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Pirates minor league preview: Indianapolis

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

For several years now, the Indianapolis roster has been loaded with prospects, as opposed to the veteran free agents that dominated the team in prior years. The Pirates are great at developing AAA players, but they haven’t had similar success in transitioning players to the majors. It’s hard to say why, whether it’s a development and coaching issue or because the players aren’t really that good in the first place.

As everybody here knows, Indy this year will have several top prospects who are critical to the Pirates’ success in the near term. Beyond that, they have a number of prospects who could play useful roles, even if they don’t become stars. The Pirates have been reluctant to give opportunities to players like that. While St. Louis gets great production from second-tier prospects, the Pirates prefer to give playing time to sub-replacement veterans. Whether they can overcome that self-defeating pattern will determine whether they get any value out of the many potential major leaguers who’ll be with Indy to start this year.

Catcher

The catchers will be Christian Kelley and Steve Baron. Kelley fits a remarkably consistent template for catchers in the Pirates’ system, specifically, the Jacob Stallings template of catchers with strong defense and not much offense who are just good enough that they could become backups in the majors. All the Pirates need is for one of them to start hitting a little better, as Stallings did when he got to AAA. Kelley has an odd pattern of hitting well early in seasons and then tailing off badly; maybe he can sustain it better this year. Baron came to the Pirates on a minor league deal and — surprise! — has a good glove but not much of a bat. He has a little bit of major league experience and will be the “third catcher” until Elias Diaz returns. At some point this year, Kelley should pass Baron on the depth chart.

Corner Infield

Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes is the Pirates’ best position prospect, or maybe even their best prospect. He does pretty much everything well except hit for power and, lately, he’s shown increasing signs of doing that, too. He should become the Pirates’ starter there within the next year. Will Craig will be at first. Craig finally started hitting for power last year, but he gave up so much in contact and patience that it’s doubtful whether he’s actually a better hitter. He doesn’t need so much to become a different type of hitter as to become a better hitter.

At one point or another, Indy will have Jose Osuna and Eric Wood. Osuna is currently out with a neck injury, but when he returns he’ll go to AAA. He won’t get a lot of time at first or third with Hayes and Craig around, so the Pirates will have to find room for him in the outfield much of the time. The last couple years, he’s hit well everywhere but in the majors and the Pirates have acquired several players who’ve closed off opportunities for him. Wood became a free agent last year, went to Taiwan, and promptly got into an altercation with his manager and got released. The Pirates signed him to return this year and he’ll probably see time at first and in the outfield, and maybe at third. How the Pirates will find time for both him and Osuna is a tougher question.

Middle Infield

The other critical position prospect at Indy, besides Hayes, will be shortstop Cole Tucker. He finished last season with significant questions about his bat, but strong showings in both the Arizona Fall League and spring training left scouts impressed. A good start by Tucker in AAA would mean a lot to a team with a dubious shortstop situation. Kevin Kramer will play second, but the Pirates seem to be down on him, as they are on Kevin Newman, after he struggled in brief exposure to the majors last year. Kramer’s swing and miss tendency is a real concern, but increased power is what made him start looking like a non-fringe prospect. He may get some time in the outfield as well as at second.

The Pirates signed veteran infielder Nick Franklin to a minor league deal for this year, but he missed all of spring training with a hamstring issue. It apparently hasn’t gone away, as they acquired Jake Elmore at the end of camp. Elmore was with the Pirates a few years ago. His primary offensive skill is drawing walks. Indy will also have Erich Weiss, an organizational player who can handle first, second or third.

Outfield

The outfield will have two of the Pirates’ best position prospects, Jason Martin and Bryan Reynolds. Both can play center, but may be better in a corner. It’ll be interesting to see who plays center more this year. Martin struggled in the second half in AAA last year after a great first half at Altoona, but he had a good spring. Reynolds spent the whole year in AA. He missed time due to hamate surgery, but came back well and showed improvement in both plate discipline and power.

The other regular will probably be Patrick Kivlehan, who has major league experience and power potential, but also an unorthodox swing that’s left him with some contact issues. He could get a callup at some point, but the Pirates prefer J.B. Shuck because he has a more established track record of not hitting major league pitching. Trayvon Robinson, who’s spent the last three years in independent ball, should serve as a fourth outfielder.

Rotation

The big name in the rotation, of course, is Mitch Keller. He’s still considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, but he didn’t pitch well in AAA late last year, then had an awful spring, both with the Pirates and in minor league camp. Regardless of any service time issues, he’s just. not. ready. The rotation’s other prospect, J.T. Brubaker, has very good stuff himself and has pitched much better than Keller in AAA. He might be a better option if the Pirates need a starter.

Indy’s rotation will also have veteran Rookie Davis and Alex McRae. Davis is a former Reds prospect who hasn’t been all that good in the upper minors and is returning from a hip injury that cost him most of last year. McRae was a puzzling callup last year who didn’t pitch well in AAA and was later removed from the 40-man roster. Indy doesn’t have a fifth starter listed currently, possibly because the Pirates are expecting to send Steven Brault down. They could employ lefty Brandon Waddell as a starter. He’s a finesse pitcher who went unselected in the Rule 5 draft and struggled some at Indy last year. Otherwise, Waddell will pitch in relief.

Bullpen

Indy will have a lot of interesting relievers, in fact more than can be on the active roster at any one time. It’s a volatile group; anywhere between all and none of them could ultimately be useful at the major league level.

There will be a group of pitchers with the Indians who’ve shown very good stuff but have struggled to command it. Clay Holmes will take his extreme groundball tendencies and trouble throwing strikes to the bullpen, where he’ll be pitch multi-inning outings. Jesus Liranzo was showing 100+ mph velocity in winter ball, but has struggled to control it. Dovydas Neverauskas will miss the start of the season with an oblique problem, but he’s also hit triple digits and he also struggled to throw strikes in 2018. Geoff Hartlieb is still another reliever who’s reached 100 mph. He’s moved up quickly through the farm system and doesn’t have a great deal of experience, but so far has been hit a little harder than you’d expect for somebody with that kind of stuff. And Michael Feliz has been optioned to AAA, as he continues giving up big hits even while missing a lot of bats.

Indy is slated to have some veterans on minor league contracts, although righty Brandon Maurer and lefty Tyler Lyons both could opt out at some point if they’re not called up. Both were pitching well by the time spring training ended. Maurer is a former major league closer who suddenly hit the skids a couple years ago. Lyons has a history of being very effective against left-handed, but not right-handed, hitters. Injury problems plagued him last year, leading the Cardinals to remove him from their roster. There’s also Jake Barrett, who’s currently in DFA limbo. He pitched well for Arizona in 2016, but hasn’t been as effective since then.

Finally, Indy will have righty Montana DuRapau and lefty Sean Keselica. DuRapau doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but was very successful up through AA, including high K rates. He hurt himself last year with a suspension for a drug of abuse. Keselica has been effective at times, but struggled to throw strikes last year at Altoona.

Regulars

C: Kelley, Baron
1B: Craig
2B: Kramer
3B: Hayes
SS: Tucker
OF: Martin, Reynolds, Kivlehan
Rotation: Keller, Brubaker, Davis, McRae, Brault or Waddell
Key Relievers: Holmes, Liranzo

Top Prospects: Keller, Hayes, Tucker

Breakout Candidates: Brubaker, Liranzo, Hartlieb

UPDATE: The Pirates lost Barrett on waivers to the Yankees.