Top Prospects That Can Get the Pittsburgh Pirates over the Hump Next Season
While there will be plenty of mourning today, fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates have a lot to be excited about.
The 2013 Pirates, who had no expectations coming into the year, took the powerful St. Louis Cardinals to five games in the National League Division Series and were within two runs heading into the eighth inning.
This team won 94 games, fourth most in the National League this year and two more than the Los Angeles Dodgers. I don't say that to rub salt in the wound, but to point out just how great a season this was in Pittsburgh.
More importantly, things are only going to get better heading into 2014. Even with some roster turnover, most of the core will stay intact, a full season of Gerrit Cole will make the rotation better and a few new faces from a loaded farm system will make their much-anticipated debuts.
So before we put the final nail in the Pirates' season, let's look at the prospects to watch next spring who will get the call to The Show at some point in 2014.
Note: All stats via MiLB.com unless otherwise noted.
Jameson Taillon, RHP
A.J. Burnett is a free agent and coming off two successful seasons that could net him contract offers that the Pirates just aren't able to match. Then again, maybe they won't want to because there is a big-time starter in Triple-A biding his time and waiting to join the MLB staff.
I am speaking, of course, about Jameson Taillon. The No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft has made strides with his control over the last year, leading to a better strikeout rate this season, and earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis.
He finished 2013 with a 3.73 ERA, 143 hits allowed, 52 walks and 143 strikeouts in 147.1 innings. They aren't the kind of numbers you would expect from an elite-level prospect, but let's keep in mind Taillon was just 21 this year.
Taillon still has work to do in the minors and (likely) won't make the Pirates' rotation out of spring training. He could be the 2014 version of Gerrit Cole, getting called up at midseason and being one of the two best pitchers on the staff by the end of the year.
He won't turn 22 until November, but Taillon has all the makings of a premiere power pitcher with a big fastball that touches 98 and an improving curveball that projects as a plus pitch. He needs to work on the changeup and fastball command to dominate the way his body and stuff suggest he should.
Gregory Polanco, OF
The Pirates will soon boast an outfield with three center fielders. Andrew McCutchen is the incumbent and will hold the position for a long time. Starling Marte might be the best defensive outfielder on the team, but is relegated to left field because McCutchen isn't moving.
Then there is Gregory Polanco, my No. 1 prospect in Pittsburgh's system. He is an incredible all-around talent already with a solid approach to hitting, a nice 6'4", 170-pound frame that still offers projection and power that he will grow into and a feel for the game that goes beyond his 22 years.
Polanco has the best arm of the Pirates center fielders, making him an easy candidate to slide over to right field. He has the speed and range for the middle of the diamond, so he should have little problem becoming a plus defender at a corner spot.
More importantly, Polanco's bat will profile as a corner outfielder. He has a swing that will get long because of his load, but the bat speed and control allow him to make plenty of hard contact. He will show average power now and will grow into plus pop as his frame fills out.
General manager Neal Huntington had to steal Marlon Byrd from New York because the Pirates were desperate for a right fielder. He won't have to do that again because Polanco is going to be in Pittsburgh right around the time Taillon gets called up.
Nick Kingham, RHP
There were two Pittsburgh pitchers, Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham, who made great strides in 2013 to give this already pitching-rich system a lot more high-ceiling depth.
Kingham, who will be 22 on November 8, is closer to the big leagues after splitting time between High-A and Double-A, logging 143.1 total innings with 144 strikeouts, 44 walks and 125 hits. More important than that is the jump his stuff took.
The fastball was always his best pitch, sitting in the mid 90s and reaching as high as 98 with movement. The curveball and changeup, while not consistent yet, flash above-average and might have a little more room to grow.
An advantage of having so many young, high-ceiling arms in the upper levels of the minors and a deep MLB rotation is that you don't have to bring all of them up to start right away. I wouldn't be surprised to see Kingham pitching out of the 'pen next August in Pittsburgh before moving into the rotation in 2015.
Alex Dickerson, 1B/OF
While he doesn't possess the ceiling of the players mentioned on this list, Alex Dickerson could fill a need for the Pirates in 2014 at first base.
Justin Morneau was acquired in a late-season trade with Minnesota, but hasn't hit for power in a few years and is a free agent. The Pirates will have to fill the position somewhere, possibly going with Gaby Sanchez to start the year.
Dickerson has a crude approach at the plate with little patience, so he isn't likely to get on base much. The bat speed isn't great and the swing can get long with a load and open stance that has to close quickly before driving the barrel through the zone, but there is loft at the end that allows him to elevate the ball.
Better velocity is going to give Dickerson problems, though he has slugged over .490 in two of his three minor league seasons. He's not a starter on a first-division team, but could end up being the best first baseman for the Pirates in 2014.
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