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Pirates minor league preview: Indianapolis

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MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis roster this year is a catalogue of answers to the question, “Who gets called up when . . . ?” A large percentage of players on the roster have a realistic chance of seeing time with the Pirates this year and several could be long-term answers. With Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault both in the Pirates’ bullpen, the rotation will be a little less interesting than it might have been, at least until Mitch Keller arrives, but it’s going to be hard for manager Brian Esposito to find time for all the position players who need it.

Catcher

Until the inevitable Francisco Cervelli injury, the catching duties will be split between Jacob Stallings and Ryan Lavarnway. Stallings increasingly looks like a viable major league backup — he may be the Pirates’ best defensive catcher now — so it’ll be interesting to see whether he can continue his improved hitting from last year. Lavarnway saw his once-impressive power almost completely evaporate about four years ago. That was his strong suit back when he was considered a prospect, so unless something wonderful happens, it’d be best if the team could get by without reaching beyond its top three catchers. Jackson Williams, a glove-only catcher with a little major league experience, would be probably move up from Altoona if Indy needed another catcher.

Corner Infield

It’s possible the infield corners at Indy will be manned for much of the season by middle infielders polishing their utility resumes. Initially, though, Jose Osuna will be playing every day, probably at third. Hopefully, that’ll last only about ten days into the AAA season while the Pirates go with Clint Hurdle’s fantasy of a four-man bench. If Osuna has a lengthy stay at Indy, he could also play first and in the outfield.

Eric Wood, who’s in his final year before minor league free agency, and Erich Weiss could get time at both corners. Both players appear to have stalled out at AAA. Weiss was one of Indianapolis’ best players in the second half last year, but will mostly be pushed off his accustomed position of second base by other players. Wood hit for some power last year, but not that well overall. The two of them could share first base if Osuna isn’t playing there.

Middle Infield

The middle infield will be a big focus at Indianapolis. The primary second baseman and shortstop will be Kevin Kramer and Kevin Newman, respectively. Both will be trying to establish themselves as potential major league regulars. Kramer will try to show that his power spike last year and in spring training was for real. Newman needs to show that he won’t just hit for an empty average. The two will probably switch positions occasionally. Max Moroff will also spend time at both positions, as well as at third. Like Osuna, he’ll be waiting for a return to Pittsburgh. As with Kramer, it’ll be interesting to see whether Moroff’s sudden power surge last year holds.

Outfield

The regular outfield figures to be Austin Meadows, Jordan Luplow and Chris Bostick. Meadows and Luplow are familiar names at this point. Both will be trying to show they’re ready for whatever opportunity arises, most likely from the inevitable Gregory Polanco or Starling Marte injury. As all Pirate fans know, Meadows is coming off a series of hamstring injuries as well as a down year (or partial year) in AAA. Luplow, on the other hand, is coming off a breakout year in which he hammered AA and AAA pitching, and reached Pittsburgh.

Bostick is in the unfortunate position of being miscast as an outfielder with a marginal bat instead of a second baseman — his position until the Pirates got hold of him — with a strong bat. He had a good season in 2017, making progress on plate discipline issues, but his path to the majors is uncertain now because there are a lot of infielders and outfielders ahead of him.

The other outfielder is Todd Cunningham, a minor league veteran who can play all three positions. He’s shown good plate discipline but an otherwise marginal bat without much power. He does, however, have veteranosity and experience in center on his side, so he could get a Danny-Ortiz-like callup if Marte gets hurt.

Rotation

The Indians’ rotation initially figures to include Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler, Austin Coley and Alex McRae. Kingham and Holmes, of course, are on the 40-man roster. In fact, as I write this Holmes is in the majors, probably temporarily with Joe Musgrove hurt. Of the two, Kingham is probably the better option for rotation depth, due to much better command, but he’s been a little too hittable so far in AAA. Holmes is a really extreme groundball pitcher and made some progress late last year in missing bats — he tends to tinker with his repertoire a lot — but he has stretches where he can’t throw strikes.

The other three probably profile more as depth guys. The Pirates have pushed Eppler aggressively, no doubt because they like his 6’6” size and mid-90s velocity. He’s a flyball pitcher, though, which isn’t exactly their usual preference. He lacks an out pitch and he’s been very prone not only to gopher balls but extra base hits generally. Coley and McRae had solid seasons last year at Altoona and could end up filling a role similar to Casey Sadler’s if they continue to develop. McRae commands a four-pitch mix well but does not miss bats. Coley throws a good change.

Indy also is expected to have two long men who could serve as starters some of the time. One is Sadler himself. He missed 2016 due to Tommy John surgery and spent 2017 working his way back. The other is Tanner Anderson, he of the Bronson Arroyo-style leg kick. Like Coley and McRae, he’s been effective without dominating.

Bullpen

Indy’s most noteworthy relievers will be Kyle Crick, who came in the Andrew McCutchen trade, and veteran lefty Kevin Siegrist. Crick was shaky in spring training, as he continues to try to command excellent stuff. He’ll probably see time in Pittsburgh unless he pitches himself out of the opportunity. Siegrist failed to make the team out of spring training and has the ability to opt out of his minor league contract if the Pirates don’t call him up by June 1. His velocity has dropped due to health issues in recent years and it was down further in spring training.

There’s no roster yet so I’m not sure who’ll be in the bullpen. The Pirates may rotate pitchers between Indy and extended spring training as they have quite a few candidates. A couple of minor league veterans, Richard Rodriguez and Tyler Jones, will hope for opportunities with the Pirates. Both have solid but not overwhelming histories in the minors, including good K rates, and both were . . . well, solid in spring training. Organizational veteran Brett McKinney will also be available. He served as a utility pitcher in AAA last year, working in short and long relief, sometimes very long as he was the usual solution when the starter exited very early. He’s one of the rare examples of a pitcher in the organization switching to heavy use of a cutter, which seems a little interesting now given George Kontos’ success so far with the Bucs.

A couple other pitchers who could appear with the Indians are lefty Sean Keselica and righty Tate Scioneaux, both of whom had good seasons last year with Altoona, although both could go back to the Curve. Eventually, Montana DuRapau, who pitched well for Indy last year, will return from his suspension for a drug of abuse. Another possibility is Damien Magnifico, a hard thrower whom the Pirates picked up in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.

Regulars

C: Stallings/Lavarnway
1B: Wood/Weiss
2B: Kramer/Moroff
3B: Osuna/Moroff
SS: Newman/Moroff
OF: Meadows, Luplow, Bostick
SP: Kingham, Holmes, Eppler, McRae, Coley
Key Relievers: Crick, Siegrist, Sadler

Top Prospects: Meadows, Newman

Breakout candidates: Kramer, Holmes