Monday, January 4, 2010

TEAM #20 – Pittsburgh Pirates

Alvarez is poised to become the focal point of the Pirate offense

Over the years, we have beaten up the Pirates management pretty badly. Now two seasons under Neal Huntington, the Pirates are making improvements, but they still give us moments of pause every now and again. We can start with their drafting of Tony Sanchez with the #4 overall pick last June. While there was little doubt that the Pirates went into the draft with a plan: take a player that would sign for slot, or below, at #4 and then use the extra money to sign Miguel Sano and some above slot players in later rounds; and there was no question that Tony Sanchez was the best collegiate catcher in the draft, when it was all said and done, they lost out on Sano, and Sanchez was drafted at least 15-20 picks too high. Then you look at all of the deadline deals that were made. While the Pirates dropped considerable long-term salary commitments, the prospects that they got in return were predominantly of the second-tier variety. This is a franchise that is entering its 18th year of rebuilding. There are certainly some positive things going on here: Andrew McCutchen looks like a perennial all-star, Pedro Alvarez looks like a middle of the order stud, Andy LaRoche and Ryan Doumit appear to be serviceable major league starters, and Zach Duke and Paul Maholm give the Bucs a couple of quality Major League arms. The plethora of salary dump trades have significantly enhanced the depth of the Minor League system, the last two drafts have been significant improvements over the past and the Pirates are currently one of the most aggressive teams operating in Latin America—all of which should pay dividends down the road. For now however, there is a huge gap in the system, once you get past the top four prospects. At the Big League level, 2010 isn’t likely to improve upon last season’s 62 Win, last place finish. But with a couple of years more of high draft picks, solid drafts, and a strong Latin American presence there may actually be signs of a turnaround in the offing.

Grade A

1) Pedro Alvarez, 3B (2009 Performance Scores – Power 79; First Base Rate 65; Discipline 29; Speed 36)

Coming off of a sophomore season in 2007 that had raised expectations through the roof, Alvarez broke his hamate bone and suffered through a disappointing 2008 season. Despite this he entered the 2008 draft as the best available player and was selected by the Bucs with the second overall pick. After signing late, his conditioning was criticized immensely, and his 2009 debut got off to a slow start, giving his critics a platform to cry the mantra that the Pirates may have made a mistake. If we can give you some advice, ignore Alvarez’s critics. A hamate fracture zaps your power in your wrists. It often takes as much as 18 months to truly heal. By the time that Alvarez was promoted to the Eastern League, he had basically returned to form and posted the #3 Performance score. Alvarez is only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. This is a perennial .950+ OPS, 30+ Home Runs per year hitter. He should make his Major League debut before June—just barely 23yo. While we aren’t prone to making predictions, it is a pretty solid bet that, given the timing, Alvarez is likely to leave the next decade as one it’s most prolific Major League players. The Pirates can put him in the middle of their lineup and then find the pieces to build around him—a true middle of the order stud. The critics will point his 24% strikeout rate. We will point out he had reduced that to just 19% after the all-star break. The critics will tell you he has a thick lower body that will dictate a move to first base. We will tell you that he will play an adequate third base for the next 4-5 seasons and if he then moves to first base, he will still be one of the best hitters in the League. Enjoy Pirate fans, 2010 should just be the beginning.

Grade A –

2) Jose Tabata, OF (2009– Power 45; First Base Rate 59; Discipline 73; Speed 48)

While Tabata has provided plenty of reasons to not be as high on him as we once were, there are signs that he may actually be maturing to the point that realizing his potential isn’t as big of a question as it once was. Playing 2009 as predominantly a 20yo, he spent the year between AA and AAA, posting above League average numbers across the board. While not a very patient hitter, Tabata shows good strike zone judgment, has good contact skills, and has the potential for average to slightly above average power. While his ceiling may no longer be that of a superstar, he still looks to have the upside of an above to all-star caliber Major League everyday RF. Tabata’s weaknesses center around his maturity. While he will likely end up with below average speed, we do expect to see him develop more power than he has shown thus far—though he’ll never be considered a power hitter. There is no rush for the Pirates in 2010, so expect Tabata to return to AAA and spend most of the season there, before becoming a starter for them in 2011.

3) Tim Alderson, RHP (2009 – Dominance 33; Stamina 70; HRrate 48; Control 75)

Yes, Alderson’s velocity was down significantly in 2009, but puh-leeze!!! The mainstream ‘prospect’ circles have tremendously overreacted. Alderson spent the entire season as a 20yo in AA, posting above league average numbers, with a velocity decrease that has been attributed to arm-fatigue. He entered the season throwing a mid-90s fastball, with late movement and one of the Minor League’s best curveballs. On last year’s list, we had him as a Top 20 prospect, and he was a consensus Top 30. After pitching well in the ESL, but only throwing a fastball that was topping out around 90MPH, we are supposed to believe he now suddenly has only the upside of a back of the rotation starter and is no longer a Top 100 prospect—Nonsense. Alderson was never considered higher than a number two type pitcher. He gets by with excellent command and tremendous ‘pitchability’. At 21yo and 6’6”, he is likely to add more to his 215lb frame, and to have a fastball that sits in the low-90s. While he may not have the upside of a future ‘ace’, he still has a very high ceiling, and one of the stronger ‘certainty’ quotients among 21yos. Look for him to spend at least the first half of the season at AAA, before joining the Pirate rotation later this summer.

4) Tony Sanchez, C (2009– Power 79; First Base Rate 62; Discipline 55; Speed 34)

We have already spoken a little about Sanchez, but from our perspective, Sanchez only trails Matt Hobgood as the worst overdraft in last June’s first round. It’s not that Sanchez wasn’t first round worthy, as he was without question the best collegiate catcher available, it’s just that the Pirates could have found 15-20 players to take at the #4 spot that would have bothered us considerably less. This is a player with the upside of a Major League average backstop, and he was taken fourth overall. Sanchez did surprise us with his SAL debut, hitting for more power than we would have expected, making good contact, and keeping his swing under control (which is a correction from a tendency at Boston College). Additionally, Sanchez has an excellent make-up, shows strong defensive skills, and good management of pitchers. If we could sum it up, he should fast track through the Minors and replace Ryan Doumit, with about the same level of production, sometime in 2011—for less money. But we can’t help but feel that the pick was as much about the less money as it was anything else, which isn’t going to fix the longer term organizational issues.

Grade B+

5) Chase d’Arnaud, SS (2009– Power 61; First Base Rate 69; Discipline 67; Speed 74)

Although the upside isn’t tremendously high, we love d’Arnaud. He is the classic ‘renaissance’ shortstop—he does everything well, but nothing spectacular. The Pirates tabbed him out of Pepperdine, with their 4th round pick in 2008. A slightly old for his league 22yo, d’Arnaud posted an .852 OPS in 2009, splitting his time between the SAL and CAR. He showed at least League average skills across the board, and seems to be the ideal top of the order player that exhibits enough speed and good contact skills. He has the defense to stick at SS, and possesses great baseball instincts. Look for d’Arnaud to open the year in AA, with a good shot at making the Pirates roster in 2011.

Grade B

6) Brad Lincoln, RHP (2009 – Dominance 52; Stamina 69; HRrate 49; Control 74)

Lincoln was another in a long-line of Pirate first round pitcher picks that found the careers placed in jeopardy due to injuries when he underwent elbow surgery at the beginning of the 2007 season. While his career looked to be on the rocks after a disappointing 2008 season, Lincoln showed this past year that he may be ready to fulfill some of that promise as he posted solid numbers in stints in the ESL and INT. On the downside, Lincoln will play most of this season as a 25yo, and he still needs work on his Change if he is going to reach his upside of a mid-rotation starter. Expect him to return to AAA to start the 2010 season, with a shot to join the Pirate rotation after the all-star break.

7) Zach Von Rosenberg, RHP -

We had Von Rosenberg as a second round talent that fell to the Pirates in the 6th round—due to signability concerns. The Pirates ended up paying him late first round money to sign him, giving them an excellent—if costly selection. An extremely polished prep pitcher, Von Rosenberg has excellent control of all of his offerings—even if he doesn’t ‘wow’ anyone with his 90MPH fastball. Expect the Pirates to move him aggressively, likely starting him in full-season A-ball. While he doesn’t have an extremely high upside, he scores well on the certainty scale.

8) Rudy Owens, LHP (2009 – Dominance 60; Stamina 64; HRrate 48; Control 75)

A 2006 draft-and-follow, that signed for $390,000, Owens entered the 2009 season with a career ERA of 5.06. He somehow put it altogether, though,in 2009, posting a 2.10 ERA and fanning 8.2 batters per 9IP, between stops in the SAL and CAR. Once again, this isn’t a high upside player, as his fastball is only a high-80s offering and he gets by more on his command than anything else, but he is a left-hander who is showing enough to potentially pitch in the back of the rotation or in middle relief at the Major League level. The Eastern League should present a nice challenge for him in 2010.

9) Neil Walker, 3B (2009– Power 76; First Base Rate 27; Discipline 61; Speed 49)

A former first round player whose stock has nose-dived over the last few seasons, as the Pirates have struggled to find a defensive position for him, and now have found better alternatives at the positions he can play. We still believe that his bat could play at the Major League level, as he exhibits plus power potential and solid plate discipline skills. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t make enough contact, and now appears to be blocked at third base by Andy Laroche and Pedro Alvarez. A switch hitter, Walker may make it at the next level in a super-sub role, capable of playing catcher, three IF spots, and the corners in the OF—perhaps as early as this Spring; but this is once again a player without a very high ceiling.

10) Starling Marte, CF (2009– Power 45; First Base Rate 61; Discipline 44; Speed 77)

Marte is an extremely raw, extremely toolsy, talent that is different from many of the Pirate prospects ranked above him on this list, because he does have a significant upside. But there is still a tremendous gap between where he may end up, and where he is now, as he didn’t even finish 2009 with a Top 30 Performance score in the SAL. Currently his speed and contact skills are ahead of his power and plate discipline. Defensively, he alternates between the spectacular and the sublime—often disappearing on routine plays. He will likely spend most of 2010 in Hi-A, looking for a breakout season.

Grade B -

11) Victor Black, RHP (2009 – Dominance 66; Stamina 35; HRrate 50; Control 33)

We had Black as a 3rd round talent entering June’s draft, but the Pirates liked him enough to take him with a supplemental first round pick. Black had a solid NYP debut, fanning more than a batter per inning, using a mid-90s fastball. The downside is that Black suffers from occasional bouts with control issues, and his secondary offerings are still very much works in progress. While he has the upside of a #2/#3 starter at the Major League level, it is our opinion that he likely ends up as a back of the bullpen reliever. Expect the Pirates to keep him as a starter though for now, and expect him to open up 2010 in full-season A-ball.

12) Gorkys Hernandez, CF (2009– Power 29; First Base Rate 61; Discipline 38; Speed 52)

Few players from our 2009 Top 100 list disappointed us as much as Hernandez did last season, as the 2007 MWL MVP has shown little offensively since then. While he remains a first rate CF defender, it appears now that he will never develop much in the way of power, and will continue to struggle offensively unless he is able to reduce his 22% strikeout rate. Perhaps more importantly, Hernandez was once considered a significant top of the order threat, but his ability to get on base has continued to decline and last season he was thrown out in 46% of his steal attempts. Hernandez should begin 2010 in AAA, but his upside now appears to be more of a 4th OF/Defensive replacement type.

13) Colton Cain, LHP -

Cain’s stock took a precipitous fall as draft day approached last June, as we had at one-time considered him to be a late first round talent, but viewed him more as a third rounder on draft day. He was extremely inconsistent over his senior season. Nonetheless, the Pirates were able to grab him in the 8th round and signed him to late first round money anyway. A lefty with a low-90s fastball and an average curve, Cain has the upside of a mid-rotation starter, if he can make improvements on his secondary offerings. Cain is not nearly as polished as Von Rosenberg, so it would surprise us if he made his debut before the short season leagues begin.

14) Robbie Grossman, CF (2009– Power 42; First Base Rate 78; Discipline 21; Speed 78)

While there is a lot to like with Grossman, particularly his contact ability and his speed, the package doesn’t come without significant questions. Start with a strikeout rate that was north of 31% last season. Add to that the likelihood that he has to eventually move to LF, and he isn’t likely to develop the power skills to play there, and now you are looking at someone who may end up as a 4th OF type. The Pirates are likely to slot Grossman for Hi-A in 2010, and how far he develops is going to rest in large part on his ability to learn the strike zone.

15) Jarek Cunningham, 3B -

Cunningham missed the entire 2009 season with a knee injury, but he has had the Pirate organization excited by his upside since the drafted him in the 18th round. The interesting thing was that the Pirates were able to draft him in the 18th round because he had missed his senior year with…a knee injury. While the Pirates would like to keep him at SS, a position he has shown both soft hands and a solid glove for, the thinking here is that he will both outgrow the position and the Pirates will want to place him in a less taxing position like third base. Cunningham finished his 2008 GCL debut with the #7 Performance score, showing plus skills in everything except speed. While we worry about lost development time, Cunningham will likely play 2010 in full-season A-ball as a 20yo, so this should not be a significant issue. If he shows healthy, Cunningham could vault up this list next year.

16) Brooks Pounders, RHP (2009 – Dominance 49; Stamina 29; HRrate 49; Control 33)

We had Pounders as a 4th round talent entering last June’s draft, but the Bucs tabbed him with their second round pick. A behemoth at 6’4”, 230lbs, Pounders doesn’t pitch like one, as he uses an advanced 4-pitch repertoire, including a Hi-80s fastball, and gets by on his pitchability instincts. His GCL debut was a perfect example of what to expect—excepting that his control should be better. Pounders isn’t a high upside player, who figures to max out as a later part of the rotation innings eater. While his logical starting point would be to start in extended Spring training, he may be advanced enough to make the jump to full-season A-ball.

17) Jeff Locke, LHP (2009 – Dominance 41; Stamina 63; HRrate 49; Control 51)

Acquired in the McLouth deal, Locke is typical of the low-ceiling type of players that the Pirates received in their numerous 2009 late season deals. A former second round pick by the Braves, Locke has average skills across the board, and really only has two pitches (a low-90s fastball and a power curve) that can be considered Major League caliber. Locke hasn’t posted strong numbers since the APY in 2007, and 2010 will be pivotal for him. While he has the potential of a back of the rotation starter, we see him more as a decent Major League relief pitcher.

Grade C+ Prospects –
18) Brett Lorin, RHP; 19) Josh Harrison, LF; 20) Eric Avila, 3B; 21) Brock Holt, SS; 22) Dan McCutchen, RHP; 23) Ramon Cabrera, C; 24) Jorge Bishop, SS; 25) Bryan Morris, RHP; 26) Quinton Miller, RHP; 27) Exicardo Cayonez, OF; 28) John Raynor, OF; 29) Trent Stevenson, RHP; 30) Quincy Latimore, LF; 31) Jesus Vasquez, LF; 32) Dan Moskos, LHP.

Grade C Prospects –
Nathan Adcock; Calvin Anderson; Nathaniel Baker; Jonathan Barrios; Jordanell Carvajal; Evan Chambers; Argenis Diaz; Zach Dodson; Michael Dubee; Shelby Ford; Wes Freeman; Brian Friday; Matt Hague; Jeff Inman; Porfirio Lopez; Jordy Mercer; Diego Moreno; Kyle Morgan; Jim Negrych; Rogelios Noris; Ramses Pena; Nelson Pereira; Ron Uviedo; Donnie Veal; Justin Wilson.

Feel free to post any questions and or comments. We will try to answer them in our weekly Mailbag segment.

You can find an explanation of our grades here Diamond Futures Annual Prospect Rankings Series and an explanation of our 2009 Performance Scores here Do-It-Yourself - Understanding Performance Evaluation. The Performance scores represent the player’s performance relative to the leagues that they played in during the 2009 season. For additional information on our rankings methodology, see our recent Mailbag article here This Week's Mailbag - Prospect Rankings Questions.


  1. Shouldn't Jimmy Barthmaier be on this list somewhere? He is the type of guy that could easily be overlooked as he was injured last season. But his stats were pretty good in 2008, and he was a somewhat highly regarded prospect earlier in his minor league career.

  2. After undergoing TJ surgery in May, the Pirates released Barthmaeir. To the best of my knowledge he hasn't signed with any other club. The Pirates are the second team to cut the 26yo, and he isn't likely to return to form until mid-year at the earliest. Until he proves healthy, we would probably put him on the 'pay no mind' list.