Sunday, January 4, 2009

Farm Fresh - The Hot Corner

Hey, finally a position with a light at the end of the tunnel! If there's one spot that the Pirates have loaded up on in their system, this is it. There are a pair of number one picks and a number three vying for the hot corner, and that *cross our fingers* should translate into some production in a couple of years.

Andy LaRoche - OK, calm down. He leads the list because he's the only one with any MLB experience, as shaky as that may be. Going into 2008, Baseball Prospectus rated him as a five star prospect and the number two youngster in the LA system, behind only Clayton Kershaw. Well, that and $10 will get you a Starbucks latte.

We're willing to write off 2008 as rookie blues and give little LaRoche a clean slate going into the season. But LaRoche is 25, has 111 MLB games under his belt now, and though that's not many reps in the show, it's time for nerves to be replaced with production.

The Pirates have said they'll keep him on a short leash this season, and we'll see if Ramon Vazquez gets any love platooning with him if he has another car wreck at the hot corner. And that's the only alternative right now.

What's he need to do? Well, at the dish he mostly has to regain his patience. LaRoche showed pretty good plate discipline with LA, drawing 54 walks to 68 Ks as a Dodger, but that ratio was 14:30 in Pittsburgh. Still, he is what he is - in the minors, he struck out 14% of the time; in the majors, 16%. Same with walks; he drew them 12% of the time at both levels.

But he has to resist the off speed, off plate, offerings, the bane of all young players, and that's a function of experience and not trying to pull the ball so much. Stepping into the bucket while behind in the count leads to a lot of whiffs and weak dribblers, and that's what happened to LaRoche during his 2008 Pittsburgh audition.

LaRoche isn't going to be a middle of the order guy. Everything in his past points to him being a six hole hitter with maybe a .265-.270, 15 HR and 65 RBI line being his expected contribution to the lineup. Pedro he ain't, at least by GW projections.

Ah, his glove. He looked unmotivated last year, couldn't come in on a ball to save his soul, had the range of Babar, and threw across his body instead of setting up way too often.

This is the area the scouting reports were most divided on; some thought he could play second in a pinch, others flinched at his mitt. It could very well be that his reaction time isn't the greatest, and second might be an easier spot for him to handle.

At any rate, of all the Buc infielders, this is the guy guru Perry Hill will most need to coach up, especially on his footwork. LaRoche is still a project, and he'll be the a prime demonstration of whether the touted Pirate teaching staff can spin some magic or not.

Neil Walker - Walker was the next big thing at third going into 2008, but a draft, a trade, and a down year at Indy have dimmed his star. After tearing up Altoona in 2007, the former 2004 first round draft pick from Pine-Richland settled back to earth with a very so-so year at Indy, though he still easily led the team with 80 RBI.

He's another hopeful that may be a victim of too-high expectations. Walker made the transition from catcher to third pretty well, is a switch-hitter with a little juice (in the 15 HR range), has a knack for driving in runs, fair wheels, and is only 23 years old. Neil's been around so long people forget that he's still sporting peach-fuzz.

His versatility makes him a valuable guy to have around - he may yet end up at first or the outfield - and he was just 22 during most of his first full season of AAA ball. Walker is probably not the third baseman of the future any more, but we suspect he's still a fair-sized piece of the Pirate puzzle heading into the future.

Pedro Alvarez - The savior. We hope all the drama was worth it at the end, but call us old school; we'd like to see him take a professional at bat before kissing his ring. Now that that's off our chest, he should be this year's Matt Weiter. Alvarez is already Pittsburgh's top prospect, and the only questions seem to be when he'll get to the show and whether he'll play first or third base.

Here They All Come - The Pirates are stacked with third base candidates in the lower levels of the system after drafting a small army of the critters in 2008. They all have the same scouting report: hit for a good average, not enough power for a corner position, and field a ground ball like it's a live hand grenade.

Matt Hague is the top of the crop, being rushed into service briefly at State College and then Hickory, where he hit for a nice average and showed a little pop (combined .322/6/32). He could move up a level this year, but he'll probably leave the hot corner for first or the OF. Hague was drafted in the 9th round from Oklahoma State.

Jeremy Farrell was Pittsburgh's 8th round selection from Virginia, and played at State College (.287/1/23). He struck out every four at bats and fielded terribly at third, though his time was split between the corners, and he showed much better leather at first.

Matthew Payne was a late round pick from NC State and spent the year at State College (.278/0/12). He played some outfield, and like Farrell, was a sub-.900 fielder at third base.

Bobby Spain was a mid-round selection from Oklahoma City U., an NAIA school, in 2007 and after a hot start (.312/5/43), missed most of Hickory's season with a broken wrist. He earned a spot on the Sally League All-Stars, and seems the most likely to hold on to his position somewhere behind Pedro. At least his glove work breaks the .900 mark - he had a .901 fielding percentage.

Expect a lot of shuffling in the organization regarding the hot corner. Where Alvarez plays and how quickly he advances will impact some careers, and the sheer number of infielders the Pirates drafted in 2008 will morph a couple of middle infield types to third with today's third basemen heading to first or the OF, a pair of spots that badly need shored up in the bushes.

The position is top heavy with prospects - a good thing - and allows the suits some time to decide on players' talents and their best positions at the lower levels.


WilliamJPellas said...

Among the "lesser lights", Spain sure looks like a ballplayer. I am anxious to see how he does this season.

Regarding Walker, I'm wondering if he wasn't permanently debilitated by that wrist injury and surgery he had a couple years ago. No one has said much about it publicly, but I suspect he hasn't been the same since. Do you have any reliable information about the extent and severity of Walker's wrist problems?

Ron Ieraci said...

Dunno about the wrist, Will - he tore a ligment, had some surgery, and it probably bothered him in 2006, but he had a pretty good 2007 at Altoona. I just think he had the rookie blues at Indy, plus he has a rep of wearing down towards the end of the year. That was understandable as a catcher; not so much at 3B.

Spain is interesting. He's got a stick that reminds me of Negrych, though he has yet to get into the upper levels of the system to see if he can sustain it. Still, he's probably #3 on the organizational depth chart at this point, behind Pedro and Walker.