The Pirates have been awful for a long time, but there are some pieces in place right now that could turn this franchise around and make the Pirates relevant again. For me, there are five players that hold huge keys towards unlocking competitive baseball in Pittsburgh once again. Let’s get into it.
You saw a couple posts go up on the site about Tony Sanchez today. There’s very little doubt that he holds a huge key to the future success of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The main reason for that is because of the position he plays. The Pirates have been pretty thin at catcher for some time now, and now they are even thinner with the losses of Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder. The Pirates drafted Sanchez to help with depth at that position and hopefully add a player that could lock down that position for a long time. Sanchez got off to a great start to his minor league career but was terrible last year to the tune of a .241/.340/.318 line. You can attribute a lot of those struggles to his recovery from getting hit in the face with that pitch, trying to hit for too much power, and some off the field issues. It seems he has put all those things behind and is ready to get back to where he was in 2009 and 2010. Let’s hope he does just that, because the Pirates are very shallow at the catching position after Sanchez. The Pirates don’t need Tony to come up and hit 20 home runs a year, they just need a guy that will play strong defense and not be a complete liability with the bat. Sanchez profiles to be just that, and be it easily. I don’t think he has the upside that a lot of people think he does, but if he gets his head straight I think he’s a very safe bet to make an impact at the major league level. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we’ll see him this year, but I doubt it. For now, as long as he doesn’t deal with any more injuries, I expect Sanchez to take the starting catching job in June of 2013.
Two more obvious key-holding prospects are Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. I really don’t even have to write about how important these two are to the franchise. These are two arms that could be aces; we’re talking Cy Young capabilities. The Pirates have invested a ton into these two guys, drafting both of them in the top-3 overall picks and giving them ridiculous signing bonuses. If they reach their potential and pitch together at the top of the rotation for the Pirates in the next few years, it’s going to be a serious challenge for the Pirates to not compete. It’s rare that you find a team with two ace-calibur pitchers on their roster, but the Pirates have a chance to do just that. Unfortunately, it will be hard for the Pirates to hold on to both of them for too long just because of how little money we have to work with, but if we get those two going at the same time, watch out. On the other side of that, if these two don’t work out and never realize their major league potential, the Pirates are going to be set back for a long time. Outside of those two, the Pirates have a couple long-shot aces in Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie, and have very little in terms of top of the rotation arms after that. You can’t win without good pitching, especially as a small market team, and the Pirates will continue to struggle on the mound if they miss on both Cole and Taillon.
Another obvious one I want to talk about is Josh Bell. The Pirates gave up a ton of cash to get Bell to sign last offseason, but nobody is complaining about it right now. Bell would have a high first round draft pick if he was committed to playing professional baseball, but that was not so, so the Pirates stole him in the second round. Bell has the offensive skills to be one of the better hitters in the league. He has big time power, which you can’t say about any other Pirates prospect. Pedro Alvarez is the only other guy in the system that even compares to this guys potential with the sticks. Bell holds a huge key to the future success of the Pirates just because he’s in such a small group of prospects that can actually hit the ball. He hasn’t even made his pro debut yet, so we have a long ways to wait for Bell, and there’s no real reason to be super confident about him making an impact in the major leagues someday, so it’s not really fair to the guy to put him in a post like this. However, the Pirates system is so shallow on power bats that we don’t have much of a choice. Bell could be the Pirates best hitter in a matter of two or three years, and if he reaches that potential he will have as big an impact as any single player can. If he doesn’t work out, the Pirates wasted a ton of money and will be without a big time power bat for awhile longer (unless Pedro turns it around).
A less obvious player for a post like this is Chase d’Arnaud. We’ve all seen d’Arnaud play, and none of us were too impressed. He played 48 games with the Pirates last year and hit just .217/.242/.287 while playing poor defense. He may have been rushed a little bit, as the Pirates were shallow at middle infield even before Ronny Cedeno went on the DL. d’Arnaud holds a big key for the same reasons that Tony Sanchez does, the positional depth. Shortstop may be the thinnest position in the Pirates system. d’Arnaud is really the only one anybody could seriously say has a chance to become an everyday big league shortstop. The Pirates signed Clint Barmes to stop-gap that problem for at least one more year, but eventually the Buccos are going to have to find someone that can play that position for the long haul. I don’t have much confidence in d’Arnaud, but he definitely has some talent. He hasn’t really ever put up good numbers at the plate in the upper levels of the system, but in fairness he hasn’t been there for very long. In 2009 he hit .293/.398/.454 in A- and A+ ball. After that he was promoted to AA for the 2010 season and hit .247/.331/.377, but played good enough defense for people to still be confident in him. Last year he hit .267/.330/.400 at AAA before being forced into the major leagues. Much like catcher, shortstop isn’t a position where you need a slugger. The Pirates just need someone that can play solid defense and not kill the team at the plate. d’Arnaud could certainly do that, he just needs more work. The sample size in 2011 is too small to say that he’s a bad defender who will never be able to hit. While he’s certainly the worst bet of players in this post, I’m not giving up on him yet. I think some serious playing time in AAA this year could do him a lot of good. Hopefully he’ll figure some things out, get some confidence, and turn into a starter that the Pirates can utilize for a few years so they don’t have to resort to overpaying for crappy, past their prime players.
So I just gave out five keys. Tony Sanchez, Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell, and Chase d’Arnaud. I believe that those five guys have the biggest individual impact on the Pirates breaking this terrible losing streak and being competitive once again. Keep a close eye on them in 2012, we’ll certainly be keeping you updated here at RumBunter.