With the first month of the 2012 season in the books, we should probably start thinking about mid-term roster management, and take a closer look at some of the Pirates prospects who will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this offseason. Impending Rule 5 eligibility shouldn't be the primary basis for personnel decisions, but it's an important secondary factor in many types of choices, such as how aggressively to promote certain prospects within the system, and which positions to target (or which players to make available) in deals at the trade deadline.
For analysis of specific prospects, take a look below the jump...
Robbie Grossman (18-and-under draftee in 2008): Grossman is off to a slow start in 2012, but I believe that he's still on target to be added to the roster at the end of the season. He attracted a good bit of attention with a breakout 2011 and a monster performance in the AFL, and while his tools still don't make scouts bite their lips, his success last year did help his reputation in that area somewhat, and his broad skill base helps to cover for that deficit. Grossman's early struggles in 2012 could be a function of the hamate bone he broke last November, and he's still young enough that he could repeat AA in 2013 if he needed and still be on track to reach the majors at an acceptable age. The only real case against protecting Grossman revolves around his status as a numbers guy who currently isn't putting up the numbers, along with teams' general reluctance to pick corner outfielders in the Rule 5 draft. Still, he's showing signs of turning things around, and I ultimately expect that he will be protected.
Tony Sanchez (19-and-over draftee in 2009): Sanchez's numbers this year are better than Grossman's, but his performance is in some ways even more of a concern. In spite of the fact that he's 24 years old, a polished college bat, and a level repeater, he's still only putting up a .732 OPS at AA Altoona. Even worse, that OPS is primarily being driven by walks, as Sanchez isn't hitting for much average (.263 BA) or much power (.105 ISO). High-walk hitters who are lacking in both average and power often lose a disproportionately high percentage of their walks when they're promoted, as pitchers aren't afraid to throw them strikes. Sanchez's strikeout rate is also up in the early going (an even 25% of his AB), another worrying sign. There were pre-draft whispers that he might have trouble with breaking stuff, and AA is typically the level where those sorts of difficulties first manifest in earnest. When you factor in Sanchez's offensive troubles in 2011, the bat is definitely becoming an area of concern. Still, even if Sanchez doesn't end up as a starting-caliber catcher, his glove is probably enough to ensure that he can hold down a job as a backup - he's already got all the skills he'd ever need to fill a Mike McKenry-type role. Teams are often reluctant to take catchers in the Rule 5 draft, and even more reluctant to carry them all season, but catchers with Sanchez's reputed defensive ability aren't generally left unprotected. It would also be very embarrassing for the front office to lose Sanchez, given the considerable resources they have devoted to drafting and developing him. Unless he completely crashes and burns over the remainder of the season, I think he's a good bet to be protected.
Jarek Cunningham (18-and-under draftee in 2008): It's tough to know exactly what to make of Cunningham. He's currently on the disabled list with a wrist injury, and he's missed a non-trivial amount of time in every year since 2008. He also strikes out too much, and isn't exactly the picture of grace on the pivot. Still, he merits serious consideration for the roster because he's got well-above-average power for a middle infielder, and middle infielders with that kind of power are as rare as hen's teeth. He has enough power that he'd still profile as a potential everyday player even if his glove necessitated a move to an easier position, such as third base or an outfield corner. His overall performance record isn't quite as strong as that of some other Pirates prospects, but being picked in the Rule 5 draft is less about the numbers and more about attracting the attention of the right scout at the right time. Given Cunningham's high-visibility tool, I think that he stands a good chance of being added to the roster this offseason, and a good chance of being picked if he is not.
Brock Holt (19-and-over draftee in 2009): I can see two different schools of thought on Holt. On the one hand, middle infielders are generally one of the hottest positions targeted in the Rule 5 draft, just behind power arms and just ahead of good-glove center fielders. On the other hand, Holt isn't particularly toolsy as middle infielders go, falling more under the "baseball rat" subtype, and he may not be a long-term shortstop, which damages his long-term value. Still, he's a polished college player with a broad base of skills, he's got enough experience at short that he could certainly play there on an occasional basis next year even if it's not his long-term position, and his relatively strong batting average and contact ability augur well for a smooth transition to the highest level of the game. He would be fairly easy for an interested team to carry as a utility infielder, and while he's not the type of player who would appeal to every scout or every organization, it only takes one for a player to be picked. The Pirates already have a fairly large number of middle infielders on hand, with Walker, Navarro, Harrison, Nunez, Mercer, and D'Arnaud on the 40-man roster and Cunningham as a fellow 2012 draft-eligible player. As such, a roster spot for Holt may need to come at the expense of one of those other players. It will be interesting to see how the team resolves the situation this offseason.
Phil Irwin (19-and-over draftee in 2009): Initially overshadowed within the Pirates system by his college teammate Nate Baker, Irwin has since emerged as the slightly better prospect of the two. He isn't particularly young, and he doesn't have exceptional stuff, but he's a relentless strike-thrower with a good build and three solid pitches, and last year he passed the AA test that all finesse pitchers must eventually face. Given his advancement and polish, he could probably be fairly productive as a long/middle reliever in 2013, and possibly even a back-of-the-rotation starter if the stars align properly for him. Forearm pain kept Irwin out of all but one rehab start so far this year, but he was just promoted to AA to resume his regular duties, and if he performs well there a midseason bump to AAA wouldn't be too much of a surprise.
Tim Alderson (eligible in 2011): All but left for dead as a prospect last year, Alderson has gotten back onto the radar by showing improved fastball velocity this spring. He's missing bats again, and working on a string of 13 scoreless innings for the Curve (along with a brief trip up to Indy). Right-handed relievers are generally fairly low-value commodities, but Alderson's status as a top prospect during his days with the Giants give him a higher visibility than his role would usually permit, and if he remains productive this year it would be easy for an interested team to pick him and throw him into a bullpen competition next spring.
Victor Black (19-and-over draftee in 2009): A sandwich pick in 2009, Black has had issues with both health and command over the last few years. Still, he's a hard thrower with a good slider, which is all you really need to project as a quality reliever, and with players like Duke Welker, Ramon Aguero, and Ronald Belisario, the Pirates have shown a willingness to prioritize stuff over results for relief prospects. If Black can stay healthy, he'll be a strong sleeper for the 40-man roster, and if he can improve his command a notch or two, his chances will improve even more.
Ramon Cabrera (18-and-under international signee in 2008): Cabrera is here mostly on the strength of his 2011 season, in which he led the Florida State League in batting average. He's off to a slow start in 2012, and while he's still a pretty good prospect in the long term, he's got a fair number of warts on his profile as far as the Rule 5 draft is concerned. Cabrera's short stature will raise concerns about his stamina, and he doesn't have a particularly strong throwing arm. He also doesn't have the sort of reputation as a caller-of-games and leader-of-men that a catcher like Sanchez does, and both of those are things that many managers look for when selecting a backup catcher during spring training. Cabrera's chances are also decreased by teams' general reluctance to take and keep primary catchers in the Rule 5 draft - the last one to make it through a full season was Jesus Flores in 2007, and the last one before him was 29-year-old career backup Alberto Castillo all the way back in 1999. Still, given the offensive potential Cabrera showed last year and the general lack of system depth at the position, he can't be entirely ruled out as a possible roster addition.
Jeff Inman (19-and-over draftee in 2009): The recipient of one of the highest bonuses ever for a player taken outside of the top ten rounds of the draft, Inman has spent most of the intervening time making Black look consistent and dependable. Still, a power arm is a power arm, and if he can make a strong showing in 2012, he has the stuff to earn consideration for the roster as a relief option. Inman just returned from a sprained ankle suffered this spring, and the early returns have been promising. Can he keep it up?
Hunter Strickland (eligible in 2011): The bounty from the Adam LaRoche trade, Strickland looks like he may have gotten back on track after a lost 2011 and a disappointing, injury-marred 2010. He threw well in camp, and his first three starts with Bradenton this year have been promising. He was hit in the hand by a line drive during the most recent of the three, necessitating a trip to the DL, but he successfully completed a simulated game yesterday and should be ready to return in fairly short order. Since Strickland has managed to remain in the rotation, unlike Black and Inman, he has slightly more upside potential in the future, and that could give him an edge over the other two disappointments looking to make good.
Nathan Baker (19-and-over draftee in 2009): Baker has put up decent ERAs every year as a pro until now, but he doesn't miss many bats or throw a ton of strikes, he's not all that young, and being left-handed only takes you so far. He's given up runs in bunches in the early going at Altoona, and that's a bad sign for a pitcher with pedestrian stuff. I suspect that a move to the bullpen may be in his future.
Ryan Beckman (19-and-over draftee in 2009): Beckman has fairly decent velocity for a reliever, and he made a strong showing in the second half last year. He's a sidearmer, though, and scouts tend to be suspicious of players with unconventional deliveries when draft day rolls around. He's also clearly behind the guys in the tier above in a pure stuff contest, and there's a limit to how many right-handed relievers a team is going to be willing to protect in one given offseason. Beckman has only pitched in one game so far this year, and is currently on the disabled list with an elbow problem, which isn't going to help matters. He probably needs not only a strong performance of his own, but also an injury or total flameout by one or more of Black, Inman, and Strickland to get into the conversation this offseason.
Evan Chambers (19-and-over draftee in 2009): Chambers is repeating the Florida State League at 23, and he's currently carrying a .588 OPS at the level. It helps that he's a CF, and the walk rate is nice, but the cold hard truth of the matter is that players who hit .230 in A-ball with a K rate over 30% are poor bets for long-term success.
Emmanuel De Leon (18-and-under signee in 2008): With a mid-90s fastball and a sharp slider, De Leon has the raw material to be a good reliever, but he's still learning how to pitch and how to command his stuff. Scouts like power arms in the Rule 5 draft, but how many teams are going to be willing to take a thrower out of the Sally League? I think that De Leon's poor command and current lack of pitchability will keep him safe this offseason, though he has decent future potential.
Jose Diaz (eligible in 2011): Putting Diaz on this list may sound like a bad joke, but Greg Smith likes big pitchers who can throw hard, and not many guys are bigger or harder-throwing than Diaz. If he got into shape, he could be a real threat as a bullpen weapon. Of course, if he were interested in getting into shape, he would've made it to the majors years ago with someone else's organization. Will this be the year he finally turns the corner? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Jeremy Farrell (eligible in 2011): Farrell got off to a hot start in 2011, but his bat cooled as the year progressed, and he didn't garner any significant consideration for the roster at year's end. He has trouble staying healthy, he doesn't run or field well, and after a very poor start to 2012, he's a 25-year-old in AA. Matt Hague showed last year that the Pirates may be willing to give an older corner player a roster spot if he can hit, but at this point I don't think Farrell has even a Hague-type season in him.
Wes Freeman (18-and-under draftee in 2008): Freeman briefly raised hopes with a .304/.338/.492 performance in 50 games at State College last year, his first period of extended success as a professional, but he's gone back to his old ways at Bradenton this year, with a .148/.222/.198 line through yesterday's game. You never enjoy giving up on a guy with Freeman's kind of raw power, but his past struggles don't leave him much margin for error, and there's a limit to how long the team can afford to let him try and work through his issues. At this point, he's more likely to be released outright than added to the 40-man roster.
Elevys Gonzalez (18-and-under signee in 2008): Arguably the best third base prospect in the system behind Pedro, Gonzalez delivered solid performances in 2010 and 2011 in spite of pedestrian tools. He probably doesn't project as a regular, however, and he's off to a terrible start at Altoona in 2012. His bad numbers this year and low ceiling probably make him an acceptable risk as far as the Rule 5 draft is concerned, though he does have some long term promise as a possible bench player.
Andrew Lambo (eligible in 2011): Once a top 50 prospect according to Baseball America, Lambo hasn't turned in a solid offensive performance since 2008. He still passes the eye test, but he's not young for his level anymore, and a player who can't hit AA pitching in four tries at the level probably isn't ever going to do it. He's currently out with a bad wrist, which won't make his task any easier. It might be time to cut the cord this offseason.
Quincy Latimore (eligible in 2011): Latimore has power and an arm and some sneaky speed, but he'll never amount to anything as a prospect until he learns better command of the strike zone, which is a bad sign because that's often something that can't be taught. He's repeating AA this year, and not really doing any better the second time around.
Porfirio Lopez (18-and-under signee in 2008): Lopez is left-handed, and he's performed acceptably as a long man for the Marauders this year, after putting up killer numbers in the DSL. He's only 5'10", though, and his stuff is closer to "good" than "great". He'll be a more realistic candidate for the roster if he can do it again at Altoona next year.
Shairon Martis (eligible in 2011): In theory, Martis is young enough that a good season could've put him into consideration for a roster spot this offseason, but in practice, he pitched his way out of Indy's bullpen after four games and got bumped down to Altoona. Even if he turns it around, it seems unlikely that the Pirates will take him seriously as anything other than emergency depth.
Quinton Miller (18-and-under draftee in 2008): Miller received $900k to sign out of high school in 2008, but the results haven't matched the reputation thus far. He's struggled to stay healthy, and has generally been hittable with a low K rate on the occasions when he was OK to pitch. A move to the bullpen this year doesn't seem to have made much of a difference. Miller is still young enough to turn things around, but at this point he seems very unlikely to be taken in the ML portion of the Rule 5 draft.
Eliecer Navarro (eligible in 2011): Like Lopez, Navarro is a short (5'9") lefty putting up solid numbers with good-but-not-great stuff for the Marauders, and like Lopez, he'll be a more realistic candidate for the roster in 2013 if he can make the jump to AA next year. Navarro's numbers are better than Lopez's, but he's older and has flyball tendencies, which won't help his chances.
Aaron Poreda (eligible in 2011): The Pirates selected Poreda in the minor league portion of last year's Rule 5 draft, and as a 25-year-old and a former top prospect, he seemed like a good reclamation project. He has continued to struggle with his command this year, though, with eleven walks in sixteen innings, and he's currently on the disabled list with shoulder pain. You never say never, I guess, but it's not looking good.
Aaron Pribanic (eligible in 2011): The last remaining one of the three pitching prospects acquired from the Mariners in the deal for Snell and Wilson, Pribanic is an extreme groundballer with an extremely low strikeout rate. Teams sometimes like to take groundballers in the Rule 5 draft for use as situational relievers, but it probably isn't a good sign for Pribanic that he was left unprotected and not picked last year, or that the Pirates are sending him back to Altoona to repeat the level in 2012. He's off to a very slow start, with 11 walks in 11 innings, which won't help matters either.
That's pretty much the lot. Did I forget anyone of significance? I've seen a few references to Gift Ngoepe being eligible at the end of the year, but based on my understanding of the eligibility rules, I don't believe that that's correct. He did sign in 2008, but my understanding is that because he didn't sign until October of that year, 2009 is treated as his first year of professional ball. Is there anyone else who I should be following? If so, please post your suggestions in the comments.
On the whole, I don't think this looks like a particularly strong Rule 5 class for us. Six players were rostered last year, with several others such as Brett Lorin and Diego Moreno being able to make decent cases for a roster spot. This year, I see only five players as being more than interesting lottery tickets, and none of them have the same kind of star potential that Starling Marte showed last year. Still there are a lot of games left, and things can change very quickly. We'll revisit the question later in the year.