Top 15 Prospects: Pittsburgh Pirates

The organization has some true star power at the top of its minor league depth chart but things begin to peter out after the Top 3 prospects and the cupboard is rather bare by the end of the Top 15. The downside to the system is that the majority of the high-ceiling talent is currently in A-ball or lower so it will be a little while before the fan base begins to reap the benefits of the organization’s renewed emphasis on in-house development.

1. Gerrit Cole, RHP
BORN: Sept. 8, 1990
EXPERIENCE: None
ACQUIRED: 2011 1st round (1st overall), UCLA
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

The Pirates organization entered the 2011 amateur draft in an enviable position with the first overall selection. The club had its pick from a number of high-ceiling players and ultimately chose Cole. It’s easy to see the move working out well for the organization as long as the right-hander can stay healthy (and there are no red flags… or even yellow for that matter). Cole, who has been a top prospect since his prep days and actually turned down the Yankees as a first rounder in ’08, has the chance to develop into a No. 1 starter and could get to Pittsburgh in short order. The California native’s repertoire includes two strikeout pitches: a 92-97 mph fastball and a slider. He also features a solid changeup. Expect Cole to open 2012 in either high-A or double-A and he could reach the Majors by year’s end – unless the club wants to be cautious with his service time.

2. Josh Bell, OF
BORN: Aug. 14, 1992
EXPERIENCE: None
ACQUIRED: 2011 2nd round, Texas HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

Bell’s ceiling matches Cole’s but, unlike the star pitching prospect, he won’t be playing in Pittsburgh any time soon. The outfielder was a first-round talent (possibly Top 5) based solely on his skill set but he was considered the toughest of tough signs away from his commitment to the University of Texas. A switch-hitter, he isn’t afraid to use the whole field and has raw power to all fields, as well. Bell could hit 25-30 home runs in his prime. Defensively he should be at least average in right field but could develop into a plus fielder. He’ll likely head to low-A ball to begin 2012 unless the organization decides he needs a little extra seasoning in extended spring training. He should move one level at a time and could surface at the big league level in 2015 – about the time this organization should be ready to field a playoff-worthy club.

3. Jameson Taillon, RHP
BORN: Nov. 18, 1991
EXPERIENCE: 1 season
ACQUIRED: 2010 1st round (2nd overall), Texas HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 1st

Taillon has been surpassed by Cole as the best pitching prospect in the system but it’s easy to envision the two sitting atop the Pirates starting rotation within three to four seasons. The Pirates’ first pick of the ’10 draft has the stuff to rival Cole’s but he’s not nearly as polished. Despite that fact, Taillon had a solid first year in low-A ball. He showed excellent control with a walk rate of 2.14 BB/9 but his command was inconsistent. Taillon has a big, strong pitcher’s frame and should have no difficulties providing 200+ innings on a regular basis once he reaches the Majors. The organization was patient with him in ’11 and watched his pitch counts and innings, keeping him below 100 innings on the year. He has a four-pitch mix that includes a 93-97 mph fastball, curveball, slider and changeup; he has the potential for three plus pitches with his changeup lagging behind the other offerings. Taillon will move up to high-A ball in ’12 and will look to sharpen his secondary pitches. It’s possibly that he could also spend some time in double-A but the organization may choose to be cautious with him.

4. Tony Sanchez, C
BORN: May 20, 1988
EXPERIENCE: 3 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2010 1st round (4th overall), Boston College
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 2nd

Sanchez represents the third first round pick in the Top 4, showing just how well the organization has drafted in the past three years (High picks don’t always pan out in baseball). After two strong offensive seasons to begin his career, the catcher struggled in double-A, which caused some to temper their enthusiasm for his bat. When he stays within himself, though, Sanchez shows the ability to hit for good gap power and he has a solid eye at the plate, which allows him to limit to the Ks and pad his on-base percentage with a solid number of walks. Defense is where Sanchez truly shines. He his an excellent game caller and receiver. He has an above-average arm, which allows him to control the running game, although it took a step back in ’11. Sanchez’s struggles last year may have been caused by a jump in the competition’s talent level but there is some thought that non-disclosed injuries may have also played a role.

5. Robbie Grossman, OF
BORN: Sept. 16, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2008 6th round, Texas HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

Grossman took a big step forward in 2011 and attracted a lot of attention from the “stat geeks” by walking more than 100 times in high-A ball, which led to an on-base percentage of .418. The Texas native (who like Josh Bell spurned U of Texas for a chance to play pro ball) also hit for average, showed plus gap power and stole 24 bases (although he was caught 10 times). Grossman will need to continue to show more home run pop if he’s going to settle in as an everyday right-fielder but he offers a wide variety of offensive skills so 15-20 home runs should be enough. The prospect has clearly made impressive adjustments as he’s gained experience; his strikeout rates have dipped from 31% in ’09 to 21% to 18%. Grossman also had an impressive Arizona Fall League campaign in which he added another seven home runs in 104 at-bats and impressed in just about every category. In the field he has a solid skill set for right field, where he should be at least an average defender. He’ll move up to double-A in 2012 and is about a year to a year-and-a-half from the Majors.

6. Starling Marte, OF
BORN: Oct. 9, 1988
EXPERIENCE: 5 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2007 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 7th

Like Robbie Grossman, Marte is another outfielder that outfielder that really took a step forward in ’11 and there is a fairly strong debate over which outfielder is the better prospect right now. Marte has always hit for average but he was a “soft .300 hitter,” and rarely showed much pop with the bat. Although he’ll never be a big home run hitter, Marte’s gap power improved significantly last season and he hit 38 doubles and 12 bombs. He’s still learning the nuances of base stealing but could eventually develop into a runner with 30+ steal potential. The Dominican native is a plus defender in center field with outstanding range and a solid arm. Despite all the things that Marte has going for him, his approach at the plate still hampers his overall potential. He’s overly aggressive and pitchers at the MLB level could eat him alive unless he becomes more selective. There were only 10 players that had more than 300 plate appearances in the Majors in 2011 with walk rates below 4% and that list includes the likes of Vernon Wells, Alex Gonzalez, Orlando Cabrera and Yuniesky Betancourt. Only one player (Darwin Barney of the Cubs) had more than a one-win season (2.2 WAR).

7. Luis Heredia, RHP
BORN: Aug. 10, 1994
EXPERIENCE: 1 season
ACQUIRED: 2010 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 4th

A number of organizations, including the Toronto Blue Jays, made strong plays for Heredia but the young right-hander ultimately chose Pittsburgh. Still quite young and very raw, he has an immense ceiling and the potential for three plus pitches. He features a low-to-mid-90s fastball, curveball and changeup. He has the chance to be an innings-eater thanks to his strong frame and repeatable delivery. He struggled a bit with his control during his debut, but he was just 16 years old and didn’t turn 17 until August. Because he’s so young, Heredia is a lock to return to short-season ball in 2012 after spending time in extended spring training.

8. Kyle McPherson, RHP
BORN: Nov. 11, 1987
EXPERIENCE: 5 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2007 11th round, Alabama HS
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: Off

A stark contrast to the top of this list, McPherson is a scout’s special as a player who was a low round draft pick that has worked hard to turn himself into a solid prospect. The right-hander has the approach of a “crafty pitcher” and is very good at changing speeds and spotting his pitches but his fastball sits in the low 90s and can occasionally touch 94-95 mph. He has a plus changeup and his curveball also shows promise. He works up in the zone too much and is a fly-ball pitcher. Like the majority of Pittsburgh’s top pitchers McPherson has a big, durable frame, which should allow him to provide plenty of innings if he can improve his breaking ball. If he remains a two-pitch pitcher, he could develop into a solid high-leverage reliever.

9. Jeff Locke, LHP
BORN: Nov. 20, 1987
EXPERIENCE: 6 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2006 2nd round, New Hampshire HS (by Atlanta)
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: 6th

After some inconsistency early in his career, Locke has improved significantly over the past two seasons as his secondary pitches have improved. He now features three average offerings and both his curveball and changeup have the potential to be plus offerings at times. His heater comes in 87-91 mph so he needs good command and control to survive. Locke has a chance to break camp with the Pirates in 2012 but some extra seasoning in triple-A might do him some good. He could be an excellent back-of-the-rotation option as Pittsburgh rolls out its dynamic future rotation including the likes of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.

10. Alex Dickerson, 1B
BORN: May 26, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 1 season
ACQUIRED: 2011 3rd round, U of Indiana
2010-11 TOP 10 RANKING: NA

A top college hitter entering 2011, Dickerson struggled as pitchers worked around him and he battled back problems that have haunted him since his prep days. The left-handed hitter has plus raw power but isn’t afraid to take what pitchers give him and will go the other way. Now that he’s shifted from left field to first base his bat will have to carry him – and if he can stay healthy that is a distinct possibility. Defensively, Dickerson is nothing special with the glove but he could take to first base with reps and experience. He could face some eventually competition at first base if current Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez makes the move across the diamond. After hitting .313 at posting a wRC+ of 152 in short-season ball he may be assigned to high-A ball to begin ’12.

The Next Five:

11. Stetson Allie, RHP: Jameson Taillon and Allie were considered by many to be the Top 2 prep arms available in the 2010 draft. When the latter pitcher slid to the second round Pittsburgh jumped all over him and got him signed to an above-slot deal. His fastball can touch triple digits and his slider shows the potential to be a wipe-out pitch if he can learn to command it. Allie struggled in his debut when his command deserted him and he has a lot of work to do before he’s ready even for full-season A-ball. He’ll certainly open 2012 in extended spring training in an attempt to find a consistent release point and iron out his mechanical issues. Given his lack of control, as well as the absence of a third pitch, it would probably be best for both Allie and the organization is the focus is on preparing him for a career as a high-leverage reliever.

12. Bryan Morris, RHP: Morris has been teasing the Pirates (and the Dodgers) with his potential for years but injuries and inconsistencies have derailed his career. He repeated double-A in 2011 and finally made the move from the starting rotation to the bullpen. It helped his stuff play up and he did a better job of working down in the zone. That resulted in a ton of ground-ball outs which, combined with his good fastball in the low-to-mid-90s, makes him a potential high-leverage reliever at the MLB level. Morris also features a good breaking ball and he can worry less about his fringe changeup and so-so slider.

13. Rudy Owens, LHP: Owens has a similar skill-set to Jeff Locke but his secondary stuff is not nearly as polished. He struggled at triple-A in 2011 and posted a 5.05 ERA (4.11 FIP) and his strikeout rate dipped to 5.69 K/9. Owens needs to regain command of his fastball if he’s going to spend significant time in the Majors and he might be best suited for middle or long relief unless he improves at least one of his secondary pitches.

14. Nick Kingham, RHP: Kingham’ s selection in the fourth round of the 2010 draft was overshadowed by the club’s selection of both Jameson Taillon (first round) and Stetson Allie (second round). The Las Vegas native has an excellent pitcher’s frame and good athleticism on the mound. His repertoire includes an 88-93 mph fastball, and a potentially-plus changeup. He’s also working to firm up his curveball. Kingham showed above-average control (1.90 BB/9) in short-season ball in 2011 and his strikeout rates should improve (5.96 K/9) as he learns to better command his pitches.

15. Colton Cain, LHP: After signing for more than $1 million, Cain has been somewhat of a disappointment to this point but he’s also been hampered by back problems. If the southpaw can leave the health problems behind him, Cain has the big frame to be an innings eater. He saw his innings total jumped significantly from 2010 to 2011 (34.0 to 106.1) so that is a good sign that he’s headed in the right direction. His repertoire includes an 87-92 mph fastball, slider and changeup. Cain needs to use his size better and get more of a downward plane on his pitches. He should move up from low-A to high-A in 2012.

SLEEPER ALERT: Alen Hanson, SS: Hanson was an under-the-radar signing out of the Dominican Republic and he impressed during his second season in North American in 2011. He should be able to stick at shortstop and displays both good range and a solid arm. His best tool is his speed and he stole more than 20 base last season. He won’t hit for power but Hanson shows a solid line-drive stroke – especially for his slight frame – and could hit for a solid average – especially with his ability to beat out infield singles. He could move up to low-A ball in 2012.




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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospect analysis. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

45 Responses to “Top 15 Prospects: Pittsburgh Pirates”

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  1. Eminor3rd says:

    Great content as usual, but I have a suggestion:

    For White Sox fans like me, it would be extremely helpful to have a grade-like rating for each prospect for the sake of context, since obviously being a #5 prospect in a normal system is not like being a #5 prospect in the Sox system.

    Of course since this is FanGraphs, there’s room for some proprietary statistically-based (or even crowd-sourced) rating scale if you don’t want to have a Sickels style letter grade.

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  2. PiratesFan says:

    This is the most radically different list of Pirates Prospects in terms of rankings and content I have seen so far for 2012.

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  3. Joe says:

    You guys have gotten extremely lazy with this segment. It started out with Scouting reports, year in review, year ahead and career out look and has morphed in to a little blurb even in regards to the top prospects. L-A-Z-Y

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  4. PiratesHurdles says:

    Marc, we keep seeing evaluators ding the Pirates depth, but as an intent follower of this system for 10+ years, I just don’t buy it. The Bucs have a steady track record of producing decent MLB guys from their lower prospect depths. Right now our 10-30 prospects include a ton of good young projectable arms and toolsy athletic OF and IF from Latin America spending. This system is deeper than it has been in a decade, I wonder how much of the depth criticism is parroting. I fail to see how J.Wilson, C.Holmes, Z.Von Rosenberg, Z. Dodson, R.Hafner, T.Glasnow, and others isn’t good depth behind the 10 pitchers you list. For bats there are J.Ozuna, Y.Navarro, J.Cunningham, J.Mercer, M.Hague, W.Garcia, A.Lambo, M.Curry, G.Hernandez, G.Polanco and others.

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  5. Andrew says:

    Taillon #3? He ranked #8 overall in the top 100 on MLB.com…and he’s #3 in his own system? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

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    • marlu says:

      How dare someone disagree with someone else about the future of a 20 year old pitching prospect?!!

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    • Zack says:

      MLB.com’s top 100 is a joke. i would put Taillon at 2, but i’m not a scout. I will just trust FanGraphs judgement on this one.

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      • john sparrow says:

        the comment above is a bit of an overreaction, but I think very few people that actually follow the system would agree with the ranking. I think the entire list (the ordering, esp) is very bizarre.

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    • Penelope Crews says:

      Wow, two completely different people came up with two different conclusions about the same thing? Stop the presses!

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      • Marc Hulet says:

        I just looked up BA’s and BP’s ranking of the system and both have almost the exact same players that I do in a slightly different order… not sure what the issue is? Why would you want to read the exact same opinion five times? Trust me, you can talk to two scouts and they will have entirely different opinions on the same player.

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    • Uncle Randy says:

      Terrible comment.

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    • Marc Hulet says:

      Perhaps you should look it as… “Wow the dude wrote a very favorable comment about Taillon so he must absolutely think Cole and Bell will be all-star studs” rather than “Jeez, what the heck is wrong with this guy that he ranked Taillon THIRD!”

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  6. Grand Admiral Braun says:

    No mention of John Van Benschoten??

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  7. john sparrow says:

    People should not be taking this list into account when making any kind of lists or fantasy valuation of prospects. (Of course, this is only my view)

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    • Lenard says:

      Instead of just spewing about how incorrect this list is, how about telling us why you think it is wrong.

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      • john sparrow says:

        If I did, it would be far too long, and more than people would want to read. Essentially, if you read any of the Pirates blogs, or BA’s list, you’ll get the gist. Here’s my short summary:

        -Taillon’s slider is being oversold but the pitcher undersold. He should be very very close to Cole, if not better.

        - Not sure how Bell is above Taillon at this point. Bell could be a solid RF, but it’s far from clear, and how his body grows might well determine his position. He is not the most athletic, and CF is not an option for him.

        - The reasoning for Sanchez at #4 is very shaky. There probably is an argument for the ranking, but Marc isn’t anywhere close to it.

        - Marte is being undersold. I see him as a better prospect than both Grossman (who has considerable questions about his game) and Sanchez. He has very good defense in CF to boot, with the walk rate and power projections being the only warts in the game right now

        Besides those, McPherson is better than the writeup suggests, Locke has significant qns not mentioned here, Kingham has a superb curve that’s not talked about at all, etc etc…

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  8. Mark says:

    Didn’t Fangraphs used to publish lifetime & peak WAR estimates for prospects? (Or something that helped assess how ‘good’ a prospect might be.)

    Separately, Starling Marte << Tony Sanchez ??

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    • PiratesHurdles says:

      What, didn’t you know that Brett Jackson is an elite prospect and Starling Marte is terribly flawed. All Marte did was out perform Jackson at AA at the same age in BA, SLG, K rate, and is better defensively. I guess walk rate beats all.

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      • Daniel says:

        He’s going to enjoy a 390 baBIP in the majors too then is he? Read the report. Look at the list of guys with similar walk rates.

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      • PirateInTheBay says:

        Maybe not .390 but you don’t avg. a .400 babip over 2 seasons worth of pro ball without being talented. This with the fact that his arm is plus and he can actually defend CF, propels him ahead of Grossman and Sanchez IMO.

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  9. PirateReport says:

    I saw a scouting report on Taillon published the other day that mentioned Taillon’s crossfiring and how it has impeded his control so it seems Marc’s opinion is well-justified. Let’s not forget we’re also talking about airplane mechanic types who are in charge of developing the Bucs prospects. They will be lucky to turn Cole’s slot problems around, much less get anywhere with Pedro’s swing, Taillon’s delivery problems, Morris’ lack of aggression, d’Arnauld and Walker’s footwork, and so-on. But, hey, every prospect in their system knows how to perfectly load a locker!

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    • PiratesHurdles says:

      Yeah McCutchen sure ended up terrible, so did Walker and Tabata. The current group under Greg Smith has a pretty good track record of developing lower level prospects into big leaguers. they’ve also done pretty well at getting the most out of OK talent in the bigs.

      Not sure why people think Taillon has control issues, as a 19 year old in full season he struck out 97 and walked 22. Its the command in the zone that is discussed here, he leaves the ball up a bit too much. I wouldn’t call it delivery problems, people are trying way too hard to find fault with a consensus top 15 prospect in MLB.

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  10. reillocity says:

    I’m no Pirates fan, but I like Starling Marte quite a bit. The cited 4% walk rate gets overplayed by many of the prospect evaluators – that criticism would have some merit if he was just a one- or two-trick pony. This guy does nearly everything very well except for the walking bit. I can foresee him posting Howie Kendrick (a 4.2% walker himself)-like offensive numbers with a few more steals as a regular and maturing into a Top 5 MLB RFer defensively given the combo of his foot speed, range, and powerful arm. I could only rank Cole and Taillon ahead of him in this system as of today (at least until I see Josh Bell as a pro).

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  11. Bob says:

    This is the only list I’ve seen with Tony Sanchez or Robbie Grossman (much less both) above Marte. I think its also the only list with Bell ahead of Taillon that I’ve seen.

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  12. jcxy says:

    I can’t believe this content is free…

    Keep up the good work, Marc!

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  13. imadushbag says:

    i liked the list except for 1 thing. bell has yet to play i inning of pro ball. i’m excited that you think so highly of him, just mildly confused.

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  14. Bob says:

    Again, how many of these players have you seen live, and how many times have you seen them play live?

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    • Jim says:

      I wouldn’t be a huge stickler about how many times he’s seen them play. Unless you want all content to be pay walled, accept that sometimes our free content will be provided by people with little means to fly around the country (and the Dominican) to watch all of these players. They have to rely on what they hear from other journalists, scouts, and fans to develop their lists. If you don’t like reading opinions from people he’s spoken to, good luck. Even Law, Goldstein, Sickles, and all of the other big guys rely on info from others to complete their lists.

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      • Bob says:

        I’m not worried about why, I’m just asking exactly how many players has he seen and how many times has he seen those players? I can’t get a straight answer, so I’m assuming its 0. I think it’s a fair question to ask.

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    • Marc Hulet says:

      Bob, every prospect I write about I have seen play – at least on video… except for the rare same-year surprise prep prospect or Latin signee. But I tend to be conservative on those rankings until I do see them. But I also talk to people who have seen these players a lot. Hope that helps answer your question.

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      • John Verburg says:

        I get this question too. Especially because I don’t write for a national site, but I read tons of scouting reports, watch video, know people who watch prospects,and go to minor league games and I can vouch for you in that you can get plenty good enough idea on the majority of guys.

        But it comes down to what the ranker values most.

        I had this issue with ranking Paxton over Hultzen. Seattle fans got all bent out of shape with it, but I have seen both pitch unlike those who were critical of the ranking. It’s just a personal preference and no reflection on Hultzen being bad or something. Just prefer Paxton’s stuff, and believe his ceiling is a touch higher with improved command. Which I think he will do. I think Hultzen will be a real good pitcher for a long time.

        Point is, these should be informative, but also fun for readers. And they should be lucky to get it for free.

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  15. melkman says:

    Tony sanchez seems really high. Taillon bell cole is splitting hairs. And is anyone surprised grossman is ranked ahead of marte on fangraphs.com? I’m not lol. Aside from being extra high on sanchez I like the list. Excited about the pirates future OF. With mccutchen tabata presley bell grossman & marte at the very least there should be trade chips to fill out the infield or rotation. I also like jordy mercer as a sleeper candidate to be at least a league average ss. Hopefully bedard perrforms well enough to get some more prospects at the deadline.

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  16. gonfalon says:

    my personal top 5 would have gone Taillon, Cole, Marte, Bell, and Heredia, in that order. but while I do follow the Pirates, I haven’t seen any of them play in person (and very little video), so I appreciate Mr. Hulet’s opinions on the Pirates’ top prospects.

    and one thing that hasn’t been mentioned above is the fact that when different people have legitimate arguments to make over which prospect to rank higher, that is a very, very good “problem” to have. I shudder to think of the Pirates’ top prospects under Dave Littlefield’s watch, when there really wasn’t anyone of note after Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and whichever top draft pick who missed a year due to injury you think still might have a career as a MLB pitcher.

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  17. Jacob says:

    I am confused about something with Allie. The Pirates converted him to a full time hitter to deal with his control issues. At least I thought I read somewhere. I mostly follow the Braves system but I could have swore I saw this somewhere.

    Did they abandon this plan and put him back on the bump?

    http://aol.sportingnews.com/mlb/story/2012-06-04/stetson-allie-mlb-draft-pittsburgh-pirates

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