The Bradenton Marauders were the Pirates' best minor-league team, and their performance was the most encouraging of any team in the system. I'll divide the Marauders review into two posts, because there's a ton of interesting stuff to talk about. The hitters will come first.
The Marauders' offense was potent, and most of the players were at an age-appropriate level. None of them, except perhaps Robbie Grossman, are top-flight prospects, but they'll be a very interesting bunch to watch at Altoona next year, and how far they came as a group this year has been something to behold. If you're at Spring Training next year and you see Marauders hitting coach Ryan Long out somewhere, be sure to shake his hand for me.
Grossman finished the season with a .418 OBP to go with a remarkable 104 walks. Those walks are fine, I guess, but the much more interesting aspect of Grossman's season was his stats before and after the All-Star break.
Before .274/.395/.373, 3 HRs
After .313/.441/.526, 10 HRs
Forget about the OBPs. You want your minor-league hitters drawing walks, but even more than that, you want them showing what they can do when they swing, because if they can't hit at the major-league level, plate patience won't do them much good. The important thing about what Grossman did this year is that he got better as a hitter. Those gains were mitigated somewhat by the fact that he was repeating the level, but he's still very young. If he'd started the year at Class AA, my guess is that he would have been eaten alive, but now it looks like he's ready. The high number of plate appearances that resulted in strikeouts or walks do worry me, in that I worry that some of those walks will turn into strikeouts against better pitchers, but still, Grossman's numbers were too good to ignore. I'm still a bit leery of him, but his slugging .594 in August since I wrote this eases my worries a little.
Then there's Ramon Cabrera, who batted .343 as a 21-year-old. Pirates fans have been amazingly restrained about hyping him, which I think they've been correct about. I feel like a terrible human being every time I type it, but there's a reason scouts don't usually regard 'we're not selling jeans here' players particularly highly. With that said, it's always nice when a player has a season so good he forces his way into the conversation.
Cabrera wasn't the only Marauders catcher who had a good season, which is one reason he didn't play that much. The other was Carlos Paulino, who was acquired earlier this year in a deal for Jim Negrych. Who knows if it was good scouting, good development or good luck, but after a wretched 2010 season in the Marlins organization, the Pirates actually promoted Paulino to Bradenton, and he hit well enough to establish himself as a prospect. He hit .410 in June, which prompted the Pirates to give him a bunch of playing time down the stretch, where he mostly continued to hit. He's still only 21. Good luck to the Pirates in sorting out who's going to catch at Altoona next year - you can make compelling arguments for Cabrera, Paulino and (unfortuantely) Tony Sanchez all being there.
Elevys Gonzalez also had a big season, hitting .322/.374/.467 while playing third base exclusively. He's not a particularly toolsy player, and as WTM points out, his hitting was buoyed by a high BABIP - his K:BB ratio nearly doubled this year, which isn't good for a hitter. Still, although he's not great at anything, he's not really bad at anything either - he hits for average and a bit of power, and he has some defensive value as well. I ranked him No. 30 in my last prospect list, which still seems about right, although that could change quickly if he keeps hitting in Altoona.
Jarek Cunningham was high on many fans' radar after a huge burst of early-season power, but he hit worse as the season went along and ended up being shut down with a concussion. His previous (unrelated) injury issues haven't kept the Pirates from promoting him aggressively, but assuming the concussion isn't an ongoing issue, I imagine he'll start back at Bradenton next year, simply because he's batted .258 in two consecutive seasons and his control of the strike zone is very poor. That seems like a potentially toxic combination at Class AA unless he can make dramatic improvements. He'll get the chance to do so in the Arizona Fall League, where he'll join Grossman.
Adalberto Santos hit .314/.392/.476, which I've probably been guilty of not giving him enough credit for - yes, he was a little bit old, but those are darn good numbers for a guy in his first full pro season. He showed no real weaknesses, hitting for average and a bit of power while managing the strike zone well and stealing bases efficiently (with 27 steals, compared to four caught stealing). He played in 26 games at second base after not playing there at all in 2010, and if he can establish that he can play there, then he's probably a prospect.
Almost everybody hit at Bradenton - Calvin Anderson! Cole White! The list of interesting players who didn't consists of only two: Benji Gonzalez and Evan Chambers. Gonzalez remains a terrible hitter, but he'll keep getting chances because guys who can field at shortstop in the majors are rare.
As for Chambers, he had a streaky season that he wound up on the wrong side of. He was terrible in April and May, good in June, and then downright great in July before coming back to earth as the season ended. Fans made a lot of Robbie Grossman's 100-walk season in 2011, but Chambers actually had 92 walks back in 2010. Unfortunately, Chambers wasn't able to parlay walks, power and speed to a good season in 2011, mostly because he has never shown the ability to make contact. He has never batted above .245 in a minor-league season. If he can start hitting .270 or .280 on a consistent basis, he'll be an interesting prospect, but the odds of him doing that are very small. Which is too bad, because he has some obvious skills.