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Pittsburgh Pirates Top 30 Prospects: May 2011 Edition

Unlike the 2010 season, in which its players suffered one injury after another, the 2011 season has been kind to the Pirates' minor leaguers. There have been few major injuries, and I think that, generally, Pirates prospects have played well, with most of them maintaining their status. The problem is that, with the very notable exception of Kyle McPherson, no one is in the midst of a breakout year. So there was a ton of competition for spots in the 11-25 range, but not nearly as much for the first 10 spots. Having the top pick in the 2011 draft should help that (as much as the lack of certainty at the top of the draft is causing us all to gnash our teeth right now), and some good performances by short-season guys (like Luis Heredia, Stetson Allie, Nick Kingham, Exicardo Cayonez, and so on) would help, too.

The grades go from A to C, where A means the guy will very probably be a superstar and C could mean anything from a guy in the high minors who's likely to become a role player, to a guy in Class A who's interesting but doesn't have much of a performance record.

As always, guys like Brad Lincoln who have significant big-league experience aren't eligible. 

Here's the previous list. I'll probably do the next list after the draft signing deadline passes.

1. Jameson Taillon, SP, West Virginia. Grade: A-. Previous ranking: 1. Taillon now has 20 strikeouts and four walks in 24 innings pitched to go with a 3.38 ERA. That's not dominating, but it's still excellent for a 19-year-old making his first few professional starts in a full-season league. Nothing about his performance so far has changed his status as the Pirates' best prospect.

2. Tony Sanchez, C, Altoona. Previous ranking: 2. Grade: B. Forget about the Twitter controversy - Sanchez is a good kid. He has shown good control of the strike zone so far for Altoona, but little power. With his defense, he'll still probably be a major-league starter even if the power doesn't develop. Still, Sanchez doesn't look like a star at this point, which raises questions about the Pirates' strategy in the 2009 draft. They passed on higher-upside talents in order to take Sanchez, then spent the savings on later-round bonus babies like Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, Trent Stevenson and Jeff Inman. Several of those pitchers now look they have significant obstacles to clear to get back on the path toward becoming solid major leaguers. Will the Pirates' strategy pay off? We'll see. I had a really hard time deciding who to put at No. 2 - there are a lot of Pirates prospects who have performed well this season, but other than Taillon, none of them look like future stars.

3. Luis Heredia, SP. Previous ranking: 6. Grade: B. He's extremely young and hasn't yet thrown a professional pitch in the states, but his stuff is filthy and his makeup and polish are excellent. All of Pirate City was abuzz about him in Spring Training. There's nothing to dislike about him; we'll just have to wait and see. 

4. Stetson Allie, SP. Previous ranking: 4. Grade: B. Still hasn't pitched yet. Talk out of minor league camp suggests he has had trouble with his control, but that isn't a huge problem in itself at this stage - Allie is a project, and he has a lot of time to become what he's going to be.

5. Starling Marte, OF. Previous ranking: 5. Grade: B. Another year, another ridiculous batting average, but it's still hard to know what to make of Marte. As with Jarek Cunningham below, the lack of strike zone judgment is becoming a serious concern. Also like Cunningham, it's hard to know what to think of it until he gets to a level where his other skills don't make that irrelevant. It will be extremely hard for Marte to sustain a .300 batting average in the majors if he strikes out five times as often as he walks. But Marte might just be toolsy enough to make adjustments when he needs to.

6. Rudy Owens, SP, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: 7. Grade: B. Owens has had three strikeouts or fewer in his last five starts. I expected he would lose some strikeouts as he moved up the chain, but this is too many - he now has only 25 in 45 innings. That might improve as the season goes on, and I'm not overly worried, but in light of his recent performances, it might be wise for the Pirates to keep him in the minors a while longer.

7. Bryan Morris, SP, Altoona. Previous ranking: 3. Grade: B-. The last hope from the Jason Bay trade omewhat surprisingly opened the season at Altoona rather than Indianapolis. He pitched badly for three starts, missed a month with a strained oblique, then returned. He has pitched well in his two most recent starts, so hopefully he can get back on track now.

8. Colton Cain, SP, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 12. Grade: C+. Cain has been perhaps the best-performing member of the 2009 draft class so far. He has good velocity for a lefty, and his strong strikeout rate while pitching in a full-season league at age 20 bodes well for him.

9. Kyle McPherson, SP, Bradenton. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C+. This is a huge leap for McPherson, but he's been the one real breakout performer in the system so far, posting video-game numbers, with 45 strikeouts and three walks. He also appears to be allowing fewer fly balls than he used to, which will help him going forward. Pitchers who have excellent changeups sometimes dominate the low minors and then hit a wall later, but the fact that McPherson has been so outstanding in his first extended stint at Class A+ probably eases that worry somewhat.

10. Justin Wilson, SP, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: 11. Grade: C+. Wilson has a 2.67 ERA so far this year, but his peripherals have been much worse, with less than a 2:1 K:BB ratio. He also has a bunch of unearned runs, and he has allowed a lot more fly balls than he used to. A larger sample size might fix that to a degree, but take a look at the video of Wilson that Mark posted last week. He simply doesn't throw a lot of strikes, and his command really isn't there yet. He tries to pitch down in the zone, but when he misses, it's often up. I don't think he's ready for the majors yet - I think he would allow way too many walks against a more patient bunch of hitters, and also a fair number of homers. I do think his stuff could eventually make him a good starter, however.

11. Jarek Cunningham, 2B, Bradenton. Previous ranking: 17. Grade: C+. There's no getting around the fact that Cunningham has had a great season, with spectacular power for a 21-year-old. But his ratio of 47 strikeouts to seven walks is very, very scary, and could lead to serious problems at the upper levels. There's a good thread on OnlyBucs now comparing him to Chad Hermansen. Someone also noted recently that Cunningham is doing most of his damage with runners on base, hitting .256/.264/.511 with the bases empty. That might not mean anything, but Cunningham is mostly hitting second in the Marauders order, behind Robbie Grossman, who's a pretty good basestealer. It could be that Cunningham is seeing more fastballs with Grossman on. The knock against Cunningham is that he can't hit breaking pitches.

12. Jeff Locke, SP, Altoona. Previous ranking: 10. Grade: C+. It looked like Locke was headed to Indianapolis after pitching brilliantly down the stretch at Altoona last year, but the Pirates sent him back to the Curve. He began the season with three very good starts in a row, but he's gone downhill from there and has walked nine batters in his last two starts.

13. Alex Presley, OF, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: 13. Grade: C+. After hitting .320 in the minors last year, Presley is hitting .326 this year. He's almost 26, so where you place him on this list really depends on how you weight potential versus certainty. Presley could probably be a good major-league bench player right now, but he's in the awkward position of being interesting enough that the Pirates probably don't want to use him that way, but not quite interesting enough to clear space for. He's also a lefty, which doesn't fit well on the current Pirates roster. If the Bucs trade Garrett Jones or cut Lyle Overbay, that could clear space for Presley.

14. Zack Von Rosenberg, SP, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 8. Grade: C+. Von Rosenberg has been hit hard all year, and it looks like he'll be more of a project than we initially anticipated when he was drafted out of high school two years ago. The Pirates are working on his delivery, in part so that he doesn't leave so many fat pitches up in the zone, but it will probably be a bumpy ride for a while.

15. Andrew Lambo, OF, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: 9. Grade: C+. He's having a terrible season at Class AAA and never really mastered Class AA. But he's only 22! Hopefully this won't be a Gorkys Hernandez situation, where the guy fails forever but gets a pass because he's so young. In the meantime, though, he would still be a prospect in a year even if he doesn't improve at all before that.

16. Robbie Grossman, OF, Bradenton. Previous ranking: 15. Grade: C+. Grossman has cooled off in May after a terrific April, but I still think a good argument can be made that he's progressing. The key is in the K:BB ratio, which has improved from over two to just above one in two years despite his moving up a level. He has a .378 OBP right now, which is terrific for a 21-year-old in the Florida State League. Now the key will be to get better at actually, you know, hitting.

17. Chase D'Arnaud, SS, Indianapolis. Previous ranking: 19. Grade: C. I was concerned about D'Arnaud last year, when he batted .247 at Altoona, but his struggles with batting average there were fluky to some degree, and now he's hitting .272 a level higher. His power is modest, and his K:BB ratios have gotten worse as he's ascended to levels where pitchers can consistently throw strikes, but with major-league shortstops being as bad as they are, he has a future.

18. Matt Curry, 1B, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 30. Grade: C. It's almost impossible to know what to think of a 22-year-old drafted as a college senior from a big school who's destroying the South Atlantic League. At the same time, Curry's numbers are so ridiculous they can't be ignored. He's hitting .367/.477/.669; he's too good for this level, and I look forward to seeing what he can do once he moves up.

19. Zack Dodson, SP, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 24. Grade: C. It's only seven starts, so it might not mean much, but 2009 fourth-rounder Dodson appears to have taken a nice step forward with his control this season, walking only 10 batters in his first 34.2 innings. He has also generated more grounders than he did last year. He improved throughout the 2010 season, so it wouldn't be surprising if the bump in his 2011 performance is for real.

20. Nick Kingham, SP. Previous ranking: 18. Grade: C. Kingham hasn't pitched yet and will probably start the season at State College. The 2010 fourth-rounder was well-regarded coming out of the draft, but we probably won't know much more than that for another month or so. I haven't seen him yet, but he apparently throws 90-92 MPH, with the potential to one day throw harder, and he has a changeup he likes. Here's an interview.

21. Mel Rojas, OF, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 16. Grade: C. The 2010 third-rounder is toolsy and fast, and a lot of people who have watched him a lot more than I have start to fall in love with him, but obviously, he hasn't hit yet at all.

22. Brooks Pounders, P, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 28. Grade: C. Pounders has pitched mostly in two- and three-inning stints this year, and he's been toxic, striking out 26 batters and walking three in his first 22.1 innings. He still allows way too many fly balls, which will translate to a ton of homers at the higher levels unless he learns to keep the ball down, or strike out more batters, or something.

23. Diego Moreno, RP, Altoona. Previous ranking: 20. Grade: C. Epoc saw Moreno in Bradenton recently and reported that his stuff was still as good as what it was last year. So like Epoc, I'm not really sure what Moreno was doing down there. He's back at Altoona now, and hopefully we'll start to learn more about whether he'll be able to help out in the majors.

24. Zachary Fuesser, P, West Virginia. Previous ranking: 25. Grade: C. Quietly continues to post excellent stats, this time as part of West Virginia's piggybacking system. Like Dodson, he has dramatically improved his walk rate so far this year.

25. Brandon Cumpton, SP, West Virginia. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. This one is pretty speculative on my part, but the Pirates paid $124,000 to sign him last year, they're giving him turns in a West Virginia rotation in which starts aren't easy to come by, and two highly-ranked Pirates employees mentioned Cumpton to me without prompting while I was at Pirate City a couple months ago. One of those was Kyle Stark, who suggested Cumpton could start the season at Bradenton. That didn't happen, but Cumpton's performance at West Virginia so far has been really interesting - after three straight starts in which he allowed seven runs apiece, he's been just about unhittable, with 29 strikeouts, five walks and five runs allowed in his last 34 innings. His pitching coach has said that Cumpton's rough stretch was due to a lack of aggressiveness, so it doesn't sound like there was any physical problem.

26. Elevys Gonzalez, 3B, Bradenton. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. Gonzalez isn't particularly toolsy, but he's done enough both last season at West Virginia and this year at Bradenton to deserve a spot here. He played a bit of shortstop last year; if he can fake his way around that position at the major-league level, he could have a good career as a bench player, but he's also young enough that he might turn out to be better than that.

27. Exicardo Cayonez, OF. Previous ranking: 26. Grade: C. Cayonez will probably start the year at State College. It was too bad the Pirates didn't feel they could send him to a full-season league, but he's only 19. 

28. Willy Garcia, OF. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. I thought about putting a lower-upside guy like Danny Moskos, Nathan Baker, Mike Crotta, Aaron Thompson Brock Holt, Josh Harrison, Jeremy Farrell or Tony Watson here, but then I thought, "What if the Pirates traded someone like Garcia for someone like Moskos?" Garcia stands in for a bunch of big-bonus players we don't really know much about yet, like Cesar Lopez, Jhonathan Barrios, Ryan Hafner and Jared Lakind. They should all be in short-season leagues this year.

29. Tim Alderson, RP, Altoona. Previous ranking: 29. Grade: C. Alderson seems to be reborn as a reliever, striking out 23 batters in his first 27 innings this year. He's still only 22, amazingly.

30. Brett Lorin, SP, Bradenton. Previous ranking: N/A. Grade: C. It's hard to know what to make of Lorin - he's already 24, but he has precious little pro experience, as he was already 21 when drafted and has missed a bunch of time due to injuries. He's now striking out a batter an inning while keeping the ball on the ground. It would be nice to see him get to Altoona by the end of the season.