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State of the farm system: Upper levels

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This is a two-part survey of the current state of the Pirates' farm system.  I'll try to focus on players who could ultimately help at the major league level.  First up is the upper levels, which I'm loosely defining as players who spent the bulk of 2016 at Bradenton or higher.

HITTERS

We've already discussed here, in various contexts, the fact that the Pirates have a wave of upper level position players hitting the majors.  Actually, two waves.  Josh Bell and Adam Frazier appear to have established themselves now, Frazier in a utility role and Bell probably at first (which explains why the Pirates want John Jaso to work out in right field and at third base).  Elias Diaz might have gotten himself established if he hadn't been hurt.  Jacob Stallings, Max Moroff, and Alen Hanson made their debuts, and Gift Ngoepe probably would have if he'd been able to accept that "last call" means "last call."  The second wave is coming right behind, headed by Austin Meadows and Kevin Newman, and possibly an even greater number of potential role players.  There's going to be some intense job competition over the next couple years, so only a fraction of these guys have to pan out.  Of course, ideally that fraction will include the upper-end guys, specifically Bell, Meadows and Newman.

Catcher: Organization-wide, this is suddenly looking like a thin position.  It'd be fine for quite a while if Francisco Cervelli and Diaz stayed healthy, but that hasn't been happening.  In fact, Diaz got hurt again in winter ball, although it doesn't appear serious.  He's actually been very durable his whole career until the last year, which isn't the best timing.  Hopefully, Cervelli's injury propensity isn't contagious.  Right now, Diaz is probably it for non-emergency depth.  Stallings was outrighted to AAA and didn't elect free agency, so he'll continue to serve as depth.  Then there's Jin-De Jhang.  There are things to like about him -- a left-handed hitting catcher with a plus hit tool and an arm that's at least average -- but the Pirates simply haven't handled him like a guy they see as a prospective major leaguer and he's now been passed over twice in the Rule 5 draft.  Beyond that, there's nothing, including the lower levels (more on that in the next installment).

Corner Infield: With Bell and Jung-Ho Kang, the Pirates shouldn't need much beyond role players for these positions, assuming Bell's glove and Kang's legal problems don't get in the way.  The team is potentially loaded with role players.  They just added one to the 40-man roster:  Jose Osuna, who profiles as a possible lefty-masher off the bench and defensive sub for Bell.  There's more depth possibly coming at third (which pretty much translates into depth at first as well).  Eric Wood improved dramatically offensively and defensively in AA this year, and was one of the best players in the Arizona Fall League.  Scouts, however, don't seem to have bought in completely, as Wood wasn't selected in the Rule 5 draft.  Connor Joe had a good second half at Bradenton.  There are a lot of issues to resolve with Joe as he heads to AA:  the uncertain impact of the back injury; the possible impact that the offense-stifling effects of the Florida State League may have had on his 2016 numbers; and the fact that he's two months older than Wood, who's already spent two years in AA.  It shapes up as a make-or-break year for him.

Middle Infield: Obviously, the marquee player here is Newman, who could be pushing Jordy Mercer as early as the second half of 2017.  It's also not a good idea to discount Kevin Kramer.  His 2017 batting line of 277/352/378 wasn't exciting, but it compared favorably to the FSL averages of 250/321/356.  He showed very good plate discipline and has gap power that may play up quite a bit once he's out of that league.  Kramer played excellent defense at second and may see time at short with Altoona if Newman opens in AAA.  He has the potential to be a starter at second or a good-hitting utility player.

Of course, there's lots of depth.  Frazier is established with the Pirates.  We've discussed Alen Hanson a lot.  He still has the tools to be a useful hitter and had some lengthy, strong stretches this year when he wasn't swinging at everything.  He's very fast, plays good defense at second, and can handle short on a short-term basis, but he's also out of options.  He probably blocks Moroff for now, but Moroff needs to address his extreme contact issues.  He's one of many players in the system who can play short but is much better at second.  With Pedro Florimon gone, Ngoepe figures to play the role of AAA defensive depth at short; he was overmatched at the plate in AAA and he'll open the season at 27, so it's hard to see any upside there.  A new piece is Chris Bostick, acquired at the end of the season from Washington.  He showed a good bat up through AA, but struggled in a couple months in AAA last year.  He's mainly a second baseman, but has played short and elsewhere.  Erich Weiss has a solid, all-around left-handed bat and is good defensively, but he's limited to second, and he's 25 and has yet to play above AA.  Finally, Pablo Reyes isn't well known, but he has a solid bat, good speed, good defense at second and some experience at short.  He should be at Altoona, probably in a super-utility role.

Outfield: Meadows is close enough that the prospect of an Andrew McCutchen trade wasn't as alarming as it might otherwise have been.  I know some people are freaked out about Meadows' low average in about a month of AAA action this year, but it was largely the product of a bizarrely low BABIP on ground balls.  Since Meadows runs well, that's extremely unlikely to continue.  The power still showed up and he's proving himself capable of playing center.  Willy Garcia took a step backward this year and doesn't look like an option, but Barrett Barnes could replace him as one in half a season or so after two huge months in AA.  Barnes is, however, another player who was passed over in Rule 5, so scouts obviously aren't sold on him.  Other outfield depth options in a year or two could be Connor Joe or Jordan Luplow, who like Joe improved significantly over the course of 2016 at Bradenton.

PITCHERS

The Pirates' upper level pitching depth obviously has created extensive discussion, as it played a key role, both good and bad, in their 2016 season.  The pitchers at the upper levels run the gamut, from potential top-of-the-rotation starters, to mid- or back-of-the-rotation starters, to potential late- and middle-inning relievers.

Starters: The biggest question is whether somebody other than Jameson Taillon will establish himself in the major league rotation, in particular, somewhere above the back of the rotation.  Apart from Taillon, Tyler Glasnow is the main candidate to be something more than a mid-rotation guy.  We've discussed him at great length, so I won't repeat the arguments here.  Chad Kuhl -- whom I think is under-appreciated -- and Nick Kingham are the best candidates to get established in 2017 as something more than back-end guys.  Kingham, of course, isn't likely to see Pittsburgh before mid-season as he continues his comeback from Tommy John surgery.  Of the immediate rotation possibilities, Steve Brault and Trevor Williams probably profile more as 4th/5th starters.  There's also the upper level mystery man, Frank Duncan, who came out of nowhere to have one of the best seasons in the system this year.  With velocity that, at times, was only in the mid-80s, he's going to have to convince people he can do it again.  Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler and Angel Sanchez will all be returning from Tommy John surgery (and shoulder surgery in addition, in Cumpton's case); all or some of them could be available as depth at some point.  (I'm not counting Drew Hutchison and Lisalverto Bonilla as prospects.)

More starting depth could be coming for 2018 from the 2016 Altoona staff.  Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler and Brandon Waddell all have major league potential, although they all had difficulties this year.  Holmes, who got a record bonus for the ninth round back in 2011, has the most potential.  He missed all of 2014 due to, you guessed it, Tommy John surgery, then threw only 36 innings in 2015.  Given the layoff and lack of experience above low A, Holmes' mediocre numbers at Altoona (4.22 ERA and 1.48 WHIP) aren't necessarily that concerning, but he keeps tinkering with his pitch mix.  For instance, he added a slider or cutter in the middle of 2016 and started getting a lot more groundballs -- he was one of the most extreme groundball pitchers in the minors in 2016 -- but he also had a lot more trouble throwing strikes after the change.  Eppler, like Holmes, is a big guy who throws in the mid-90s at times, and who also had very limited experience below AA.  He pitched better in 2016 than Holmes, but didn't miss many bats and isn't a groundball pitcher.  Waddell is a finesse lefty who also got to AA with very little lower level experience.  He struggled with walks in AA, a result of trying to be too fine.  All three probably profile best as 5th starters or middle relievers, with Holmes maybe having the best shot at being something more.

Relievers: Developing relievers hasn't exactly been a focus of the current front office.  Apart from Justin Wilson, no pitcher originally signed by the Pirates since Neal Huntington became GM has made more than six relief outings in any season.  (The team has, however, traded relievers such as Vic Black and Yhonathan Barrios, both of whom have major league talent but have been derailed by injuries.)  Starting this year, though, things may change.

The Pirates figure to have two relievers in AAA who could help the major league team in the near term.  Edgar Santana never played baseball until he was 19 and didn't sign a pro contract until he was nearly 22, but by age 24 he was in AAA thanks to a mid-90s fastball and sharp slider.  He also just threw 13.2 scoreless innings in the Arizona Fall League, with 18 strikeouts.  The other is Dovydas Neverauskas, who throws in the upper-90s and made quick progress after moving to the bullpen.  He did, however, scuffle some after moving up to AAA this year (both on and off the field, apparently).

The Pirates have a couple other dark horse possibilities in lefty Jared Lakind and right-handed sidearm thrower Miguel Rosario.  They liked Lakind enough to keep him from becoming a free agent by signing him to a minor league deal for 2017.  Rosario has risen quickly through the system since dropping down to sidearm.  Then there's Montana DuRapau, who's worth at least a couple WARN (Wins Above Replacement Name).