Williams, Nick Kingham and Steven Brault. Those are four players who will see time in Pittsburgh this year, possibly serving in a large role, depending on the health and success of the Opening Day rotation.
You also have rotation options from Altoona last year, with Tyler Eppler and Clay Holmes being the most likely to be in Indianapolis at the start of the year, and Brandon Waddell not far behind. Those three would be September options for Pittsburgh if all goes well, but it shows you how deep the rotation is for Indianapolis.
In the bullpen, you have three hard-throwers in Dovydas Neverauskas, Edgar Santana, and Pat Light, who was acquired just after our Prospect Guide was released, but would have made the back half of our top 50 if he was around a few days earlier. Then you have lefty Jared Lakind, who put up strong numbers at Altoona and could make Indianapolis to start the year.
There is also Casey Sadler and Angel Sanchez returning from Tommy John surgery at some point during the first half of the season. Sanchez was just outside our top 50, though a spot opened up with the trade of Frank Duncan, so he would slide into that last spot now. While he lost his prospect status, Brandon Cumpton’s return from two surgeries later in the season will also add to the depth.
There won’t be room for all of the pitching prospects at the beginning of the season, so Altoona should get some better players early in the year. That being said, you could see how there is the slimmest possibility for the prospects to align, and the entire 12-man pitching staff could be made up of strictly top 50 prospects in the system.
That’s the type of depth that Clint Hurdle was excited about. Even as a prospect gets promoted to Pittsburgh, there is a legit prospect in Altoona ready to take his place. We won’t see a Triple-A team made up of strictly prospects, but this season will be the closest you’ll likely see, and that’s a healthy sign for the immediate and long-term future of the franchise. It provides you with young, controllable talent and players who either end up as trade pieces, or the player who fills in when someone else is traded away.
**MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Pirates Prospects and Farm System Rankings. A breakdown of the top 30 prospects and the farm system rankings from MLB.com.
**Pirates Agree to Terms with 21 Pre-Arbitration Players. This is more a formality, but no issues this year, compared to last year with Gerrit Cole.
**Injury Updates: Josh Bell, Francisco Cervelli, Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, Angel Sanchez. Tim Williams has all of this week’s injury updates from Bradenton.
**Josh Harrison is Showing the Way For Other Pirates Super Utility Players. We’ll have the flip side of this article tomorrow, looking at one super utility player hoping to follow Harrison’s path.