Pirates minor league preview, part 2: Bradenton

Bradenton will feature two of the biggest breakout prospects in the minors from 2012 in Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson.

Part Two of our minor league preview features Bradenton. That’s because their roster is available and Indianapolis’ isn’t.

The 2013 Marauders will be largely the same team that drew so much interest from prospect mavens in 2012 while in West Virginia. Obviously, the two marquee players are Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson, but some of their teammates, especially Nick Kingham, have some breakout potential as well. The Marauders are likely to have better hitting than pitching, although their pitching staff shouldn’t be the disaster that West Virginia’s was during the first half of the 2012 season. One interesting question will be how the hitters and pitchers are affected by the move to the best hitter’s park in by far the worst hitter’s league in full season ball.

(Bold indicates players I think will be regulars. An * means a left-handed hitter or pitcher. A # means a switch hitter.)

Catcher: Jacob Stallings, Elias Diaz

Diaz figures to get substantial playing time, but Stallings is slated to be the number one catcher. He’ll be skipping over low A. The Pirates are very high on his defensive ability, which was readily evident in camp. The whole question for him will be the bat. The team has had a lot of regard for Diaz for several years, but his hitting, which was bad in 2011, got even worse when he returned to West Virginia last year. He’s a good defensive catcher, although it may not be readily apparent due to the inexperienced nature of the pitchers he’s been working with, as well as the organization’s lack of emphasis on holding runners.

Infield: Jose Osuna (1B), Dan Gamache (2B)*, Alen Hanson (SS)#, Eric Avila (3B), Chris Lashmet (corner UT), Benji Gonzalez (UT)

The headliner here obviously is Hanson, who’ll try to get some of the raw elements of his game – baserunning, chasing pitches, and especially erratic defense – under control. His ability to stay at short will be the question drawing a lot of attention. If his development continues as hoped, he’d look awfully good hitting in front of Andrew McCutchen in a couple years. The Pirates moved Gamache from third to second, where his bat should play better, after drafting him out of college. He had a solid season in low A, but that doesn’t really mean much with a college draftee. The middle infield backup should be Gonzalez, a strong glove man who’s now an organizational player.

Osuna in some ways could be the most interesting player on the team. His plate discipline slipped last year from what it had been at the rookie levels, but he played the whole season at age 19. He hit 36 doubles to go with 16 HRs, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that some of those doubles will turn into HRs. Osuna is already physically very mature, so it remains to be seen just how much ceiling he has. Avila had a big power outburst after returning from an injury late last year at West Virginia, but he’ll be 23 in June and his plate discipline remained poor, so he’s still more suspect than prospect. The corner backup will be Lashmet, a big guy who hasn’t hit for any power.

Outfield: Gregory Polanco*, Willy Garcia, Taylor Lewis*, Dan Grovatt, Carlos Mesa

Polanco, of course, will be the other marquee player on the Marauders. He’s less raw than Hanson; he’s a good base stealer, has shown excellent strike zone judgment, and has a better chance of staying in center than Hanson does at short. This makes him a better candidate for an early promotion. Garcia has the most raw power on the team and has the arm for right, but he has very little strike zone judgment. That problem is likely to be increasingly exploited by the pitchers as he moves up. Lewis has good speed and defensive ability, but so far has struggled to hit. He hit well in camp, though, and is slated to start in left. Grovatt and Mesa are returning to the level. They could share time in the outfield and at DH. Grovatt last year wasn’t bad in any area, but wasn’t more than adequate, either. Mesa, a Cuban defector, struggled badly with both class A teams last year. He has some power and a very good arm, and he came to camp in much better shape than previously, but he’ll have to overcome severe plate discipline issues.

Rotation: Nick Kingham, Robby Rowland, Adrian Sampson, Matt Benedict, Zack von Rosenberg, Eliecer Navarro*

Kingham, Rowland and Sampson are all pitchers to watch in this rotation. Kingham finished strongly after a shaky start last year at West Virginia. His velocity still seems to be increasing slightly and he’s a frequent choice as a breakout candidate. Rowland recovered last year from a horrible 2011 season, while he was still with Arizona. He’s a sinkerball pitcher who, at this stage, isn’t missing bats. Sampson is making the jump from the New York-Penn League, which is a fairly aggressive assignment for a guy drafted out of junior college. He’s not overpowering, but has a good mix of pitches and generates swings and misses with his breaking stuff. Benedict is probably an organizational pitcher and is returning to Bradenton after struggling badly there last year. Von Rosenberg and Navarro are expected to piggyback at least initially. Von Rosenberg’s fastball was topping out at 82-83 in camp, so . . . . Navarro is a “crafty lefty” who’s an organizational pitcher at this point. He’s performed well for the Pirates as a swingman, starting or relieving as needed.

Bullpen: Zac Fuesser*, Robbie Kilcrease*, Jhonathan Ramos*, Quinton Miller, Joan Montero, Zach Thornton

The Bradenton bullpen should be a reasonably good one for this level. Fuesser will probably get some starts eventually, but the Pirates are trying to moderate his workload for a while. He threw about 180 innings altogether in the last year, including winter ball. Kilcrease is an organizational pitcher who performed well last year at West Virginia. He could do a lot of the closing. Miller was one of the early above-slot signings, back in 2008, for the current front office. He’s struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness, and is coming off a bad 2012 season with the Marauders. Ramos is a small LHP, like Navarro, but has more of a power repertoire, sitting at 89-91 and throwing a hard breaking ball. Montero sits at 93-95, but needs to improve his command and secondary stuff. Thornton came from the Athletics for Chris Resop. He’s returning to high A despite having a K/9 of 11.7 at that level last year and despite the fact that he’ll be 25 in May.

Possible Reinforcements: Like last year, many of West Virginia's players will be very young. The Pirates didn't promote many players from the Power last year and probably won't this year. One exception could be OF Barrett Barnes, especially if Polanco moves up. Barnes seemed like a good candidate for Bradenton this year, but the Pirates probably want to keep both him and Polanco in center. Zack Dodson could join the Marauders after he finishes his drug suspension about a month into the season, but he could also return to West Virginia.

Top Prospects: Polanco, Hanson

Breakout Candidates: Kingham, Sampson

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