By Wilbur Miller
Lynchburg, like the rest of the lower levels of the farm system, will be thin on prospects in 2008. The team shouldn’t be bad, but the upside is very limited. The only real, unqualified prospects on the team will be SS Brian Friday, LHP Dan Moskos, RHP Olivo Astacio, and arguably LHP Tony Watson. There will be some capable hitters, but very little power. The rotation won’t have much upside and the bullpen will be thin until Astacio returns from the disabled list.
Catcher: Catching duties should be split between Steve Lerud and Kris Watts. Time is running out on Lerud, a 2003 draftee who’s struggled with injuries and hasn’t developed as a hitter. He made great strides defensively in 2007 with Lynchburg, but his hitting fell off a cliff. Watts had a solid offensive season, for a catcher, with Hickory last year, but isn’t great defensively. Both are left-handed hitters, so a platoon won’t work. It’s possible they’ll alternate between catcher and DH. If any help is needed, the Pirates will probably call on an organizational catcher such as Chris Jones, Ronald Pena, or Ricky Diaz. Ideally, last year’s 5th round pick, Andrew Walker, will earn a promotion from Hickory, but he’s starting the season on the DL.
Infield: The featured player in the infield will be shortstop Brian Friday. The Pirates appear to view him as an improved version of Brian Bixler: a speedy player who can hit for average and play good defense. He’ll be skipping over Hickory. The rest of the infield will be moving up from Hickory. Firstbaseman Kent Sakamoto had a solid 2007 season, with decent production in most areas, but not as good as needed from a firstbaseman. Secondbaseman Jim Negrych is an all-offense player who put up only mediocre numbers last year. The fact that he was recovering from a hand injury conceivably could have played a role. Thirdbaseman Eddie Prasch is another prospect who’s running out of time, as his hitting has never developed adequately.
The infield backups will be Angel Gonzalez, Greg Picart, and Tony Mansolino. Gonzalez so far has been the starting shortstop everywhere he's gone, including Lynchburg last year, but he’ll get squeezed out by Friday. It’s possible he’ll share second with Negrych, although he’s a very impatient hitter with no power and little upside. Picart is an organizational middle infielder. Mansolino is an organizational player who played both infield corners and DH for Lynchburg last year and didn’t hit at all. Hopefully he’ll get far fewer at-bats than the 333 he got last year. One organizational infielder, former 6th rounder Cameron Blair, isn’t on any roster but may appear with Lynchburg later.
Outfield:The starting outfield, from left to right, should be Jared Keel, Alex Presley, and Albert Laboy. Keel was a late-round draft pick who started last year as a backup at Hickory but went on a power binge in June and July to win a regular job, although he slumped in August. Presley and Laboy are somewhat similar players who probably profile as tweeners. Both have good but not great speed and neither has the power for a corner. Laboy is a year and a half younger and has shown slightly better plate discipline, so he may have a higher ceiling. It’s possible that Jamie Romak could rejoin Lynchburg, where he spent most of last year, once he recovers from an injury. Hopefully, however, he’ll head to AA.
The outfield backup at the start of the season will be James Barksdale. He spent two years in the New York-Penn League, improving his average from .209 to .324, although he still has terrible plate discipline and no power. This is an example of a guy skipping a level showing that he’s an organizational player rather than a prospect. If any other outfielders are needed, the Hillcats will probably use Mansolino or Picart..
Rotation: The headliner in the Lynchburg rotation will be 2007 first-round pick Dan Moskos. The Bucs’ choice of Moskos created howls of outrage from their fans, as it was obviously based on money rather than talent. Nevertheless, Moskos is a promising prospect who’ll be making the transition from the bullpen to starter, as the team’s new management believes that pitching prospects should be groomed as starters and, if necessary, moved to the bullpen later. The most promising of the remaining starters is another southpaw, Tony Watson. He’ll be making the jump to high A after pitching only briefly at Hickory late last season. Watson is a changeup artist who will have to show his stuff will suffice at higher levels.
The remainder of the rotation figures to be right-handed. Two similar pitchers, Jared Hughes and Mike Crotta, should be in it. They both fit a pattern under the previous administration of preferring tall (Hughes is 6’7” and Crotta 6’6”), lean right-handed groundball pitchers with so-so stuff and low K rates. Not surprisingly, both had mediocre seasons at Hickory last year, the result of being too hittable. The fifth starter will probably be one of two chronically injured pitchers, Blair Johnson or Jeff Sues. Johnson’s career got off to a promising start but has been derailed by shoulder problems. Sues barely had any start at all, as he missed nearly two and a half seasons after he was drafted due to elbow problems that he was known to have when the Pirates drafted him. Both Johnson and Sues have, or at least had, very good stuff, so hopefully one or both of them will manage to stay healthy.
Two other right-handers with injury problems could make appearances with the Hillcats. Cuban defector Serguey Linares struggled with the Hillcats last year, walking more than he fanned. He’s not on the roster—he had known shoulder problems when the Pirates signed him—so he’s probably hurt. Jason Sharber was once a promising prospect but he retired after missing the 2005 season with shoulder problems. He’s rejoined the organization to give it another try and could return to Lynchburg, the last level at which he pitched, if he gets healthy. It’s also possible that Duke Welker, one of the team’s few real pitching prospects, could earn a mid-season promotion from Hickory. Finally, 2006 first-round pick Brad Lincoln should see Lynchburg at some point as he returns from Tommy John surgery.
Bullpen: The most notable relievers at Lynchburg will be Olivo Astacio, Charles Benoit, and Eric Krebs. Astacio, a member of the 40-man roster, is a hard thrower who’s had very high K rates but significant control problems. He’ll open the season on the DL with a sore shoulder, but should be the team’s closer if he gets healthy. The lefty Benoit was the best pitcher on an awful Hickory staff last year and also impressed the team in the Hawaii Winter League. Krebs was inconsistent last year with the Crawdads but has good stuff.
Two key returnees will be Kyle Pearson and Matt Swanson. Pearson was the closest thing Lynchburg’s weak pitching staff (See a common theme here?) had to an effective reliever in the second half of last season, even though opposing hitters batted .304 against him. Swanson looked promising early in his career but has struggled with his control the last two years. Two other returnees are Derek Antelo and Brian Holliday. Antelo had a respectable 2007 season at Lynchburg, rebounding from a dismal 2006 season. Holliday is a former prospect who’s hanging on despite persistent shoulder problems, poor control, and general ineffectiveness. It pays to be left-handed.
Also opening with the Hillcats will be Jake Cuffman. He has a good arm but has struggled throughout his career with injuries and poor control. Another righty, Jean Garavito, is not on any roster and so may be hurt. He’s a soft-tosser who served as a swing man for Lynchburg last year and got adequate results while eating innings for a beleaguered staff. Garavito, Cuffman, Antelo or Holliday could serve as a starter if the team had a need.