Here's a list of the Pirates' top 30 prospects, with recent draft signings included. There's a fair amount of speculation with some of the more recent signings from both the draft and Latin America, of course, and when we're talking about someone like Clay Holmes or Harold Ramirez, I don't think anyone has a particularly clear idea where on the list he should be. And then there's the problem of comparing someone like Holmes to an MLB-ready (or nearly MLB-ready) player like Matt Hague or Jordy Mercer. So your mileage may vary.
As usual, the grades go from A to C, where "A" means one of the top five or so prospects in baseball, and "C" could mean anything from a guy who's close to contributing but isn't highly rated or a guy from the low minors who might have upside but doesn't yet have much of a track record. Players who have enough playing time or service time to be disqualified from next year's Rookie of the Year award, like Brad Lincoln and Alex Presley, are not included.
Please keep in mind that this is a little more rushed than it usually is, so feel free to use this list more as a jumping-off point than as anything authoritative. I'm literally typing this while sitting in the parking lot of a McDonald's, since my apartment doesn't have internet yet, and my main reference tool in writing this has been my phone. I'll put up a "real" list in the fall. But it seemed like this would be a great time to get a new list out there.
As for what happened tonight, I'm still a bit dumfounded. The Pirates were spending in the $10 million range in the last three drafts, and that already made them among baseball's biggest spenders in the draft. And then they almost doubled that. There was a Baseball Prospectus article a couple years back about how the draft was essentially a sort of prisoner's dilemma – it might be rational for a team to go nuts one year, but only until it thought about what might happen the next year, when teams like the Yankees and Red Sox would take note of the fact that the Pirates or Royals just spent $20 million and start going even crazier themselves. Fans have been talking about how the Pirates should spend $20 million in the draft for years, but they've never actually done it, and I think that's part of the reason why. I think they wanted to be among the top teams in spending, but without breaking the system.
This year, it seems like the Pirates just didn't care – in a great way. Not only did they agree to terms with Gerrit Cole on a deal that apparently broke the record for the largest minor-league deal, but they also added Josh Bell for $5 million. And, okay, there had to be a possibility that they would do that, since they wouldn't have drafted Bell if there was no chance they could sign him. But they didn't stop there – they also signed at least Clay Holmes, Jake Burnette and Tyler Glasnow for over $500,000 apiece, and at least Alex Dickerson, Jason Creasy and Colten Brewer for over $250,000. (Kody Watts was supposed to be close to signing, but ultimately didn't.) We'll see what other teams did this year, but right now, this looks like a historically unique draft. If this draft were a player, it would be Jose Bautista.
You'll see in the list below that the only 2011 picks who make it are Cole, Bell, Dickerson and Holmes, but the other guys the Pirates picked add a lot, and Cole and Bell are now two of their top four prospects overall. This hadn't been a great season for the Pirates' minor leaguers, but the draft has added an amazing infusion of talent, both in terms of depth (which they already had a lot of) and star power (which they lacked).
Potential changes to draft rules must have played a part here. If the Pirates end up having to play by the same rules next year, they could be wandering down a dangerous path, where they could be pricing themselves out of the market for top talent. They don't want big-payroll teams to start taking the draft at seriously as they do. But if the rules are going to change, then this is great – the Pirates snuck this one under the wire. Well done, Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington, Bob Nutting and Greg Smith.
1. Jameson Taillon, P, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 1. Grade: A-. I complained a couple weeks ago about the struggles the Pirates' farm system was having, but getting their top prospect in Taillon through the season without a problem qualifies as a major positive. Other than an occasional tendency to leave the ball up, there's little to dislike about him at this point.
2. Gerrit Cole, P. Previous ranking: NA. Grade: A-. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Taillon or Cole should go first, and in fact I think most people would put Cole first, but I'll wait to see how Cole does against pro competition before putting him in the top spot. Cole had mechanical issues that needed to be resolved, which led to his less-than-stunning performance this year at UCLA. Those struggles weren't, in themselves, a great reason to draft someone like Danny Hultzen instead – ultimately, the draft is about what a player can eventually become, not what he currently is. This is more about Taillon being a great prospect. I wouldn't hesitate to put Cole first if Taillon weren't so good. It wouldn't surprise me if both started out at Bradenton next year, and it also wouldn't surprise me if Taillon's numbers were better.
3. Starling Marte, OF, Altoona. Previous ranking: 5. Grade: B+. Marte's 10 homers so far this year represent a nice step forward; he hadn't demonstrated much power before. He still needs to work on drawing walks, obviously, but his future is very bright, particularly given his plus defensive skills.
4. Josh Bell, OF. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: B+. Bell, who signed for $5 million right before the deadline, immediately becomes the Pirates' best power-hitting prospect. He should be at West Virginia next year.
5. Luis Heredia, P, GCL. Previous ranking: 3. Grade: B. Unlike with Stetson Allie below, I don't think Heredia's numbers this year are cause for concern. The kid played much of the year at 16, and it's to his credit that he didn't completely embarrass himself. At his age, it's all about projection and nothing more, and if the Pirates can get him through the year without his arm falling off, that's a win.
6. Stetson Allie, P, State College. Previous ranking: 4. Grade: B-. We knew when Allie was drafted that his development might be bumpy, so it would be silly to write him off after a rocky season at State College. At the same time, though, Allie got a multimillion-dollar bonus and is struggling in a short-season league.
7. Tony Sanchez, C, Altoona. Previous ranking: 2. Grade: B-. It's been an awful season for Sanchez, and right now, I just don't see any way around that. His plate discipline is fine, but other than that, I don't see much here that redeems the season he's having. He isn't hitting for average, and he isn't hitting for power. Plate discipline alone won't cut it for a starter in the majors, even if a guy is a plus defensive catcher. When a player has a season like this, you just can't call him a top prospect anymore, unless his previous performance was off the charts and there's a very clear explanation for the downturn.
8. Kyle McPherson, P, Altoona. Previous ranking: 9. Grade: B-. Either McPherson or Taillon will be the organization's pitcher of the year once all is said and done. The Pirates' front office pegged him as a prospect at the end of last season, adding him to the 40-man roster, and that's what he turned out to be, breezing through Bradenton and pitching well for Altoona also.
9. Robbie Grossman, OF, Bradenton. Previous ranking: 16. Grade: B-. I'm a bit skeptical of Grossman's breakout season, since I don't know how his high-walk, relatively high-strikeout approach will play against better pitching. But there's only so far skepticism should go; Grossman's numbers this year are amazing, and he deserves credit. His most likely career outcome is something like a solid fourth outfielder, but his upside is higher than that – if he can add a bit of power or a bit of contact ability, watch out.
10. Colton Cain, P, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 8. Grade: C+. Cain has been the best of the 2009 bonus pitchers so far. That's not necessarily saying much, but Cain has had a nice season. He's been hit pretty hard in a couple of recent outings, but I wouldn't worry about that too much - I wouldn't attribute that to anything more than the number of innings he's thrown so far.
11. Jeff Locke, P, Indianapolis. Grade: C+. Previous ranking: 12. Other than a lousy May, Locke has had a strong year. He recently earned a promotion to Class AAA, then had a brilliant first start there. He's still a starting pitcher, and he's still healthy, although he still looks like a potential back-of-the-rotation guy.
12. Matt Curry, 1B, Altoona. Previous ranking: 18. Grade: C+. When a team drafts a guy from a big college program, this is what it hopes will happen in his first full season. It'll send him to Class A, and because the competition he faced in college prepared him so well, he'll go nuts. Then it'll send him to Class AA, and he'll continue to hit pretty well. Player development is easy! I vote that we should just draft players from TCU and Florida and Rice and Pepperdine from now on. That Curry survived his promotion to Class AA impresses me more than what he was doing at West Virginia.
13. Rudy Owens, P, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: 6. Grade: C+. Owens was falling quickly even before the recent news that he's been shut down with shoulder problems. He recently wrote that the results of an MRI came back well, but he's still almost certainly done for the year.
14. Jarek Cunningham, IF, Bradenton. Previous ranking: 11. Grade: C+. Cunningham hit for incredible power in April and May, but with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that was downright disturbing. Then he fell off a cliff in June, and has been out since mid-July with an injury. His power is very rare for a 21-year-old, but he has a lot of work to do controlling the strike zone.
15. Justin Wilson, P, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: 10. Grade: C+. There was a recent report that Wilson was hitting 99 MPH out of the bullpen, and a lefty reliever who can throw that hard has a chance to be valuable indeed. As a starter, though, who knows. Wilson has struck out 86 batters this year while walking 60, so he would need to take a pretty dramatic step forward next year to become a viable option in the major-league starting rotation.
16. Bryan Morris, P, Altoona. Previous ranking: 7. Grade: C+. Since the last ranking, Morris has been moved to the bullpen for the foreseeable future. With his stuff, he's capable of being successful there, and his 33 strikeouts in 38.2 innings as a reliever this year bodes well. Unfortunately, he's a lot less interesting as a 24-year-old Class AA reliever than as a potential starter.
17. Alex Dickerson, 1B, State College. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C+. Dickerson is off to a fine start at State College, and he was one of the top 15 or so hitters available in the 2011 draft. He'll be a first baseman going forward, so he needs to hit to make an impact at the major-league level.
18. Zack Von Rosenberg, P, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 14. Grade: C+. He's allowed a freakish number of homers, but he might be making some progress in that area (he's only allowed one in his last five starts), and his strikeout and walk numbers are solid. There might be hope for a breakout next year.
19. Nick Kingham, P, State College. Previous ranking: 20. Grade: C+. The 2010 fourth-rounder hasn't allowed more than one earned run in a start since July 2. He has decent velocity and he's developing good secondary stuff, so health permitting, he'll hopefully be able to carve up the lower levels.
20. Clay Holmes, P. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. I had hoped, in a weird way, that I wouldn't have to include any of the Pirates' high school pitching draftees in this list, simply because we're mostly just speculating about them. And besides, the Pirates' farm system is way past the point where a random kid who gets a $400,000 bonus automatically goes into the top 30. But $1.2 million? The Pirates must really like him.
21. Matt Hague, 1B, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. Hague is old for a prospect and doesn't have classic first base power, but he's currently hitting .325, and has hit at least .293 in every season of his career. I'm not a huge believer, but if everything breaks right, he could have a career a little bit like Lyle Overbay's. That sounds like a slight, given the way Overbay played in Pittsburgh, but he was a pretty good player for a while there. Or how about … a right-handed J.T. Snow, minus the Gold Gloves? I think those comparisons are about as good as Hague is likely to get, but it would be pretty darn nifty if he reached them.
22. Jordy Mercer, IF, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. Mercer currently has 16 homers between Class AA and AAA this year. If he can improve his ability to hit for average even a little bit, he'll be a very viable major-leaguer, given his defensive value.
23. Zachary Fuesser, P, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 25. Grade: C. Of all the 2009 bonus pitchers, Fuesser probably isn't the best prospect, but he's been the best one statistically. He's pitched 39 innings this year out of the 'pen and has only allowed one home run in those, so that's where his future might ultimately be.
24. Mel Rojas, OF, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 21. Grade: C. To his credit, Rojas has improved after a terrible start, but he's still hitting for a low average, with a a meager OBP and not much power. With players like him and Allie, you'll often hear people say, 'Yeah, but he's raw.' That's true, and certainly there's hope for these guys to rapidly convert their tools to skills. But there's also the fact that neither of them are that young for their levels, and they're both a million miles from the majors. One would hope that their talent would be able to carry them against weak competition. Starling Marte was/is raw, too, but he hasn't had a year since he was 18 where he floundered like Rojas has.
25. Ramon Cabrera, C, Bradenton. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. Okay, I get it – he belongs! Cabrera is currently batting .359 while walking more often than he's striking out. If you've seen the guy, you know that he basically looks like a fire hydrant, and for every small guy like Dustin Pedroia or Jose Altuve who makes it to the big leagues and has success, there are about two dozen who don't. Class A is full of tiny guys who are effective at that level but aren't going to make it in the majors. And yes, that's size-ism. Sorry. But I'll root for him.
26. Harold Ramirez, OF. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. When it gets down to the Gulf Coast League and below, we're mostly just speculating. I got to watch a lot of the current GCL team a few months ago, and most of these guys are so far from what they eventually could be that all you can do is make educated guesses and shrug, especially if you don't get to see them play every day. That said, when someone gets a bonus that clears a million dollars, he probably should be on this list. Ramirez is absurdly young and has yet to play in the states, but he's supposed to be an athletic player with the potential to hit.
27. Zack Dodson, SP, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 19. Grade: C. Dodson has mostly pitched well, but he sat out a couple months in the middle of the season and missed some development time. He's back in the saddle now - he pitched six shutout innings in his last start.
28. Brandon Cumpton, P, Bradenton. Previous ranking: 25. Grade: C. Cumpton falls only because of all the talent that's been added to the system. It's been a good couple of months for him – he got promoted from West Virginia to Bradenton and didn't miss a beat. He's in a really good spot, given that it's his first full pro season.
29. Andrew Lambo, OF, Altoona. Previous ranking: 15. Grade: C. Lambo flamed out badly in Indianapolis and was demoted, but he's hit decently for the Curve. He's still young enough to be a prospect, so there's the possibility of more depressing Gorkys- or Alderson-esque appearances on these lists in the next year or so. Or maybe he'll head back to Class AAA next year and it'll finally take.
30. Elevys Gonzalez, 3B, Bradenton. Previous ranking: 26. Grade: C. Gonzalez wins the Mr. Irrelevant award ahead of Brooks Pounders, Brett Lorin, Yhonathan Barrios, and a few others. He's earned it with a strong season at a young age at Bradenton. He doesn't have any outstanding tools, but he's hit well all year (except for a rough patch in June), and his offensive game doesn't have any gaping holes.