The 2013 minor league season begins on Thursday. In the days leading up to the opener, I will be previewing the full season affiliates of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here is a look at the 2013 Bradenton Marauders, who will feature 2012 breakout prospects Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco on their Opening Day roster.
C – Jacob Stallings
1B – Jose Osuna
2B – Dan Gamache
SS – Alen Hanson
3B – Eric Avila
LF – Taylor Lewis
CF – Gregory Polanco
RF – Willy Garcia
DH – Carlos Mesa
Last year the West Virginia Power was the team to watch, mostly due to the talent on offense. That talent has taken a jump to Bradenton this year, making the Marauders one of the most interesting teams in the system.
The group is led by Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco. The two hitters were not only the biggest breakout prospects in the system last year, but some of the biggest breakout prospects in baseball. They were both consistently placed on top 100 lists this year, with both of them cracking a few top 50 lists. Polanco is a five tool center fielder. He’s got a ton of speed, mostly coming from his long legs which allow him to glide across the outfield, or from base to base. He’s got a strong arm, which will keep him in center. At the plate he has good plate patience, which is rare from guys coming out of the Dominican Republic. He also hits for average, and the big thing is his power. Polanco added some bulk last year, and his power exploded. He looks to have added some more, to the point where we could see even more power from him in the future.
The big question surrounding Alen Hanson is whether he can stick at shortstop.
Alen Hanson gets a lot of his value from being a plus hitter who can hit for power from the shortstop position. Hanson is one of the best pure hitters in the system, and can hit for power, as evident by his 16 homers and .219 ISO last year. The big question is whether he can stick at shortstop. His hitting is so good that he’ll be a valuable prospect, even if he has to move to second base. For now he’s got a shot at sticking at short, if only because the Pirates don’t have a lot of options to push him over to second. Hanson also has the tools to stick at short. His arm is good enough, and he’s got range. The glove could use some work, as that’s been the root of all the errors so far. That should be the focus for Hanson in the next year or two.
Jose Osuna and Willy Garcia didn’t have the big breakout seasons that Hanson and Polanco had, but both put up good power numbers. Osuna hit for a .280 average with 16 homers. Garcia hit 18 homers, but had a .240 average and a lot of strikeouts. Plate patience is going to be an issue for either guy. Osuna doesn’t strike out a lot, but doesn’t draw a lot of walks. Garcia’s strikeouts are too high, and his walks are low. But these are common issues with young guys coming out of the international leagues. Guys like Hanson and Polanco are rare. Both guys will need power as their main tool to make it to the majors, and they already have that. But they’ll also need improvements on their plate patience, and that’s not an easy improvement to make.
Speaking of power and plate patience, one guy to watch this year is Eric Avila. We were high on him for his power potential entering the 2011 season. The third baseman struggled in West Virginia, then didn’t get much playing time in the first half of the 2012 season. In the second half he exploded, hitting for a .291/.328/.564 line with 11 homers in 165 at-bats. That comes with the disclaimer that he was repeating the level, so we’ll have to see how he does at a higher level in 2013.
The rest of the guys in the lineup have upsides as bench players in the majors. Dan Gamache is a strong defender at second and third. He’s also a good hitter, but doesn’t hit for enough power to be a starter. Jacob Stallings is a good defender behind the plate, and great at working with pitching staffs. He’s tall and skinny, and doesn’t have the normal catcher’s body, which could hurt him in the upper levels. If he makes it to the majors, it would be as a backup catcher. Taylor Lewis is a speedy outfielder who got off to a hot start with West Virginia last year, only to cool after his first month. He doesn’t have the arm strength for center, so he’ll need to add some power to his game to have value in left.
Carlos Mesa is an interesting story. He signed out of Cuba for $490,000 as a 23-year-old. He was a pitcher, but the Pirates switched him to right field, where he displayed a plus arm. I didn’t see a lot that I liked out of Mesa in his first two years, and was surprised when I learned his bonus was so high. Then, during instructs last year, I noticed what I thought was a new international hitter. Turns out it was a slimmed down Carlos Mesa. He was looking more like a prospect, hitting the ball well and showing some speed. I don’t know if he’s going to make it, but I do know that I had him as a non-prospect his first two years, and now I’d at least give him a shot to eventually be something. He needs to do it quick, since he’ll be 25 this year.
Elias Diaz, Benji Gonzalez, Chris Lashmet, Dan Grovatt
Stallings will get more time behind the plate, but Elias Diaz will get his share of the catching duties. He’s got a plus arm, a good frame, and has some raw hitting skills, but hasn’t put things together yet. Benji Gonzalez is a strong defensive middle infielder who doesn’t do much at the plate. Chris Lashmet played a lot of third base this Spring, and could be an option to fill in for Avila. He’s built like a linebacker, but hasn’t used his size to hit for power yet. Dan Grovatt has a plus arm and is a good defensive outfielder. He’s also been a good hitter, but doesn’t hit for the power you’d want to see from a corner outfielder. He could get some time as the DH.
Nick Kingham, Robby Rowland, Adrian Sampson, Matt Benedict, Eliecer Navarro/Zack Von Rosenberg
Nick Kingham is a sleeper prospect in the Pirates’ system, although more people are taking notice. Kingham throws in the low-to-mid 90s, topping out at 96 now. He has a curveball and a changeup which can both be above average pitches when he’s got his command. The command of those pitches escaped him in parts of the first two seasons, mostly because he was focusing so much on the fastball. Kingham has great control, and put up some quietly dominant numbers last year, especially in the second half. He’s got the build and the stuff to be a 200 inning per year number three starter.
A year ago around this time, Robby Rowland had just joined the organization. He was acquired for 2011 Rule 5 pick Brett Lorin, who was kept by the Diamondbacks. Rowland was coming off two horrible years in rookie ball, and didn’t look like much of a prospect based on his numbers. He lowered his arm slot to three quarters and started throwing a sinker, and as a result he went from horrible rookie ball numbers to some strong numbers in full season A-ball. His sinker led to a 55% ground ball percentage, and should help him at McKechnie Field, where the Gulf Coast breezes can turn routine fly balls into home runs.
Seeing Adrian Sampson here is a bit of a surprise. He was drafted in the fifth round last year out of college, and pitched in the New York Penn League. It’s not a surprise in the sense that Sampson isn’t ready. He was a college pitcher who can get his fastball up to 94 MPH. He also throws a sharp curveball with good depth, leading to a lot of strikeouts. There’s a reason why we had him as our number 17 prospect this year. The surprise is that the Pirates went with this aggressive push for a fifth round pick. In the five years worth of drafts, the only starting pitchers the Pirates have sent straight to high-A in their first seasons have been Justin Wilson and Gerrit Cole. That says a lot about how the Pirates feel about Sampson.
Matt Benedict is another sinkerball pitcher, although he doesn’t have the control Rowland has, and doesn’t get as many strikeouts. Benedict made the jump to high-A last year, but struggled with an 8.08 ERA in 49 innings. Some of that was due to a poor defense behind him. He had better numbers in West Virginia, but was also a college pitcher playing in low-A.
Zack Von Rosenberg will make the jump to high-A this year after struggling for two seasons in low-A. He’s had a problem leaving the fastball up in the zone, and the solution seems to be switching to a two-seam fastball. Von Rosenberg throws the ball down in the zone, but was only in the 80-85 MPH range during Spring Training. He mentioned that he can throw the pitch at 86-87 MPH, but the jury is still out on how effective he will be with this new approach. He will be piggybacking starts with Eliecer Navarro, who is a lefty starter with a good curveball.
Zac Fuesser, Robbie Kilcrease, Quinton Miller, Joan Montero, Jhonathan Ramos, Zach Thornton
Quinton Miller was the first of many big bonus prep pitchers to sign with the Pirates. He used to throw in the mid-90s, but was throwing a two-seam fastball this Spring, working in the upper 80s. The hope when he was drafted was that he could be a mid-rotation starter or better in the majors, but it looks like his only path now will be as a reliever.
Zac Fuesser has posted good numbers the last few years working in the swingman role in West Virginia. The lefty has good off-speed stuff, and good location on his fastball. He should return to the same role in Bradenton, pitching 2-3 innings after the starter comes out.
Joan Montero is an interesting arm to follow. He throws 93-95 with good downward movement, although he’s dealt with control problems. The fastball is lively, and he pairs it with a slider that has led to a career 7.9 K/9 in the minors.