Bryan Morris (Photo: WTM)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pirates prospects are having a pretty bad season. When they've actually been on the field, many of them have played quite well. The problem is that they're never on the field. In fact, among the players on my last prospect list, eight (Tony Sanchez, Starling Marte, Quinton Miller, Brock Holt, Colton Cain, Victor Black, Brett Lorin and Jeffrey Inman) have already missed or will miss very significant development time this season with injuries. That's bad, and while I doubt all this amounts to much more than nasty luck, it's very difficult for a team to deal with a serious rash of injuries in addition to the usual rate of attrition that comes with the territory for prospects.
Whether one is pro- or anti-Neal Huntington, it's clear that the Pirates absolutely must produce great talent from their minor league system. Poor play at the major league level in 2010 is one thing; a poor year in the minors is another. Fortunately, the Bucs again accumulated a ton of talent in the draft this year, and they could end up spending a bunch of money in Latin America as well. They'd better, and they'd better get Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and some of their other higher-upside draft picks under contract. Between all the problems the Bucs' prospects have had this year and the graduations of Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln and Neil Walker (and these graduations are good things, of course), this list is going to be really tough to write.
Again, some attrition among prospects is normal, so any team's prospect list is going to look a little weird in early July, before draft picks start signing. And again, the Bucs just graduated three of their top six guys. It's perfectly natural that their list would look a little thin right now, and so it would be easy to draw overly pessimistic conclusions from what follows. Still, though, all these injuries are very bad news.
So here's the list. I'm not including anyone currently on the big league team or who has exceeded Major League Baseball's requirements to be considered a rookie. I'm also not including any unsigned draft picks (and pretty much all the important ones are unsigned). The list I wrote in April and linked above, contains embedded video of a number of these players.
1. Tony Sanchez, C, Bradenton. Grade: B+. Previous ranking: 2. Sanchez moves to this spot mostly because Alvarez got promoted, but he'll be out for a while. Fortunately, what he broke was his jaw and not anything he actually needs to play baseball. He was off to a terrific start at Bradenton, and I look forward to seeing what he can do at Altoona next year.
2. Bryan Morris, SP, Altoona. Grade: B+. Previous ranking: 10. Morris keeps making his way up the list with the best season of any Bucs prospect - he's already breezed through the Florida State League and is having only a little more trouble at Class AA. I considered putting him in the top spot.
3. Starling Marte, OF, Bradenton. Grade: B. Previous ranking: 3. Marte has already missed a big chunk of time after having surgery on the hamate bone in his left hand. There's no reason he can't fully recover, but he's already missed a bunch of time. This would concern me less if he were a more polished prospect like Sanchez, but he's not - he's all tools and raw talent, and he has a lot to learn, particularly about strike zone judgment, before he makes it in the bigs. His return this weekend came a bit earlier than expected. Sending him to the Arizona Fall League should be an easy choice.
4. Rudy Owens, SP, Altoona. Grade: B-. Previous ranking: 5. Essentially, Owens is Zach Duke, and that's not a bad thing. Owens isn't a flamethrower or anything close to it, but he's not really a soft-tosser either, and his breaking ball and command are good enough for him to make it in the majors. Like Duke, his strikeout rate may decline somewhat as he inches closer to the big leagues. Also like Duke, he can be a perfectly good starter if he has a good defense behind him.
5. Justin Wilson, SP, Altoona. Grade: B-. Previous ranking: 22. Wilson's getting a bigger bump than he deserves here thanks to injuries to other players, but actually, there's very little to not like about the guy at this point. He does walk a few too many batters, but he racks up strikeouts and keeps home runs off the board. In addition, he's pitched brilliantly since posting a 6.57 ERA in April. Wilson is worthy of more attention.
6. Zack Von Rosenberg, SP, State College. Grade: B-. Previous ranking: 8. Again, Von Rosenberg shouldn't be ranked this high. He's mostly here due to his reputation, and he has struggled so far for the Spikes. Of course, at the lower levels of the minors the Pirates worry mostly about fastball command and mechanics, and Von Rosenberg is 19, so as long as he stays healthy, I'm not sure his performance record this year should change our opinions about him very much. He got a huge bonus and he's healthy. Right now, that's probably about 90% of what you need to know.
7. Nathan Adcock, SP, Bradenton. Grade: C+. Previous ranking: 15. We know that Adcock can beat Class A+ hitting; he pitched there all of last year, too, and has had a relatively easy time this season. We'll see if he can sustain his success in Class AA, whenever the Pirates decide to move him there. In any case, he's an underrated prospect, perhaps because he had to pitch part of last season in the hitter's haven at High Desert.
8. Colton Cain, SP, Gulf Coast League. Grade: C+. Previous ranking: 17. Cain missed a couple months of development earlier this year with injury, but he probably wouldn't have appeared in games until the short-season leagues opened anyway. For whatever Gulf Coast League stats are worth, he hasn't missed a beat so far, striking out five batters and walking none in his first 6 2/3 innings.
9. Chase D'Arnaud, SS, Altoona. Grade: C+. Previous ranking: 9. D'Arnaud got off to a very slow start, but since he'd shown a broad base of skills in the past, that concerned me less than it might for some prospects. He's bounced back in a big way, hitting .306/.383/.500 in June. When all is said and done, I think he'll be fine, and he'll probably be in line for at bats in Pittsburgh near the end of 2011.
10. Jeff Locke, SP, Bradenton. Grade: C+. Previous ranking: 13. Like Adcock, I'd love to see Locke be moved up. The poor guy has a 6:1 K:BB ratio at Bradenton, and he also spent all of last season pitching at the Class A+ level. He can get Class A batters out! We get it!
11. Jarek Cunningham, 2B, West Virginia. Grade: C+. Previous ranking: 11. Cunningham has pretty pedestrian numbers overall, but most of that is due to a very rough month of May. He has mashed since the beginning of June. Given that he's fairly young and missed all of last season, I don't think it's ridiculous to hope that he's made adjustments and can continue to hit as the year goes on. He isn't a big guy, but he has unexpected power for a middle infielder and could add more as he fills out a bit.
12. Trent Stevenson, SP, State College. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 21. Stevenson doesn't have much of a track record yet, and ideally he'd be further down the list, but when he was drafted last year, he was supposed to be the prototypical "projectable" pitcher – about 19 feet tall, skinny, and very raw. To judge from the very limited experience he's had so far, he seems to be a very fast learner, as he really hasn't walked much of anyone in his few pro starts so far. Tall, projectable, and he can throw strikes? The Pirates can work with that.
13. Robbie Grossman, OF, Bradenton. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 7. Grossman got off to a fast start in April and then fell off the face of the earth, and we know why: he strikes out way too much. To his credit, he also walks a lot, and he's young for his level, but that's really all he's had going for him this season. He's hit .342 in his last ten games, so hopefully that's the start of something.
14. Diego Moreno, RP, Altoona. Grade: C. Previous ranking: Not ranked. I'm not a big fan of relief prospects in general, and don't put them on the list that often, because success as a reliever in Class A, for example, often doesn't translate to success as a reliever in the majors. But after receiving glowing writeups and posting PlayStation numbers at Bradenton, Moreno deserves to be the exception here. Don't worry too much about his disaster outing a few days ago at Altoona - apparently it was raining hard and it was difficult to grip the ball.
15. Quinton Miller, SP, West Virginia. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 12. I don't want to overreact to a couple of months missed due to injury - Miller throws hard, got a huge bonus coming out of high school, and pitched pretty well in 2009. But he missed a ton of time with shoulder tendinitis this year, and is only now making his way back - he pitched two innings for the Gulf Coast League team on Friday.
16. Brooks Pounders, SP, State College. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 23. It's pretty bad when a prospect like Pounders gets a pretty sizable bump merely for staying healthy, but that's where we are right now. Pounders has pitched well so far in three outings at State College. He has an advanced feel for pitching for someone his age, so he probably won't be tested - or at least I hope he won't - until Class A+ or so.
17. Tim Alderson, SP, Altoona. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 14. Alderson continues to stick on this list because he's very young and isn't completely overmatched at Class AA, but those are pretty much the only reasons. He showed some signs of progress in May, when he struck out 29 batters in 32 innings, but struggled in June. I've heard some rumblings in the past few days that his velocity has recently improved; if I could confirm them, I'd probably move him up a bit, because velocity will be the key for him. At the beginning of this year, he was supposed to have been throwing his fastball in the mid-80s, which just won't cut it. If he can get it back into the low-90s on a regular basis, he'll be a decent prospect.
18. Alex Presley, OF, Indianapolis. Grade: C. Previous ranking: Not ranked. I'm not a huge believer in Presley, who's small and who has never looked like a prospect before this year. But not only did he destroy the ball at Altoona, he has continued to hit in a very small sample at Indianapolis. A guy who can hit .344/.391/.552 at Class AA and Class AAA at age 24 deserves to be on prospect lists, even if I suspect he'll cool off later.
19. Victor Black, SP, West Virginia. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 20. Black has barely pitched this year. His big fastball and draft pedigree keep him here, but that's about it.
20. Exicardo Cayonez, OF, Gulf Coast League. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 30. I put this guy at No. 30 on the previous list despite his not having a track record, and with a .364/.417/.477 start in the GCL since then, I see no reason to temper my excitement now. At 18, he's the youngest player on this list.
21. Brett Lorin, SP, Bradenton? Grade: C. Previous ranking: 24. Lorin has missed most of the year with hip surgery and has been passed by Nathan Adcock as the most promising pitcher acquired in the Jack Wilson deal, but he's recently had three good rehab outings in the Gulf Coast League. The Pirates will probably send him to one of the full season teams soon, and hopefully he'll get a spot in a winter league somewhere.
22. Danny Moskos, RP, Indianapolis. Grade: C. Previous ranking: Not ranked. The much-maligned 2007 first-rounder has earned a place on the list with a good season out of the Altoona bullpen. He was recently promoted to Indianapolis and has pitched well in his first four outings there. He was a horrible waste of the fourth overall pick, yes, but that doesn't mean he can't be useful.
23. Evan Chambers, OF, West Virginia. Grade: C. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Chambers is undeniably talented, but you're likely to have seen his type before only if you play baseball video games in the franchise mode and the game runs several years into the future and creates fake players with bizarre combinations of skills – 300-pound shortstops who can run like the wind but can't hit or throw, for example. Chambers is very short, considerably shorter than his listed height of 5-foot-11, and strikes out like it's his job, but he's also powerfully built, draws a ton of walks, and has the speed to wreak havoc on the bases. Whether that particular package of strengths and weaknesses will make it to the majors is unclear, but it's way too early to stamp him undeliverable.
24. Brock Holt, SS, Bradenton. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 16. Holt is out for the rest of the year with a torn meniscus, which is a real shame, because he had a very good first half with Bradenton, batting .351. He'll be almost 23 at the start of next season, so he'll need to move quickly.
25. Nate Baker, SP, West Virginia. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 25. Baker's season has been fine but, for a fifth-round pick out of college, a little underwhelming - he only has 51 strikeouts in 73 innings, which is fewer than you'd hope to see from a guy who should be moving through the minors quickly.
26. Josh Harrison, IF, Altoona. Grade: C. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Harrison doesn't do much to wow you, but he's batting .315 in Class AA at age 22, which is worth something. If he were a shortstop, he'd almost certainly make a good utility infielder.
27. Gorkys Hernandez, OF, Altoona. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 28. A good June keeps Gorkys on the list. He's been enormously disappointing since coming over in the Nate McLouth trade, but he's only 22, so there's time for him to pull it together. It's easy to forget that he had a couple of very nice seasons in Class A, and at his age, he might just need a bit of time.
28. Phillip Irwin, SP, West Virginia. Grade: C. Previous ranking: Not ranked. As a 21st-round draft pick, Irwin hasn't gotten much attention, and he'll probably have to prove himself at every stop, since his stuff isn't supposed to be dominating. But as WTM points out, Baseball America ranked him the eighth-best prospect in Mississippi, a few spots behind Baker, when both were drafted last year, and Irwin's performance so far has been excellent, with a strikeout an inning and five strikeouts per walk so far at West Virginia. It theoretically shouldn't take much for a college pitcher from a big school to do well in the South Atlantic League, so we'll figure out if there's anything here when Irwin moves up.
29. Eric Avila, IF, Gulf Coast League. Grade: C. Previous ranking: Not ranked. This spot could have gone to any number of speculative international prospects, so if you'd rather I picked Jhonathan Barrios or Willy Garcia or Jorge Bishop or Fraylin Campos or Gift Ngeope or whomever, then hey, that's fine. It's nice to be able to argue about these things. Another guy who potentially could fit into this category is the absurdly young Dovydas Neverauskas, a 17-year-old Lithuanian pitcher who's already in the Gulf Coast League. Anyway, Avila gets the call here because he's really whacking the ball in the GCL after performing well in the Dominican last year. He appears to possess a good mix of offensive skills, with average, power, some plate discipline, and even some stolen bases. Keep an eye on him.
30. Quincy Latimore, OF, Bradenton. Grade: C. Previous ranking: 18. Latimore got off to a huge start at Bradenton but hasn't done much since. He has excellent power, but his problems controlling the strike zone are likely to consume him before he displays it in the majors.