Minor League Keeper Thoughts: Pittsburgh Pirates

So far, we've looked at 7 of the systems in the Majors, and seen some good and some not-so-good. The goal with each team I look at is to discuss a few players who are likely to have an impact in the Majors in 2012, a few who could be ready by the start of 2014, and a few more who are a long ways away, but could be interesting as well. You can find links to the previous teams below:

Houston Astros | Minnesota Twins | Seattle Mariners | Baltimore Orioles | Kansas City Royals | Chicago Cubs | San Diego Padres

Overview

The Pirates came into the 2011 season with some solid prospects, and knew that they would be able to add another impact talent with the top pick in the amateur draft in June. The team did well to add not only Gerrit Cole with the #1 overall pick, but also managed to get a player that many considered to be unsignable with their 2nd round pick in Josh Bell. Overall, the top of the system is very strong, albeit a long way away from contributing in many cases.

2011 Graduates

Alex Presley, Josh Harrison

Ready in 2012

Starling Marte

Year Age Lg Lev G R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2007 18 DOSL FRk 45 27 29 4 1 1 11 16 2 10 29 .220 .307 .288 .595
2008 19 DOSL FRk 65 53 76 10 2 9 44 20 8 16 53 .296 .367 .455 .822
2009 20 GULF Rk 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
2009 20 SALL A 54 41 69 9 5 3 34 24 7 12 55 .312 .377 .439 .815
2009 20 CARL A+ 1 0 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1.000 1.000 1.000 2.000
2010 21 GULF Rk 8 6 9 3 0 2 5 4 1 1 6 .346 .393 .692 1.085
2010 21 FLOR A+ 60 41 70 16 5 0 33 22 8 12 59 .315 .386 .432 .819
2011 22 EL AA 129 91 178 38 8 12 50 24 12 22 100 .332 .370 .500 .870
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/18/2012.

Marte spent all of the 2011 season with the Pirates' AA affiliate in Altoona, and was the first time he managed to play more than 100 games in a season. Marte has shown a decent combination of power and speed (12 HR, 24 SB) to go with his excellent batting average (.332). However, the biggest concern for Marte remains his inability to draw a walk (22 in 572 plate appearances in 2011). That said, the future still could be very bright, and relatively soon for Marte. Here's what Dee Clark of The Golden Sombrero had to say about Marte when he ranked him at #32 on his overall top 50 prospects list:

He is a terrific runner who will eventually move Andrew McCutchen to a corner spot. His arm will be plus in center and is quite accurate with good carry. He squares fastballs up as well as anyone in the Minors today and has the legs to beat out several grounders per year. His power is behind his other tools, but it is at least in the "gap" category now with likely more to come as he matures.

Overall, he looks like he has the potential to be a 15-20 home run hitter with 20-25 stolen bases, providing he can improve his pitch recognition. The fact that his defense is considered good enough to displace a starting center fielder also leads me to believe that he's going to be given a lot of opportunity to show he can make it.

Could Be Ready by 2014

Robbie Grossman

Year Age Lg Lev G R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2008 18 GULF Rk 5 3 3 1 0 0 1 1 0 4 7 .188 .381 .250 .631
2009 19 SALL A 116 83 120 21 2 5 42 35 12 75 164 .266 .373 .355 .728
2010 20 FLOR A+ 125 84 115 29 3 4 50 15 8 66 118 .245 .344 .345 .688
2011 21 FLOR A+ 134 127 144 34 2 13 56 24 10 104 111 .294 .418 .451 .869
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/18/2012.

Grossman repeated High-A again in 2011, but finished the season showing much better results. However, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing for him. Here's what John Sickels' had to say about him as a part of his top 20 Pirates prospects:

If he had fulfilled his commitment to the University of Texas, 2011 would have been his draft year. I know he was repeating High-A, but a player jumping from the college ranks to High-A, hitting .294/.418/.451, then ripping up the Arizona Fall League would be getting an awful lot of praise, not skepticism. I also think that Grossman's tools are better than commonly reported. I expect he'll provide gap power with some speed and a high OBP, and that's valuable.

Grossman also jumped a lot based on his performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .375/.472/.625 with 7 HR and 6 SB in just 26 games. There's not a ton to read into AFL stats, but you do like seeing a good performance there as opposed to a poor one. Overall, I think Grossman is likely to start the season in AA, and with the group of young outfielders already ahead of him, he will likely be there all year. I could see him as a potential 20-20 outfielder, and would agree with Ray's assessment that he could be similar to Brett Jackson.

Gerrit Cole

Cole was the top pick in the amateur draft in 2011, but signed too late to make a debut with one of the Pirates' minor league affiliates. That didn't stop the team from sending him to the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 16/4 K/BB rate in 15 innings. Here's what Lincoln Hamilton of Project Prospect had to say about him prior to the draft:

He has big league ready stuff and a deep arsenal with three above-average pitches. He can beat you with velocity or finesse. He's outwardly competitive and aggressive on the mound. He throws strikes and isn't afraid to challenge any hitter he faces.

Cole is as good as any pitching prospect in recent years. He stacks up with the Strasburgs, Taillons and David Prices of the world. Heck, considering the fact that I see him as less of an injury risk at the same stage I'd probably take Cole over Strasburg at the same point in their careers. Cole is a legit 1 or 1A prospect in this, or any, draft class.

It's hard to not to like a pitcher who profiles as an ace-level contributor in relatively short order. Cole was invited to Spring Training by the club, and I would not be surprised if the team decided to push him to start the year at a full-season level like High-A. I would say look for Cole to be pushing his way into the Majors by midseason 2014.

Long-Term Prospects (Won't Be Ready Until at Least 2015)

Jameson Taillon

Year Age Tm Lg Lev Aff W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP BF WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2011 19 West Virginia SALL A PIT 2 3 .400 3.98 23 23 0 0 0 0 92.2 89 45 41 9 22 0 97 9 0 3 394 1.198 8.6 0.9 2.1 9.4 4.41
1 Season 2 3 .400 3.98 23 23 0 0 0 0 92.2 89 45 41 9 22 0 97 9 0 3 394 1.198 8.6 0.9 2.1 9.4 4.41
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/18/2012.

Taillon was the Pirates' top draft pick in the 2010 draft, and the 2nd overall behind uber-prospect Bryce Harper that year. A tall right hander drafted out of a high school in Texas, the Pirates challenged Taillon by sending him for the 2011 season to their low-A full-season affiliate in West Virginia. Taillon showed some of the potential there that made him the top prospect in the system a year ago. However, he was still very young for the level, and the scouting reports weren't all completely positive. Here's what Mike Newman over at Fangraphs had to say about Taillon:

Taillon has the body and fastball movement to hit the fast track, but his lack of developed secondary offerings gives me pause when considering his upside potential. Do I love Taillon as a solid 2/3 at the Major League level? Absolutely, but not as the true ace so many are projecting him to be.

Instead of Roger Clemens or Josh Beckett, the best Texan to comp Jameson Taillon in terms of physique, arsenal and peripherals is John Lackey who has compiled a 3.91 FIP in nearly 1,900 Major League innings. Would Pirates fans be happy with this outcome? Considering the hype, probably not, but that projection would still leave Taillon as the best starting pitcher to don a Pirates uniform since the days Barry Bonds wore the yellow and black.

However, John Sickels paints a bit brighter picture as a part of his top 20:

They are being very careful with his workload. As he incorporates his secondary pitches more often and builds his stamina, I expect greater dominance. Still struck out more than a hitter per inning even with restrictions on secondary pitch use.

Overall, I think the Pirates are going to be extremely patient with Taillon, and that he will likely start 2012 at their High-A affiliate. He'll still be young for the level if he does, as he'll be 20 for all of the 2012 season. I'm more inclined to believe the positive than the negative, especially given that he is still so young.

Josh Bell

The Pirates' second round draft pick from the 2011 draft, Bell was widely expected to be unsignable due to his commitment to the University of Texas. As a result, he fell in the draft despite being viewed as a 1st round talent. That said, $5 million dollars gives a lot of reasons to decide to postpone college, and the Pirates were able to convince him to do so. Here's what Nick Faleris of Diamondscape Scouting had to say about him prior to the draft:

He has very fast wrists and quick twitch in his core, which allows him to accelerate the barrel to the ball at a good rate, even with a little extra length in his barrel load. He has no difficulty driving the ball the opposite way from both sides of the plate, and already shows an ability to let the ball travel before uncorking. His barrel awareness is good enough right now to project some hit-for-average potential -- a feet made easier by his keen eye at the plate. Ultimately, his ability to identify and adjust to more advanced secondary stuff will determine where the hit tool rests, but there is no question he'll have the strength to launch balls out of any park.

The general consensus seems to be that Bell has the potential to be an amazing hitter, especially for power. The thing to remember with him is that the Pirates are likely going to need to push him quickly, as he will be 20 years old before the end of the 2012 season. I could see him being given a full-season assignment in Low-A to start the year, and possibly pushed to High-A if he performs well.

Luis Heredia

Year Age Tm Lg Lev Aff W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP BF WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2011 16 Pirates GULF Rk PIT 1 2 .333 4.75 12 11 0 0 0 0 30.1 28 16 16 3 19 0 23 4 1 1 135 1.549 8.3 0.9 5.6 6.8 1.21
1 Season 1 2 .333 4.75 12 11 0 0 0 0 30.1 28 16 16 3 19 0 23 4 1 1 135 1.549 8.3 0.9 5.6 6.8 1.21
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/18/2012.
Heredia was signed out of Mexico as a amateur free agent back in 2010, and was widely viewed as a potential top prospect almost immediately. I honestly was a bit surprised to find out that Heredia had made his U.S. debut already, given that he will be just 17 years old for almost all of the 2012 season. He is so far away at this point that he could turn into almost anything, up to and including an ace. Here's what Nathaniel Stoltz had to say about him recently:

Reports on him are good, but he’s still very raw, and he didn’t do all that well in the GCL in his pro debut, but he was just 16. Obviously, he has top-20 upside, but if Michael Ynoa is a remotely instructive example, we shouldn’t assume Heredia turns into much of anything yet.
Overall, the fact that Heredia didn't completely blow up while in the GCL at age 16 is a good start for him, but he is likely to be at least 4-5 years away in the best of cases. If you're looking for a lottery ticket in your fantasy minor league draft, he may be it though. I think he will spend another year pitching in a short-season league or rookie league like the GCL in 2012, and might be moved to a full-season league for 2013.

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