Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
Indianapolis finished with the best record in AAA thanks to Starling Marte and a number of very strong performances from their starting pitchers.
Indianapolis rode a constantly-fluctuating roster to the best record of any AAA team. The Indians had a mixture of prospects, minor league veterans, and major-league players whose struggles got them demoted. This added up to a whopping 16 players who got 150 or more ABs, but only two who (barely) got 400. The pitching was a bit more stable, as five pitchers made at least 19 starts and four relievers made at least 40 appearances.
I’m not going to spend much time on the veterans. Most teams use their AAA affiliates in part as taxi squads and the Pirates had their share of AAAA veterans, some of whom reached the majors—Jeff Clement, Rick VandenHurk, Drew Sutton (who actually started off with the Pirates), Doug Slaten— but none of whom made any real impact outside of one dramatic HR by Sutton. There were also some ostensible major leaguers trying to work out their problems, most notably Jose Tabata and Alex Presley. Nearly all of these guys played well in AAA, as you’d expect.
The marquee player with the Indians, by far, was Starling Marte. He still has serious strike zone issues, but he overcame a slow-ish start to post .900+ OPSes his last two months, earning him a callup. Now if somebody would just tell Clint Hurdle that you don’t sit your top position prospect on the bench when he comes up. The other most prominent position prospect was Tony Sanchez, who took over most of the catching duties around mid-season. Sanchez had a peculiar year, showing good on-base ability and no power in AA, then pretty good power but very little on-base ability (mainly due to an extremely low BABIP) in AAA. His plate discipline remained solid even in AAA and he made progress defensively, so there’s probably no major reason for concern.
The other mainstays for the Indians were their starting pitchers. Rudy Owens served as Wandybait, but Jeff Locke stuck around and had a very strong season (2.48 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.3 K/9). For some reason—probably the fact that he’s struggled in his limited major league time—a lot of Pirate fans seem to have little use for Locke, but he’s a good prospect who should get serious consideration for the Pirates’ 2013 rotation. VandenHurk got “Mortonized,” and the lower arm slot led to the best success he’s had at the AAA level; his numbers were remarkably similar to Locke’s. He didn’t fare well in four very brief September outings, though, so he may be gone shortly. Justin Wilson was spectacular at times, throwing the bulk of two combined no-hitters, holding hitters to a .189 average and fanning over a batter an inning, but the control meltdowns continued. His future probably remains in the bullpen. The fifth primary starter was Daniel Cabrera, who was pretty crummy, but do we care about that? Late in the year the Pirates moved a rehabbing Chris Leroux to the rotation and he pitched very well. He also did better in relief in September than his 5.56 ERA suggests. It’s unclear whether the Pirates consider him a potential major league starter. And just to get an idea of how much starting pitching the Indians had, remember that Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin made strong showings at the tail end of the season.
Excluding veterans, the most notable relievers were Bryan Morris, Duke Welker and Daniel McCutchen. Morris was having a strong season until August, at which point he started pitching consistently poorly. Six unearned runs saved his ERA, but he allowed 19 hits in his last 16.2 IP, which isn’t what you’d expect with his stuff. Still, he pitched well in September on the couple of occasions when Hurdle remembered he was on the roster. He’s out of options unless the Pirates can get a fourth one for him. Welker is still harnessing his upper-90s stuff, but after walking 15 in his first 19 AAA innings following a promotion, he posted an ERA of 0.71 and WHIP of 1.05 in his last 12.2 IP. McCutchen pitched well for Indy, but he didn’t get a September callup, which may signal the upcoming loss of his roster spot.
Aside from Marte, the hitting prospect picture at Indianapolis was dominated by a bunch of infielders who probably profile as utility players in the majors. The puzzling part about them is how little interest the Pirates showed in these guys despite the fact that their preferred utility player, Josh Harrison, had a terrible year at the plate and just isn’t much of a fielder. Jordy Mercer recovered from a slow start to post a .778 OPS over two months before getting called up and disappearing into the dustbin of Hurdle’s brain. Yamaico Navarro started in the majors before posting a very nice OPS of .857—better than Marte’s—with very good plate discipline, but it didn’t even get him a September callup. A DUI arrest may have played a role in that. Navarro didn’t hit in the majors, but he had only a very limited opportunity. Chase d’Arnaud missed the first month with a concussion and then struggled for two months, but he hit respectably the last two months before getting a pinch running role in September. He’s gone from shortstop of the future to possibly jeopardized roster spot. Finally, there’s Matt Hague. His roster spot probably disappeared along with his power. A .351 slugging average doesn’t cut it for a guy who, realistically, is limited to first.