The Pirates minor leagues have seen a tremendous overhaul under Neal Huntington with Jameson Taillon leading the way.
With the recent release of the MLB.com top 100 prospects list by Jonathan Mayo, the Pirates placed four players in the Top 100, including two in the top-11. Jameson Taillon was the first Pirate prospect on the list at number eight, while last year's No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole came in at 11. Outfielder Starling Marte came in ranked No. 40 on the list and fellow outfielder Josh Bell rounded out the Pirates in the Top 100 at No. 69.
In Mayo's analysis the Pirates ranked No. 2 in his point system with 290 points—only second to the Mariners who placed five in the Top 100 with a total score of 329 points. The grading scale was based on getting 100 points for the No. 1 prospect, 99 for No. 2 and so on.
Minorleagueball.com's John Sickels also showed some respect to the Pirates farm system ranking them 12th in baseball and included the following in his small description:
"Heavy draft investments slowly-but-steadily raising the talent level in this system."
The Pirates have a very bright future, with more than Jameson Taillon destined for stardom. The following slides highlights the players that may be gracing the field at PNC Park and providing moments that fellow homegrown talents Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez already provide the fans in Pittsburgh.
Drafted by the Pirates in the third round of the 2008 draft, Jordy Mercer is an interesting talent that can play any infield position. Mercer, a former Oklahoma State Cowboy, is a solid all-around talent at shortstop as he can hit but can also play the field.
Bat: He projects to hit around .260 which isn't very well, but his power potential more than makes up for it as he has the potential to hit between 18-20 home runs a year. Mercer hit 19 home runs last year, while splitting time between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis.
Defense: Drafted in the same year as 2011 Pirate infielder Chase D'Arnaud, Mercer's arm is seen as the stronger of the two and Mercer is also a much more reliable defender, especially at shortstop.
Rudy Owens isn't an over-powering pitching prospect, as he relies much more on his location and is VERY tough to hit. Last year in Triple-A Indianapolis, Owens struggled after a mind-blowing 2009 and 2010. At Single-A in 2009, he went 10-1 with a 1.70 ERA and had a 0.85 WHIP (Walks & Hits per Inning Pitched). In 2010 at Double-A Altoona, he went 12-6 with a 2.46 ERA and 0.98 WHIP helping the Curve to the Eastern League Playoffs.
Owens fastball sits in the 88-93 range and he mixes in a good change with a solid curveball to boot as well. Owens is projected to be very similar to Zach Duke, but can he do what Duke Duke did his rookie year or is he going to be too hittable?
At the time of the 2009 draft, Zack Von Rosenberg had a strong commitment to LSU, but the Pirates took him anyway 49th overall in the hopes of possibly luring him away from LSU with a lucrative signing bonus. That turned out well for the Pirates as they were able to land the now-21-year-old.
Von Rosenberg projects to be a big-time workhorse in the rotation as long as he can stay healthy. He's already very well developed for his age and possesses a fastball that reaches the low 90's with movement and adds in a curveball and a change, both of which are already well-developed.
Von Rosenberg can be expected in Pittsburgh in late 2014 as long as he continues to develop at the rate he is currently maturing at.
Bryan Morris is the last hope for the Pittsburgh Pirates when it comes to the Jason Bay trade. A strong 2010 and 2011 have brought Morris back into light in Pittsburgh as Pirate fans have high hopes from Morris.
Morris has a mid-to-high 90's fastball with a plus curve and a very unorthodox delivery. Having seen him firsthand last year at Double-A Altoona, he tends to frustrate hitters. He seems to have recovered as well as anyone can from Tommy John surgery, and looks to be better than ever.
After spending his career as a starting pitcher, Morris seemed to adjust well to a bullpen role in 2011, as he went 3-4 with a 3.35 ERA in 35 appearances with 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Pending a very successful 2012, Morris could see time in September or even in 2013.
Jeff Locke was one of the big prizes from the Nate McLouth trade to the Braves. Locke has seen his fair share of ups and downs since the Pirates acquired him in that June 2009 trade. Locke is a typical southpaw with a fastball that sits in the 92-94 range with very late movement. He also possesses a solid curveball that he can control and place where he wants.
Last year, Locke saw a small bit of time in the majors and started four games going 0-3 with an ERA of 6.48. Before that, he split time between Double-A and Triple-A with numbers of 7-8, 4.03 and 1-2, 2.22, respectively.
Locke certainly wasn't ready for major league batters last year as he has only 28.1 innings at the Triple-A level before his call-up in September. Locke's future is still bright, but opening 2012 in Triple-A is probably best for this hard-throwing lefty.
Alex Dickerson ranked in the Top 10 of first base prospects in Jonathan Mayo's positional prospects list at No. 9. Drafted out of Indiana in 2011, Dickerson has some solid power potential as evident by his 38 home runs in his two seasons at Indiana. Dickerson has serious offensive potential and could one day hit .290 with 30 home runs per season.
Dickerson has raw power potential but his defense is suspect at best. Can he continue to hit once he passes the New York-Pennsylvania league with the State College Spikes? If Dickerson can manage to improve his defensive game while not losing his offensive potential, the Pirates may have a budding star on their hands.
The Pirates were heavily scrutinized in 2009 when they selected Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez number four overall. But a quick signing and a rather impressive rookie campaign turned the naysayers into believers. However, Sanchez hasn't been quite as impressive after that season, which has led to some grumbling amongst Pirate fans.
At the time of being drafted, Sanchez was seen as having very advanced defensive skills but his batting abilities were weak. In lower levels of minor league ball, he hit over .300 at every stop, but at his most recent stop, Altoona, he hit a mere .241. Sanchez shows minimal power at the plate, but his defense is what makes him a potential star in the league.
ETA: September 2012
When the Pittsburgh Pirates organization lacked high-end pitching prospects, they went out and took Jameson Taillon AND a flamethrower in Stetson Allie. Allie throws his fastball upwards of 100 mph with solid movement. He also mixes in a very hard slider that he throws in the 88-90 range and a still-developing changeup.
Before the 2011 season, Allie was rated as the 79th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America. In 2011 Allie pitched in 15 games and started in seven for the State College Spikes, pitching 26 innings and going 0-2 with a 6.58 ERA. He struck out 28 batters in the 26 innings, but also walked 29.
If Allie can reign in his control while developing his endurance, he could be a very good pitcher for the Pirates. Expect him in Pittsburgh in 2016.
Kyle McPherson was drafted in the 14th round of the 2007 Draft by the Pirates, and has had a slow rise up the ranks of the Pirates system. His fastball sits in the 92-93 range, occasionally going higher, mixing in a plus curve and a solid change. After being moved around a lot in the low levels of the minor leagues, McPherson broke out in a big way in 2011.
Starting the season at 23 years old in Bradenton—the high A-ball affiliate of the Pirates, McPherson came out firing with a 4-1 record in 12 starts. He also added in an ERA of 2.89 with absurd strikeout and walk rates; 10 K/BB, 7.5 K/9 and a 0.8 BB/9.
About midway through the season, he was promoted to Double-A Altoona where he continued right along with those numbers as through his mind-blowing walk-rates lowered. He pitched 16 games in Altoona, starting all of them, compiling a 8-5 record with a 3.02 ERA in 89.1 innings.
McPherson could pitch upwards of 200 innings a year when he reaches the bigs as long as he stays healthy. Expect him to start 2012 in Triple-A to see how he reacts—if the reaction is favorable, expect him in Pittsburgh to start 2013. If not, a trip back to Altoona is in the works.
Luis Heredia, at the age of 16, was pitching for the Pirates rookie ball affiliate and went 1-2 in 11 starts with an ERA of 4.75. Most kids that age are only entering their sophomore years in high school, but Heredia was in the major leagues.
Signed by the Pirates in 2010 out of Mexico, Heredia is a tough player to project as his potential shows him to possibly be the best prospect out of Mexico in years. Heredia's fastball sits in the low-mid 90's, which is unusual for his age. He also mixes in a slider, curve, and change up.
2012 will likely see Heredia head up to State College to try his hand in the New York-Pen league. If he continues to progress, you could see Heredia land on the mound at PNC Park in 2016 as a 21-year-old.
Robbie Grossman is an intriguing player and is seen by many professionals as a potential hidden gem as he has to compete with Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and now Alex Presley for future time in the Pirates outfield. Some even see Grossman as possibly being the second best player in that bunch when it's all said and done.
According to scoutingbook.com, "The switch-hitting Grossman became the first minor leaguer at any level to score 100 runs and walk 100 times in a season since Nick Swisher did so in 2004."
Last year Grossman hit .294 for High-A Bradenton and had an on-base percentage well over .400, while also showing his first signs of pop with 13 homers on the year as well. A career .976 fielder in the outfield, Grossman is non slouch in the field either.
With another year of seasoning at Double-A and a second one at Triple-A, we could see Grossman don a Pirates uniform in late 2013.
Starling Marte, a 2007 signing out of the Dominican Republic, is an interesting player in the Pirates' minor league system. Ranked No. 40 in Mayo's MLB.com prospect list, Marte is a potential five-tool talent and is widely regarded in having the highest upside of any Pirates offensive prospect.
In his five seasons of minor league ball, Marte has a batting average above .300 and has started to show signs of budding power with 12 dingers in 2011. In 2011, he also added eight triples, 38 doubles and a .332 average while playing A-plus defense in center field for the Double-A Altoona Curve.
Marte has raw potential and could become a perennial all-star, but his lack of discipline at the plate could also determine if he becomes a fourth outfielder as well.
2012 will see Marte begin in Triple-A Indianapolis. If he performs well, he could find himself in Pittsburgh sometime over the summer. If not, 2013 will be the call time for Marte.
Josh Bell is a big kid with a big future. Bell comes into 2012 ranked 69th on Mayo's Top 100 prospects without taking a professional at bat yet. Last year at Jesuit High School (Dallas, TX), Bell hit .552 with 14 homers in 147 at-bats, striking out just five times.
Seen by most teams as an unsignable high school bat, the Pirates took a chance on him in the second round—much like they did on Von Rosenberg—and offered him above slot money in the hopes that he would take their offer, and again, much like Von Rosenberg, he accepted the Pirates offer.
Bell is a switch-hitter seen as a corner outfielder in the majors who projects to be a middle of the order hitter with plus power.
Bell will likely begin his career as a pro in the New York-Penn league with the State College Spikes on his trek to Pittsburgh. Pirates fans could be seeing Bell launch pitches into the Allegheny starting as early as 2016.
Cole or Taillon? Taillon or Cole? You really couldn't go wrong in the debate on who has the best chance for stardom in Pittsburgh. Taillon was the Pirates first round selection in 2010 while Cole came a year later in 2011 at the much ballyhooed No. 1 overall position.
In a short debut in the Arizona Fall League, Cole pitched very well with the exception of in the Rising Stars game. Cole will be expected to pick up there with even more improvement as he looks to start the 2012 season possibly in Low-A ball with the chance to move through the organization quickly, as he will be 21 when the 2012 season opens.
Cole has the potential to hit triple digits but his fastball tends to sit in the mid-upper 90's. He also offers up a hard slider and a changeup that are seen as plus pitches as well. Cole is also seen as being on the fast track to the big leagues.
Pirates fans could be getting a taste of triple digits and Cole as early as September 2013.
Jameson Taillon, the Pirates No. 1 pick in 2010, is being carefully handled in the minor leagues as the Pirates have placed many limits on him during his first year of pro ball with the West Virginia Power, the Pirates Single-A affiliate.
Starting 23 games in 2011, Taillon put up a 3.98 ERA and 2-3 record in 92.2 innings pitched, as he was closely monitored by Pirates' brass. His most encouraging number was the 97 strikeouts he put up while limiting the use of his secondary pitches while he improves his stamina.
His fastball is seen as his best pitch, which regularly hits the mid-upper 90's—even deep into his starts. He also mixes in a plus curveball, an equally as good slider, and a changeup that still needs more development.
2012 should see him start down in Bradenton with the High A Marauders, and 2012 should also show more of what he has as he went five full innings just seven times in 2011. With the reigns slowly being loosened, how much will Taillon benefit and how soon will the Pirates faithful see him on the mound at PNC Park?
My guess would be 2014 at the earliest with 2015 being a more realistic season.