Indianapolis season review

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Cole and Taillon bookend season, Lambo and T. (as in Twitter) Sanchez break out

FOREWORD:  I didn't originally include this paragraph, but decided to add it after all of the paeans to the season in the last couple days.  All of which are great, by the way, because it was the most fun associated with Pittsburgh baseball in a generation.  I just don't view it as something that ended and is gone.  The Pirates accomplished a lot, in a lot of areas, and a great deal of it will continue on into next season and beyond.  Maybe I have a relatively more organic view of a baseball team, or something.  I just don't feel like anything is "over."  The Pirates re-established themselves as a real major league organization, and a highly competitive one, after a long absence.  That's something that doesn't go away just because the season ended.  And that's why I don't feel hesitant about starting this series on the farm system . . . .

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The Pirates' Indianapolis affiliate rode an ever-changing roster to a playoff berth in 2013.  It's part of the role of a AAA team to serve as a ready source of replacement parts for the parent club, as well as a source of rehab playing time, so roster changes can be perpetual.  The Indians were no exception; they used 31 position players and 35 pitchers.  They withstood the myriad personnel changes surprisingly well, but the season still divided easily into two halves.  Indianapolis dominated the International League for the season's first three months, going 55-30.  After the end of June, though, injuries, promotions and, at the end of the season, trades took their toll as the team went 25-34 the last two months and was bounced quickly from the playoffs.  Still, their 80-64 record was the league's third best.  The Indians finished fifth in runs per game and second in run prevention.

The Hitters

Indy had the usual mix of minor league veterans, depth guys and prospects.  The Indians didn't have any blue chip hitting prospects on the level of Starling Marte, who'd been there the year before, but three players who were there only part of the year stood out.  Jordy Mercer spent the first month as the shortstop and put up a 333/404/448 line.  That earned him a promotion and he eventually took a part of the Pirates' shortstop job.  Two other hitters spent the season reviving their prospect status and providing Indy with much of its power.  Tony Sanchez looked like the hitter he was during his first year in the organization, batting 288/368/504 before replacing the injured Mike McKenry as the Pirates' backup catcher.  Andrew Lambo won a mid-season promotion to AAA and clubbed 18 of his total 32 longballs in just 62 games.

Much of the offense came from "depth" players who were available as needed for callups.  Josh Harrison put up a 317/373/507 line, with a rather amazing 29 doubles in less than half a season.  Alex Presley was solid, hitting .298 with a .376 OBP in two-thirds of a season.  Presley walked 40 times while striking out 56, which begs the question why he's still posting terrible BB:K ratios in the majors.  Matt Hague, who should perhaps be considered an organizational player rather than major league depth at this stage, as usual hit for average (.285) with a bunch of doubles (37), but lacked the power (.407 SLG) for a defensively limited corner player.  One other depth player, Chase d'Arnaud, struggled all year with a succession of injuries and did not experience much success when he was on the field.  Finally, another 40-man roster player, Jerry Sands, struggled through an abysmal season, with a .640 OPS.

The rest of the position players were mainly minor league veterans.  Most of them arrived with a history of being good hitters, but nearly all struggled.  Darren Ford managed just a .609 OPS.  Jared Goedert batted just .241, but did contribute 11 HRs and 32 doubles.  Lucas May, who did most of the catching when Sanchez wasn't around, struggled to a .578 OPS.  Late-season waiver pickup Russ Canzler flopped to a .517 OPS in 39 games.  Felix Pie managed to recover from a bad start to hit 251/325/390 with 38 steals, then parlayed his speed and glove into a callup when Starling Marte went out.  Brett Carroll helped early in the season, slugging 13 HRs in the first three months but missing most of the last two.  The big exception to all the struggling was Ivan De Jesus, Jr., who hit 319/380/457, yet somehow generated apparently no interest at all from the Pirates.  He didn't even play every day for Indy, getting only 345 plate appearances.

The Pitchers

The Indians' pitching staff ended up being very different from what the Pirates probably anticipated.  At the start of the season, two of the mainstays in the rotation figured to be Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin, as both waited for opportunities in the majors.  Instead, both right-handers missed essentially the whole season with arm problems that required surgery.  In the end, the two rotation anchors were Brandon Cumpton, who opened the season in Altoona, and lefty Kris Johnson (pictured), who washed out of the Boston organization in 2011 and pitched mostly in relief for the Pirates in AA and AAA in 2012.  Johnson had an outstanding year, going 10-4, 2.39, and earning a callup to the Pirates.  Cumpton went 6-7, 3.32, and got called up four separate times.  The only other pitcher to throw at least 100 innings for the Indians was hard-throwing lefty Andy Oliver.  He seemed to resurrect his prospect status with some good pitching early in the season, but his control problems led to a temporary banishment to the bullpen.  Oliver finished the season with 4.05 ERA and ten strikeouts per nine innings, but also 8.1 walks.

The Indians' rotation also featured three of the Pirates' top pitching prospects at different times.  Gerrit Cole opened the season in Indy and went 5-3, 2.91.  He seemed to be searching for a pitching style.  He struggled with high pitch counts initially, then he started going deeper into games but created consternation with low K totals (6.2 per nine innings in AAA).  Just the same, opponents batted only .190 against Cole.  Less than two weeks after Cole moved up to Pittsburgh, Stolmy Pimentel joined the Indians from Altoona.  He posted a 3.13 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 14 starts.  Finally, Jameson Taillon made his final six starts for Indy, struggling a little with his control but striking out a batter an inning.

The team's relievers mirrored its fortunes, as the bullpen was dominant through the first half of the season but struggled in the last couple months.  Veterans Ryan Reid and Mike Zagurski, and prospects Vic Black and Duke Welker keyed the early success.  Zagurski opted for free agency after proving once again during a callup that he can't get major league hitters out.  Reid was lights out (0.61 ERA, 0.86 WHIP) in the first three months, but after pitching well during a callup, he collapsed (5.67 ERA, 1.67 WHIP) after that.  Black, who of course is now with the Mets, continued pitching well and led the team with 17 saves.  Welker, who's now that rarest of creatures -- a hard-throwing Twins pitcher -- had a 4.25 ERA after April.  Oft-injured former prospect Erik Cordier pitched out of the Indy bullpen all year and gradually improved his command of his 100-mph fastball, finishing with a 4.58 ERA and eleven strikeouts per nine innings.

Biggest Surprises: Lambo, Johnson

Biggest Disappointment: Sands

Top Five Prospects (Min. 50 IP, 25 games pitched or 150 PA, must still be with organization)

  1. Gerrit Cole, RHP
  2. Tony Sanchez, C
  3. Stolmy Pimentel, RHP
  4. Andrew Lambo, 1B/OF
  5. Kris Johnson, LHP
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