This is the first of a series of previews of the Pirates’ full-season minor league affiliates. We’ll start at the top, with Indianapolis.
First, though, some general observations. One thing you’ll see with several of the previews is the fact that there are positional battles throughout the system. That’s something new. In the early years of Neal Huntington's tenure as GM, the Pirates focused heavily on pitching in the draft. They’ve gone with position players more often recently. In addition, Rene Gayo’s focus in Latin America has always been more on hitters. There’s now a heavy international presence at every level, a sea change from the days under The GM Who Shall Not Be Named, when Latin signees rarely had the ability to advance beyond rookie ball. So now the organization is having to decide between actual prospects for some jobs, and promotions are getting competitive.
One trend I don’t like, though, is the Pirates’ growing obsession with veteran depth in AAA. This no doubt stems from their practice under Huntington of emphasizing veteran bench players, a practice that’s failed again and again. It’s getting difficult for the non-blue-chip prospects to move up from Altoona to Indianapolis because so many jobs are being taken by veterans, which I guess is great if you’re a Curve fan. More on this below.
The Indians may not have as good a team as they’ve had in some recent years. They figure to be light on power and the pitching staff may have some holes, especially at the start of the season, when two key starters won’t be available. Another factor with the pitching staff is what appears to be a decision by the Pirates to go heavily this year with minor league free agents who look more like rehab projects than depth options. This is another trend that seems to be extending downward from the major league team, but it may also result from the fact that the Pirates have an increasing number of pitching prospects close to major-league-ready. The heavy presence of projects, though, will leave the AAA staff very weak if enough of them don’t come through.
Elias Diaz may have been the fastest-rising prospect in the system the last year or so. He figured to be the regular catcher in AAA, as well as the next catcher on the depth chart once he has a reasonable amount of AAA experience. Tony Sanchez, though, seems to have resurrected his status with a strong spring. He’ll open the season in the majors due to Chris Stewart’s balky hamstring, but once Stewart returns, the situation in Indy will be interesting. Of course, unless the Pirates have found The Ray Searage of Trainers, Francisco Cervelli is very likely to miss some time, so the catching situation could be fluid all year. For now, veteran Wilkin Castillo will back up Diaz in AAA. Castillo has often played other positions, so he could see some utility duty, too. Also on the roster is organizational catcher Kawika Emsley-Pai, who’s a good defensive player and whose main offensive skill is drawing amazing numbers of walks.
The impact of the Pirates’ emphasis on veteran depth is most obvious here. Originally, it appeared that Brent Morel and Deibinson Romero were slated to alternate between the two positions. Then the Pirates acquired Hunter Morris at the end of spring training. All of this leaves Stetson Allie thoroughly blocked in AA. Allie rates an "11" on the 1-to-10 risk-o-meter, but he does have some upside, which can’t be said of Morel and arguably not of Romero (who advanced slowly in the Twins’ system and hasn’t ever put up big hitting numbers) or Morris (on whom the Brewers obviously gave up).
Morris figures to be the regular at first. His main attribute is power, but he hasn’t shown enough of it to reach the majors. The Brewers never gave him a shot in 2013, when they had serious problems (one of them named "Overbay") at first, and they ditched him after his second AAA season. At third, Morel will likely get the bulk of the time. The Pirates’ belief that he could potentially help at the major league level remains a mystery, but in the event of a disaster he’ll almost certainly get the call ahead of Romero, who unlike Morel has yet to prove he can’t hit major league pitching. The Pirates like sure things with their veteran backups.
The secondbaseman will be Alen Hanson, who along with Diaz will be the most prominent prospect in the Indy lineup. A good year could put him in line for a callup at some point, although he’ll need an opening. Shortstop is more of a question mark. Initially it will be Gustavo Nunez, the former Pirates’ Rule 5 pick. Nunez has missed a lot of time with ankle problems going back to late 2011 and has only limited experience in AAA. He’s never reached the majors despite being 27, thanks to Rule 5 and the ankle problems. Nunez hit well in AA last year, for what that’s worth. Once he recovers from Achilles soreness, Justin Sellers will probably become the primary shortstop. He figures to be the primary utility depth option for the Pirates if he’s healthy. If Pedro Florimon clears waivers, though, he’ll likely become the regular at short.
Veteran Steve Lombardozzi will probably back Hanson up and for now is the only backup at short, where he has limited experience. Lombardozzi hit well in the minors through 2011 and decently in the majors in 2012, but he’s struggled since then, including about half a season in AAA last year. Veteran organizational utility man Kelson Brown could see backup duty if injuries make it necessary, although he’s not on the opening roster.
The Indy outfield will likely be underpowered. Power potential was available, but Willy Garcia and Keon Broxton will go back to Altoona. Instead, the outfield will feature Gorkys Hernandez in center and Mel Rojas, Jr., Jose Tabata and, once he’s off the disabled list, Jaff Decker in the corners. After collapsing with the bat over the last two years, Hernandez changed his approach at the plate and had a good spring. He may be the best defensive outfielder in the organization, even including Starling Marte, so it’s not like he has to hit a ton to be a useful player. Decker also had a decent spring, but he’s hit like a future AAA veteran ever since he was in class A. He apparently had a shot at the major league roster until going down with a calf injury, but it’s not easy to understand why he’d even be competitive with Andrew Lambo. Tabata, of course, will consume about 95% of the Indianapolis payroll, continuing one of the stranger personnel situations in recent memory. Rojas went unclaimed in the Rule 5 draft, so despite a good 2014 season he obviously hasn’t impressed the Pirates or other teams with his ceiling. In fact, the Pirates benched him repeatedly late in the 2014 season in deference to the vaporbat of Michael Martinez. Organizational player Andy Vasquez is also on the roster. He’s played everywhere on the field except catcher in his career, including eight appearances on the mound.
The Indy rotation will start the season without its most prominent prospect and veteran, namely Jameson Taillon and Clayton Richard. Taillon won’t make his return from Tommy John surgery until the season is a month or two old. Richard will open in extended spring training, as Vance Worley did last year, and debut once he’s stretched out. His tenure in AAA will depend on how stable the major league rotation remains, as he’ll be the "seventh starter," following Worley in case of need. With Charlie Morton out, a need may not take long to arrive.
As headliners of the prospect type, that leaves Nick Kingham and Adrian Sampson. Both debuted in AAA last year, but need more time there before getting the call. In Kingham’s case, that likely means at least half a season, while the Pirates will probably be reluctant to call Sampson up at all this year, at least until September. The rotation’s other stalwart will be Casey Sadler, who’ll also be in the mix for a callup. He fits the Pirates’ pitch-to-contact, groundball mold: he fanned only 5.6 per nine innings in AAA last year, but put up a 3.03 ERA. Brandon Cumpton, who otherwise would have filled the same role as Sadler, will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery.
After Kingham, Sampson and Sadler, the early-season rotation could get shaky. Initially, it’ll include Charlie Leesman and Wilfredo Boscan. Leesman, a lefty, has been a solid rather than good pitcher at the AAA level. The Pirates may regard him as a deep depth option, but his brief major league opportunities haven’t gone well at all and he pitched poorly in a few innings in spring training. Boscan has been unimpressive at both the AA and AAA levels, with mostly very low K rates and high WHIPs. It’s surprising to see him slated for the rotation. Boscan or Leesman may have to give way, though, if Stolmy Pimentel clears waivers.
At least two other pitchers on the roster could join the rotation at some point. Chris Volstad has started 123 games in the majors and is one of the Pirates’ rehab efforts following a fairly disastrous series of seasons beginning in 2012. He was expected to be in the rotation at one point, but wasn’t pitching especially well in camp. A.J. Morris was in the process of re-establishing his prospect status at mid-season last year when a forearm strain interrupted his season. He’d pitched mostly in AA at that point, but had thrown a nine-inning shutout during a brief stint in AAA. Another rehab effort who’s not on the roster is lefty Jeremy Bleich, a former Yankees’ prospect who’s struggled with shoulder problems since 2010. He could make an appearance in the rotation if he’s healthy.
The Indy bullpen will be headed by two relievers who are on the 40-man roster and who have a good chance of reaching Pittsburgh at some point. Obviously, the highest profile (sorry) belongs to John Holdzkom. Unless he flames out somehow, he’ll probably spend much of the season with the Pirates. The other is lefty Bobby LaFromboise, who is . . . a lefty. He had one big season (2012) in the minors that got him on the prospect track, but he hasn’t pitched more than decently at any other time.
Of the non-roster depth guys, probably the most interesting is Blake Wood. He throws in the mid-90s and had some success with the Royals. He’s been working his way back from Tommy John surgery for a couple years. Still other rehab projects on the opening day roster are Adam Miller and Deolis Guerra. Miller was the Indians’ top prospect for what seemed like several decades, but he never recovered from a series of surgeries on his finger that began way back in 2007. He’ll try again in relief with the Pirates. Guerra was the featured prospect in the Johan Santana trade, but he suddenly stopped being good the moment he went from the Mets to the Twins.
Several other pitchers who currently aren’t on the roster could appear in AAA at some point. Josh Wall is a hard thrower who’s seldom gotten more than solid results in the upper minors. He was on the Pirates‘ 40-man roster for a while last year. Former Pirate first-rounder Brad Lincoln seems to have hit hard times. His control, formerly a strong point, dropped off badly over the last couple years. It wasn’t any better this spring and he was sitting only in the upper-80s. Former prospect Collin Balester, who’s mostly struggled since 2005, is another pitcher working his way back from Tommy John.
C: Elias Diaz
1B: Hunter Morris
2B: Alen Hanson
3B: Brent Morel
SS: Gustavo Nunez (later Justin Sellers)
OF: Mel Rojas, Jr., Jose Tabata, Gorkys Hernandez (later Jaff Decker)
Rotation: Nick Kingham, Adrian Sampson, Casey Sadler, Charlie Leesman, Deolis Guerra (later Jameson Taillon and Clayton Richard)
Key Relievers: John Holdzkom, Bobby LaFromboise, Blake Wood
Top Prospects: Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson, Nick Kingham, Elias Diaz
Sleeper: Blake Wood