By Wilbur Miller
There’s good news and bad news for the Hillcats this year. The bad news is that they’ll probably be hit hard by the miserable scouting done by Dave Littlefield and his band of bozos. The good news is that they’ll probably open the season with Pedro Alvarez on the roster, although hopefully he won’t be there long. The infield should be in good shape, and not just due to Alvarez, but the rest of the team could be a mess.
Catcher: Andrew Walker, Kris Watts. Organizational backups: Chris Jones, Milver Reyes, Ronald Pena.
Walker is the closest thing the Pirates have to a catching prospect, unless you count Steve Lerud. He’s coming off a bad season at low A, but what we don’t know is how much that resulted from a nagging ankle injury that ultimately cost him half the season. The Pirates could send him to West Virginia instead of Lynchburg. If they do, the regular will probably be Watts, who hit well, with some power, after taking over the regular job last year following Lerud’s promotion to AA. Watts is not, however, good defensively. Jones will most likely be the backup, but it could also be Pena, who took over for Walker when he was hurt last year. Reyes has primarily played at Altoona the last couple years but could serve as a backup if needed at Lynchburg. Either Walker or Watts at least has the potential to give the Hillcats decent or better offense behind the plate, although the defense would be uncertain.
1B: Tom Hagan
2B: Jose de los Santos
3B: Pedro Alvarez
SS: Jordy Mercer
Will play somewhere: Matt Hague
Utility: Bobby Spain, Matt Cavagnaro, Dan Bomback, Greg Picart. May not make the next level: Kent Sakamoto, Eddie Prasch. Possible Promotions: Chase D’Arnaud, Jeremy Farrell.
The Hillcats’ infield will present several interesting questions: (1) Who’s on first? (2) What’s Alvarez’ arrival date in AA? (3) I don’t know what they’ll do with Hague. Hagan is already 25 and doesn’t have much power, so he may not get the 1B job. Hague could play there instead, or Miles Durham, who’s also 25, could move in from the outfield. Hague also could move to right to take advantage of what John Perrotto reports is a strong arm, and of course the DH is available. Another possibility at first is Sakamoto, who had a fair season at Lynchburg last year and may not make the Altoona roster. Alvarez could start the season at West Virginia, but I’m guessing that’s just a threat the Pirates are holding over his head to keep him motivated. Once he moves on to AA, Hague will probably take over at third. I’m just guessing on De los Santos. He’s certain to be pushed aside by Mercer, but he’s a slick fielder and fast runner, so I think they’ll want to keep him in the lineup despite his weak bat.
Spain seems to have dropped off the radar screen despite a good first half last year that was cut short by a fractured wrist. He could head back to low A, but the infield is just as crowded there. He could serve as a super utility guy and DH for the Hillcats. Cavagnaro could see significant time at second, while Picart and Bomback are strictly organizational players. Prasch is another guy who may not make the Altoona roster. He was the Hillcats’ primary utility player last year and could return in that role, as he’d be much better than Cavagnaro, Picart or Bomback. Given the crowded infield situation at both class A affiliates, the Pirates will probably be happy to promote Alvarez, Mercer and Hague quickly, if they earn it, which would open room for anybody doing well at West Virginia, such as Farrell or D’Arnaud. The Lynchburg infield should be very interesting and could be quite productive.
Outfield: Austin McClune, Miles Durham, Erik Huber, Marcus Davis. Others: James Barksdale, Keanon Simon, Johan Silva, Mike Goetz, Maiko Loyola, Albert Laboy. May not make the next level: Jared Keel, Alex Presley.
Where to start . . . .
There are a slew of guys in here who are organizational players at best, so let’s begin with the ones who are slightly, and I do mean slightly, better than that. Durham tore up low A last year but struggled at high A after a mid-season promotion. At his age he’s not a prospect, but he at least offers the possibility of some power. If he’s on the team and not playing first, he’ll certainly start, probably in right. If Keel fails to make the Altoona roster, he’ll probably start in left because he also has good power and draws walks as well. McClune is a very toolsy player with a great arm who’s never hit. He could end up back in low A, since he didn’t hit there last year. Davis is the tooliest of all these guys, but he struggled at low A last year and missed the majority of the season with a knee injury. He also could start the year in West Virginia, which would be a setback at age 24. Erik Huber had a decent season last year in low A and should get promoted. He has modest power but he’s also 24. Whichever of these five guys are at Lynchburg should get a lot of playing time, assuming somebody like Hague or Spain doesn’t move to the outfield. Davis or McClune would be the centerfielder.
Of the other players, the most interesting are Silva, Loyola, Laboy, and Presley. Silva signed as a free agent after the Braves cut him loose. Loyola was drafted away from the Pirates three years ago in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft by the Rays and is now back as a free agent. He does a good job of getting on base and stealing bases. It would not be surprising to see him end up as the team’s best outfielder. Laboy looked like a marginal prospect a year ago but didn’t hit last year at either class A level. Presley was an eighth round draft pick who’s had an undistinguished career so far. He could make the AA roster or return to Lynchburg. Silva, Loyola and Laboy could play for either class A team, although I’d be surprised to see Loyola below high A.
The remaining players—Barksdale, Simon and Goetz—are strictly organizational backups. If they’re still with the organization, they’ll probably be assigned to one of the lower level teams. Given all the outfielders floating around—the result of so few players from Littlefield’s terrible drafts showing the talent to advance very far—it’s hard to see where there’s room for them.
The Lynchburg outfield may be in a state of flux all year, as one possible approach is to run through players until a couple start to hit, then stick with them. With this group, though, it’s possible nobody will step forward.
Rotation: Bryan Morris, Mike Crotta, Jared Hughes, pray for rain. Other Possibilities: Matt McSwain, Serguey Linares, Dustin Molleken, Christian Castorri. Possible Promotions: Duke Welker, Rafael de los Santos, Justin Wilson, Chi-Hung Cheng.
Unless the Pirates have some guys I don’t know about stashed away somewhere, I don’t see how Lynchburg is going to get through the year with these starters. I thought they’d promote Welker and De los Santos, even though they pitched poorly last year, but Kyle Stark has said they’ll open at West Virginia. The only low A starter to have a decent season last year was Brad Clapp and he’s going to miss the year with Tommy John surgery. Oddly, Lynchburg’s rotation was unusually stable last year, with Crotta, Hughes, Tony Watson, Dan Moskos and Brian Holliday all making between 20 and 28 starts despite the fact that Watson was the only one who pitched well. Watson and Moskos, however, will be in AA, along with Brad Lincoln, and Holliday is gone as a free agent. Crotta and Hughes will be candidates for the AA rotation, but I expect they’ll return to the Hillcats because Altoona has enough starters without them and Lynchburg doesn’t. The marquee starter, of course, will be Morris, but he’ll miss the start of the season following surgery on a toe.
After that, I don’t know what to expect. McSwain and Castorri were signed as organizational players, although the Pirates have been impressed enough with McSwain that he may rate better than that. Molleken struggled last year in the Lynchburg bullpen and the Hickory rotation, but may get a shot because he has a good arm. Linares is the “other Cuban defector.” He missed much of last year and struggled in relief at low A when he finally was able to pitch. His arm problems have been such that he may need to stay in the bullpen. They could give Cheng, a former Jays’ prospect, a shot, but he struggled last year in low A. Beyond that, they might move somebody out of the bullpen or they could promote somebody from West Virginia, ready or not. Eventually Justin Wilson might come through and earn a move up. The Hillcats’ rotation could get ugly.
Bullpen: Ronald Uviedo, Tom Boleska, Harrison Bishop, Charles Benoit, Jake Cuffman, Edwin Walker, Eddie Pena, Adam Simon. May not make it up from low A: Mike Felix. Possible Promotions: Brent Klinger, Alan Knotts, Allen Ponder.
The Lynchburg bullpen looks a little better than the rotation. The featured relievers should be Uviedo, Boleska and Bishop. All pitched well in low A last year and all could earn promotions to AA at any point. Uviedo made the 40-man roster and has one of the better arms in the system. Boleska has a history of high K rates and injuries, and will miss the start of the season due to an oblique strain. Like Boleska, Bishop fanned over a batter an inning last year.
Of the others, the lefty Benoit followed a strong 2007 season by falling apart in 2008, resulting in a demotion to low A where he was still terrible. He could be back at high A if he straightens out whatever was wrong. Walker and Pena were signed out of independent ball, where both had some success as closers. Signing indy ball players to fill out your class A rosters is a telltale sign of scouting failures in the recent past. I’m just guessing that they’ll head for Lynchburg, as it’s hard to tell what level an indy ball player is ready for. Simon and Cuffman both throw hard but had bad years last year, Cuffman for Lynchburg and Simon for both Lynchburg and Hickory. Simon doesn’t miss that many bats despite 94-mph velocity and Cuffman walked a batter an inning. The Pirates would no doubt be pleased to see Felix find the plate often enough in spring training to win a spot in high A, but he’s shown few signs of progress over the last two years.
Pitching problems last year weren’t limited to Lynchburg and Hickory. State College was even worst than either. As a result, there aren’t many obvious candidates to pitch well enough at West Virginia to earn promotions to Lynchburg. The principal one would be Klinger, who impressed the Pirates in a brief debut after signing over a month after the 2008 draft. Knotts and Ponder, a sidearmer drafted at age 24, both have good arms and could possibly make enough progress to move up from low A.
This Lynchburg team will be a testament to the disastrous maladministration that Neal Huntington replaced. The infield, thanks to Huntington’s 2008 draft, could be very good. The pitching, however, could be an even bigger disaster than it was last year. The team may often have trouble finding enough arms to get through nine innings every day, a problem that plagued Hickory last year. The outfield is a collection of players with some talent but little or no record of good performance. It could be a long year for the Hillcats.