2013 saw the emergence of Starling Marte, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris and Gerrit Cole as bonafide major league assets. These young players contributed heavily to the Pirates’ success and push to the playoffs. Without their break-out seasons, the Pirates wouldn’t have finished .500, let alone make the playoffs. Since the Pirates have done little to bolster themselves in free-agency (and have lost significant pieces), they will need a new crop of young players to step up and contribute. Below is a list of players to keep your eye on in 2014:
On the infield, the Pirates have pressing needs at first base and shortstop, as well as overall depth. Young players who have a legitimate shot at helping in these areas are:
1) Jordy Mercer – Mercer came out of nowhere last year and earned a lot of playing time down the stretch. Mercer has some pop in his bat, but the Pirates really need him to duplicate (or better) his .285 batting average from last year. This would give the Pirates a legitimate #2 hitter in the order, as well as a defensively adequate shortstop. At age 27, this is the year that Mercer needs to make his move to solidify an every day starting spot in the lineup.
2) Chase d’Arnaud – d’Arnaud is another 27 year old on the roster whose time must come quickly, as the Pirates have talent coming up through minors that will supplant him if he does not. d’Arnaud showed signs of being a top of the order spark plug in the 2011 season when brought up as a fill-in on an injury riddled team. His speed and aggressiveness on the bases had many in the organization take notice. But, his achilles heel is his batting average, where last year he batted .233 in 61 games with Triple A affiliate Indianapolis. If d’Arnaud can maintain a batting average above .250, he may be a productive backup to give the Pirates depth on the infield.
3) Chris McGuinness – The recently acquired 25 year old McGuinness batted .246 last year with the Ranger’s Triple A affiliate, and had 11 home runs in 104 games. Given his power potential, the Pirates would be ecstatic if McGuinness can maintain that batting average while exploring his power potential at the major league level. He will get a serious look at a possible platoon situation with Gaby Sanchez at 1rst base in spring training. What will dictate his making the team is if he can work good counts, and make consistent contact.
4) Andrew Lambo – The 25 year old Lambo made a name for himself by having a career year in the minors last year. His combined numbers between Double A Altoona (58 games) and Triple A Indianapolis (62 games) were an eye popping .282 average, with 32 home runs and 99 RBI’s. Lambo has always produced a good batting average throughout his minor league career, but he really found his power last year. He will be given a legitimate shot in spring training to win the 1rst base or right field positions. But, since his call up to the majors at the end of last year, he seems to have lost his rhythm. He played winter ball, where he batted a disappointing .228, with no home runs, after a disappointing major league debut.
The Pirates outfield is in need of an every day right fielder, and overall depth and consistency off of the bench. Along with Andrew Lambo, the following guys may have a shot this year.
1) Gregory Polanco – The 22 year old left handed outfielder split time between Single A Bradenton and Double A Altoona last year. His average dipped a little after his promotion to Altoona, but his power numbers remained pretty consistent. Polanco will probably get a chance to start the year in Triple A, and if he can keep his average and power numbers up, he is expected to be called up to the big league at some point this year.
2) Jaff Decker – Decker was acquired from San Diego in the Alex Dickerson deal. Dickerson was a rising star in the Pirates organization, so this should tell you how highly they think of Decker. Decker spent most of last year in Tuscon in the Pacific Coast League (Triple A). The 24 year old left hander batted a respectable .286 with 10 homers in 105 games at Tuscon, and will get a legit shot to make the team this year in spring training.
You can never, ever have enough pitching. The Pirates are loaded in the bullpen, but need more depth there, as well as depth at starting pitching. These are the guys who have the best shot at contributing this year.
1) Brandon Cumpton – What Cumpton did last year in his spot starts says everything about his potential. The 25 year old right hander pitched 21 games last year with Triple A Indianapolis, and had a 3.32 ERA and a 2 to 1 SO/BB ratio. The ability is there, and the poise is there (as he showed in winning the 2nd game of the double header last year versus the Cardinals late in the season). The only remaining question is if given the opportunity, can he perform at the big league level on a consistent basis? Only time will tell…
2) Phil Irwin – The 27 year old right hander missed most of last year with ulnar nerve transposition surgery. Since turning pro, Irwin has put up some gaudy ERA numbers, never really having a stretch where he has had a ballooned ERA. The Pirates are hoping he can return to form after his surgery, and make the team as a fifth starter out of camp.
3) Andy Oliver – The hard throwing lefty is yet another live arm that may be a perfect fit in the bullpen. Last year at Triple A Indianapolis, Oliver recorded 138 strike outs in 124 innings. The big knock on Oliver is his control, as he had 112 walks last year. Could Oliver be the next Justin Wilson? A move to the bullpen seemed to cure Justin Wilson of his control problems. The Pirates are hoping the same for Oliver.
4) Duke Welker – The 28 year old right handed flame thrower pitched in 48 games last year for Triple A Indianapolis, all in relief. He accrued 9 saves along the way, having a strike out per inning average, and a 2 to 1 SO/BB ratio. Everything points to Welker making the club this year out of spring training, and logging a lot of innings for the Pirates this year.
5) Jameson Taillon – Taillon is currently not on the 40 man roster, but, as the Pirates’ #1 prospect, most everyone in baseball expects Taillon to make an appearance at the major league level this year. He was promoted to Triple A Indianapolis late last year, making 6 starts at that level. He had 37 SO and 16 BB in 37 innings. If he is anything close to being that consistent this year, he will be called up by June and will probably follow the same path that Garrett Cole did last year.