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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
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
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.