By Wilbur Miller
Hickory is not likely to have a good team in 2008. The offense could be very weak. They figure to get very little hitting from the infield. Two of the Crawdads’ outfielders—Austin McClune and Marcus Davis— have a lot of potential, but both are very raw yet and may not develop. The rotation will have a few pitchers with some upside, but they’re far from sure things. Finally, the bullpen just doesn’t look very good.
Catcher: The regular catcher, and probably the best prospect at Hickory, should be Andrew Walker. He hit .317 in his debut last year at State College and has power potential. Unfortunately, he’ll start the season on the disabled list with what the Pirates ominously call a "minor ankle injury." In his stead, the catchers will be organizational backstops Chris Jones and Ronald Pena. Jones is a good defensive catcher who can’t hit. He missed all of 2007 with an injury. Pena has played only sparingly in his four years in the system, including the three years he spent in the Dominican Summer League. If another catcher is needed, it’ll probably be another organizational player, Ricky Diaz. He had only ten at-bats last year and so doesn’t figure to play much except in dire need.
Infield: The Crawdad infield is likely to be pretty anemic. The only hitter who’s shown any power is thirdbaseman Bobby Spain. He’s a late-round draft pick hit for a lot of power against weak competition in college, then had a mediocre pro debut with the bat last year, accompanied by significant defensive problems. The firstbaseman should be Justin Byler, who showed good power last year with State College, albeit with poor plate discipline. He’s not on the roster, however, so it seems very likely that he’s hurt. The position instead will probably be manned by Tom Hagan. He’s an example of the team’s recent pattern of stocking the lower levels with low-ceiling college seniors who invariably end up being old for the levels they play at. Hagan spent 2006-07 in the Gulf Coast League despite turning 24 just after last season ended. To compound the baffling draft strategy, Hagan is a corner player who hit for almost no power in college. If any depth is needed at firstbase, the team might try Spain there, or possibly outfielder Erik Huber, who played first in college.
The starting middle infielders will probably be Matt Cavagnaro and Jose de los Santos. Cavagnaro is yet another low-ceiling college draftee who figured from the start to be an organizational player, although he had a respectable debut last year. De los Santos is a speedy, slick-fielding shortstop who’s shown little hitting ability. He’ll open the season at age 23, so he needs to start catching on at the plate. The backups will be Victor Alvarez and Daniel Bomback. Both are college signees who spent last season as overage players in the GCL, not doing a lot other than drawing walks. If other infielders are needed, the Pirates could call on two more overage college players from rookie ball, Chad Rice and Caleb Fields. Neither did much even in the GCL beyond drawing some walks.
Outfield: The regular Hickory outfield should be comprised of Marcus Davis, Austin McClune, and Keanon Simon. Davis and McClune are the most promising position players on the team, but both are extremely raw. McClune profiles as a centerfielder and leadoff hitter, and has good speed and a strong arm, but he’s done little in two years beyond hitting some singles. He and Davis both struggle with breaking balls. Davis is even more toolsy, with good power and speed, and a strong enough arm that he served as a closer in college. He played against inferior competition there, however, and got little coaching. At age 23 already, he needs to catch on quickly. Simon was a late-round pick who figured to be an organizational player, but he hit .335 at State College, albeit with limited power. Simon was the primary centerfielder there, with McClune mostly playing right, but logically it should be the other way around.
The outfield backups will be Huber and Miles Durham. They’re both—surprise!—low-ceiling college draftees who struggled at State College, Durham for two years. Huber is 23 and Durham 25, so they offer little projection. One or the other could serve as DH. If there’s a need, the team could call Quincy Lattimore or Andrew Biela up from extended spring training. They’re both high school draftees from 2007 who showed some ability to hit the ball. Another possibility might be Ciro Rocero, a Panamian who had a good year in the GCL last year and spent a little time filling in at Lynchburg.
Rotation: The Crawdads’ rotation could be very shaky. The team’s top pitching prospect will be Duke Welker. He has a significant injury history to go with good stuff, and had to be shut down late last year, but the Pirates think very highly of him. The other most notable starters will be Rafael de los Santos, Brad Clapp, and Jose Diaz. De los Santos is a Dominican product with a good arm who’s struggled with his control. He pitched briefly at Hickory last year and walked nearly a batter an inning. Clapp was a highly regarded draft-and-follow who’ll be returning after a poor 2007 season at Hickory. He’s struggled with his control and with nagging injuries. In fact, he’ll open the season on the disabled list. Diaz got a surprising promotion from the GCL to Lynchburg last year and pitched well at times, but mostly struggled. The promotion probably had more to do with a shortage of pitchers than merit, but Diaz will try to show he’s for real.
Among the other pitchers who could take turns in the rotation are Carlos Amaro, Moises Robles, Matt Foust, and Dionis Rodriguez. Amaro signed with the Pirates last year after spending five years, two of them injured, with the Marlins. He pitched decently in the GCL but will make the jump to Hickory. Rodriguez pitched well in the GCL in 2006, but last year he had unimpressive numbers at State College and got bombed in four starts at Hickory. Robles was a minor league Rule 5 pickup from the Mets. He showed very good control at State College last year, but gave up a lot of hits and fanned very few hitters. He’s also already 24. Foust is a 2007 draftee who struggled last year at State College with control problems. Most or all of these pitchers are likely to spend time in the bullpen. None looks like a prospect.
It’s possible, in fact likely, that some pitchers will move up from extended spring training due to injuries or poor performance, or impressive showings in camp. The best candidate might be lefty Zach Oliver, a promising JC pitcher who was drafted last year. He wasn’t able to pitch after the draft due to injury, however. There may also be pitchers returning from injuries who could start off at Hickory. The most significant by far would be 2006 first round pick Brad Lincoln. He’s returning from Tommy John surgery and could head to either Hickory or Lynchburg when he’s ready to go. Jason Sharber, formerly a highly regarded prospect, is trying to resurrect his career after a three year absence that resulted from shoulder problems. He also could start off with either class A team if he’s healthy enough. Finally, somebody could move down from Lynchburg, particularly any of several pitchers who have had arm problems: Serguey Linares, Blair Johnson, and Jeff Sues.
Bullpen: The Hickory bullpen doesn’t look imposing. The only two interesting relievers, for very different reasons, are Ronald Uviedo and Mike Felix. Uviedo has very good stuff and pitched well as the State College closer last year. Felix, the only lefty on the opening roster, was a second round pick in 2006 but fell completely apart last year due to control problems. He opened the season in the Crawdads’ rotation, but earned a quick demotion to the bullpen and then to State College. He has good stuff and is hard to hit, so he could still be successful if he can get more pitches over the plate.
The remaining relievers opening the season with Hickory will be Dustin Molleken, Harrison Bishop, and Matt McSwain. Molleken was drafted way back in 2003, but in five years has been healthy enough to average barely over 21 innings a year. He’s pitched fairly well at times and not at others. Bishop is a 2007 draftee who, like many of the pitchers the Pirates have drafted in recent years, had arm problems in college. He pitched well for State College after signing, averaging over a strikeout per inning. McSwain was signed as a free agent, but even he had Tommy John surgery in college. He’s an organizational pitcher who’ll eat some innings where needed.
A number of pitchers who’ve seen time in short season ball, or in some cases at higher levels, could be in line for callups as more arms are needed. These include righties Brandon Williams, Christian Castorri, Jorge Charry, Yoffri Martinez, Gary Amato, and Brian “Son of Jim” Tracy, and lefties Alexis Sosa and Daniel Forrer. The most interesting possibilities, though, are righties Tom Boleska and Adam Simon. Boleska is a college closer drafted in 2007 who signed too late to pitch much. Between college and the pros he fanned 65 in 45.2 IP in 2007, but he also has a history of . . . you guess it . . . arm problems. Simon pitched well for State College last year, fanning 45 in 29 IP, but he isn’t on the Hickory roster.