By Wilbur Miller
Most of the interest in the Piratesí farm system in 2008 will be focused on Indianapolis due to the presence of the teamís top three prospects, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Steve Pearce. Beyond those three, however, the team has little to offer on the offensive end, especially in the power department. The team will be loaded with speedy centerfielders and veteran infielders. With the Pirates experimenting heavily in the bullpen, the pitching staff may be shuttling players to and from the majors all year.
Catcher: Since they lack any catching prospects above the low minors, the Pirates have had to load up on minor league veterans. Michel Hernandez and Raul Chavez are long-time AAA vets. Hernandez has been a decent hitter for many years in AAA. Chavez canít hit at all, but has a cannon arm and has spent parts of nine seasons in the majors. Both played well in spring training and theyíre expected to split the catching duties, as well as serve as emergency callups in the event Ron Paulino or the oft-injured Ryan Doumit goes down. Carlos Maldonado will also open the season in AAA. Itís unclear how much heíll play, as he annoyed the team by showing up to camp out of shape for the second straight year and was an early cut. As always, organizational backstop Justin Elliott is available for emergency duty. Maybe he can add to his total of 28 at-bats in four years in the system.
Infield: Firstbase will be the site of a switch, with Pearce moving to rightfield and rightfielder Adam Boeve moving to first. Boeve has moved past the prospect stage, but has earned a shot at staying in AAA for a full year for the first time. With the new regime placing less emphasis on stacking minor league rosters with free agents to inflate the W/L records, he apparently will get it. If the team is determined to keep Pearce in the outfield, one of the numerous veteran infielders or catchers will probably serve as a backup. Hopefully, Jason Delaney will earn a promotion from AA at some point.
Thirdbase will belong to Walker. He had a strong couple of months in AA last year, but fell off badly the last two months. The Pirates will be looking to him to break out once and for all, and possibly earn a callup if Jose Bautista doesnít improve. The many veteran middle infielders will be available as backups.
The middle infield will be Brian Bixler and numerous veterans. Bixler is ostensibly a shortstop, but heís likely to see significant time at second to prepare him to serve as a utility player. That seems like his best chance in the majors, as neither his hitting nor his defense have been strong enough to carry him to a regular role in the majors. The other top priority when playing time is distributed should be Josh Wilson, who cleared waivers after being designated for assignment at the end of spring training. Wilson has some potential as a hitter but has struggled defensively.
Other veteran infielders on the scene are Matt Kata and Luis Ordaz. The Pirates re-acquired Kata, who played in the majors for them for part of last year, at the end of spring training. He seems to get a lot of points from managers for playing many positions. Ordaz re-signed after being one of the Indiansí best players in 2007, but surprisingly didnít even get a non-roster invitation. Heís a solid all-around player at the AAA level. Ideally, Shelby Ford will earn a promotion from AA.
Outfield: The outfield ultimately will be comprised of Pearce and a bunch of centerfielders. Pearce will be continuing to learn rightfield, since heís blocked at firstbase by Adam LaRoche and the Pirates will probably continue to try to trade Xavier Nady. Pearce will be looking to continue his torrid hitting of 2007 in an effort to force the Pirates to call him up. The other featured outfielder will be the systemís top-ranked prospect, McCutchen. He should be the primary centerfielder, although he may see time in left. Heíll be trying to avoid another slow start while trying, like Pearce and Walker, to earn a shot in the majors.
The Indians will also have Kevin Thompson, who lost out to Nyjer Morgan in a bid to make the major league roster. He could still get called up if Morgan struggles, or if the team decides its bench leans too heavily to the left. Chris Duffy will start the season on the disabled list, but heíll claim a starting job once he recovers from shoulder surgery. Itís unclear what the Pirates will do with Duffy once heís healthy, especially if Nate McLouth is productive as the teamís centerfielder. Also on the opening roster is Jorge Cortes. He returns to his original organization after a two-year absence. Other outfielders who may be available are former Texas prospect Anthony Webster and Piratesí organizational outfielder Vic Buttler, both of whom have also played a lot in center. Webster is opening as a backup in Altoona, which is a step down for a player who was considered a good prospect a couple years ago. Buttler is not on any roster, so he could have been cut or he could still be in extended spring training.
Two prospects, James Boone and Brad Corley, need to earn promotions from Altoona during the season. Theyíre both old to be in AA.
Rotation: The Indiansí rotation will include two former first-round draft picks who are still trying to return from labrum surgery, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington. Both had seemingly successful seasons in AAA last year, but with low K rates that show they werenít really dominating the hitters. Bullington is probably the more likely of the two to get called up, as Van Benschoten continues to struggle with control problems. Another one-time prospect, soft-tossing Ty Taubenheim, also could be in line for a callup if he bounces back from a bad 2007 campaign. Luis Munoz will claim a rotation spot after a breakout season in 2007, but he profiles more as a middle reliever at the major league level. The final starter will be Jason Davis, whom the team signed just before the season started. Davis has had some limited success in the majors, but collapsed in 2007 and will need to bounce back.
Other starters who could appear at some point during the season are Adam Bernero and Mike Thompson. Bernero reached the majors in his second pro season, but that was back in 2000 and heís mostly struggled ever since. Heís coming back from Tommy John surgery after missing 2007. Once heís healthy, he could head to AA before he gets a shot at AAA. Thompson is coming off a very bad 2007 season in AAA. That season followed a good three-year stretch that included two major league stints. Thompson is on the Indy roster and will start in the bullpen. The Pirates no doubt will be hoping that disappointing Cuban signee Yoslan Herrera and former Astros prospect Jimmy Barthmaier will earn mid-season promotions.
Bullpen: New GM Neal Huntington went to a lot of effort to stockpile bullpen arms, with the obvious intention of throwing lot of pitchers at the wall and seeing who sticks. As a result, thereís likely to be a shuttle running between Indianapolis and PNC Park. The reliever most likely to get an early ticket on it is probably former top prospect Sean Burnett. After being converted from starter to short reliever, Burnett had probably the best spring of any Pirate pitcher, but got squeezed out by a surplus of lefties and Rule 5 pick Evan Meek. Heíll try to show the team that heís ready the first time a need arises.
Other pitchers who could be in line for callups include T.J. Beam and Romulo Sanchez. Beam dominated in the minors for the Yankees but never could stick in the majors. His performance slipped a bit in 2007. The hard-throwing Sanchez made huge strides in 2007 and held his own in the majors, but still has relatively little experience.
Among other relievers who will open in the Indy bullpen, Jonah Bayliss will try to recover from a disastrous 2007 season and the loss of his roster spot. Jesse Chavez is a hard thrower whose 2007 performance in AAA was uninspiring enough that he wasnít claimed in the Rule 5 draft. Marino Salas edged onto the prospect charts despite taking until age 27 to reach AAA and not doing especially well there. Any or all of these pitchers could end up in AA, as the team obviously has more relievers than it can find places for in AAA.
A few other relievers could eventually make appearances. Dave Davidson and Chris Hernandez were both initially listed on the Indy roster, but both will start the season at Altoona, most likely due to a roster crunch. Davidson is a lefty curveball pitcher who profiles as a LOOGY in the majors and who made the 40-man roster last year. Hernandez has been in the organization for five years and pitched well, but will now be embarking on his third stint in AA. Mike Burns has had an up and down career in the minors, but has pitched in the majors for parts of two seasons. Heís not on any opening roster, so he may still be in extended spring training. Lefty Corey Hamman is starting the season in the Altoona bullpen, but heís spent most of the last two seasons in AAA and so could be called up if needed. Finally, itís possible that prospects like Pat Bresnehan, Ronald Belisario, Kevin Roberts, and Olivo Astacio could pitch their way to AAA.