Pirate fans (myself certainly included) make quite a bit of Neal Huntington’s focus on pitching when it comes to draft time every season. That’s for good reason, as most of Huntington’s high profile draft picks (notable exceptions: Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Josh Bell) have been pitchers, but the reality is that the Pirates have increased the depth of their hitting prospects by quite a bit recently.
At the end of last season, I didn’t even rank the top hitting prospects because I felt like the list was a jumble of Chase d’Arnauds and Josh Harrisons and besides a few guys (Starling Marte and Tony Sanchez, mostly), there just wasn’t much to talk about. Things are a lot different this year. Marte had a great bounceback from last year’s injury, Robbie Grossman had a huge breakout year, Josh Bell and Alex Dickerson were added tot he system, Matt Curry emereged, Gorkys Hernandez restored some of his prospect status, Ramon Cabrera and Elvys Gonzalez flashed some real potential at a young age in Bradenton, Wes Freeman made some strides, etc. Really, every single one of the 21 players on this list is interesting and I could’ve even gone a few deeper to include some young guys with high ceilings who haven’t played much above Bradenton or State College yet.
That’s not to say that the list is budding with future superstars or immediate help with the Pirates. The only players on this list to play in Triple-A this year are Eric Fryer and Jordy Mercer, both of those guys will make the big leagues, but I’m not sure how much either will do there and they’re most likely headed for careers as backup/utility types (I think Fryer has a chance at being a starting catcher, say, on a team that would otherwise be playing Mike McKenry and Matt Pagnozzi, but because he’s got so little experience above Single-A and because he struggled when he went back to Indianapolis, he’s ranked lower).
I’ve decided to change the format to put the brief writeups for each prospect here instead on their own pages, because I think this is both easier for me and easier to read, with the idea that I’ll do them more often if they’re easier for me to write. I’m going to keep these posts on the Prospects page so that they’re accessible and so that you can tell me how stupid I am when I’m wrong about these guys. As always, I offer the disclaimer that I’m not a scout or anything like it; the most I’ve seen of most of these players in person is a little bit of action at Pirate City or a game or two with Indianapolis. I draw most of this based on things I’ve read (Pirates Prospects is, of course, the go-to source for this kind of Pirate information, especially now that they have WTM’s player pages). Really, this sort of thing is always an exercise in learning for me: what kind of players do I over value? Who have I undervalued? Is there something I can learn from those mistakes?
OK, that’s enough equivocating. Below are the WHYGAVS Top 21 Hitting Prospects for the fall of 2011. The pitchers will be posted in their own list tomorrow.
1. Starling Marte, OF, Altoona (stats).
I’ll be honest, the strikeouts (100) and walks (22) worry me a bit here. I can’t help it. I’m an analytically-inclined guy and I understand that K/BB numbers for minor league hitters aren’t the most important thing for a toolsy guy like Marte, but I still can’t help but note them and worry about them a bit. What I do like a lot here is his power surge in 2011. In his first four years in the Pirates’ system, including two years as an over-aged player in the Dominican Summer League, Marte hit 15 homers. He hit 12 with Altoona to go with 38 doubles and eight triples. That’s a great power surge that makes him a different kind of prospect than the speedy leadoff hitter he seemed to be before this year. He’s probably going to start 2012 in Indianapolis, but it’d be surprising if he didn’t end it as a Pirate.
2. Josh Bell, OF, HS.
The Pirates have a power-hitting prospect! The Pirates have a power prospect! After two straight drafts of paying huge bonuses to high school pitchers drafted (mostly) after the first round, the Pirates finally got a hitter with maybe an even better pedigree. Bell was viewed as one of the best high school hitting prospects and one of the best power prospects in the 2011 draft. He hasn’t played at all in the system yet, but he’ll likely make his debut with West Virginia in 2012.
3. Robbie Grossman, OF, FSL Bradenton (stats).
Honestly, the main reason Grossman is this high is because Sanchez was so bad last year. I want to see a little more out of Grossman at a higher level before I get too excited here. His great year is mostly based on plate patience, but extreme plate patience in the low minors isn’t necessarily a sign that he’ll be the same type of hitter in the Majors. He showed some improved pop in 2011, but McKechnie Field seems to be one of the better hitters’ parks in the Florida State League, so I’m being cautious. That said, if he can replicate his 2011 numbers with Altoona in 2012, he’s quickly going to become one of the guys I’m most excited about in the system.
4. Tony Sanchez, C, Altoona (stats).
No pulling punches: Sanchez was one of the Pirates’ most disappointing minor leaguers in 2011. Before his broken jaw in 2010, he was hitting for average and getting on base and even showing some pop with Bradenton in the Florida State League. With Altoona in 2011, he had fewer extra base hits in 118 games (14 doubles, 1 triple, 5 homers) than he did in 59 with Bradenton last year (17 doubles, 4 homers). The thing is, he was so very bad that it’s impossible not to wonder how the after-effects from the jaw injury slowed him down. He lost a ton of weight in the summer of 2010 and really seemed to wear down in June and July of this year before posting a semi-solid numbers in August. Did he have trouble getting back into playing shape after losing so much weight, especially as a catcher with so many other things to worry about? The good news is that he seems like an incredibly dedicated kid, so if that’s the issue, I think he’ll bounce back strongly in 2012. There’s just no way to really know right now if whatever slowed him down in 2011 is something that he can come back quickly from. If he can bounce back quickly, there’s a decent shot we see him in Pittsburgh in 2012. If he can’t, well, Neal Huntington will probably be hearing about Sanchez until he wins a World Series or gets fired.
5. Alex Dickerson, 1B/OF, State College (stats).
For now, Dickerson’s one of the tougher guys in the system to rate. He scored as one of the best power hitters in the 2011 draft, but he’s limited in the field (he played outfield in college, but most think he’s a first baseman long-term) and he had some back issues in his junior year with Indiana. He’s one of the few players that showed up in State College this year and immediately started hitting, but that’s what a good college hitter should do in the New York Penn League. The Pirates haven’t really had a prospect like him under Neal Huntington, so I’m not sure how they’ll handle him in 2012. I suspect he’ll go to Bradenton, but there’s a chance he’ll start the year in West Virginia.
6. Gorkys Hernandez, OF, Indianapolis (stats).
Here’s a great example of why it’s important to remember prospect age. Hernandez was in Single-A at 19 (the same age as Jameson Taillon this year, for comparison) and put up decent numbers in the low minors, but struggled at Double-A when he was traded to the Pirates and repeated the level. He bounced back nicely this year, though, with a .283/.348/.393 line as a 23-year old in Indianapolis. He showed a glimmer of power (25 doubles and nine triples, but just one homer) and decent on-base skills, but he needs to develop something to become a regular big leaguer. Unless the Pirates trade him to a team that needs a centerfielder. Given the relative strengths of the team right now, that might be something they consider.
7. Matt Hague, 1B, Indianapolis (stats).
Honestly, I’m not terribly impressed with Hague and I think he kind of profiles as a Kevin Young (good glove, decent pop, will drive in runs if placed in the middle of the order, but not really that great of a hitter) at best. He’s going to be a big leaguer, maybe as soon as Opening Day 2012, though, and so it’s hard to not put him relatively high on the list.
8. Matt Curry, 1B, West Virginia/Altoona (stats).
OK, so we know the Curry flat-out destroyed the Sally League for this season’s first six weeks. Coming from a good college program (TCU) in 2010, that should’ve been expected. His leapfrog to Double-A was dramatic and he struggled quite a bit there in June (.227/.286/.371), his first full month in Altoona. He broke out pretty impressively in July (.308/.361/.486, eight doubles, three homers) given the leap he’d made, but then he gave it all back in August (.181/.330/.264). So what do we really have in Curry? I have no idea. I expect he’ll start 2012 out in Altoona again and that should give us a better idea.
9. Jarek Cunningham, 2B, FSL Bradenton (stats).
Good: a 21-year old middle infielder slugging .516 with 44 extra base hits in 80 games at Advanced-A. This kid has some serious power. Bad: 82 strikeouts, 17 walks in 348 plate appearances. If Cunningham can harness his power a bit in Double-A, he’s going to fly up people’s prospect lists. If he can’t he might be a Chad Hermanson. (Added note: the difference between him and a guy like Marte is that Marte is way toolsier. He can fly on the bases, he can play great outfield defense, etc. Therefore, he’s still a useful player in the Majors, even with a .320 OBP. Cunningham isn’t particularly fast or strong defensively, from what I’ve read, so he needs to be more rounded at the plate).
10. Jordy Mercer, SS, Altoona/Indianapolis (stats).
I’ve always been pretty skeptical of his offensive abilities, but it’s hard to deny his power surge this year. He hit a ton of homers at Double-A, which was impressive even though he was 24 and repeating the level. He still hit for reasonable power with Indianapolis and had a great August (.313/.347/.491) after struggling in his first month there in July. On top of that, he’s supposed to be a better defender than, say, Chase d’Arnaud and so there’s a chance he could stick at shortstop. He’s ceiling isn’t great and I’m still a bit skeptical of his offense given his on-base abilities, but if the Pirates don’t pick up Ronny Cedeno’s option I’d almost rather see Mercer at short in 2011 than d’Arnaud.
11. Brock Holt, 2B/SS, Altoona (stats).
Holt, you’ll remember, got off to a great, albeit batting-average driven, start with Bradenton in 2010 before injuring his knee and missing most of the season. He moved to Altoona last year and was decent (.288/.356/.387, 30 doubles, 9 triples, 1 homer in 579 PAs) if unspectacular. If he can go to Triple-A and add some more power, he’ll be worth a shot in the Replace Ronny Cedeno Sweepstakes. If not, he’ll battle Chase d’Arnaud for a utility spot.
12. Elvys Gonzalez, INF (mostly third base), FSL Bradenton (stats).
Not much not to like about Gonzalez’s 2011 season. He had a decent year with West Virginia in 2010, but only played 64 games. He went to Bradenton in 2011 and improved on just about everything and did it for a full season at 21. His line is very batting average driven and he’s got a bad K/BB ratio, too, but he’s young and he obviously took a step forward this year.
13. Ramon Cabrera, C, FSL Bradenton (stats).
Similar to Gonzalez, but he’s 5’7″. Hey, means something for these kinds of lists! Also, I couldn’t find his home/road splits, because MiLB.com player pages are infuriating.
14. Carlos Paulino, C, FSL Bradenton (stats).
Paulino, you may or may not recall, was the player sent to the Pirates when Jim Negrych demanded to be traded out of the system before the 2011 season began. He seemed like an afterthought as he was coming off of a .445 OPS between Single-A and Advanced-A in 2010. He went to Bradenton this year as a 21-year old and hit .299/.351/.439 in 82 games while splitting time with Ramon Cabrera. Since he’s got a strong defensive reputation, that means he’s actually a decent prospect and the Pirates will have to figure out what to do with him and Cabrera in 2012.
15. Andrew Lambo, OF, Indianapolis/Altoona (stats).
The bad news is that Lambo was flat-out awful in 60 games with Indianapolis this year. The good news is that after he was demoted to Double-A, he hit fairly well there. He just turned 23 in August. Still, at some point he’s going to have to take a big step forward to become a real prospect.
16. Wes Freeman, OF, State College (stats).
Freeman was supposed to be a marginally high upside high school outfielder when he was drafted in 2008, but he floundered badly with GCL Bradenton in 2009 and GCL Bradenton/West Virginia in 2010. With State College this year, though, he finally started to harness some of his power potential with a .492 slugging percentage and 6 homers and 14 doubles in 50 games. He was still just 21, so if you think of him as a college draftee and not a guy that’s been in the system for 3 1/2 years, he seems a little more promising. He’s going to have to replicate his success in 2012 to be much of a prospect, though.
17. Drew Maggi, SS, West Virginia (stats).
Maggi was supposed to be one of the better offensive players drafted by the Pirates in 2010 coming out of Arizona State, but he struggled with State College last year and got off to an awful start in West Virginia this year. He ended up with decent numbers (.267/.361/.357), depending on the context you use to look at them. If you think of Maggi as a guy that played in a major college program in 2010, those numbers are pretty poor for Single-A. If you think of him as a guy that couldn’t hit at all in State College in 2010, those numbers aren’t bad. In any case, he’s worth monitoring but has a long ways to go.
18. Mel Rojas Jr., OF, West Virginia (stats).
Rojas, the third round pick of the Pirates in 2010, is another one of the toolsy outfielders that the Pirates seem to have so many of right now. He was drafted out of junior college, which makes him kind of a tweener, age-wise, and he struggled quite a bit with State College in 2010. He started off 2011 in similarly bad fashion with West Virginia, but really opened things up over the second half of the season. In June, he hit .268/.324/.392 with four doubles, a triple, and two homers. That seems unimpressive, but to that point in the season, both his OBP and slugging were well under .300 and he only had four extra base hits to his name. The two homers were the first of his professional career. He followed that up with a July in which he hit .237/.327/.402 with six doubles, two triples, and two more homers and an August in which he hit .243/.345/.340. That makes him hard for me to rate: his final line is awful, but he’s a raw player that made strides, which is important. But then again, he’s not terribly young for his level (21 in West Virginia is about right), so it’s hard to know what kind of progress he’s really making.
19. Eric Fryer, C/OF, Altoona/Indianapolis (stats).
Honestly? I have no clue how to rate this guy. He moved so slowly through the Pirates and Yankees systems before this year, then he suddenly rocketed up to the point that he was in the big leagues and even though he was 25, he only had like 50 games of experience above Advanced-A ball. He’s got a very strong defensive reputation behind the plate, pretty good on base skills, and a bit of power, but it’s hard to know what to be overly impressed by his numbers as a 25-year old at Double-A, and he struggled badly with Indianapolis after his stint with the Pirates. If the Pirates are going to seriously consider playing Mike McKenry every day in 2012, they should give Fryer a long look this spring. Otherwise, he’s probably got a decent career as a back-up catcher ahead of him.
20. Gift Ngoepe, INF, West Virginia (stats).
It looked like Ngoepe was in line for a big breakout at West Virginia this year, as he opened the season up with a .306/.359/.459 line in the first 25 games, hitting five doubles and doubling his career homer total (OK, with two homers before this year that wasn’t tough). Then he got injured (WTM says wrist or hand injury that was potentially a hamate) in late April, and now there’s no way to tell if his early season surge was really a breakout or not. If it was, I’d have him ranked up probably above Freeman. As it stands now, he’s worth keeping an eye on early in 2012 to see what the Pirates really have.
21. Willy Garcia, OF, GCL Pirates (stats).
There are a number of guys I could’ve put in this spot (Jose Osuna, Yonathan Barrios, Exicardo Cayonez, even Harold Ramirez) as “talented and very young guys who are miles and miles away from Pittsburgh,” but I’ll pick Garcia because he showed some good pop in the Gulf Coast League and is a year younger than Cayonez and Barrios. Osuna hit very well in the GCL, too, as an 18-year old, but Garcia was a little more heralded at the time of his signing, which is why he makes the list for now. Ramirez (who is not this Harold Ramirez), meanwhile, is just 16 and hasn’t played professionally anywhere, but he got a big bonus (the Pirates’ second biggest international bonus ever, behind Heredia). All of these young international guys are worth keeping an eye on, actually, but they’re so very young that I have a hard time equating them to the other prospects that have played in the States. Garcia, for his part, hit .266/.323/.446 with five homers, nine doubles, and four triples in the 47 games in the GCL.