Pirates Prospects became the first major media outlet to update its top prospect rankings, reflecting both early-season performance and the results of this week's entry draft. My take on key developments on the farm over the first two months of the season is below.
Huntington Holds a Set of Aces
Since taking over as general manager of the Pirates, Neal Huntington has focused on acquiring high-ceiling pitching talent through the draft. The Pirates' selection of Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the No. 8 pick in this week's draft is a continuation of that philosophy.
If he signs, Appel will have elite pitching prospects Gerrit Cole (2011 No. 1 overall selection) and Jameson Taillon (2010 No. 2 overall selection) to form perhaps the best pitching trio in the minor leagues.
Appel is considered a cut below Cole and Taillon, viewed more as a likely No. 2 starter than a true ace, but given that the Pirates have two pitchers with pure ace ceilings in the system already (and potentially a third in Luis Heredia), a solid No. 2 starter would be a luxury. It is no surprise that Pirates Prospects ranks all three pitchers as tier-one prospects and as the top three prospects in the organization.
The Bucs Continue to Build Pitching Depth
What has been the most significant development in the Pirates' farm system?
In addition to the Pirates' five everyday starters, injured Jeff Karstens and spot starter Brad Lincoln, the Pirates have further starting pitching depth in the form of Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens, who are both off to strong starts in Triple-A this year.
It is interesting that Pirates fans have focused more on Owens than Locke this year. While Owens sports the flashy 2.35 ERA, Locke's peripherals have been far superior, as he owns a strikeout rate of over 20 percent and an FIP almost a full run better than that of Owens. In fact, Locke's 3.00 FIP is best in the International League among qualified pitchers. Pirates Prospects ranks both pitchers in its third tier and slots Owens one spot ahead of Locke, at No. 8.
If the rotation holds up (which it should) and the Pirates look to upgrade their offense (and they should), Locke and Owens would be potential trade chips. Given the hype surrounding Owens' start to 2012 compared to Locke's superior performance and strikeout potential, the Bucs would be wise to offer Owens to potential suitors first.
The Search for High-Ceiling Hitting Prospects Continues
While the Pirates have acquired a stable of potential future aces, their collection of potential All-Star hitters remains slim. Aside from Starling Marte, an injured Josh Bell, a currently breaking-out Alen Hanson and a potentially breaking-out Gregory Polanco, the Pirates do not have many hitters in the system who scream "top-of-the-order bat."
But there is some good news on the hitting front. Marte, the only hitter to rank in Pirates Prospects' top tier and the No. 4 prospect in the organization, remains a fascinating talent who will likely be in Pittsburgh by September. Furthermore, Hanson may be the biggest breakout story not just in the Pirates' organization, but also in all of baseball this year.
The Bucs are also starting to build some sorely needed hitting depth, with the addition of draftees such as Wyatt Mathisen, Barrett Barnes (both ranked in Pirates Prospects' top 20) and Brandon Thomas to the Robbie Grossmans and Alex Dickersons of the world.
Yet despite this growth, the Pirates are still lacking in exciting hitting prospects. Spending first-round picks on potential aces for three years in a row can have that effect, though it is not an excuse. Josh Bell's return from injury is much anticipated.