Pirates minor league preview, part 4: Indianapolis

The Pirates' AAA affiliate will feature their best prospect, some other good arms, and a bunch of hitters who could probably help in the majors but won't meet the minimum age requirement for another decade or so.

To some extent, Indianapolis’ roster resembles Altoona’s: the Indians will have one major prospect in Gerrit Cole, but no other marquee players. They’ll have a large number of players, though, who have a chance of contributing in the majors, both pitchers and hitters. The pitchers are generally relievers and potential 4th/5th starters. The hitters are mostly potential utility players who’ll have to bide their time until they get their AARP cards so they can qualify to sit on the Pirates’ bench. If the starting rotation holds up, the Indians should be one of the better teams in the International League, as they have a great deal of depth and most of their players should be solid or better performers at the AAA level.

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

Catcher: Tony Sanchez, Brian Jeroloman*, Lucas May

Sanchez’ obvious mission for this year is to show he has the offensive upside to be more than a backup in the majors. Regardless of what he does, though, he faces a catching situation in Pittsburgh that looks to be set for two years. He’s pretty certain to reach the majors at some point, partly because catchers get hurt (although Russell Martin and Michael McKenry both seem to be very durable) and partly because it’s going to get mighty embarrassing if a fourth-overall draft pick gets buried the way Jordy Mercer has been. Of the backups, the recently reacquired Jeroloman is a good-field, no-hit type. May isn’t a good defensive catcher, but he was a moderately productive hitter until a bad 2012 season.

Infield: Matt Hague (1B), Ivan De Jesus, Jr. (2B/SS), Jordy Mercer (SS/2B), Jared Goedert (3B), Oscar Tejeda (UT)

De Jesus and Mercer will alternate between second and short. There’s been plenty of discussion here already about whether either of them should have gotten a utility infield spot with the Pirates over aging shortstop John McDonald or aging thirdbaseman Brandon Inge. Regardless of what fans think, it’s become clear over the last year that the Pirates don’t consider Mercer a major league player. Odds are, they don’t think any more highly of De Jesus, even though they just traded for him. And anybody who thinks Mercer will be the starting shortstop if Clint Barmes gets hurt is fooling themselves. It’ll be McDonald. If Mercer gets called up, it’ll be to sit.

Hague and Goedert will man the corners. Hague’s stock has dropped like a rock since he made the 2012 opening day roster, as he hasn’t shown the power needed to make it as a corner player. Goedert has a good track record as a hitter in the upper minors, including solid power, but Cleveland never gave him a shot at the majors. It’s unlikely the Pirates will, either, given their regard for Josh Harrison, but they could do worse if they had a need for a corner UT guy.

Tejeda should see something approaching regular playing time, probably moving around between second, third and left, and serving as DH. He lost his status as a top Red Sox prospect due to a combination of terrible plate discipline and outgrowing shortstop. (Is it me, or have Red Sox prospects become as chronically overrated as Yankees prospects used to be?) After the Pirates acquired him last year he played mostly in left, where he has no value at all, but the Pirates had him mainly in the infield in camp.

Outfield: Alex Presley*, Jerry Sands, Felix Pie*, Darren Ford, Brett Carroll

Presley and Sands will be the fallbacks the Pirates lacked in 2012, when their offensive production from the outfield corners completely collapsed. Presley’s ceiling will probably always tend to get over-estimated due to his showing in 2011, but major league pitchers took severe advantage of his weak pitch selection in 2012. Sands has always been regarded as having significant power. More importantly, he doesn’t have anybody really old blocking him, so he could actually get a chance if he hits well in AAA and somebody in the majors either struggles or gets hurt. He could spend some time at first as well. Pie will alternate in center with Presley. He had a good spring, but he hasn’t taken advantage of extended opportunities in the majors. He isn’t likely to get another with the Pirates unless a lot of bad things happen. The backups will be Ford, a speedy center fielder with a dubious bat, and Carroll, who’s sort of a Jonny Gomes with good defense and no plate discipline. He’s played first, second and third a little in the minors.

Rotation: Gerrit Cole, Kyle McPherson, Phil Irwin, Andy Oliver*, Kris Johnson*

As with Jameson Taillon, the question with Cole will be how quickly he can earn a promotion to the majors. The Pirates are going with an extremely vulnerable rotation, so they may not have the luxury of waiting until the "super-two" date has passed. McPherson had a disappointing spring, but he’s pitched only three games in AAA and missed about half of the 2012 season. It’s not surprising he might need a little more time in AAA. Irwin is in a similar situation, having pitched only four games in AAA, but he doesn’t quite have McPherson’s stuff or ceiling. Oliver is still struggling with serious control problems; his excellent (for a LHP) velocity isn’t enough by itself. He’s one of numerous top pitching prospects derailed by the Tigers’ practice of rushing pitchers to the majors. It’s a practice that a certain segment of the Pittsburgh media wants the Pirates to emulate with Taillon. Thank heavens they’re not listening. The Pirates seem to like Johnson, enough so that they plan to put the minor league veteran in their AAA rotation. He should be a solid AAA pitcher at worst. This will be a good rotation for Indy if Oliver doesn’t implode, and if he does the team can go with Vin Mazzaro.

Bullpen: Bryan Morris, Vic Black, Duke Welker, Vin Mazzaro, Mike Zagurski*, Ryan Reid, Brooks Brown

The headline acts in the Indians’ bullpen will be Morris, Black and Welker. All three have power stuff – upper-90s heat in Welker’s and Black’s case – and good or better ceilings. Morris’ failure to earn a roster spot was disappointing, resulting from the team obtaining a fourth option for him and some command problems in the spring. He’s still likely to be the first bullpen callup. Black may have the best stuff in the organization aside from Cole, but he still has significant control issues. Even modest progress would be a bonanza, as shown by his 12.8 K/9 last year in AA. Welker throws as hard as Black, but his slider isn’t as much of a swing-and-miss pitch and he also has control issues. Mazzaro, a former top Oakland prospect is a sinkerball pitcher who hasn’t missed enough bats. The only bullpen lefty, Zagurski has had high K rates in the minors, but has struggled in his major league opportunities. Reid had a good spring, but there may be too many right-handed relievers ahead of him on the depth chart, leaving him possibly as this year’s version of Tim Wood. Brown is a journeyman minor leaguer who’s always been a starter before.

Possible Reinforcements: UT Josh Harrison is expected to get sent to AAA when Inge returns from the DL. Since he’ll be at the top of the list for callups should need arise, Harrison will undoubtedly play regularly in AAA, probably all over the field. That could impact Tejeda’s playing time, in particular. UT Chase d’Arnaud, on the other hand, isn’t likely to return from thumb surgery before mid-season, if then. The injury won’t help his fading prospect status. Taillon will probably move up from Altoona at some point, even if it’s just for a late-season cameo. Due to the depth at Indianapolis, there may not be many promotion opportunities for Curve players, especially hitters. Matt Curry would probably be the best candidate.

Otherwise, the Pirates have accumulated a great deal of upper-minors depth. They’ve got a number of players who’ll either be in extended spring training or possibly traveling with the team as non-active players. With the exception of C Ali Solis, I’m not aware of any of these players being hurt. Solis is a solid defensive catcher who was having back problems in camp. Once he’s ready, he could go to Altoona rather than Indy. The Pirates brought back minor league veterans UT Anderson Hernandez and 1B/OF Jeff Larish from 2012, but neither is on the roster at this time. The Pirates also brought in veteran IF Alex Valdez, who never hit much at the upper levels but had a big year in Mexico in 2012.

Several of the team’s minor league veteran pitcher signings also aren’t on the roster at this time. Roman Colon has mid-90s velocity and major league experience, but his stuff has never translated into missed bats. Erik Cordier also throws in the mid-90s and was a regular feature on top prospect lists for many years, but he’s been plagued by injuries and wildness. The latter was a problem in camp, which may account for his absence from the roster. Kyle Waldrop is a classic, Twins-style RHP: big guy, modest stuff, groundballs, few missed bats.

Top Prospects: Cole, McPherson, Morris, Black.

Breakout Candidate: Oliver (most of these guys are pretty much known quantities).

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