No matter how excited we might be as Pirate fans about the pitching in the system, those are important words to remember. As discussed yesterday, the Pirates have added quite a bit of depth to their list of hitting prospects. Right now, though, the team’s rebuilding plans are hinging on the pitching prospects, both the elite guys at the top to take the Pirates’ rotation somewhere that it hasn’t been in decades and on the rest of the guys in the middle to provide some actual rotation depth behind the frontliners. It seems to me like the Pirates are really hoping to turn themselves into the Rays, a team with a couple elite guys and an endless supply of quality arms to either trade or supplement the rotation with.
The inevitable follow-up question right now is this one: is it working? The Pirates’ pitching prospects didn’t have great years on the whole in 2011. None of the high school arms from 2009 have really broken out yet, the pitchers in the upper minors almost all took steps backwards, and even the two elite arms, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, have a bit of a tendency to get hit hard. There’s a lot of talent and a lot of projectibility in the Pirates’ system when it comes to pitching right now.
Talent and projectibility don’t always translate into production in the Majors, though, and there’s plenty of questions about if the Pirates’ fastball-heavy approach in the low minors is helping their pitchers. There’s not really any way to answer those questions at this point because the first real wave of pitching prospects picked by Neal Huntington just finished their second full year in the system, which would be equivalent to their sophomore year in college. That’s not to excuse a lack of progress, but rather to say that I’m not sure we can measure progress quite yet. I think we’ll know a lot more about the Cains and Von Rosenbergs and Fuessers and Pounders at the end of 2012 and by then, it might be possible to figure out exactly what the Pirates have in some of them.
The same caveats apply here as they do to the hitting prospects. Let’s hit the list.
1. Gerrit Cole, RHP, UCLA
In trying to distinguish between Cole and Taillon, I guess the easiest way to do it is to say that Cole is older and with three years of college to Taillon’s one year of professional baseball, that makes him a little more advanced and a slightly better prospect. It was hard not drool a little over Cole’s AFL debut, even though he got roughed up a bit as the game went on. He throws a mid-to-upper 90s four-seamer that tops out at 100 mph, a two-seamer that’s a bit slower, a hard, 88-90 mph slider, and what’s supposed to be a decent changeup. He struggled a bit in his junior year with UCLA, but obviously he’s the sort of arm that GMs and scouts (and fans) dream on.
2. Jameson Taillon, RHP, West Virginia (stats).
There was some disappointment in some circles (notably the anxious Pirate fan circles) about Taillon’s 3.98 ERA with West Virginia in 2011. That was mostly the product of a fairly high homer rate (nine in 92 2/3 innings) that can probably be attributed to the way the Pirates ask their young pitchers to focus on fastballs. Taillon struck out more than a batter an inning, he didn’t walk many hitters, and he turned in some flat-out sparkling performances in 2011 as a 19-year old in a full-season league. That’s a good starting place for his career and when the prospect lists come out for 2012, he’s probably going to be ranked in the top 10-20 guys in all of baseball again.
3. Luis Heredia, RHP, GCL Pirates (stats).
I was pretty cautious in ranking the young Latin American hitters in the Pirates’ system, but Heredia’s different because of the huge bonus he got and because the Pirates skipped him straight to the Gulf Coast League at the age of 16. He held his own there, too, though he did walk a ton of batters. I saw Heredia just walking around Pirate City when I was there last spring: he’s a HUGE kid. It’s easy to see why the Pirates think so highly of him, and watching him develop should be one of the more interesting aspects of prospect-watching for Pirate fans over the next five or so years.
4. Kyle McPherson, RHP, FSL Bradenton/Altoona (stats)
It was mildly surprising when McPherson was chosen for the last 40-man roster spot over Nathan Adcock last winter, but McPherson did plenty to reward the front office’s faith in him in 2011 with maybe the biggest breakout of any Pirate pitcher in the system. He made 12 dominating starts with the Marauders, putting up a 10.00 K/BB ratio in 71 2/3 innings (60 strikeouts, six walks), then kept on pitching well after a promotion to Altoona. In 16 starts there, his strikeout rate improved to 8.3 K/9 and he kept his walk and homer totals down, if not quite as down as they were in the Florida State League. He was a touch old (23) and he doesn’t profile as an ace, but he does look like a guy that could help the Pirates’ rotation as soon this coming summer, which is something the Pirates don’t have a lot of.
5. Nick Kingham, RHP, State College (stats).
Of all of the high school pitchers the Pirates have drafted the last few years, few have had as much immediate success as Kingham did in State College this year. While most of the Pirate minor leaguers struggle in their State College year with the team-imposed limited arsenal, Kingham still managed 6.0 K/9 with a 1.9 BB/9 ratio, a 2.15 ERA, and just 63 hits and 5 homers allowed in 71 innings. As a result, he’s starting to pop up on people’s prospect radars and if he can add some more constant velocity to his 6’5″ frame, there’s a chance that he could blossom the way some of the Pirates’ other high school pitching draftees haven’t.
6. Jeff Locke, LHP, Altoona/Indianapolis (stats).
It was surprising to see Locke back in Altoona after he acquitted himself so well there for 10 starts in 2010 and in the long run, I wonder if that didn’t set his development back a bit. As a result he made more than 30 starts at Double-A and except for a few outings here and there with the Curve, he looked good. Now, he’s only got five starts at Triple-A and four starts with the Pirates in which he was mostly overwhelmed and looked terrible. He’ll almost certainly go back to Indy to start 2012, when the Pirates could really use him. That’s more a statement about the sad state of the Pirates’ rotation than Locke’s potential. His ceiling is probably that of Paul Maholm, but he won’t even get that far if the control problems he showed with the Pirates in September persist.
7. Stetson Allie, RHP, State College (stats)
We all knew Allie would have control problems, but no one thought he’d walk 29 hitters in 26 innings. On the bright side, he did strike out 28 hitters in the same span. So is there hope? The Pirate coaching staff seems to know what they’re doing in when it comes to helping pitchers increase their control, so I’m hopeful. Still, there’s a much longer way for Allie to go than we all initially hoped.
8. Bryan Morris, RHP, Altoona (stats)
Having a guy move to the bullpen before he gets to Triple-A isn’t great news. Morris was pretty dominant out of the pen as a reliever in Altoona, though, and … I dunno. He’s not really a good prospect if he’s a reliever, so here’s hoping he goes back to the rotation.
9. Justin Wilson, LHP, Indianapolis (stats)
Similar to Morris, but because he’s a lefty that can get his fastball up into the mid-90s, he’s a better prospect as a reliever if that makes sense. Morris would be a better starter, which is why he’s ranked higher, but … Whatever, both guys were disappointing and if they don’t go back into the rotation, they’ll be way lower on this list next year.
10. Rudy Owens, LHP, Indianapolis (stats)
Everyone that was concerned about Owens’ ability to miss bats in the upper levels of the minors can put a checkmark in their column after 2011. I saw Owens in May and he seemed like he was over his head. He made a couple decent runs of good starts at various points in the season, but the final result was still pretty ugly. To top it all off, he ended the season with a shoulder problem. Was the shoulder problem part of the reason he was ineffective during the year? How serious is it, really? He’s going to have to answer those questions if he wants to pitch in the Pirates rotation in 2012, but at this point I honestly don’t have my hopes up.
11. Colton Cain, LHP, West Virginia (stats)
Of the big group of high school pitchers from the 2009 draft, Cain probably had the best season as the group all hit their first year of full-season ball. He didn’t strike many guys out, which is a big concern, but he does keep the ball on the ground and he didn’t get hit very hard in 2011, which is a good thing for a minor leaguer. I still don’t really know what kind of leash these guys are on and so it’s possible that his strikeouts will go up a bit as he progresses through the system. It’s my impression that Cain’s ceiling isn’t quite as high as some other guys that are about to come up on this list, but I think we’ll know a lot more about him (and the other high schoolers) in the next year or two.
12. Zack Von Rosenberg, RHP, West Virginia (stats)
After 2010, everyone said they wanted to see Von Rosenberg open things up a bit and strike out some more hitters. He did that in 2011, increasing his strikeout rate from 5.9 K/9 to 8.4. He kept his walks in line, too (his BB/9 rate dropped from 2.0 to 1.6), but he didn’t have the breakout everyone wanted to see because he got absolutely slammed by Sally League hitters for most of the season. He gave up 19 homers and more than a hit per inning in 125 2/3 innings this year, which is accounts for his 5.73 ERA. Still, he’s got those great rate stats and he finished the season pretty strongly and there’s room to add velocity to his 6’5″ frame and he’s only 21 … Hopefully he’ll be a lot higher on next year’s list.
13. Zac Fuesser, LHP, West Virginia (stats)
He kind of got lost in the shuffle with all of the high school arms from the ’09 draft because he was picked in the 34th round and was a Juco pitcher, but his Pirate career is off to a pretty good start. He had a great first half with West Virginia before tailing off later in the summer, but he still improved quite a bit on his control in 2011 which is good to see. Like Cain and Von Rosenberg above and a few more guys below, I think we’ll learn quite a bit about him in 2012.
14. Brett Lorin, RHP, Bradenton (stats)
Since Lorin came to the Pirates as part of the Jack Wilson/Ian Snell trade in 2009, I’ve had him filed away as a brekaout candidate. Unfortunately, he had a hip problem in 2010 that caused him to miss some time. He was mostly healthy this year and he pitched well in Bradenton, but he didn’t get a promotion to Altoona at any point, which was surprising to me. He’ll be 25 in March, he’s eligible for the Rule 5 this winter, and he’s never even pitched in Double-A. Whenever he is healthy, he pitches well, though, and if he’s with the Pirates next year I could definitely see him making an Eric-Fryer like dash to the Majors given his age (if the results are there).
15. Brooks Pounders, RHP, West Virginia (stats)
I’m not entirely sure what to make of Pounders’ 2011 stats, to be honest. When he was drafted in 2009, the book on him was that he didn’t have overwhelming stuff, but he could throw a lot of pitches for a high schooler. Knowing how the Pirates stress fastball controls, I expected him to struggle a bit in the minors. He worked mostly as a swingman in West Virginia this year, but he put up strikeout numbers better than anyone from his draft class (9.8 K/9, just 1.9 BB/9) and pitched well despite a bit of a home run problem. Was that because the Pirates let him use his other pitches a bit more? Because his fastball had better velocity out of the bullpen? Why didn’t he get a chance to start? These are all questions I have about Pounders going into 2012, but all in all his numbers were a bit of a pleasant surprise to me in 2011.
16. Zack Dodson, RHP, West Virginia (stats)
The last of our 2009 draftees that spent the season at West Virginia. Dodson actually had a promising year in that his control was very good (2.1 BB/9) and that was one of the concerns about him when he was drafted out of a Texas high school, but he missed a bunch of time with a broken hand. Still, he was pretty good (especially relative to expectations) when he was healthy and I think the Pirates used his injury as a reason to put him in GCL Bradenton and State College to alleviate some of the pitching jam that they had in West Virginia. He should go to Bradenton with the rest of the crew in 2012, though it might be tough for him (and Pounders) to find innings if Gerrit Cole opens the season there as well.
17. Brandon Cumpton, RHP, West Virginia, FSL Bradenton (stats)
A college pitcher taken in the tenth round of the 2010 draft, Cumpton got off to a pretty bad start with West Virginia this year, but put things together, earned a promotion to Bradenton, and kept pitching well there. None of his stats were overwhelmingly good, but they were solid enough. For some reason, I have a feeling that Cumpton could be next year’s Jared Hughes; a guy with decent but unspectacular rotation numbers that blossoms with a move to the bullpen.
18. Nate Baker, LHP, FSL Bradenton (stats)
Pretty much the same as Cumpton, but drafted in 2009 and thus a year older. He’s posted decent ERAs thus far in his minor league career, but his strikeouts are too low (in the neighborhood of 6 K/9) and his walks are too high (around 3 BB/9) to make him a really interesting prospect. On the plus side, he is a lefty, and he did manage to bring his home run rate way down after giving up quite a few gopher balls in his short stint in the FSL last year.
18. Victor Black, RHP, West Virginia/FSL Bradenton (stats)
He was moved to the bullpen prior to the season after dealing with some injuries last year (it was probably an inevitable move anyway as he’s profiled as a reliever since draft day in 2010), but that didn’t really keep him healthy and he only threw 35 2/3 innings this year, with pretty ugly results. If he stays healthy, good things might happen, but that hasn’t happened yet.
19. Quinton Miller, RHP, FSL Bradenton (stats)
Another guy that’s had trouble staying healthy, Miller got off to a good start in 2009 but had biceps trouble in 2010 and only threw 70 innings dealing with a few different ailments in Bradenton in 2011. His numbers weren’t all that great when he was healthy, so there are a number of mounting concerns here.
21. Clayton Holmes, RHP, high school
The Pirates paid Holmes a TON of money ($1.2 million) for a ninth round pick, so hey, he goes on the list. WTM says he’s a “project,” but obviously the Pirates think highly of him.