Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pirates: Middle Infield

Ah, if there was one spot the Littlefield gang left stocked for the new FO, it was the middle of the diamond. Jack Wilson was manning shortstop while Freddy Sanchez took over second in 2007 at the big league level; both had been All-Stars.

The upper minors were solid, too, even when shortstop Brent Lillibridge (4th round 2005 draft) was sent to the Braves in 2007 for Adam LaRoche. SS Brian Bixler (2nd round 2004 draft) and 2B Shelby Ford (3rd round 2006 draft) were just a short step away from the show.

Funny thing about projections, hey? Wilson and Sanchez were injury prone and didn't fit into the new bosses' makeover. They were dealt away in 2009. Bixler turned out to be a AAAA guy now with the Nats, and Ford is a utility man at the mid-level of the farm system, both having long lost the patina of a prospect. It's back to the drawing board.

The baseball gods did smile a bit on the Buccos last season. After the 2009 Delwyn Young project fizzled, the Pirates went out and got overpaid and overfed Aki Iwamura to play second base. He was demoted after 40 games and replaced by Bobby Crosby, who in turn was spelled by 25 year old jack-of-all-trades Neil Walker.

The Pittsburgh Kid grabbed the bull by the horns and made several All-Rookie teams at the position, even though he was considered nothing more than a utility player when he was called up; so much for the FO's player evaluation skills, hey? Walker put together a line of .296/12/66, quite solid for a middle infielder who didn't get the call until late May.

He did as well as could be expected in the field, acrobatic on balls in the air, klutzy on balls on the ground and still working on his footwork and pivot techniques. His UZR/150 of -17.1 quantifies how much work is ahead of him.

But the Pirates have resisted several calls to move him to third, where he was a minor league All-Defensive pick, and Pedro Alvarez to first. If they're going to take Anthony Rendon in the draft this year, it does make long-term sense and tells us that they see Walker as a full-time fit at second.

Ronny Cedeno's footing at short isn't nearly as solid as Walker's is at second. A pet project of JR, Cedeno, 27, played throughout September while Argenis Diaz, 23, and Pedro Ciriaco, 25, collected splinters, all the while booting balls at frightening pace. His UZR/150 was -4.1. He did show an occasional burst with the bat, but his 2010 line was .256/8/42, not especially stellar but acceptable if he lives up to his fielding potential.

The Bucs FO realize that SS needed an upgrade, but couldn't or wouldn't pull the trigger on deals for JJ Hardy or Jason Bartlett. So at the PNC level, it looks like Cedeno-Walker will man the middle for the big club virtually by default, and there will be a spirited competition for the bench spot.

Why JR didn't get Diaz or Ciriaco any innings in 2010 is a mystery. In Diaz's case, well, he's gone now, so we suppose that answers that question.

The former D-back farmhand Ciriaco has some tools in his kit, mainly in the speed and leather departments, and will be back. He's on the 40-man roster, protected from the Rule 5 draft, and has one option remaining. His biggest concern is patience at the dish; his OBP's in the minors barely crack .300 (.302 lifetime, to be exact).

But this Pedro will be in a battle. The Bucs brought in Rule 5 pick Josh Rodriguez from Cleveland and Corey Wimberly from Oakland to challenge.

Rodriguez, 26, has played several positions and was a highly rated Indian prospect that the Bucs took as the #1 Rule 5 pick. He has the minor league resume, but has played sparingly at the AAA level and has had a history of nagging injuries. But his bat and eye should play in MLB (.356 OBP); some think that he's got the ability to be an everyday 2B in the show and an adequate back-up SS.

Wimberly, 27, is the epitome of a utility guy. He played 89 games in the OF, 31 at SS, 17 at the hot corner, and eleven at his original position, second base, last year. He's a burner with a career .376 OBP. He's intriguing because although he offers no pop whatsoever at the dish, he can fly and play everywhere. His career has likewise been sidetracked by injuries.

It should be a fierce competition; Ciriaco is the best glove, J-Rod has MLB potential as a starter (and has to be returned to Cleveland if he doesn't make the roster) and Wimberly offers great bench flexibility for Clint Hurdle. Ciriaco has the added onus of having an option left, which isn't particularly helpful in his MLB quest.

The organization has several solid, but not spectacular, prospects in the pipeline; the Bixler-Ford-Lillibridge misses created a minor league gap that's just now beginning to fill.

Brian Friday, 24, stepped into the breach at Indy, but the oft-injured infielder was left off of the 40 man roster and was available for Rule 5. He also projects as a utility guy, not very toolsy but a hard-nosed overachiever type of player.

Jim Negrych, 25, keeps on hitting and may earn a bench spot someday; they play him at 2B, 3B, and even left, a gritty minor league version of Delwyn Young. He also slid through Rule 5 for the second year.

Jordy Mercer, 24, and Chase d'Arnaud, 23, have been joined at the hip since they were selected 3-4 in the 2008 draft. They've advanced through the ranks, and have a pair of minor league championships under their belts. And this year, they should be starting at Indy.

d'Arnaud, despite a bad year with the bat at Altoona (.246/6/48), is still the numero uno internally to replace Cedeno long-term. Mercer played every infield position for the Curve, primarily at second and third, with a line of.282/3/65. It appears they're grooming him for a utility role. Last season was far and away his best with the stick; his OBP in the minors is just .317.

Josh Harrison, 23, acquired from the Cubs, hit .300 for the Curve. His problem is that he plays primarily third, and his bat just doesn't cut it there power-wise. But he's also seen considerable time at second, which was quite the juggling act for manager Matt Walbeck, considering d'Arnaud and Mercer needed innings too. He also projects as a utility-type player unless he can improve his glovework at second base.

If you're counting, that's a lot of guys looking for innings at Indy, especially when you add the Ciriaco-Rodriguez-Wimberly runner-up(s) to the fold. So it's possible that a couple of players will go via deal or release, or a couple may start at AA. Hey, better to have too many guys on hand than too few; it's the kind of problem the Pirates should have more often. And there are players coming up behind them.

At High Class A Bradenton, SS Brock Holt, 22, a ninth round draft pick from Rice in 2009, was slapping the cover off the ball (.351 BA) until a knee injury in late June cost him the season.

Class A West Virginia have a pair of up-and-coming guys in the middle, Jarek Cunningham and Benji Gonzalez, both 20. 2B Cunningham is a high school overdraft coming off knee surgery; he has some pop but still strikes out too much. Gonzalez is a golden glove man who needs to improve his hitting.

At short-season State College, SS Drew Maggi, 21, a fifteenth round draft pick out of Arizona State, had a rude introduction to pro ball, hitting just .156 and committing eight errors, but how he adapts next season will be a better indicator of his potential. He profiles as a good glove, high energy speed guy.

Kelson Brown, 23, a late draft pick from Linfield State, played third and middle infield. He's got a good arm, good range, and a decent bat, and projects, like many Bucco system infielders, as a utility-type guy in the organization.

So the Bucs are OK at middle infield at the farm level, even if a season or more away from any organizational players making an impact. The guys at the show? Well, Walker and Cedeno are not a very steady pair with the glove, but both have the potential to take it up a step. Cedeno has great upside if he can focus, and Walker is hoped to become the equivalent of Sanchez in the field over time.

Walker will get some time to show if he can adjust to second; we think a new coaching staff will look hard at the talented but inconsistent Cedeno. He dodged the bullet so far this off season, but if he doesn't show more consistency, his days of starting won't last into 2012.

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