Through a few well orchestrated trades and productive drafts GM Neil Huntington and the Pittsburgh Pirates have put together a talented farm system with some exciting prospects.
Baseball America has the Bucs farm system ranked as the 11th best in Major League Baseball, a steady improvement over the past number of years when their highest ranking was 15th.
With a bevy of talented minor leaguers in the system and a team in Pittsburgh that has fans thinking about the playoffs, the future is looking as bright as ever for the team that has been "rebuilding since 1992".
Here is a look at 12 prospects who should have Pirates fans excited for years to come.
(Note: I did not include any 2012 Draftees as none of them have seen any playing time in the Pirates organization yet.)
Clint Hurdle hasn't been able to settle on one first baseman to play consistently in 2012 as Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee, and Matt Hague have all seen substantial time at the position.
Alex Dickerson is the Pirates best prospect at first base and he could provide the Pirates with some stability for the future.
A 2011 third-round pick out of Indiana University, Dickerson was ranked the No. 7 first base prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo before the 2012 season.
The Pirates decided to let the 22-year-old skip Low-A ball and sent him right to High-A Bradenton where he has had some mixed results, batting .286/.352/.409 with four home runs and 42 RBI. However, Dickerson has begun to heat up in June, batting .368 with a .658 slugging percentage in 10 games so far. That included a 5-for-6 performance with two home runs and six runs batted in on June 4.
The Pirates are hoping Dickerson can use his advanced approach at the plate and above-average power to move through the minors and provide a steady option at first base. Pittsburgh fans should expect to see him playing in PNC Park sometime in 2014, with a late season call-up in 2013 a definite possibility.
Right-handed pitching is the biggest strength for the Pirates farm system, but Nick Kingham is a pitcher that some fans might not know about.
Kingham was a 4th-round pick out of Sierra Vista High School in Nevada in 2010 and he had an impressive year in 2011. Playing at State College of the short-season New York-Penn League, he pitched to a 2.15 ERA, giving up just 63 hits and 15 walks in 71 innings pitched.
Kingham hasn't seen the same success in his move up to Low-A West Virginia, with a 5.51 ERA and 55 hits in 49 innings pitched. Yet he has continued to limit his walks with just 15 and he is doing a good job striking out batters with 47 so far on the young season.
The Pirates were very impressed with Kingham in Spring Training as he showcased a low to mid-90's fastball, a solid changeup, and a vastly improved curveball.
At just 20-years-old, Kingham has a very bright future ahead of him and he is definitely a pitcher Pirates fans should follow as he progresses through the minor league system.
Justin Wilson had an outside shot at making the Pittsburgh bullpen out of Spring Training, but management decided to send him back down to Indianapolis to continue his progression as a starter.
A 5th-round pick in 2008 after playing a big role in Fresno State's NCAA championship run, Wilson has had some mixed results in 2012, which is no surprise given his minor league track record.
The high moment for the season so far was on April 29 when Wilson went seven and one-third of an inning while striking out nine batters and combining with two other Indianapolis pitchers on a no-hitter against Durham.
Wilson certainly has the stuff to dominate hitters at the Major League level, but command issues and consistency hold him back from reaching his full potential. He throws a solid curve and slider combo to go with a fastball that has ridiculous movement and can reach the mid-90's. Wilson was even able to touch 99 MPH with his fastball when he pitched out of the bullpen for a short time in 2011.
The Pirates are hoping that Wilson will soon be able to harness his stuff, whether it is as a starter or a reliever. Regardless of where he is pitching, Wilson is on the brink of contributing to the Pirates quest for their first winning season since 1992.
One of the youngest players on this list, Gregory Polanco is another name that Pirates fans should get to know as he progresses over the next couple years.
A relatively low-profile international signing out of the Dominican Republic, Polanco struggled to put together his considerable tools as he scuffled through the lower minors early in his career.
That looks to be changing this year in his first year in full-season ball with West Virginia.
The 20-year-old lefty is tied for the Pirates minor league lead in home runs with nine dingers. He's also posted a .300 batting average and 35 RBI. To add to his improving power skills, Polanco has also swiped 16 bases in just 20 attempts.
Polanco has a lean body and should be able to add strength to his 6'4" 170 lb. frame, adding even more to his power potential. He is an above-average athlete who the Pirates believe should have the ability to stick in center field if necessary.
Don't expect to see Polanco roaming the outfield at PNC Park anytime soon, but Pirates fans shouldn't have a puzzled look on their faces when they hear his name anymore.
Pirates fans should be familiar with Jeff Locke, as the left-hander made four starts for the big league club in September when injuries sidelined several starters.
While he struggled in his initial debut, Locke is still a very promising prospect for Pittsburgh and he should see a second chance to show his ability in 2012.
The 24-year-old left-hander was a key part of the Nate McLouth deal and he has been doing an excellent job so far starting for Indianapolis. Locke has put together a 3.27 ERA in 66 innings pitched while giving up just 14 walks and striking out 60 batters.
Locke isn't going to overpower hitters like fellow lefty prospect Justin Wilson, but he has superior command of all of his pitches and isn't afraid to go after hitters.
The Pirates have several Major League-ready starting pitchers to go along with one of the best rotations in baseball so far in 2012. While Locke will have to continue to wait his turn down in Indianapolis, expect better results this time around when he gets the call to Pittsburgh.
The Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009 and 2010, it looked the Bucs had found a diamond in the rough in 28th-round draftee Rudy Owens.
Owens struggled in 2011, however, as he made the transition to Triple-A Indianapolis.
He posted a 5.05 ERA, his highest since his first year in the system in 2007, and opponents batted for a .289 average against the crafty left-hander.
Thankfully for Pirates fans, Owens seems to have regained the magic that he showed in 2009 and 2010 this year for Indianapolis. In 78.2 innings pitched he has given up just 66 hits and 11 walks while posting just a 2.29 ERA.
Like Jeff Locke, Owens doesn't overpower hitters with his low-90's fastball, but he uses outstanding command and a good changeup and curveball to keep hitters off balance.
Between Owens, Locke, and Wilson the Pirates have several left-handed starter options in case one of the Major Leaguers goes down. It is only a matter of time before Owens gets to showcase his talents in Pittsburgh.
Josh Bell was considered a first-round talent in the 2011 MLB Draft, but told teams he wasn't going to sign and was going to attend the University of Texas instead. Neil Huntington and the Pirates front office was able to change his mind by giving him a post first-round record $5 million signing bonus.
He had an up and down start to the 2012 season with Low-A West Virginia, hitting .274/.288/.403 in 15 games before he went down with a meniscus injury that caused him to have surgery. He is currently rehabbing the knee injury and is expected back sometime later in the summer.
Bell has plus hitting ability and plus-plus power potential as a switch-hitter, something that the Pirates lack in their farm system.
Bell gives the Pirates an exciting young power prospect, a luxury they haven't enjoyed in recent years. While he will take a lot of seasoning in the minors, Bell should have Bucco fans excited about his future in the organization.
The Pirates spent a hefty $2.6 million to sign the 16-year-old Heredia in 2010, hoping that they had found a potential ace in the 6'7" 220 lb. kid from Mexico.
There isn't a pitcher in the minors with a higher ceiling than Heredia, as scouts drool over his massive frame and surprising polish for such a young and inexperienced international prospect.
He can already hit the mid 90's with his fastball and Heredia also has four pitches that have the potential to be above-average major league pitches when all is said and done.
While the ceiling is very high for Heredia, the floor is also very low. It is very difficult to put such high expectations on such a young kid, as he has a long way to go before he gets anywhere near PNC Park.
He had a good debut in 2011 for the GCL team and he should continue his progression in State College when their season starts on June 18. The Pirates are very excited about the potential for the 17-year-old Luis Heredia and fans should watch this superstar prospect closely.
As a 19-year-old Alen Hanson has been one of the biggest surprises in the Pirates system, and maybe in all of baseball, in 2012.
In fact, ESPN analyst Keith Law is a big fan of Hanson, giving the young shortstop some well-earned praise.
The 5'11" 160 lb. Hanson had some decent success early in his minor league career, but has really taken off at Low-A West Virginia this year.
He is tied with Gregory Polanco for the team lead in home runs with nine and Hanson has posted a triple slash line of .325/.382/.572. He also has outstanding speed, although he has only been successful on 16 of 27 stolen base attempts.
Shortstop is one of the weakest positions in the Pirates farm system and Hanson has emerged as a legitimate shortstop of the future.
While he is ripping the cover off the ball so far in 2012, Hanson is also very raw at the plate, having struck out 57 times in 243 at bats. He is also very raw in the field, although the tools are there for him to be at least an average defensive shortstop.
Like West Virginia teammates Polanco and Bell, Alen Hanson has a long way to go before he reaches PNC Park. But he has the Pirates front office thinking that they have found the long-term answer to their shortstop problems.
After a blistering Spring Training that forced Clint Hurdle into some tough decisions, Starling Marte was sent to Indianapolis to continue his progression as one of the best outfield prospects in baseball.
A five-tool stud in the outfield, Marte shows similar abilities to current Pirates star Andrew McCutchen and there are some who believe that Marte will force the 2011 MLB All-Star to a corner outfield spot when he reaches the Majors.
A Futures Game selection in 2011, Marte has had a decent year so far in 2012. He has been very streaky in putting together a .261/.319/.445 line with 5 home runs and 14 stolen bases. However, he is taking more walks and is showing an overall better approach at the plate than he has in the past.
With plus-plus speed and a Vladimir Guerrero-caliber throwing arm, Marte has the potential to be an elite defender in center field. The only question mark in his game as been the development of his power, which seems to be coming around nicely as he matures.
While the Pirates offense continues to struggle in 2012, it appears that Starling Marte's debut is getting closer and closer. Bucco fans will be in for a treat night in and night out for years to come watching Marte and McCutchen showcase their blazing speed in the outfield.
The 2010 No. 2 overall pick, Jameson Taillon has been considered one of the best right-handed pitching prospects in baseball since the day he was drafted.
Nothing has changed as the 20-year-old Taillon is considered a future ace in Pittsburgh. The 6'6" 220 lb. kid from Texas has a fastball that can reach the high 90's and one of the best curveballs in the minors already.
While Taillon hasn't been his usual dominant self lately for High-A Bradenton, he is still having a fine 2012 season. The Florida State League All-Star has a 3.71 ERA with just 16 walks in 63 innings and 58 strikeouts.
With a stud pitcher like Jameson Taillon, all we can do is sit and wait while he develops his power arsenal in the minors. By the time 2014 rolls around, Pirates fans will be looking at the future ace of their pitching staff in PNC Park.
What is better than having one future ace in your farm system? Having two future aces. That is exactly what the Pirates have when you add 2011 No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole to the High-A Bradenton rotation.
After dominating at UCLA and in the Arizona Fall League, Cole took his high-90's heater, plus curve, and above-average changeup to the Florida State League where he has been spectacular. In 62 innings pitched, he has posted a 2.76 ERA with 62 strikeouts while giving up just 50 hits and 19 walks.
A workhorse on the mound, Cole carries his high velocity deep into his starts and goes after every hitter with a bulldog mentality.
Also a Florida State League All-Star, Cole combines with Taillon to give the Pirates a 1-2 punch like no other in baseball. If they both progress as predicted, PNC Park could be home to the best starting rotation in all of baseball in the very near future.