This is the AAA affiliate we've been waiting for. After years of Indianapolis teams made up largely of veteran depth, the Pirates will field a team comprised mostly of prospects. What's more -- although there's no definitive proof yet -- the Pirates seem genuinely interested in pushing their prospects through to the majors. They've gone to considerable lengths to get players time at a variety of positions, in preparation for utility roles or unexpected openings. They've also made the decision to keep five starting pitching prospects in AAA rather than pushing one or two of them back to AA to make room for veteran depth starters.
The performances of the young players at Indy will bear especially close watching, because the Pirates have effectively created a situation where nearly every player on the roster is effectively competing with everybody else to show his readiness for a major league opportunity, once one arrives. Major league jobs aren't plentiful now in PIttsburgh, and aren't going to be any time soon. Alen Hanson and Max Moroff and Adam Frazier and Dan Gamache and Gift Ngoepe aren't all going to have careers with the Pirates. This year will go a long ways toward settling who will. It will also provide the Pirates with chances to make in-season upgrades, as major-league-ready prospects are generally very attractive to non-contenders looking to cash in a reliever or two.
It's nearly impossible to refer to the Indians' "lineup." The team will have so many players with a legitimate need for playing time that probably everybody will have to sit on a frequent basis. It's also likely that players will be shifting around a great deal, as some profile best as utility players and the Pirates place a premium on versatility. How much they'll shift around remains to be seen, though, as the Pirates have stated that certain players will primarily stay at certain positions, as discussed below.
The primary catcher will ultimately be Elias Diaz, but he opened the season on the disabled list due to a sore elbow. This apparently is a recurring problem for him, but it was never a significant problem until now, so it bears watching. His development is vital, as the team has shown no signs of trying to extend impending free agent Francisco Cervelli. For now, the catchers will be Jacob Stallings and veteran Ed Easley. Aside from a bit more power potential, Stallings is remarkably similar to Chris Stewart, both physically and skill-wise, and could ultimately become a similar player at the major league level. Easley would probably be the team's third catcher if something happened to Cervelli or Stewart before Diaz returns, at least until Stallings gains some experience in AAA.
The most settled position with the Indians figures to be Josh Bell at first base. With improving his glovework being Bell's primarily mission at this point, he needs all the time at first he can get. Still, Jason Rogers and Dan Gamache will probably see some time there. Once the Pirates conclude Bell can handle first, and assuming he shows the bat that he did in AAA last year, the Pirates will then have to turn to the question of bringing him to a team that signed John Jaso to play first.
The Pirates have indicated that they expect to play Max Moroff regularly at third, but that was before they optioned Rogers to AAA. They gave Rogers a lot of time at third in training camp, so they must see a potential role for him there. Regardless of how exactly they apportion the time at third, Rogers will probably get time at first and maybe in the outfield corners. Moroff is likely to play some in the middle infield, where he's really a better fit as a second baseman with a potentially above-average bat. Gamache will probably also see time at third. He went unselected in the Rule 5 draft, but the Pirates thought enough of him to extend him a non-roster invite. If his bat plays at higher levels the way it did in AA, he could be a solid lefty bench bat who can play second or third.
The Pirates have said they expect the regulars to be Hanson at second and Gift Ngoepe at short. Both have seen time at other positions, including third and, in Hanson's case, his original position at short. Hanson also is expected to get some time in the outfield. His most viable path forward, though, is still at second, especially if Josh Harrison has another disappointing season. Ngoepe gives the Pirates a strong glove as an option in the event of an injury to Jordy Mercer. His struggles with offspeed stuff, though, may limit him to utility work.
Apart from Hanson and Ngoepe, Moroff and Adam Frazier should also get time in the middle. It's unclear what role the Pirates have in mind for Juan Diaz, a veteran who's been primarily a shortstop but who played third regularly last year. He's not on any roster as of yet. Pedro Florimon could also conceivably end up at Indianapolis if he clear waivers. It's hard to see what purpose he'd serve, though, as he and Ngoepe have nearly identical capabilities and Ngoepe is much younger.
Apart from Bell and, once he's healthy, Elias Diaz, Willy Garcia comes the closest among the position players to having a set, everyday position. He should be the starting right fielder, where he brings the classic right field assets of good power and a really strong arm. But that ball-and-strike thing is still a major problem for him. The Pirates expect Frazier to see most of his time in left field, which seems rather wasteful. Two veterans, Danny Ortiz and Antoan Richardson, are expected to share time in center. Richardson has been very good at getting on base in the minors, but he has no power at all, a profile that doesn't translate well to MLB. Ortiz has modest power but no patience. Rogers and Hanson are also likely to see some time in the outfield. Finally, Mel Rojas, Jr., will open the season with the Indians. He seems to have reached strictly organizational player status at this point.
The most exciting part of the Indianapolis roster will be the rotation, which is expected, at least for a little while, to have five prospects. Two, of course, are the team's two premium pitching prospects, Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. The Pirates will be keeping their fingers crossed that Glasnow can find the plate consistently and improve his changeup, as they're liable to need him not too far into the season. Taillon actually looked better than Glasnow in the spring, but it's uncertain how the Pirates will handle his workload after a two-year absence. If he pitches well from the start, though, he could become a major league option sooner rather than later.
The other three starters are slated to be Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault and Trevor Wiliams, although the start of Kuhl's season will be delayed by unspecified soreness. Kuhl and Brault are both coming off breakout seasons, with Kuhl's velocity jumping to the mid-90s and both dominating the Eastern League. They both profile as back-of-the-rotation starters and will probably get considerable time in AAA. Williams came from Miami as compensation for the Marlins signing away pitching guru Jim Benedict. He's been very hittable in his minor league career, but he has good velocity and the Pirates are working with him to turn his slider into an out pitch.
The Pirates apparently have decided not to send any of the five prospects to AA in order to make room for veteran depth guys, mainly Kyle Lobstein and Wilfredo Boscan. Lobstein will start the season in the major league bullpen, but he's probably the "seventh starter," so he's going to have to be in the AAA rotation at some point. Boscan will probably start in Kuhl's place initially.
At some point, the Pirates are probably hoping to add Nick Kingham to the AAA rotation. A normal recovery time from Tommy John surgery would have him back in action some time in the season's first half, but the Pirates are extremely conservative in bringing young pitchers back from arm surgery. It's possible Kingham won't return until late in the season.
The AAA bullpen will be made up of veterans, several of whom are more intriguing than the usual AAA bullpen depth guys. The most interesting relievers arguably are Trey Haley and Robert Zarate. Haley has hit 100 mph a number of times and has had some high K rates, but he's also had trouble locating the strike zone. He's on the 40-man roster and has two options left. Zarate, a lefty, came out of nowhere . . . well, mainly the Japanese minor leagues . . . to put up impressive numbers in AAA with the Rays last year. He has good velocity for a lefty, but lost out on whatever chance he had to make the roster by missing most of the spring with a sore elbow. He'll open the season on the AAA disabled list.
The Pirates have more candidates to pitch in relief for Indianapolis than they have spots, so some relievers may move down to Altoona or may shuttle back and forth between AAA and extended spring training. The other principle possibilities are righties Rob Scahill, Curtis Partch, Jorge Rondon, Guido Knudson, and A.J. Schugel, and lefties Jim Fuller and Kelvin Marte. Scahill will be in his last option year, trying to work his way back to the majors. The Pirates like his mid-90s sinker, but he's been very hittable his whole career. Fuller has had good K rates in the upper minors, but just decent numbers otherwise. He's not on any roster yet. Partch, Rondon and Knudson all have mid-90s or better velocity. Partch misses bats and gets grounders, but doesn't have good command. Knudson strikes out and walks a lot of hitters, but isn't a groundball pitcher. Rondon gets a lot of groundballs, but doesn't miss as many bats as the others. Schugel's appeal is hard to figure; he's a late convert to the mound and has thrown only in the low-90s, mainly as a starter, while putting up horrific numbers in AAA. Marte is a soft-tosser who's been a starter until now, mainly at the AA level.
C: Elias Diaz (eventually)
1B: Josh Bell
2B: Alen Hanson
3B: Max Moroff
SS: Gift Ngoepe
OF: Willy Garcia, Adam Frazier, Danny Ortiz/Antoan Richardson
DH/Corner UT: Jason Rogers, Dan Gamache
Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, Kyle Lobstein (probably later), Wilfredo Boscan
Trey Haley, Rob Scahill
Top Prospects: Glasnow, Bell, Taillon, practically everybody else
Breakout Candidates: Haley, Williams
This could be a powerhouse team, although in the minors things never work out the way you expect. The lineup has a number of very good on-base guys and good speed, although probably not a lot of power. The team also should be very good defensively. The rotation is potentially dominant, although Kuhl, Brault and Williams may all have some adjustment issues in their first shot at AAA (aside from one playoff start for Kuhl). Glasnow and Taillon have their own potential issues. The bullpen is very deep, in fact too deep for the team to find a role for everybody. Nearly every player on the team could potentially help in the majors.