Saturday, October 11, 2008

Farm Fresh - Minor League Shortstops

With Jack Splat on the block, GW thought it would lead off its minor league roundup with a look at the farm's shortstop crop. The suits loaded up on young SS's in the 2008 draft, and that alone should tell you all you need to know about the system's depth at that position.

Luis Cruz - He's the fast riser among young Buc infielders. Cruz was a surprise call-up in September, and hit .224 in 22 games after a blazing start at the plate. He's a solid contact hitter, striking out just twice in 67 at-bats, but he only drew a trio of walks and has no power to speak of.

Oddly, his career has been reverse of his scouting reports. They all have him as a slick-fielding, no-hit guy. Cruz's rep at Altoona was that he had hands of iron, but his glovework looked better in Pittsburgh as he saw more playing time. The Pirates like his bat, although he's been a middle-of-the-road hitter in the minors with one good stretch at Indy.

It looks like he's finally living up to his advance billing.

The 24-year old Mexican native was signed as an undrafted free agent by the BoSox in 2000, bounced around the San Diego system for awhile, and inked a deal with Pittsburgh in 2007 as a free agent.

Can he take Luis Rivas' spot on the Buc pine? Probably, and he has plenty of second base experience under his belt. Can he give the Bucs an everyday presence at SS? Not yet, and probably not ever.

Brian Bixler - The BB era looks about done in Pittsburgh. Oh, the suits say the right things about him, but his deer-in-the-headlights look at the plate and inconsistent play in the field have probably dropped him from a potential utility man role to a depth chart player stationed at Indy for emergency duty.

The pride of Sandusky, Ohio, Bixler will turn 26 in October. He was a 2nd round draft pick in 2004 from Eastern Michigan, and hit .157 while committing 8 errors and several muffs in 39 games in the bigs.

He gives every impression of being another AAAA player, good enough to rock on at Indy but without having the stuff it takes to land a job in Pittsburgh.

Brian Friday - The good news and bad news about Friday is that he's a younger Bixler clone - speedy, good glove (in 2007, Baseball America picked him as the best defensive infielder in the system), and better at making contact. He needs a break-out year in 2009 to gain some separation before the pack of shortstops at the A level begin to chase him down.

Friday hit .287 at High Class A Lynchburg, although he lost a good chunk of the year to back problems, and looks like he'll be the man at Altoona in 2009.

He was drafted third in the 2007 draft out of Rice, and will be 23 in the spring. So Friday still has time to get it on, but the clock is ticking as the competition heats up.

Chase d'Arnaud - 21 year-old d'Arnaud spent the season at short-season State College, where he hit .286 and was one of the bright spots on a dismal team. He was a New York-Penn League All Star and was selected as the Spike's MVP.

Where he'll land next is still up in the air. d'Arnaud should be headed to West Virginia next season in low A, but with the glut of infielders the Bucs drafted in 2008, his final destination is yet to be determined.

He was this year's fourth-round pick out of Pepperdine, and considered a run-of-the-mill gloveman with a good stick, but little power. d'Arnaud does have a good eye, puts the ball in play, and showed the ability to steal a base at State College.

He's a candidate to make the switch to second base, which is even weaker in bodies than shortstop in the Pirate organization.

Jordy Mercer - Mercer had a cup of coffee at State College before being moved up Hickory, more to give him some space from the other SS's than on performance. He was lost at the dish in the higher level for awhile, but the light came on in the final weeks of the season.

Mercer finished hitting .250, and showed acceptable range with a cannon for an arm, which should be no surprise, as he was the closer in his college days. But he didn't show the power or plate discipline that the suits were looking for - he hit just 4 homers and only walked a dozen times - so where he'll start 2009 is a coin flip.

The 22 year-old was the third round pick in this year's draft from Oklahoma State, and a departure from the Littlefield infielders, being a strapping hitter without a lot of speed or a pedigree with the leather. In other words, he's a fairly stereotypical AL shortstop.

Jarek Cunningham - In 48 games for Bradenton in the GCL, Cunningham, 3B-SS, hit .336 with six home runs, 27 RBIs, and a .540 slugging percentage. He was named one of Baseball America's Top 20 Prospects in the Gulf Coast League.

The youngster was taken in the 18th round of the 2008 draft, out of Washington's Mt. Spokane HS, turning down a free ride to Arizona State to ink a deal with the Bucs. Cunningham will turn 19 at Christmas, and has the look of a steal for the Pirates.

He lasted so long in the draft because a knee injury cost him his senior year of ball. It's also the reason Cunningham played some 3B for Bradenton. He has the tools to be an everyday SS when 100%.

He'll advance to State College for sure, and depending how the other SS's fall, he could possibly skip a level and end up at West Virgina in Low A. But we think at his age and with the current lower level logjam at short, the Pirates will move him along one step at a time.

Benjamin Gonzalez - We bring up Benji only because he may be the best glove man in the Pirate system, and one of its fastest players. He spent 2008 at Bradenton, but hit only .207.

Gonzalez came from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, and had a scholarship to Oklahoma State before coming to terms with Pittsburgh as its seventh round pick this year. GW's take is that that the 18 year-old will spend another year in the GCL to try to straighten out his stick.

Andury Acevedo - He's another puppy in the system, signed out of Santo Domingo in 2007. He only turned 18 in August, so there's still some room to grow for Acevado. He's considered athletic, and at 6'4", he's a big, rangy guy with some speed. Acevedo struggled at Bradenton, hitting .216 and striking out 42 times in 153 at-bats while committing 20 errors between third and short.

We'll see what his upside is in a couple of more seasons; a kid that young in pro ball is worth keeping an eye on. If he fills out, Acevedo may end up on a corner.

The Bucs will have to make some choices to make regarding this crew of players, and where they end up sending them to develop should be telling.

If they all go where expected, the Buc system should feature Cruz as the Pirate's utility guy, Bixler at Indy, Friday at Altoona, Mercer at Lynchburg, d'Arnaud at West Virginia, Cunningham at State College, with Gonzalez & Acevedo at Bradenton. Where they move up or down that ladder will indicate what the scouts and suits think of their potential.

It's also certain that the oversupply will lead to some position changes, perhaps as soon as next year, and that could effect the minor league postings, as would any deal that nets a young infielder as part of the payoff.

And what to do about Jack Splat? Hey, if the team gets an offer they can't refuse, he's gone. But don't look for his replacement from anywhere within the Pirate organization, which is void at the top end, although with a promising pack of players stacking the A level.

Anyone for bringing back Cesar Izturis?

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