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Minors : : General
Top Prospects: Pittsburgh Pirates
Patrick Ebert        
Published: Tuesday, January 17, 2012

General Manager: Neal Huntington
Minor League Director: Kyle Stark
Scouting Director: Greg Smith

AAA:
Indianapolis Indians (International League) 76-68
AA: Altoona Curve (Eastern League) 64-77
Hi A: Bradenton Marauders (Florida State League) 74-63
Low A: West Virginia Power (South Atlantic League) 69-69
Rookie Adv.: State College Spikes (New York-Penn League) 31-44
Rookie: Pirates (Gulf Coast League) 34-26
Dominican: DSL Pirates (Dominican Summer League) 41-30
Venezuelan: VSL Pirates (Venezuelan Summer League) 40-32

System Overview

It has been well chronicled that the Pittsburgh Pirates haven't enjoyed a winning season since 1992, not coincidently the last season Barry Bonds played for the team when they won the National League East and fell to the Braves in the NL Championship series.

Of course, Bonds signed a record six year, $43.75 million dollar contract with the Giants, and 19 years later the Pirates have never been the same.

They did come close to snapping that streak this past year, holding first-place in the NL Central late in July before falling off drastically and finishing the season with the eighth-worst record in MLB.

The team was wise not to trade key prospects prior to the deadline just to accomplish a short-term goal of putting a long-term bugaboo behind them, although they did trade minor league first baseman Aaron Baker to the Orioles in exchange for Derrek Lee.

Slowly but surely, though, the Pirates are showing signs of improvement. The organization has placed a greater emphasis on player development since GM Neal Huntington became General Manager in September, 2007. After years of steering away from any player who had especially high signing bonus aspirations, they have spent more and more on the draft in recent years, including the $13 million they gave to their first two picks in 2011: RHP Gerrit Cole and OF Josh Bell.

That followed their spending from 2010, in which they invested $8.75 in the second overall pick, RHP Jameson Taillon, and the second pick of the second round, RHP Stetson Allie.

In fact, most of the players they have paid over slot after the first few rounds have been prep pitchers (including LHP Colton Cain and RHP’s Clay Holmes and Zack Von Rosenberg), defining the organization’s priorities as firmly with developing young pitching.

They also have been active on the international free agent market, most notably when they signed Luis Heredia out of Mexico for $2.6 million, and are currently among the teams that are actively pursuing Cuban outfielder and YouTube sensation Yoenis Cespedes.

The Pirates focus on pitchers has left the system a little thin on impact bats, especially those after Bell and Dominican outfielder Starling Marte, but they do have a trio of young stars already in place at the big-league level.

2005 first-round pick Andrew McCutchen has established himself as one of the top centerfielders in all of baseball, and second baseman Neil Walker, the team's first-rounder in 2004, has really elevated his game the last two years. The second overall pick from 2008, Pedro Alvarez, has advanced quickly to the big-leagues but has yet to blossom to his full potential.

Another first-round pick, catcher Tony Sanchez (2009), took a step back in 2011, struggling at the AA level after tearing up the lower levels of the Pirates' system the two previous seasons.

The eighth overall pick in the upcoming draft in June represents the lowest selection the team has had since 2005. Since the 1992 season (and the 1993 draft) the Pirates have held the No. 1 overall pick three times, with an average draft position of seventh from 1994-2011, but it appears as though they are intent on changing that once all of the pieces have had a chance to fall into place.

New rules to the CBA pertaining to the draft could affect the Pirates newfound spending spree, but at least it is clear that the team won't go on the cheap when it comes to scouting and player development.

2011 Draft

The Pirates entered the 2011 scouting season at this time last year with the first overall selection in the draft, and most considered their eventual first round pick, RHP Gerrit Cole, and Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon as the favorites to be taken with that pick. A shoulder injury caused a few teams at the top to back away from Rendon, while Cole's teammate Trevor Bauer and Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen were talked about as potential first overall picks.

And while no one expected the Pirates to take a cost-effective route towards the draft, almost everyone was surprised when they selected Texas high school power hitter Josh Bell, who made it explicitly clear that he intended to attend Texas prior to the draft, with the first pick in the second round. Leading up to the signing deadline, a few inside whispers indicated that a deal would indeed get done, giving the team the best power arm and possibly the best impact bat from the 2011 draft class.

And while the team was able to sign all of their picks in the top 10 rounds, their big spending at the top limited them to signing only two players from rounds 11-20.

Third rounder Alex Dickerson, who enjoyed a huge season at Indiana as a sophomore, gives the Pirates a second potential impact bat from this draft class, and he could move quickly if he continues to be developed at first base instead of trying to make him work on a corner outfield spot.

Aside from Bell, Dickerson, 3B Daniel Gamache (sixth round, Auburn) and OF Taylor Lewis (10th
, Maine) the team continued to load up on power-armed projectable high school pitchers with good size.

Ninth-rounder Clay Holmes, who signed for $1.2 million prior to the mid-August deadline thanks to a rapidly improving fastball, stands out the most among the young pitchers.

Fellow right-handed pitchers Colten Brewer, Tyler Glasnow, Jake Burnette and Jason Creasy all have the size and stuff to find themselves on future Pirates top 10 lists.

Top 10 Prospects

1. RHP Jameson Taillon
Baseball-reference player profile

Taillon and Cole form arguably the best duo of power arms in any system in all of baseball. Taillon gets the nod for the top spot on this list, largely because he has a full year of professional baseball under his belt. The Pirates wisely restricted his pitch counts and overall use last summer and he spent the entire year at the Low-A level pitching for the West Virginia Power. That led to a season in which he factored into only five decisions (2-3) in 23 games, all starts, tossing 92.2 innings, an average of four innings per appearance, striking out 97 and allowing only 22 walks.

While Cole has the more dynamic fastball, Taillon's isn't far behind. He routinely sits at 93-95 with the ability to touch the upper-90s in the early innings when he's at his best. His curveball is also a plus pitch, and his ability to command both pitches is part of the reason he went second overall in 2010. He also throws both a slider and a changeup, giving him a true four-pitch repertoire.

In addition to his stuff, Taillon has the size and stature of a prototypical workhorse at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, built strongly through his core and lower half, which should allow him to sustain the velocity on his fastball deep into ballgames.

The Pirates wisely will continue to be patient with Taillon, as he's expected to spend most to all of the 2012 season with Bradenton at the high-A level in the Florida State League. He profiles as a staff ace, as does Cole, and while it will take a few years for both of them to get to Pittsburgh, if all goes well the Pirates will have a dominant one-two punch leading their starting staff.

2. RHP Gerrit Cole
Baseball-reference player profile

Cole shares a similar scouting profile to Taillon, built tall and sturdy at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and a power arsenal that befits his size. Cole started the 2007 Aflac All-American Classic game for the West as Taillon did in 2009, and was taken 28th
 overall in the 2008 draft by the Yankees prior to attending UCLA.

Coming out of high school there was some concern that Cole would eventually wind up in a short relief role, with a delivery perceived to be somewhat max effort and an arsenal in which everything he threw was thrown hard. Not signing with the Yankees had more to do with his desire to attend college than the Yankees not offering enough money.

Cole's consistent fastball velocity, in which he can still dial it up to the upper-90s in the later innings, is what sets him apart from the pack. He learned to command his mid-to-upper-80s slider better at UCLA, while also throwing his changeup more and taking a little off of his fastball at times for added movement. He still can struggle with control at times, but also can get away with mistakes given his overpowering velocity.

The Pirates decided to give Cole a taste of professional baseball by debuting him in the Arizona Fall League, and he very well may join Taillon in the Bradenton rotation to open the 2012 season. Cole threw 322 innings in three years at UCLA and that experience should allow him to advance quickly as long as all of the other pieces fall into place.

3. OF Josh Bell
Baseball-reference player profile

Bell emerged as a legitimate first-round pick after his impressive performance at the 2010 WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Florida after he spent all of the summer of 2010 recovering from a cracked left knee cap.

He followed that up with an equally impressive spring during his senior year, and the only reason he wasn't selected among the top 10-15 overall picks was due to the letter he issued to all 30 MLB teams stating his intention to attend Texas. The Pirates clearly did their homework, and of course it helped that they were prepared to offer him $5 million to add him to their system.

While Bell is a good overall athlete, his bat is what makes him stand out. He shows exceptional bat speed at the plate with very good strength in his hands and wrists, allowing him to allow the ball to travel deep into the strike zone. He also shows an advanced knowledge of what he's doing at the plate, and a smooth, rhythmic swing from both sides of the plate as a switch hitter. He has the potential to hit for both power and a high average, and has good enough speed and arm strength to fit in at either corner outfield spot.

Bell will likely begin his professional career at Low-A, and may spend the entire year there.

4. RHP Luis Heredia
Baseball-reference player profile

While Heredia doesn't have the same, recognizable name and overall presence as Taillon and Cole, his profile is very similar with a tall, powerfully built frame and an equally powerful low-90s fastball that touches the mid-90s with plenty of room for added velocity as he continues to mature.

His career path will be slower than that of Taillon and Cole, as Heredia just turned 17 last August, spending last summer in the Gulf Coast League. Not unexpectedly for a pitcher of his age and experience level, he needs to work on both the break and overall command of both his curveball and changeup, but both pitches show promise.

He signed for $2.6 million out of Mexico, and has shown a high propensity for instruction, meaning his career path could pick up momentum once he shows signing of honing his craft.

5. OF Starling Marte
Baseball-reference player profile

With Andrew McCutchen firmly entrenched in centerfield while serving as the face of the franchise, the Pirates have been able to remain patient with Marte's development. Built long and lean with wiry strength, similar to McCutchen, Marte's game is built around speed and defense, and he also has a strong throwing arm giving him the perfect profile to play centerfield.

Even if Marte is forced to move to an outfield corner due to McCutchen's presence, his lack of power won't be as glaring given McCutchen's production. Although Marte did hit 38 doubles, eight triples and 12 home runs last season, and he has steadily progressed at the plate since being signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007. That includes a .332/.370/.500 slash line from a year ago at the AA level.

His speed allows him to stretch extra-base hits, and also makes him a threat on the basepaths. His increase in power did lead to 100 strikeouts, and he only walked 22 times, pointing to a need for him to improve his approach prior to making the final jump to the big-leagues, which could occur later this year.

6. RHP Kyle McPherson
Baseball-reference player profile

McPherson has progressed well each of the last three years after being a primary infielder in college. After his junior year at the University of Mobile McPherson participated in the 2007 Pre-Draft Showcase in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with the sole intent of showing what he could do on the mound. He pitched at 89-92 at that event, showing a well-rounded four-pitch repertoire. His velocity has creeped up a few ticks since then, and continues to show the same arsenal including a refined changeup, and offers a durable frame at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. McPherson went 12-6 with a 2.96 ERA between two levels last year, and is poised to pitch at the AAA level this coming year. He profiles as a mid-rotation starter, and may get the call up to Pittsburgh later this year.

7. RHP Stetson Allie
Baseball-reference player profile

Allie starred as a two-way performer in high school and was named to the 2009 Aflac All-American Classic for his power arm/bat profile. He reached 97 mph in the Classic, and has flirted with triple digits from his powerful 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame. He also throws a power slider that has been clocked as high as 91 and can sit routinely in the mid to upper-80s. The Pirates decided his future was brighter on the mound when they took him with the second pick in the second round of the 2010 draft, signing him away from North Carolina with a $2.25 million signing bonus.

Control continues to be Allie's biggest concern, walking 28 batters in 26 innings last year pitching in the New York Penn League. Those control issues and his pure power profile continue to lead many to believe that his future lies in the bullpen, but the Pirates can be patient with his development, continuing to develop him as a starter in the lower levels to allow him to gain much needed experience.

8. OF Robbie Grossman
Baseball-reference player profile

It took a few years for things to click for the athletic, switch-hitting Grossman, who the Pirates selected in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. A former Aflac All-American who could have been drafted in the late first to second round coming out of high school, he's another example of the team's newfound spending, signing for $1 million.

After hitting .254 with limited power (nine home runs) over his first 246 games spanning 2008-10, Grossman hit .294/.418/.451 with 13 home runs last year. The 104 walks he drew created a greater buzz speaking to his patience and selectivity, and there is also a speed component to his game, swiping 24 bases. He continued to hit the ball well in the Arizona Fall League, batting .375 with seven home runs. While he has good speed and a good, not great throwing arm, Grossman may be a better fit on an outfield corner than center, but if his bat continues to progress that won't be an issue.

9. LHP Colton Cain
Baseball-reference player profile

The Pirates plucked away a pair of promising Longhorns recruits in consecutive years with seven-figure bonuses, signing Cain for $1.125 million as an eighth rounded after luring Grossman away in 2008. So far Cain is waiting for his breakout season, although he didn't fare terribly, posting a 3.64 ERA on a talent West Virginia staff that included Taillon, Von Rosenberg, Zach Dodson and Brooks Pounders.

Also an intimidating slugger in high school, it's hard not to fall in love with Cain's measurables as a 6-foot-3, 225-pound lefty that has the ability to dial his fastball up to the low-90s with room and projection remaining for added velocity. His curveball also is a promising pitch when it's working for him, but consistency has not been one of his greatest strengths, as his curve tended to flatten out and his fastball sat more in the upper-80s this past season. If a similar light switch goes on for Cain this year as it did for Grossman last, he could put himself in a similar Pirates prospect conversation as Taillon, Cole and Heredia.

10. C Tony Sanchez
Baseball-reference player profile

A well chronicled history of reaching for players in the first round open to signing quickly for slot value caused many to think the Pirates were back to their normal ways in 2009 when they took Sanchez with the fourth overall pick. Coming off of a very good year at Boston College, most had Sanchez pegged as a late first-round pick than an early one, and he not surprisingly signed quickly for $2.5 million.

The Pirates showed that the move may have been more astute than people gave them credit for, as Sanchez enjoyed immediate success in the minors, hitting .312 in his first two seasons, and the team handed out seven figures to lock up their sixth and eighth round picks, Zack Von Rosenberg and Colton Cain.

Sanchez missed significant time in 2010 due to a broken jaw sustained midseason, and batted only .241 this past year at the AA level. Despite the drop in production, he did continue to show an advanced and patient approach as evidenced by his .340 on-base percentage.

His defense has always been considered his strength, with good footwork, soft hands, a quick release and a strong, accurate throwing arm from behind the dish. The Pirates may opt to return Sanchez to the AA level to open this coming season, but it likely won't be long before he's looked upon to become the everyday backstop in the big leagues.

Others in the Conversation:
1B Alex Dickerson, RHP Nick Kingham, RHP Clay Holmes, LHP Jeff Locke, RHP Bryan Morris, RHP Zack Von Rosenberg



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