By Wilbur Miller
I thought Iíd do the minor league previews a little earlier this year. One reason is that the Pirates have more talent in the system than theyíve had for some time, so thereís some real competition for roster spots in spring training. The battles will mainly be among position players, especially in class A, because except for AAA the pitching in the system remains desperately thin. We'll see in a few weeks how accurate my projections are.
First up, Indianapolis.
Catcher: Robinzon Diaz/Jason Jaramillo, Erik Kratz, Hector Gimenez. Possible Promotion: Steve Lerud.
The regular will be Diaz or Jaramillo, depending on which one wins the backup catcher job in the majors. Neal Huntington has said that both will probably split time between the majors and AAA so neither goes stale sitting on the bench. The backup will probably be Kratz, who's had issues making contact but showed decent power in his years in the Toronto chain. Gimenez, formerly considered a legitimate prospect with the Astros, has struggled since having shoulder surgery. He could end up at AA. Lerud could move up from Altoona if he has a good year. Despite the depth at AAA, the fact that heís on the 40-man roster should be a consideration. Overall, this should be a solid position for the Indians.
1B: Jason Delaney, Garrett Jones, Andy Phillips, Ryan Mulhern, Adam Boeve, Larry Broadway.
2B: Shelby Ford.
3B: Neil Walker.
SS: Brian Bixler/Luis Cruz.
Utility: Ruben Gotay, Anderson Machado, Pedro Lopez. Possible Promotions: Brian Friday, Jim Negrych.
The Indiansí infield will be more interesting than usual because three positions will be manned by players who could end up in the majors. Two of them, Ford and Walker, could ultimately win starting jobs with the Pirates. Bixler and Cruz could both see time as utility infielders this year, although neither appears to be more than a very marginal prospect. Friday and Negrych, should either earn a promotion, are also decent prospects. Whether this is a good infield will depend on Walker recovering from a bad 2008 season and Ford adapting quickly to AAA, as well as staying healthy for a change.
The situation at first is obviously very crowded and it wonít be alleviated much by the DH, which NL AAA affiliates donít use in most of their games. Phillips can play 2B and 3B as well, and stands a reasonable chance of making the major league roster. If he doesnít, heís more likely to serve as a super-utility player in AAA. Any of these guys, except probably Broadway, could play a good deal in the outfield, where thereís little depth. Mulhern is coming off a poor season and could get released. Jones has the most power of the bunch and probably the highest ceiling. Heís also the only one other than Phillips who has a realistic chance of winning a major league job in spring training, although itís a very outside chance. Look for him to get more or less regular PT. One or more of these guys, especially Broadway, Boeve, Delaney and Mulhern, could see time in AA.
Gotay, Machado and Lopez all will serve as emergency depth. Of the three, Gotay has had some success in the majors and could be called up in the event of an injury to Freddy Sanchez. Machado and Lopez are decent-glove, no-hit shortstops and hopefully wonít be visiting PNC Park this year. Any of the three, especially Machado or Lopez, could spend part of the year at Altoona.
Outfield: Andrew McCutchen, Steve Pearce, Craig Monroe, Jeff Salazar. Possible Promotions: Jose Tabata, Jamie Romak, Brad Corley, James Boone, Jonel Pacheco.
Thereís a reasonable chance that Indianapolisí entire, season-opening outfield could play for the Pirates before the year is over. McCutchen is slated to be the centerfielder until the major league callup comes. Monroe is probably a near-lock to win a roster spot, unfortunately. That will leave Pearce and Salazar, both of whom are longshots to win major league jobs, to start in the corners. Depth will probably be provided by the legion of firstbasemen. This could be a potent outfield if McCutchen and Pearce step it up from last year.
The Pirates have said that, if McCutchen doesnít make the major league roster, Tabata will open in Altoona because they want him to play centerfield. That means Tabata will most likely move up to AAA when McCutchen is called up to the majors. As one of the systemís few power hitters, Romak could be promoted if he makes good progress on his problems making contact. Heíd probably have to play in the outfield rather than first, which is where heíll be at Altoona, due to all the firstbasemen in AAA. Boone or Corley could get promoted in the event of a miraculous breakout. Pacheco is only likely to be promoted if Indianapolis finds itself shorthanded in the outfield.
Rotation: Dan McCutchen, Jimmy Barthmaier, Jeff Karstens/Ross Ohlendorf/Tom Gorzelanny, Jason Davis, Ty Taubenheim/Jeremy Powell/Brian Slocum/Sean Smith/Virgil Vasquez. Others: Yoslan Herrera, Paul Mildren, Derek Hankins, Kyle Bloom (if returned by Detroit), Phil Dumatrait (rehab). Possible Promotion: Brad Lincoln.
The Indians should benefit from Neal Huntingtonís focus on pitching depth, as the competition for spots in the Piratesí rotation figures to spill over into the AAA rotation, leaving the AAA team with a slew of capable pitchers. Barthmaier and The Other McCutchen figure to headline the Indy rotation, as the Pirates will almost certainly want them to get more AAA experience before landing spots in the bigs. Although Davis is ostensibly part of the major league mix, heís not on the 40-man roster and figures to serve as AAA depth. Dumatrait, whoís out of options, will probably open the season on the DL to buy time, then join Indy for some rehab starts. Itís very unlikely the Pirates will drop Ian Snell or Zach Duke, so with Paul Maholm a lock, Karstens, Ohlendorf and Gorzelanny will probably be left to battle for two spots, with the loser starting in AAA. If Dumatrait is on rehab or Bloom fails to make the Tigersí roster, that will round out the rotation. Otherwise, Indy will probably go with one of a quintet of AAAA types in Taubenheim, Powell, Slocum, Smith and Vasquez. All five will be trying to jump start their careers following weak seasons in AAA, or Japan in Powellís case. Slocum may have the upper hand here, due to his association in Cleveland with Huntington. Of course, injuries will inevitably open up spots, but with this much depth Indyís rotation should be effective all year.
There will probably be other pitchers in camp competing for AAA spots who most likely will return to AA, which is where they spent most of last year. Herrera, Hankins and Mildren could be brought up from Altoona if a need arose, although itís hard to see how that could happen with so many pitchers available. Itís also possible that Brad Lincoln could earn a promotion. He has more upside than any other pitcher listed here.
Bullpen: Evan Meek, Chris Bootcheck, Jeff Sues, Jesse Chavez, Romulo Sanchez, Juan Mateo, Denny Bautista, Lincoln Holdzkom, Dave Davidson. Possible Promotions: Dan Haigwood, Corey Hamman.
Because the Pirates have several relievers who are out of options, there may really be only two jobs open on the major league team. In fact there might be only one or even none if Rule 5 pick Donnie Veal pitches will in March and/or the Pirates sign Will Ohman. Early in camp, Bootcheck appeared to have the inside track, but he could still end up in Indy. After him, Meek may have the best shot at a major league job. If he doesnít get it he could serve as the AAA closer. Chavez and Sanchez also have chances to make the Piratesí bullpen, but if they donít do well in camp their roster spots could be in jeopardy at the end of spring training when the Pirates need to add players, possibly including Bootcheck and Craig Monroe. Sues probably has the most upside of these relievers, but heíll start in AAA. Mateo is a former Cubsí prospect who struggled with injuries but bounced back well in 2008 in AA. Davidson has been mired in AA for over two years. He could be in danger of losing his roster spot or of returning to AA, but may be saved by his left-handedness. Holdzkom is coming off a poor season and could head for AA. Bautista continued his track record of failure at the major league level last year. Hopefully he wonít get another chance unless itís with some other team. He should be effective in AAA, though.
Any of the veteran starters could round out the bullpen, particularly Slocum, whoís served as a swing man previously. Davis has pitched mainly in relief in the majors. Finally, two lefties, Haigwood and Hamman, could move up from AA at any point during the season. The Indy bullpen has a lot of potential as it figures to have quite a few good arms.
This could be a very good Indianapolis team. The pitching should be good even after the inevitable injuries and callups hit. The offense should be decent at worst and could be very good if Walker, Ford, Pearce and Andrew McCutchen produce. The horde of firstbasemen guarantees the team will have a couple of solid bats in the middle of the order at all times.