Sports Magazine

Battling Bucs : 2014 Prospect Cavalry

By Kipper @pghsportsforum
The upcoming Pirates season will be largely dependent on the players currently in place and also on any outside acquisitions the Pirates bring in. Players or prospective players from these two groups are routinely discussed during the offseason and deservingly so but there is a third group that should not go unnoticed. The Pirates will undoubtedly graduate some players to the major league level this upcoming season and they too will play a large part in how the Pirates season turns out. The question then becomes just what prospects may impact the club in 2014. I have chosen to try and highlight some of the lesser known guys putting focus away from the players who have appeared in the majors or are big time prospects.
The Impact Prospects
The Pirates have a pair of impact prospects waiting to possibly contribute in 2014 in Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillion. The pair projects to start the season in AAA and could both in theory arrive in Pittsburgh as soon as June. There is course nothing definitive on when the pair will arrive as if they show they aren't ready while in AAA there is little reason to suspect the Pirates will push them. One thing that we can say though is that these two players have the most upside in the 2014 prospect cavalry and are the ones who could really alter playoff races. I suspect we will see both of them at some point in 2014 but it remains to be seen just when that will be and how much impact they will have.
The Major League Ready Prospects
In something that is a little different than years past the Pirates have a rather large group of prospects who appear ready to help out the major league club starting as soon as opening day. Now this doesn't mean all these players will make the major league roster of course but it also shouldn't come as a surprise if some do. These players are Tony Sanchez, Andrew Lambo, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, Kris Johnson, Phil Irwin and Ryan Reid. Depending on what the Pirates decide to do Cumpton or Irwin could potentially compete for a back of the rotation job but more than likely they will begin the year at AAA serving as major league ready starting depth. Kris Johnson is another candidate to potentially start but more than likely the Pirates will use him as a reliever this season and have him and Ryan Reid start the season in AAA as bullpen depth. All of this isn't to say it would be impossible for one of them to crack the roster it is just the way things stand right now that foursome is more likely to serve as depth. The other three players, Sanchez, Lambo and Pimentel have a much better chance of starting the year out in the major leagues.
Sanchez at this moment figures to compete with Michael McKenry for the backup catcher job and while early reports are the Pirates may want Sanchez getting regular playing time in AAA one would have to assume he should have a leg up in the competition seeing as he is the Pirates best internal choice for a starting catcher in 2015. Lambo after a breakout age 24 season in AA and AAA figures to get a long look at either or both 1B and RF. If the Pirates opt not to address both positions externally it would appear Lambo would be one of the top internal options at either position. Pimentel didn't get a chance to do much of anything at the major league level last year but he is out of options and the Pirates thought highly enough of him to call him up on August 31st making him eligible for the postseason roster. It is difficult to imagine the Pirates waiving Pimentel so he will likely come north with the team. Pimentel might get a crack at the rotation but the more likely outcome is he will work out of the bullpen potentially as a long reliever. These three players and the aforementioned four players may not have the impact potential of Polanco and Taillion but they are certainly safer bets to contribute at some point in 2014.
Not Quite Ready
In between the long shots, impact prospects and major league ready guys lies a group of players who aren't quite major league ready but who appear as if they will be ready at some point in 2013. These guys are unlikely to have much impact but they still serve a vital role. In this group are Carlos Paulino, Alex Dickerson, Justin Howard, Mel Rojas, Adalberto Santos, Nicholas Kingham, Kyle McPherson, Casey Sadler and Zach Thornton.
Paulino is a gifted defensive catcher who outside of one year in A+ has really struggled with the bat. He has shown flashes of being a decent hitter but if he is going to have a sustained major league career he needs to show more consistency. Going into 2014 Paulino figures to be in AAA and will serve as the team's 4th catcher. Now hopefully a 4th catcher is not needed but at least in Paulino's case he has good enough defense where he isn't going to embarrass the Pirates. Paulino stuck around the major league spring training quite a while last year so the Pirates seem to really like him and I imagine his glove work is a major reason why. Barring injuries he is unlikely to see the majors this year but its nice knowing there is someone like him waiting fairly far down on the totem pole. Alex Dickerson is a 1B/RF who put a strong season last year in AA. Defensively he doesn't give you much so it is his bat that will have to carry him and he showed some power last year. The Pirates currently don't have a set option in 1B or RF so it is entirely possible Dickerson could be called upon sometime this year to try and fill one of those two spots.
Justin Howard is essentially a left handed Matt Hague. He doesn't really play defense well, probably shouldn't be moved off of 1B, doesn't run all the well, doesn't have much power either but he can really collect hits. His 2013 performance at AA was a good one and might earn him a chance at the AAA level. Like Hague if he makes the majors little should be expected of him but he could be a decent pinch hit option down the stretch should the Pirates need it. Adalberto Santos falls into a similar mold to Howard except he can kind of play 2B, 3B and the OF. His primary position and where he should play is the OF though he has been ok at 2B and tried to play 3B last year (it didn't go particularly well). Santos can and has hit at every level he has been out though and has the added benefit of being able to steal some bases (21 for 29 in 2013). If he can learn to be just competent at 2B and 3B he could be a slightly better offensive version of Josh Harrison. Rojas after doing just enough to keep his prospect status his first three professional seasons stepped up his game in 2013 and posted his best pro season to date at the AA level. It wasn't a sensational season by any means but it was solid enough that he now looks like he has a future in the major leagues as a quality 4th outfielder who can play a decent center field. All of these players are going to require more time in the minors before helping out at the major league level but once we get 3 months or so into the season any of these guys could be ready to serve some sort of role.
On the pitching side of the equation we have Kingham, McPherson, Thornton and Sadler. McPherson is kind of different from the rest because he has pitched in the major leagues before. The issue with him is that he has had Tommy John surgery and won't be ready until June. McPherson has a bit more upside than the rest of this group as he has flashed the potential of a middle of the rotation starter. The Pirates are assuredly going to try to get a 4th option on him and if successful he may very well just spend the whole season in the minors before competing for a spot in 2015 but if they aren't successful he is going to leave the Pirates with an interesting decision come sometime around late July. Kingham is basically where McPherson was into 2012. Meaning he has the look of a potential middle of the rotation arm and has pitched in AA with some success but still may return there due to a numbers game. Kingham definitely could give the Pirates a handful of quality starts this year but then again it wouldn't be crazy if he spent the entire year in the minor leagues either. Kingham is a polished pitcher and will likely be ready if needed later in the season but it’s very possible he may not be needed.
In Casey Sadler the Pirates have someone who reminds me a lot of Brandon Cumtpon heading into 2013. What I mean by that is he looks like a guy who is probably better suited for relief but he is still putting up quality numbers as a starter so you really don't want to move him off of starting. Sadler had a solid year in AA in 2013 much like Cumpton in 2012 and is expected to move up in 2014 but may not because of the numbers game. He profiles either has a back of the rotation arm or as a middle relief pitcher. There isn't much upside here but the depth is valuable. Thornton is an interesting name to watch. He was the minimal return we got on Chris Resop last year and as he should have been he was largely ignored. Thornton though didn't escape all notice because of his excellent K rate in 2012 at A+ and he followed that up by essentially duplicating that K rate across AA and AAA. Oddly enough Thornton isn't really a power pitcher throwing in just the low 90s but he has an odd delivery which likely helps disguise his pitches. He is a sleeper to be added to the 40 man roster this offseason and could serve as a depth option for the bullpen.
Long Shots
There exists a group of players in the Pirates organization who at the moment appear unlikely to have an impact on the major league team in 2015 but they have a certain skill set which could potentially make them useful options. This list could be made into a large one if I was so inclined but for this purpose I think I will stick with just the handful of long shots I see a conceivable path for. These players include Jacob Stallings, Matt Curry, Stetson Allie, Jarek Cunningham, Alen Hanson, Gift Ngoepe, Joely Rodriguez, Zack Dodson, Ryan Beckman and Jeff Inman. That is quite an extensive list with some intriguing names on it but let's just start at the beginning.
Jacob Stallings is a defensive oriented catcher who spent all of 2013 at the A+ level. He does technically have some AA experience as he was sent to the level at the end of 2012 when the team was in need of a backup catcher for the last few days of the season. He would seem to face incredibly long odds of seeing the majors at any point in 2014 and indeed he does but there is recent precedence which suggests it isn't impossible. Eric Fryer who made the jump from AA to the majors in 2011 was probably less of a prospect than even Stallings was at the time but do happenings at the major league level and his strong showing in the minors he was able to work his way to the major leagues. Much like it did for Fryer it would take a perfect storm of events for Stallings to reach the majors but it certainly isn't impossible. Matt Curry is definitely a more likely candidate than Stallings as he appeared ready for AAA last year before ultimately being held back and then winding up missing most of the season. Curry is a left handed hitting 1B who has put up ok numbers in AA. If he takes off at the AA level much like Lambo did this past season and an opening presents itself he could surely make his way to the majors. Stetson Allie is probably the longest of long shots on this list but that doesn't mean it can't be done. Allie possesses as much raw power as anyone in the organization and it is that power which gives him a chance. Allie will likely start out in A+ meaning he has a long ways to go but there is precedence here as well in the form of Steve Pearce. Pearce just kept on hitting and earned himself a spot in the major leagues. Allie might also be added to the roster seeing as he is Rule V eligible so that helps his case but if he isn't a strong showing could cause the Pirates to add him in September to get a look at him anyway.
Jarek Cunningham is barely a prospect at this point and his power returned in a big way last year. He still has a lot of problems with plate discipline that needs to be corrected before he can be considered a credible major league player but he will only be 24 next year meaning he isn't out of time yet. Considering how thin the Pirates are at 2B and 3B (Cunnigham's primary and secondary positions) it is not inconceivable to imagine that if he puts it together there could be an opening for him in the majors. Alen Hanson this time next year is likely to be an impact prospect waiting to step up and make a splash at the shortstop position if his defense allows or at another position if it doesn't. However he is likely to start the year in AA and there is nothing that says he can't just start to mash at that level and race his way to Pittsburgh. The shortstop position is far from settled in Pittsburgh and even if he has to be slid to 2B or 3B it is again not inconceivable that an opening could arise via an injury. Hanson will be added to the 40 man roster this offseason meaning the Pirates wouldn't have to add him before calling him up which could potentially be a big a boost to his chances of making the squad. Gift Ngoepe struggled mightily with the bat in AA but if he isn't going to make the majors it isn't going to be due to his bat. Ngoepe is regarded as the best defensive shortstop in the Pirates system and he has plus speed. In short if he shows himself to even be competent with the bat this season it isn't hard to imagine him being called up in September as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Cunningham, Hanson and Ngoepe all have a chance at reaching the majors this year largely due to the lack of depth in front of them and the fact that if either of them takes their game to the next level they could easily be option C at the major league level.
Now we get to the pitchers and it is always difficult to know just who among them may surprise and make it to the majors but I think we have a pretty interesting crop. Zack Dodson and Joely Rodriguez are both left handed pitchers who are likely to begin the season at AA. Rodriguez stands a good chance of being added to the roster this offseason whereas Dodson does not. However the Pirates as an organization are lacking in left handed pitching so it isn't difficult to see a path for either of these two should they put together a strong 2014. Rodriguez who is more highly regarded and likely to be on the roster would seem the more obvious choice but Dodson is the last remnant of the '09 prep pitcher strategy and he too has plus stuff for a left handed pitcher. I can't see either playing a significant role this season but should the Pirates have a need for an extra left handed relief pitcher later on in the season it is reasonable to suspect these two could play themselves into being viable candidates.
Jeff Inman and Ryan Beckman are the two pitchers who I see as most likely to be regarded as emergency bullpen depth this year. Beckman had a solid 2011 before missing essentially all of 2012 when he needed Tommy John surgery. He returned last year and pitched sparingly but decently in A+ and AA. His arsenal is nothing outstanding but it is solid and he throws side arm which is of course another wrinkle. Jeff Inman has always been said to possess terrific stuff but there is one problem and that is the simple fact that he can't seem to remain healthy. His results have also not been what you would want to see from a pitcher with his kind of stuff. In short he isn't getting a lot out of his talent. In cases like this it is always possible that at some point something will just click and the player will be able to turn things around. It seems unlikely he will finally realize that untapped potential but the chance is always there. These two players obviously seem unlikely to have a major impact but it is certainly possible either could serve as a middle reliever for the Pirates for a short span later this season.
Well there you have a look at the 2014 Prospect Cavalry some of whom will definitely be called upon to help out the major league team when a problem arises. Chances are most of the players I mentioned will either not see the major leagues in 2014 or have little impact but there will undoubtedly be a handful in this group that makes their presence felt and who knows perhaps even someone out of the scope of this piece will emerge and make his way to the majors. The good news is the Cavalry is fairly well stocked and ready to contribute when necessary.

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