The minor league follow-up to “Key Questions for 25 Players” on the MLB club. Players ranked in order of importance to the franchise.
1. Gerrit Cole, SP (High-A)
Jameson Taillon may have nearly as high a ceiling, but considering the Pirates took Cole with the #1 overall pick in 2011, he needs to dominate and move through the system quickly. The pressure is even greater now, as two pitchers selected right after Cole- Danny Hultzen (Mariners, AA) and Trevor Bauer (Diamondbacks, AA)- are blowing away batters at higher levels. Cole’s velocity has been hampered by a lack of movement on pitches, and apparently difficulty in hitting his spots at times. His 21-20, 3.38 ERA career NCAA totals caused some scouts to prefer Cole’s UCLA teammate Bauer. Still, Cole’s raw velocity (he can touch 100 mph regularly) is unheard of in the Pirates’ system. He’s a potential ace SP if the Pirates can develop him properly.
2012 season to date: 1-1, 3.54 ERA, 34K/28IP
2. Jameson Taillon, SP (High-A)
A year younger than Cole and 2″ taller, the Pirates’ 2010 first round pick (#2 overall) has a tick less velocity than his Bradenton teammate, but a better power curve thrown from a higher arm slot. Both Taillon (#15) and Cole (#12) cracked Baseball America’s Preseason Top 20 prospects, and should advance in tandem to AA Altoona by mid-season. While Cole may have the better chance of being an elite-level arm, Taillon is the safer bet to at least become an above average MLB SP.
2012 season to date: 1-2, 1.76 ERA, 33K/30.2IP- and only 6BB!
3. Starling Marte, CF (AAA)
Signed as an international free agent from the Dave Littlefield GM-era, Marte is the most and arguably only well-respected bat in the upper levels of the Pirates’ system. After a huge .870 OPS in th offensive purgatory of AA Altoona in 2011, Marte’s career statline is incredibly impressive: .306 BA, .817 OPS, 119 SB, with excellent range and a solid arm defensively. With the Pirates locking down All-Star CF Andrew McCutchen for the next 5 years, Marte is potential trade bait, but it’s much more likely that Pittsburgh would slide McCutchen to LF to make way for the lighter-hitting Marte in center. At the very least, it would have the makings of a defensively superb OF.
2012 season to date: .268BA, .780OPS, 9SB
4. Josh Bell, OF (Low-A)
GM Neal Huntington’s major coup of the 2011 draft, Bell was lured away from a nearly unbreakable Texas commitment, and made his professional debut this season. Having limited range defensively, Bell will be destined for either RF, or an eventual move to 1B. But it’s the 19-year old switch-hitter’s bat that makes him a special prospect. With the potential for “plus plus power”, Bell could rise through the system quickly once he adjusts to professional pitching.
2012 season to date: .274BA, 1HR, .691OPS
5. Luis Heredia, SP (Rookie)
Only 16 when he made his professional debut in 2011, this well-respected international signing is the Pirates’ youngest prospect of significance in quite some time. Considered incredibly raw, Heredia held his own against older Gulf Coast League competition, and may debut there again this year before heading to Short-Season State College. Heredia is so far away that it’s a risk to pencil him in anywhere, but it’s refreshing to have a young player of this caliber in the system.
6. Tony Sanchez, C (AA)
While most publications have him rated lower on Pirates’ prospect lists, his necessity to the organization is easily this high, if not higher. Immediately a controversial selection when Neal Huntington selected him 4th overall in 2009, Sanchez proved his doubters wrong in both 2009 and 2010, before significantly regressing in 2011. What started as a slump turned into an unmitigated disaster, with struggles at the plate, and negative national attention for comments Sanchez posted to Twitter. Even his well-regarded defensive prowess behind the plate took an unexplained turn, as he suddenly struggled to throw out runners. With the Pirates’ MLB catching situation nothing short of a disaster, if Sanchez rebounds at AA to start this year, he could be a Pirate by June of 2013.
2012 season to date: .263 BA, 0 HR, .732 OPS
7. Robbie Grossman, OF (AA)
Ascending from the overpopulated land of Pirates Prospect Disappointmentville (PPD) in 2011, the 6′ switch-hitter broke out with a nationally-recognized season at High-A Bradenton, becoming the first minor leaguer since the Yankees’ Nick Swisher to record 100 R and 100 BB in the same year. Coupled with 13 HR and an .869 OPS, Grossman was named the Pirates’ Minor League Player of the Year. Unfortunately as this is written, Grossman’s gotten off to a slow start against AA competition in 2012, but still stands right behind Starling Marte in terms of promising bats in the upper levels of the Pirates’ system.
2012 season to date: .225BA, 2HR, .660OPS
8. Alen Hanson, SS (Low-A)
From the timing of this article, I cheated a little on this one. Hanson wasn’t ranked among the Pirates’ top 30 prospects in any pre-season previews (although John Sickels did note him in “Others“), but since the season began, the 2009 international signing out of the Dominican Republic has rocketed up watch lists with a sizzling 1.040 OPS. This past week, Hanson even showed up at #9 on Baseball America’s “Prospect Hot Sheet” for his efforts. With plus speed and power tools for a SS (who may eventually mvoe to 2B), Hanson may distance himself from a steady stream of utility-grade prospects like Chase D’Arnaud, Shelby Ford, and Josh Harrison.
2012 season to date: .376BA, 4HR, 12SB, 1.040OPS
9. Kyle McPherson, SP (AAA)
Honestly, in most organizations’ prospect rankings, McPherson wouldn’t crack the top ten. But despite the organization’s half-decade-long emphasis on “building pitching depth” in the minors, the Pirates have so little to show for it in the upper levels that McPherson makes it almost by default. On the downside, he has the ceiling of a 3-4 starter, and hasn’t thrown a pitch yet in 2012 due to lingering shoulder inflammation. On the upside, he posted a cumulative 12-6, 2.96 ERA between High-A and AA in 2011, and his K/9 actually increased after making the jump to AA. Any SP that can miss bats demands a spot somewhere on the watchlist, especially in a Pirates’ system where strikeout pitchers are few and far between.
10. Alex Dickerson, 1B (High-A)
You won’t see the 6’3″ lefty out of Indiana University even on any Pirates’ top ten lists, but I included Dickerson here, because like Tony Sanchez and Kyle McPherson, he possesses a skill (in this case, power at 1B) lacking throughout the system. Dickerson mashed an .886 OPS in 41 games at Short-Season State College in 2011. So far, his only real knock as a prospect is that there are hundreds of power-hitting firstbasemen in the minors, and he’s done nothing to rise above the pack. But on the positive side, it’s been years since the Pirates have had one of significance, so Dickerson’s presence in the lower levels is a definite positive.
2012 season to date: .259, 2HR, .695OPS
Thanks for reading. This report got ridiculously long, so #11-25 will be a separate installment. Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug