Today officially kicks off the Minor League season. I will be doing primers for each level over the next week. This should be a very exciting year for the Pirate’s minor leagues affiliates as they start to see many of their top prospects reach the upper levels. This is the true test to see if these top prospects really deserve to be considered in that category. I have always said that the biggest jump in the minors for hitters is from High-A to AA and for pitchers from AA to AAA. The Pirates will see many prospects do that this year:
This team is loaded with talent this year on both sides of the field. Many of you have already heard about the potential of the starting rotation. To the start the season the rotation will consist of two of the Pirate’s top prospects in Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. There is not much to say about these two. They have had different paths, but are the top 2 arms in the system. Both have power fastballs, strong secondary pitches, and the physical size you like in an Ace. Things to look for is if Glasnow can improve his command this year. With Taillon this is the first time in tow years that he will be throwing consistent competitive innings, is he physically and mentally prepared.
Slotting behind the big two will be 3 more top 25 prospects. I expect Steven Brault to slot in at #3 in the Indian’s rotation. Brault is a left-handed prospect who was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles in the Snider trade. Brault has posted a 2.53 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP in his 3 minors league season. With that he has shown strong command striking out 3.5 batters per 1 one walk. Brault has never gotten much press because he lacks intangibles like size and arm strength. Brault is only 6’0″ and throws around 90-91. However, he has positioned himself to potentially get called up this season. The last two spots will be filled by Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl, both right-handed. Neither project to be big time, impact arms, but they could be serviceable big league starters. They have solid frames and good pitches, but do not have a anything that sticks out. I think both can develop into back end of the rotation arms, with their ceiling being a 3’s.
There is more than just pitching in AAA. There are many intriguing hitting prospects as well. The first prospect is none other than first baseman Josh Bell. We all know the story of Josh Bell. Drafted in the 2nd round of 2011 and playing right-field his first few years in the organization. However, the Pirates transitioned Bell to first base spring training. This made it obvious that the Pirates view Bell as part of their future plans.
Knowing he would be blocked in the outfield, the Pirates put him at a position that they have had trouble finding consistency at. If the fans know he is being viewed as the future first baseman, Bell does as well. However, Bell did not fold under the pressure last season. He is still learning the defensive side of things, but put up strong offensive numbers last year. Between AA and AAA Bell hit a strong .317 with a slash line of .393/.446/.838 (OBP/SLUG/OPS). Many have questioned if Bell will ever hit for home run power as he has not in the minors thus far. Bell is a big guy at 6’3″ and 245lbs, he has a lot of raw power. The things is the Pirate’s minor league approach is to teach prospects how to be all-around hitters. With this, they teach players how to shorten up and drive the ball the other way. The Pirates learned this lesson from Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez was advanced for the minors, and he showed it by putting on home run displays in his time down in the system. However, it was evident at the major league level that he never learned how to be a complete hitter. The Pirates will not make this mistake again. With Bell heading into his 5th minor league season and being close to the majors you may see the training wheels start to come off. Bell will hit his far share of homers in the majors, but will also be a more complete hitter in doing so. I could see Bell getting the call at the end of June when the Pirates go to Seattle and Oakland for their first inter-league road match ups.
I felt the need to write a whole paragraph of Bell because he is by far the most intriguing hitting prospect at AAA. With that he will be joined by a few others in the infield for Indy. The most obvious is shortstop turned second baseman Alen Hanson. Hanson hit close to .290 most of last season at AAA. However, after not receiving a September call up he watched his season average dip. He ended the year with batting .263 with OBP of .313. Many blame this drop in production on him being disappointed about not receiving a call up. With that Hanson came to Spring Training ready to go. He impressed so much that before the David Freese signing many thought Hanson had a shot at being the opening day 2nd baseman. If nothing else, Hanson will bring versatility with his game. As stated earlier, he has played SS and plays 2nd now, he is a switch-hitter who has some pop (hit 16 homers in 2012) and speed. Last year in AAA he swiped 35 bases. The biggest issue with Hanson is he may be blocked in Pittsburgh as the Pirates extended 2nd baseman Josh Harrison last year and still have 3 more seasons of Jung-Ho Kang at 3rd.
The other top prospect to watch in AAA will be the man receiving the pitchers. Elias Diaz has been a late bloomer. His breakout season was in 2014 at AA. Diaz had always shown strong defense and receiving ability in the lower minors, but his bat really came alive for the Curve hitting .328. Last season Diaz regressed some what but still hit a solid .271 with a .330 OBP while throwing out 30% of base runners. During the off-season there were reports of
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trade talks surrounding Texas Ranger’s first baseman Mitch Moreland, the asking price apparently was Diaz. The Pirates declined the asking price. This shows how high the Buc’s front office is on Diaz. They were not willing to move the 25 year-old for a proven commodity at first base. Diaz is starting the year on the DL with elbow soreness. Barring any surgery he will be catching a majority of the games in AAA this season. Diaz received a call up last September, but did not receive much playing time (2 AB). However, if Cervelli goes down with any sort of extended injury I expect Diaz to be called up. With that he will receievd a good amount of the playing time (along with Stewart). If the Pirates lose Cervelli to free agency next off-season, Diaz will project to be the opening day starter in 2017.
Some other prospects to watch at the Triple-A level are Max Moroff and Adam Frazier. These two put up strong averages last year at AA and project to be nice utility players at the next level. Frazier hit .324 at AA and can play SS, 3b, 2b, and OF. Moroff hit .290 and has seen time at SS, 2b, and 3b. Willy Garcia is the most intriguing outfielder at Indy. He has some big time power, some athleticism, and the strongest arm in the organization. The issue with Garcia is his plate discipline. In his career his BB/K ratio is .20/1. Although he may struggle at times,
Garcia still possesses intriguing tools that could get him into The Show at some point. Catcher Jacob Stallings has always been average on both sides of the game. Last year in AA he hit for a modest .275 batting average while throwing out 35% of runners. I like Stallings and believe he could be a serviceable backup catcher at the next level. He could find himself demoted to AA upon Diaz’s return from the DL however. The last player is Gift Ngoepe, another player who was fighting this spring to make the opening day roster. In his career Ngoepe is only a .235 hitter, but he was considered the best defensive shortstop in all of AAA last season. This year Ngoepe is giving up switch-hitting in hope that focusing on his natural side of the plate will bring more offense (right-handed). If he can boost his offense he may be the first South African player to reach the big leagues.
The Triple-A team is loaded with talent. They will have the strongest 1-5 starters in all of AAA, a few top hitting prospects, and projectable major league players. They also will be joined by some big league players like Jason Rogers, Rob Scahill, Trey Haley, and Aj Schugel. This team has the potential to put up really strong numbers that will catch the eyes of many scouts and people around baseball. Most importantly however, they will provide the Pirates with several strong depth pieces as the season goes on. My next preview will be on AA Altoona.