Bradenton probably features the most interesting lineup of all of the Pirates’ affiliates, one that ultimately will include at least a marginal prospect at every position. The team could be very strong offensively, as it has players with the potential to produce with the bat everywhere. The Marauders also eventually may have a very interesting rotation, but various issues will keep three-fifths of it sidelined at the start of the season.
The Marauders will have not one, but two prospects behind the plate, although there’s no question that former first-round pick Reese McGuire will get the bulk of the playing time. McGuire will be looking to make progress with his hitting while showing his premium defensive skills. Jin-De Jhang will return to Bradenton after a rough 2014 season, which he played at too high a level due to a logjam of catchers at the lower levels. Jhang will probably get some time at DH, although regular time there may not be available.
Bradenton will also have two prospects at first base, although neither is a premium one. Jose Osuna will return for his third season at the level. He had a weak 2013 season and a much stronger 2014, but he’s blocked in AA by Josh Bell. It’s highly unusual for the Pirates to leave a player at a level below AA for so long, but the move highlights the growing quality of position players throughout the system. Osuna’s still only 22, which would be a good age if promotions allow him a shot at AA some time during the season. Edwin Espinal was originally slated to return to West Virginia due to Osuna’s presence in Bradenton, but Espinal arguably had the best spring of any hitter in camp, so he’ll move up. He’s a big guy with good hitting skills who hasn’t shown consistent power in games, so that’s the area in which he’ll look for improvement. Both spent some time in camp working at their original positions, and so should see some action there, as well as at DH. For Osuna that’s the outfield and for Espinal, who’s in better shape than at times in the past, that’s third base.
Wyatt Mathisen will man third base, where he seems to have settled after shifting from catcher. Mathisen’s hitting is still mostly about projection at this stage. Except for a brief stretch in 2014, he hasn’t shown much power, but his plate discipline is good and he had a solid season after a 2013 that was largely wiped out due to injury. He’s still only 21. Jordan Steranka will return as a corner backup. He showed decent power last year, but a lack of patience limited his production.
West Virginia’s 2014 infield will be moving up intact, with second baseman Erich Weiss and shortstop JaCoby Jones joining Mathisen and Espinal. Weiss had a solid season with the bat last year, drawing a lot of walks and hitting for average, but also striking out a lot with only modest power. He had some defensive issues while adjusting to a new position. Jones was one of the system’s breakout players. He connected for 23 HRs and adjusted well enough to a new position himself that the Pirates are convinced he can stay there. Jones fanned about once every three and a half ABs, though, so there are plenty of observers who aren’t yet convinced about his bat.
The backups are Chris Diaz and Michael Fransoso. Diaz played second, short and third the past two years at West Virginia, but didn’t hit much. Fransoso showed solid on-base skills and a little power last year in low A while playing all around the infield and in the outfield corners.
The Pirates will make their second attempt to assemble a prospect heavy outfield consisting of their top 2013 pick, Austin Meadows, along with Barrett Barnes and Harold Ramirez. They tried the same thing at West Virginia last year, but all three missed large parts of the season with injuries. At least some sources rate all three among the Pirates top 15 or so prospects, with Meadows arguably their top position prospect. He's made some adjustments to his swing to hit for more power. Barnes has solid all-around potential, including power, but he’s managed to play only 101 games in three years. Ramirez has shown a good hit tool, but not a lot of power yet. He was held out for most of spring training due to "conditioning" issues and will start the season in extended spring training. He’s expected to join the Marauders before too long. All three outfielders are at least potentially legitimate center fielders, so the outfield should be strong defensively as well as having considerable offensive upside. Meadows will play center, Barnes left and Ramirez right.
The backup will be Justin Maffei, a 25th round pick in 2013 who divided his time last year between the two class A teams. He ended up playing regularly most of the year due to injuries. Maffei posted a .789 OPS at Bradenton during the second half after struggling at West Virginia. He’ll probably play a lot early, with Ramirez out, but the Pirates could also take the opportunity to play Osuna in the outfield, which would give Jhang more time at DH. Wes Freeman is on the roster, but he’ll start the season on the disabled list due to a knee injury. He received an above-slot draft bonus back in 2008, but retired in 2012 after mostly struggling. He’s un-retired and ready to try again.
The Bradenton rotation was supposed to be Luis Heredia, Clay Holmes, Cody Dickson, Stephen Brault and Tyler Eppler. All but the two lefties (Dickson and Brault) will miss the start of the season. Heredia began to pitch only late in spring training due to more "conditioning" issues, although he’s not visibly out of shape at all. So far, he’s not developing as the Pirates had hoped, as he seems to be turning into a finesse righty who doesn’t miss bats. Holmes followed a rough first half at West Virginia in 2013 with a good second half, but he missed 2014 due to Tommy John surgery. He’ll probably miss about the first two months of the season as his recovery continues. Eppler was shut down during spring training with elbow issues, but is expected back soon. He was drafted in the 6th round in 2014 and posted a 2.49 ERA with good control in the New York-Penn League, but he didn’t miss a lot of bats.
Dickson and Brault are contrasting lefties. Dickson has good stuff, but struggled with his command for part of the 2014 season at West Virginia before putting together a good second half. Brault, of course, was the player to be named later in the Travis Snider deal with Baltimore. He’s more of a finesse pitcher and goes heavily at times with a two-seam fastball that produces lots of groundballs.
With three starters out of action, the rotation may initially include Felipe Gonzalez, Henry Hirsch and Frank Duncan. The Pirates picked up Gonzalez in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft two years ago, despite him never having pitched above the Dominican Summer League. After a season in the GCL, he made the jump to low A last year and pitched well in a swing role. Despite spending four years in the DSL and one year hurt, he’s still only 23. Hirsch pitched in relief his first two years after being drafted in the 22nd round in 2013. He dominated in the New York-Penn League in 2013, but mostly struggled last year at West Virginia. The Pirates drafted Duncan in the 13th round last year. He pitched respectably in the NYPL, but didn’t miss many bats. He’d probably have gone to West Virginia if Eppler and Heredia hadn’t been unavailable.
There aren’t any relievers that stand out on the opening roster. The one with the most potential is probably Ryan Hafner, one of the team’s innumerable tall, projectable, above-slot, prep RHPs, in his case drafted in 2010. Hafner had a promising 2013 season at West Virginia, with a K/9 of 10.6, but that number dropped to 6.3 in a disappointing 2014 season at Bradenton. This year he’ll join three much shorter (6’0" to 6’1") righties, Brett McKinney, Isaac Sanchez and Clario Perez, all of whom will move up from West Virginia. All three reach at least 93 or 94 with their fastballs. McKinney was drafted in 2013 and put up good numbers his first two years, including a 1.14 WHIP and nearly a strikeout per inning last year. Sanchez and Perez have moved up slowly for various reasons since signing in 2010 and 2009, respectively. Sanchez pitched well last year except for one horrific month that seriously inflated all his numbers. Perez had a tougher time, with a very low K rate.
The other relievers on the roster are Justin Topa, Julio Vivas and Andy Otamendi. Topa started off as a reliever after being drafted in 2013, but got pressed into starting duty as the result of injuries last year at West Virginia. He struggled even after moving back to the bullpen, with opponents hitting .330 against him. Vivas is jumping up from the GCL, where he struck out nearly ten batters per nine innings last year (in a modest 23 innings) with almost no walks. He’s only 21, so it’s interesting that the Pirates are moving him all the way up to high A. Otamendi is a soft-tossing lefty who was very effective at Jamestown and West Virginia last year, holding opponents to a .452 OPS.
C: Reese McGuire
1B/DH: Jose Osuna, Edwin Espinal
2B: Erich Weiss
3B: Wyatt Mathisen
SS: JaCoby Jones
OF: Austin Meadows, Barrett Barnes, Justin Maffei (later Harold Ramirez)
Rotation: Cody Dickson, Steven Brault, Felipe Gonzalez, Henry Hirsch, Frank Duncan (later Luis Heredia, Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler)
Key Relievers: Brett McKinney, Isaac Sanchez
Top Prospects: Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, Harold Ramirez, JaCoby Jones, Barrett Barnes
Sleeper: Edwin Espinal