Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TEAM #22 – Pittsburgh Pirates

Taillon is Just the Latest Example of the Pirates’ System Resurgence
Last year, we blasted the Pirates in this space for choosing quantity over quality in their ‘player for prospect’ deadline deals that they made in 2009. While, as we predicted, it was an effective salary dump, the only thing that it truly accomplished was ensuring that John Russell would get the axe. The 2010 Major League version of the Pirates was historically bad—that is saying quite a bit for this franchise. The Minor League system still ranks toward the bottom of the League, and the system thins out rapidly after #4 on this list, but that is pretty much where the negatives end.

On the Major League side their lineup is lead by budding superstar, 24yo, Andrew McCutchen. He is followed in the order by last year’s #2 prospect, 22yo, Jose Tabata. Following Tabata, coming off a surprising rookie season is, 25yo, Neil Walker. Finally, the clean-up hitter is, 23yo, Pedro Alvarez, who is on his way to becoming one of the games most feared power threats. Few teams can match their combination of youth and potential at the top of the lineup. A Minor League system that has ranked in the bottom third of the League—despite repeated early picks—for seven straight years now, finally looks to be turning the corner—especially after they make the #1 overall pick this June. The Pirates’ draft that suffered from incredibly bad picks and incredibly bad luck for most of this decade, looks to have finally put together a string of solid draft classes, with the 2010 class possibly their best yet. Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that a storied International scouting program that had been relatively barren for most of the middle part of this decade has put together three straight impressive signing classes—despite missing out on Miguel Sano in 2009.

Before we get too excited, tough, there is still likely a couple more years of misery remaining for Pirates’ fans; but give Neal Huntington his ‘props’. The turn-around has nearly perfectly coincided with his taking the reins. Turning around the Pirates that have been bad at an epic level will take time, but for the first time in a long time, things are looking up for the Bucs.

Best Pick from 2010 – We had Neil Walker at #9 last year. While that was significantly lower than the #3 or #4 that he probably should have been, it was considerably higher than anyone else, as we weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel on the former first round prospect. We were amply rewarded with a surprising Major League rookie performance.

Worst Pick from 2010 – We should have thrown in the towel on Tim Alderson, but instead we ranked him #3. Alderson’s mechanics are completely different from those that once made him an elite pitching prospect and his velocity hasn’t returned. We will be throwing in the towel this year.

Grade A

1) Jameson Taillon, RHP -

Taillon was the consensus #2 player in June’s draft and the Pirates executed the pick as they were supposed to. We acknowledge that the draft record of top prep right-handers is concerning. Over the last 25 years only twelve of them have been chosen among the first five picks. Of that group, only Kerry Wood, John Patterson, Josh Beckett and Gavin Floyd have achieved a Major League Career WAR of greater than 3.0. That is a lot of failure at a tremendous cost. With that on the table, Taillon is a better prospect than any of what we considered to be a solid 2009 prep pitching class (Matzek, Turner, Shelby, Wheeler, Skaggs). Taillon is a huge 6’5”, 223 lb beast on the mound. His fastball comfortably sits in the mid-90s with the ability to go higher. His curve is a potentially plus-plus offering. His slider isn’t far behind. Taillon is remarkably athletic, given his size, and takes instruction well. While relatively advanced, like many prep pitchers Taillon’s change is under-developed and he still has a tendency to get out of control every so often. His upside is that of one of the best power pitchers in the game, so Pirate fans have every reason to be excited. Taillon will get acclimated to the professional game in full-season A-ball in 2011. We expect he will remain there for most of the season.

Grade A-

2) Tony Sanchez, C (2010 Performance Scores – Power 67; Discipline 59; First Base Rate 73; Speed 36)

As regular readers will recall, we considered Sanchez to be an overdraft ‘signability’ pick when the Pirates selected him at #4 overall in 2009. While we haven’t changed our mind on that, Sanchez is developing along the upper limits of his curve. A broken jaw cost Sanchez a good portion of the 2010 season, but when he was healthy he demonstrated the solid, if unspectacular, offensive skills that have been his trademark since signing. Defensively, he is strong in both his catch and throw skills and his management of the game. Collectively, it adds up to a solid-average, starting Major League backstop—and that is nothing to yawn about. His AZFL return this fall was more of the same, which should put him on track for a AA assignment in 2011. He could be ready to take over the everyday duties in Pittsburgh by the beginning of 2012.

3) Stetson Allie, RHP -

Allie possesses some of the best raw ‘stuff’ of any prep pitcher available last June. We had him as a mid- to late- first round pick (the second best prep pitcher to sign) that lasted until the beginning of round two—where the Pirates were happy to select him. Like Taillon above, Allie is a big, durable, 6’4”, 225lb right-hander. His fastball can reach the high-90s, and his slider is a potential plus pitch. The downside is that Allie doesn’t command either of them all that well and is still more thrower than pitcher. When that is combined with the lack of a useful change, many feel that Allie will best be served as a power arm out of the bullpen. The Pirates will develop him in the rotation, where his ‘stuff’ is front of the rotation level. We would have likely graded him higher, but we believe he will eventually be forced into a relief role. Look for Allie to join Taillon in West Virginia in 2011, as part of one of the most interesting rotations in full-season A-ball.

Grade B+

4) Luis Heredia, RHP

Heredia was the Pirates big splash in the International market this year, as they signed the 16yo right-hander, out of Mexico, to a franchise record $2.4 million. At 6’6”, 185lb, there is projectability written all over him—which isn’t bad considering he is starting with a moving, low- to mid-90s fastball. Add to that a curveball that has plus potential, and a developing slider and change, and you have a remarkably polished package. His ceiling is tremendous—albeit quite a bit away. The Pirates are likely to have Heredia make his debut this summer in the GCL—around the time he turns 17yo. Rarely do we have 16yo pitchers rated so highly.

Grade B

5) Rudy Owens, LHP (2010– Dominance 64; Control 76; HRrate 59; Stamina 73)

There is a big gap in the organization between numbers four and five. Owens made significant strides in 2009, but really had a breakout campaign in 2010 as he posted the #3 Performance Score in the Eastern League (ESL). This wasn’t just a case of an improving skill set, but actual gains were made on a high-80s fastball that has now become a fringe-average offering. This adds to an already average curve and change—all of with which he demonstrates excellent control. Where Owens was once thought to be a longshot for a Big League opportunity, he now appears to be a strong bet for a back of the rotation chance. There is still not a tremendous upside here, but Owens is likely to begin 2011 in AAA with a shot at finding himself in Pittsburgh before the year is out.

6) Quincy Latimore, LF (2010– Power 76; Discipline 37; First Base Rate 31; Speed 76)

We are fairly certain that this is higher than you will find Latimore on any other list. Part of the reason that we place Latimore here is that he is one of the few remaining Pirate prospects with a significant ceiling and part is because we find a strong underlying power profile to take notice of. The Pirates fourth round choice from 2007, Latimore finished in our Pirate Top 30 last season and made significant improvements as a 21yo in the FSL in 2010, where he posted the circuit’s #7 Performance Score. The ‘What’s to like?’ is plus power potential and an above average speed combination, as Latimore put up 31 doubles and 19 home runs in 2010. His four professional seasons have been a steady progression that were buoyed this winter by an outstanding effort in the Australian Baseball League (yes we cover them all) where he posted a .997 OPS and the League’s #2 Performance Score. There is reason to believe that 2011 could see Latimore breakout in the ESL. While there are still plenty of questions surrounding him—a 24% strikeout rate, poor contact skills and limited defensive options among them—his upside is intriguing enough to place him ahead of a number of ‘non-descript’ prospects that comprise a large portion of the remainder of this list.

7) Colton Cain, LHP (2010– Dominance 63; Control 44; HRrate 45; Stamina 48)

A highly projectable right hander, Cain was the Pirates 8th round pick in 2009, whom they signed to late first round money. 2010 saw Cain post the #4 Performance Score in the New York-Penn League (NYP), as he used a low-90s fastball to strike out nearly a batter per inning. The downside is that Cain’s secondary offerings remain raw and he doesn’t demonstrate excess pitchability. While there is significant upside, Cain is far from a finished product. Look for him to get his first taste of full-season ball to begin 2011 where there is considerable work to be done in developing his arsenal.

8) Starling Marte, OF (2010– Power 40; Discipline 36; First Base Rate 51; Speed 76)

While Marte admittedly has ‘five-tool’ potential, it has yet to translate into anything resembling precocious performance. For that reason, we likely rate Marte slightly below most sources. He has not finished either of the last two seasons with Performance Scores in the top thirty of any league he has played in, and that just doesn’t bode well. Still the Pirates love his speed, contact skills, plus center field defense and upside, so he will get many chances to succeed. We look at that 25% strikeout rate and under developed power and question where the path exists for success to occur. In our opinion, it will be his defense that will have to carry him. Marte will begin 2011 in AA and will likely show no reason to promote him, but it may not matter.

9) Chase D’ Arnaud, SS (2010– Power 40; Discipline 58; First Base Rate 43; Speed 80)

D’Arnaud’s ‘renaissance’ skill set—does everything fairly well but nothing spectacular—caught up with him in 2010, as ESL pitchers held him to a .247 average and his lowest OPS as a professional. D’Arnaud has plus speed and above average skills as a middle infielder. Unfortunately, that is not a combination that is likely to get him a full time ‘gig’ at the next level. Any way that you examine it, D’Arnuad’s has the classic utility infielder profile—and one with limited offensive potential at that. Expect D’Arnaud to return to the ESL to begin 2011. He will turn 24yo next week and appears to be at least a year away—another strike against him.

10) Josh Harrison, 2B (2010– Power 36; Discipline 78; First Base Rate 57; Speed 76)

In Harrison, you have D’Arnuad with slightly lesser speed and lesser defense—although his hit tool is perhaps a notch better. While there isn’t significant upside here either, his profile suggests enough to make a Tony Graffanino type career a possibility. While he should return to the ESL in 2011, we won’t be surprised to see the Pirates move him to AAA. In either case, it is likely a make or break year for Harrison.

11) Bryan Morris, RHP (2010– Dominance 60; Control 64; HRrate 65; Stamina 68)

Health has been Morris’ biggest downfall since the Dodgers made him a first round pick in 2006. 2010 saw Morris exceed 100 innings in a season for the first time in his career, as he posted Top 30 Performance Scores in both the FSL and ESL. Morris possesses a low-90s fastball that has at times shown a few notches higher. He compliments it with a curve and slider, both of which look to be Big League offerings. His change is his biggest downfall—something that is reason enough to wonder whether he might be better suited for a relief role. For now, the Pirates will start Morris out in the rotation at AAA in 2011. Our guess is that he will get a Big League opportunity at some point during the year—the degree of success is the bigger question.

12) Zack Von Rosenberg, RHP (2010– Dominance 33; Control 68; HRrate 43; Stamina 68)

Von Rosenberg’s 6’5”, 205 lb frame likely draws as much attention as his pure ‘stuff’ does, as Scouts love his projectability. Where they have problems is in a fastball that is a high-80s offering. If he can add a few mph to it, Von Rosenberg has the potential to develop into a #2/#3 starter. Where we have problems is envisioning a pitcher that is already fairly polished, with a potentially Big League average curve and change, suddenly finding that added velocity. That said, he did post the #11 Performance Score in the NYP in 2010, the command rates a plus and we aren’t willing to overlook the projectability. Look for Von Rosenberg to get his first taste of full-season ball in 2011 in what may be a tremendous West Virginia rotation with Taillon, Allie and Cain.

Other Potential Top 300 Prospects – 13) Jeff Locke, LHP.

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 2010 Performance Scores here Do-It-Yourself - Understanding Performance Evaluation and here This Week's Mailbag - Prospect Rankings Questions. The Performance scores represent the player’s performance relative to the leagues that they played in during the 2010 season.

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