PLAYERS I LIKE
I'm going in with the notion that we have three prospects in our minor league system who are clearly head and shoulders above all the rest. I could really pick any of them as number one, but have decided to rate them 1A, 1B, and 1C. All the rest are in the next tier down from these three.
I have this Terrific Trio in the following order based largely on what I view as 1) how objectively talented I think they are, and 2) how well they are likely to play as big leaguers if they maximize their objective talent. Using these two criteria, my number one might surprise you:
1A) Brad Lincoln (23, Lynchburg/Hickory, RHP) - Until further notice and until proven otherwise, it is Brad Lincoln and not Andrew McCutchen who is the single most important player currently in the Pirates' minor league system. Lincoln has the potential to become what has not been seen in Pittsburgh since Doug Drabek's heyday, and that is a true top of the rotation, All-Star starting pitcher. If you doubt how much a guy like that can mean to your team's fortunes, consider how much better the otherwise sad sack Brewers were when they had Ben Sheets and very little else. (Now of course they've added lots of young talent, but for a couple of seasons they were only competitive when Sheets was on the hill.) The only---repeat---only question with Lincoln is his health, because he was an absolutely dominant major college pitcher, and his minor league performance has been very good considering it's been marred by Tommy John surgery. I might quibble just a tad with Lincoln's relatively low strikeout numbers, but those figure to get better as he continues his recovery, and in the meantime his control has been impeccable. He could be pitching at PNC as soon as the second half of next season, though he's more likely to arrive in 2010.
1B) Jose Tabata (20, Altoona, CF) I saw this kid play in person in Altoona over the Labor Day weekend, and he looked like a man among boys. He does everything well, and makes it all look easy. I believe he is more talented than Andrew McCutchen, he definitely has more power, and in my opinion he also has more long term upside. Yes, that's quite a statement. No, it will be you and not me eating your words when you see him in Pittsburgh in 2010!
1C) Andrew McCutchen (21, Indy, CF) Alright, here's the deal with Andrew. He's still a very gifted athlete. He's very fast. He's excellent defensively. And yes, he's been young for his level at every stop along the way in his professional career to date, so we can perhaps give him half a mulligan when evaluating his statistics. I still believe he is as close to a can't miss player as we have in our system. So what's the problem, and why do I have him rated as only our number 3 prospect? Because 283-9-50 is still 283-9-50, and because he doesn't make the best use of his speed, having been caught stealing 20 times in 54 attempts. His power, batting average, and on base percentage all look...okay...but definitely nothing special. Now, maybe he goes and plays winter ball, then makes it to the last cut in spring training, then goes back to Indianapolis and tears the cover off the ball until July, then he comes to Pittsburgh and never looks back. Hey, great, nothing would make me happier. But.....there's this nagging suspicion in the back of my mind that won't go away. It keeps whispering, "The kid's good....but he's not great. And people are expecting waayyy too much from him. He'll be a solid, better than average major leaguer who plays outstanding defense. But he won't be a superstar and he may not even be an All-Star."
4) Ross Ohlendorf (26, Indy, NYY, RHP) - Flamethrowing former Ivy Leaguer was 5-4, 3.65 - AAA, at Indianapolis and 1-1, 6.53 with the Yankees. He looked like he belonged in his only Pirates start thus far. I believe in Ohlendorf and am of the view that he was miscast as a reliever in New York. Given the chance to return to starting---where he was pretty successful in his minor league career---I believe he will blossom. Could be as good as a number two starter for us, but more likely an excellent number three.
5) Evan Meek (25, Pittsburgh/Indy/Altoona, RHP) -Couldn't throw strikes to save his life early this season after coming over from Tampa in the Rule V draft, but was an absolute Terminator at both double and triple-A. If he has truly harnessed his control, he could be an outstanding setup man and might even be closer material down the road.
6) Daniel McCutchen (25, Indy, RHP) - He threw a lot of innings at triple-A this year, finishing with 174. His record was just 7-9 with a 4.03 ERA, but I really like him because he is absolutely fearless and he doesn't walk anyone. While he will never be dominant, I think he is perfectly fine as a right-handed version of Paul Maholm. Particularly when the Pirates have superb gloveman Andrew McCutchen in center to go with almost-as-good Nate McLouth and better than average Brandon Moss, a pitch to contact type like McCutchen could be highly effective in Pittsburgh. I believe he will be.
7) Bryan Morris (21, Hickory, RHP) A bit of a long shot in that he is very young and coming off Tommy John surgery, but he was considered the best arm in the entire Dodgers system at one point. Potentially an ace starter if he can stay healthy and progress normally from here on.
8) Robinzon Diaz (24, Indy, C) A Joe Girardi type who hits for a high average---especially for a catcher---though with little power. He also brings a good glove to the game. Definitely ought to be our number two catcher next season, and in my opinion you could do a lot worse than him as your starter. He only ranks this low because he's yet to play in the bigs and because he had a so-so 2008, mostly in the Blue Jays system. But I definitely like him a lot going forward.
9) Jimmy Barthmaier (24, Indy, RHP) - Scrapheap reclamation project from the Astros organization has all the tools, but can't seem to stay healthy or consistent. If he somehow puts it all together for a full season, watch out. The Pirates are sending him to pitch in the Arizona League. Watch him closely out in the desert.
10) Brian Bixler (25, Indy, SS) I've come full circle on Bixler. Originally, I had him pegged as high-end organizational fodder, the quintessential overachiever - quad A type. Then I saw him play in person last season, and he showed me a very good glove with an accurate if not super strong arm. I also saw enough of a stick and enough of a running game to think, hey, maybe he's just one of those Craig Counsell types who doesn't know he's not supposed to be good enough to play in the bigs---but does so anyway, and does it well.
Unfortunately, Bixler looked utterly overmatched in his extended early season audition in Pittsburgh. If he's ever going to make his move, it had better be right now, which is to say, in Spring Training 2009.
11) Brian Friday (22, Lynchburg, SS) - This is the guy who could pass Bixler as soon as next season if he continues to improve and Bixler continues to stagnate.
12) Jim Negrych (23, Altoona/Lynchburg, 3B) - I know, I know, he can't field a lick, he doesn't really have a position, and he has little power. All I know is, hitters as good as Negrych don't grow on trees, and the man hit .370-5-62 at high A Lynchburg, then followed that up with a 310-0-10 line at season's end in Altoona. I say, coach the heck out of him with his glove, and then make him prove that he can't hit big league pitching. I think he can. From there, if he can play even adequate defense somewhere on the field, we've got ourselves a real asset.
13) Jamie Romak (22, Altoona/Lynchburg, 1B/OF) - Lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, lots of home runs. In other words, the quintessential Billy Beane - sabremetrician's ballplayer. Romak was blistering the ball for three quarters of the year at Lynchburg, and one of the real mysteries of 2008 is why he wasn't promoted sooner. Whatever. Romak mashed 25 homers between single and double-A, and I'm anxious to see if he can keep it up next year. .208-7-32 - Altoona. .279-18-52 - Lynchburg.
14) Luis Cruz (24, Indy/Altoona, 2B/SS) Signed from the Padres system as minor league fodder, Cruz parlayed a strong showing at double and triple-A into an unexpected, but extended, September audition in Pittsburgh. Cruz has probably leapfrogged Brian Bixler, but I have him lower than Brian because Cruz hasn't hit as well as Bixler in his professional career to date, meaning I don't believe in him----yet. If he can show even a so-so stick, however, he will almost certainly be the utilityman for the Pirates next season, which leaves Bixler's future cloudy His minor league line shows .325-3-15 - Indy, .264-6-46 - Altoona.
15) Dan Moskos (22, Lynchburg, LHP) Is he hurt, or just not that good to begin with? Former number one draft pick Moskos looked fairly good early on in his first season as a starter, but was tattooed later in the year to the tune of 7-7, 5.95. He can't be that bad....can he??? Being lefthanded, he will probably have a longer leash, but he must show considerable improvement in 2009 to have any kind of future in Pittsburgh.
PLAYER I'M NOT SURE I LIKE
16) Neil Walker (22, Indy, 3B) - He's still relatively young, and he's supposedly fully recovered from his serious wrist injury of a couple years ago. Indy's 2008 MVP, he had a strong second half but still finished with middling numbers at .241-16-80. The Pedro Alvarez fiasco, coupled with Andy LaRoche's struggles, could mean that the door is still open for Neil. I'd like to believe that, but he certainly must do better in '09 to force the Pirates to make a decision about him.
PLAYERS I DON'T LIKE
Craig Hansen - I don't care how hard he throws, he has no clue where the ball is going. Worth a flyer, yes. Count on him, no.
Shelby Ford (23, Altoona, 2B) Okay but not overwhelming numbers at double-A, also appears injury prone and has limited range defensively.
Jesse Chavez (25, Indy, RHP) Still kicking around in our system several years after the Kip Wells trade, so-so numbers at Indianapolis. A non-factor.
Dave Davidson (24, Altoona, LHP) You'd think that a guy who was good enough to play on Canada’s Olympic team would have better numbers than 4-2, 3.34 in middle relief---he wasn't even the closer---at double-A Altoona, especially at age 24.
PLAYER I LIKE AS A SLEEPER PICK
Juan Mateo (25, Altoona, RHP) Once a big-time Cub prospect, he landed on the junkpile with shoulder woes. Don't look now, but he might be getting healthy. He looked great at Altoona, to the tune of 7-1-5, 2.12. If he can stay physically sound, he will be part of the Pirates' bullpen in 2009. Write it down.
Will Pellas, the GW's alter ego, telling it as he sees it on the Pirate pups and whether their bite is worse than their bark.