By Wilbur Miller
The Piratesí new low class A affiliate, West Virginia, figures to have mostly the same strengths and weaknesses as Lynchburg in 2009. The infield will boast some promising players as well as some depth, but the outfield will be full of question marks and the pitching could be a serious problem.
Catcher: Andrew Walker/Ronald Pena. Other Possibilities: Mark Carver, Josue Peley, Miguel Mendez, Aeden McQueary.
What happens here will depend mainly on whether Walker gets promoted to Lynchburg. He had a poor 2008 season at Hickory, in which he was hampered and ultimately shelved by an ankle injury. If he doesnít move up, heíll start. If he does, Pena may be the starter if he doesnít also move up. He opened 2008 as Walkerís backup and took over most of the job when Walker went out for the year. Heís more of an organizational player while Walker is a marginal prospect.
Beyond Walker and Pena, the possibilities are limited to several players who struggled last year at State College, plus the British-born McQueary, who was signed to back up in low A last year when Walker went out. Mendez may be the most interesting, as he got off to a fast start in the GCL in 2008, hitting for very good power. After a promotion to State College, though, he stopped hitting. Carver supposedly has a decent bat, although he didnít hit last year. Defense is not his strong point and he backed up at first as much as he caught in 2008. Heíll be a backup again if heís at West Virginia. The Pirates like Peleyís defense, but he struggled even more than the others with the bat last year. If neither Walker nor Pena returns, Peley will be the most likely starter. This does not figure to be a good position for the Power unless Walker comes back and does well.
1B: Calvin Anderson/Justin Byler
2B: Jarek Cunningham
3B: Jeremy Farrell
SS: Chase DíArnaud
Utility: Matt Payne, Caleb Fields, Andy Vasquez, Silvio Pena, Chad Rice, Victor Alvarez. Possible Promotions: Benji Gonzalez, Adenson Chourio, Chad Rice.
With the exception of firstbase, Kyle Stark has already spelled out the West Virginia infield. Cunningham, who may be the most promising prospect on the team, will move over to make room for DíArnaud. Cunninghamís knee injury a year ago may be another reason for the move. There could still be a lot of position shuffling: DíArnaud was originally a thirdbaseman, Cunningham is a shortstop who played half the time at third in the GCL last year, and Farrell has played a lot of firstbase. Speaking of which, the Power will have to choose between Anderson, a very big, very raw hitter with a lot of power potential, and Byler, who would have played the position in low A last year had he not missed the season with a broken arm. The two could share first and DH.
Of the possible utility players, Payne, Pena and Vasquez are the most interesting. Payne was converted from the mound late in his college career and had a decent debut with State College. Heís best suited for the infield corners. Vasquez came up from the Dominican last year and skipped over the GCL. He didnít hit well overall, but thatís not surprising considering the skipped level and he did show some power while playing mainly in the middle infield. Pena also skipped rookie ball last year and hit fairly well for State College in limited time. For some reason I canít fathom, Rice was the primary secondbaseman in the GCL in 2007 and at State College last year. He was overmatched at the plate both times, despite being overage at both levels. He should graduate to organizational backup this year. Alvarez and Fields are strictly organizational players who havenít played, or hit, much. They may not be around much longer.
Depending on the teamís 2009 draft, Gonzalez and Chourio could be the middle infield at State College this year. Gonzalez is speedy and a good fielder, but has a questionable bat. Chourio had a big year as the leadoff hitter in the GCL, getting on base and stealing a lot, but he has no power at all and is a bit overage. The Pirates probably wonít want them sitting on the bench at West Virginia, but either could move up due to injuries or promotions. The infield will definitely be where most of the interest lies for the Power in 2009.
Update: Unfortunately, Cunningham will miss the season due to knee surgery. The Pirates will probably go with Vasquez or Pena at second instead.
Outfield: Robbie Grossman, David Rubinstein, Marcus Davis, Quincy Latimore. Others: Butch Biela, Ciro Rosero, Kyle Morgan, Joe Munoz. Possible Promotion: Edwin Roman.
The most interesting possibility among these players is Grossman, whoíll get the chance to win a spot in spring training even though heís had only a few pro at-bats since signing out of high school. Even if he doesnít open with the Power, he could stay in extended spring training and join the team later, which is what Nate McLouth did. Otherwise Grossman figures to open with State College. Davis could return to low A, where he struggled last year before a knee injury ended his season, or he could move up to high A. Rubinstein came on strongly in August after struggling badly in his debut last year. Outside of Grossman, he may have the best chance of providing the Power with some offense from the outfield. Latimore was well regarded when drafted but has struggled with his strike zone judgment. Any of these four could play center, but if Grossman is around itíll likely be him.
Of the others, Biela has a decent line drive bat and good plate discipline, but he hasnít shown any power, didnít hit well last year, and is limited to a corner. Rosero runs well and has a strong arm. He can play center, but he hasnít hit enough and could return to State College. Like Rubinstein, Morgan struggled in his debut last year initially but had a strong August. Munoz split last year between the GCL and State College. He hit .300 in the GCL but struggled in the New York-Penn League and may go back there. Roman is very fast and supposedly very good defensively. He held his own in rookie ball last year and could make a late season appearance in full season ball if he does well at State College.
Like Lynchburg, the Power may need to spend some time sorting through their outfielders, although a lot depends on where Grossman and Davis open the season. Aside from them, the best bets are probably Rubinstein, Morgan, and one out of Latimore, Biela and Rosero. If a couple players step forward the West Virginia outfield could be respectable at least.
Rotation: Justin Wilson, Duke Welker, Rafael de los Santos, Zach Oliver, Rudy Owens. Other Possibilities: Jose Diaz, Nelson Pereira, Chi-Hung Cheng, Kyle McPherson, Brian Leach, Tyler Cox, Emilis Guerrero, Ramon Aguero, Wilson Ortiz, Maurice Bankston, Rodolfo Aguirre.
Based on comments from Stark, the most likely rotation for West Virginia appears to be the five guys listed first above. Wilson is obviously the most interesting, as he has yet to debut with the Bucs after being the hero of the 2009 College World Series. If the Pirates get lucky, heíll earn a quick promotion to Lynchburg, where the rotation situation appears desperate in the extreme. Oliver was well regarded when drafted two years ago, but heís been able to make only four pro starts, so heís an unknown quantity. Owens, like Oliver a lefty, spent last year in the State College rotation and wasn't as bad as most of the teamís starters, although he didnít pitch well, either. Welker was an Ed Creech second round draft pick, which is a pretty hard cross to bear in itself. He was supposed to be a power pitcher but, like so many of the teamís pitching prospects under Dave Littlefield, mysteriously turned into an extremely hittable, soft-tossing finesse pitcher last year. De los Santos, on the other hand, has a good arm but was undone by control problems. Stark has said both will return to low A.
There will undoubtedly be numerous pitchers who start games for West Virginia in 2009. The new managementís practice last year was to rotate pitchers frequently between extended spring training and the low A staff. An approach like that makes sense when you have few if any clear-cut prospects. Of course, there will also be injuries. One injury last year was Diaz, who looked like a potential prospect the previous year and allowed no earned runs or walks in his first two 2008 starts, only to miss the rest of the year with an unknown injury. I donít know whether heíll be back. Pereira had an outstanding season in the GCL in 2008 and could make an appearance at some point, or could simply spend the season at State College. Cox also pitched very well in the GCL and caught the teamís attention, but as a college draftee he was overage. Like Pereira heís also a lefty, which wonít hurt, so he could make the jump to full season ball. Cheng, a lefty from Taiwan, was considered a prospect with Toronto despite significant control problems, but labrum surgery derailed him and the Pirates picked him up as a free agent. Aguirre was signed out of Mexico and got pummeled in a low A stint before making a few decent starts for State College. McPherson, Leach, Guerrero, Aguero, Ortiz and Bankston were all key participants in the disaster that was the State College pitching last year. McPherson, Leach and, to a lesser degree, Ortiz actually pitched respectably, although none looks like a prospect. Guerrero, Aguero and Bankston were all unspeakably bad, but I suppose they could improve enough to get some opportunities at West Virginia.
Although the only one who can legitimately be called a prospect is Justin Wilson, the Hickory rotation does have some pitchers with good enough arms, most notably De los Santos, Owens and maybe Oliver. The new management has mostly gotten its development team in place now, so itís possible they can help some of these pitchers step it up. If so, West Virginia could have a respectable or better rotation. If not, it could have the same level of disaster that State College had last year.
Bullpen: Brent Klinger, Allen Ponder, Alan Knotts, Mike Williams, Yoffri Martinez, Jorge Charry, Carlos Amaro, Victor Igsema, Matt Foust.
There are literally about two to three dozen pitchers who could pitch in relief for West Virginia in 2009. Some of the potential starters undoubtedly will do so. Of the remainder, the most promising is Klinger, whoís impressed the Pirates although he hasnít pitched much yet. Almost nobody at State College pitched even respectably out of the bullpen last year, so the Pirates will probably just be sorting through pitchers hoping a few step forward. Ponder, Knotts and Williams may have the best chance. All three pitched well at times with the Spikes, although not very well overall. Knotts fanned well over a batter an inning and walked very few. Ponder was a firstbaseman and closer at an NAIA school. Heís a 6í6Ē right-hander who throws sidearm and had a very high K rate in college. He fanned just under a batter an inning with State College and also didnít walk many, but like Knotts he gave up a lot of hits. Heís also 25 now, despite being drafted just last year. Williams, a tall lefty, also struck out over one per inning and also gave up a lot of hits, but he had a little trouble with his control, too.
Of the many pitchers who could appear with the Power, I listed the ones Iím fairly confident will do so at some point. Martinez was the State College closer last year, which was like being the Maytag repair man. He throws hard but has control problems. With no other obvious candidate, he could serve as the West Virginia closer in 2009. Charry and Amaro both flopped in low A last year and got sent to State College, where they fared somewhat better. Igsema is a converted outfielder with a strong arm. He pitched borderline respectably in a brief trial with Hickory last year, but not nearly well enough to show heís ready for Lynchburg. Foust was the sixth round pick in Creechís last draft two years ago. He hasnít been able to throw strikes so far as a pro.
The Powerís infield should be strong, especially if either or both of the firstbasemen provide some power. If a couple of the outfielders do well, they could have a strong offense. The rotation, however, could be very bad and the bullpen probably will be, as there are few available pitchers whoíve had even middling success as pros.