The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the 2008 season with a surprisingly shallow amount of talent in the minor leagues, despite consistently picking in the top ten of the amateur baseball draft every year. However, through the trades of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte and savvy drafting, the Pirates farm system is much healthier going into the 2009 season. Here is a list of the top ten most promising prospects in the Pirates system.
1. Pedro Alvarez, Third Base, 21 years old
Sure, he hasn't played a professional game yet, and the entire city of Pittsburgh hates him, but Alvarez is still the number one player in Pirates farm system. Like Cam Bonifay with Kris Benson and Dave Littlefield with Brian Bullington, the legacy of new GM Neil Huntington will ultimately depend on Alvarez's production and improvement. Huntington's choice of Alvarez with the second overall pick is the highest the Pirates have selected in a draft since Bullington in 2002. While that didn't work out very well for Littlefield, Huntington clearly believes that Alvarez has the potential to be the big bat in the middle of the lineup that the Pirates have craved for so many years. Fans are clamoring to see Alvarez on the field so that we can get a taste of what he can do. For now hype and excitement are going to have to be enough. Still, that all that buzz is still enough to earn him the number one spot on this countdown.
2. Andrew McCutchen, Outfield, 22 years old
The only reason that McCutchen is not atop this list is that Dave Littlefield is gone, and with him the regime that drafted McCutchen in 2005. It is very clear that Alvarez is Huntington's guy, and it is unclear how well McCutchen fits into Huntington's plans for the future. On the field, while not spectacular, McCutchen had another productive year in Indianapolis, putting up 9 home runs and 34 steals while posting a .283 batting average. McCutchen is at the point in his career where he has proven all he can in the minor leagues and just needs to produce in the show. The departure of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady from a crowded outfield should provide McCutchen with chance to do just that. Pirates fans have been looking forward to seeing this kid since he was drafted in 2005. It looks like McCutchen will be given his chance to either sink or swim at some point next season.
3. Jose Tabata, Outfield, 20 years old
Tabata was the prize piece in the deal that sent Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees. Tabata arrived in Pittsburgh in July surrounded by questions about his attitude and competitive fire, however with his play in Altoona, Tabata definitely ended those questions, at least for a while. Tabata's numbers after the trade were terrific, posting 8 steals and a .348 batting average in 89 at bats. While it ultimately depends on how Tabata performs, I would not be shocked to see Tabata as a September call-up in the upcoming year. Also, the production of fellow outfielders McCutchen, Brandon Moss and Stephen Pearce will dictate how fast Tabata moves through the system.
4. Brad Lincoln, Pitcher, 23 years old
When the Pirates made Lincoln the fourth overall pick of the 2006 draft he looked like a future ace on the fast track to the majors. However early struggles in 2006, followed by Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss the entire 2007 season, have effectively derailed his career. In spite of all these factors, Lincoln still joins this list as the number one pitcher in the Pirates farm system. For the 2008 season, management was looking for Lincoln to stay healthy, and he was able to do that after his July return to the mound. However his numbers were not very impressive this season. His combined ERA between Hickory and Lynchburg was an underwhelming 4.69. The numbers, in Lincoln's case, are not nearly as significant as the fact that he was able to stay injury free. Now that he has proven that he can stay healthy, management will look for Lincoln to be one of the prospects that makes a big jump in 2009.
5. Bryan Morris, Pitcher, 21 years old
Morris was a first round draft pick by the Dodgers in 2006, and struck out 79 batters in 60 innings, before being shut down for the entire 2007 season after Tommy John surgery. Many believed Morris to be the big prize in the Jason Bay deal as he was the only young prospect the Pirates received. Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Andy LaRoche were all deemed major league ready at the time of the trade and all had their struggles with the Pirates. Morris has the potential to be the saving grace of that deal as he bounced back from surgery quite well, posting solid, but not dominant, numbers. His combined 3.47 ERA last season demonstrated that he was fully recovered. Now healthy, Morris looks primed to rise through the ranks quickly and become one of the Pirates top prospects.
6. Neil Walker, Third Base, 23 years old
After being chosen eleventh overall in the 2004 draft, Walker has not progressed as quickly or dramatically as some had hoped, but he still remains one of the premier prospects in the Pirates organization. One of the main reasons that he has moved up through the system so slowly is his position switch from catcher to third base. It has taken Walker a couple years to adapt to the new position but his defense continues to improve. A Pittsburgh product, Walker has the potential to be a fan favorite in the majors however his numbers have yet to catch up to his hype. Walker struggled against Triple A pitching this season, posting a .242 batting average and a .280 on-base percentage. However he has demonstrated that he has some serious power putting up 16 home runs and 80 RBIs in 500 at bats. All of a sudden, with the addition of Andy Laroche and Pedro Alvarez to the system, there is a logjam at third base, but don't expect that to keep Walker down in Triple A. If Walker produces, he will be given every opportunity to succeed in the show.
7. Shelby Ford, Second Base, 23 years old
It seems like Ford continues to get overlooked when it comes to the premier prospects in the Pirates system. Ford, the Pirates third round pick in 2006, came into the system strongly and has quickly risen through the ranks. Ford looks good enough to make his debut next season, but he is blocked by incumbent Freddy Sanchez who still has another year on his contract. Ford hit .285 at Altoona and stole 19 bases in an injury shortened season. Ford will be making up for his missed time in the Arizona Fall League, and if he plays well, look for him to start the season in Indianapolis, with a promotion to the show not far behind. Ford looks like he has the potential and the chops to hold down half of the double play combination in Pittsburgh for years to come.
8. Anthony Watson, Pitcher, 23 years old
Watson, like Ford, is another Pirates prospect who has slid by widely unnoticed. Watson was a ninth round pick out of Nebraska in 2007. He had a very productive first season, posting a 2.79 ERA in two stops at the class A level. There was no sophomore slump for Watson as he put up 104 strikeouts and a 3.56 ERA at Lynchburg, on his way to being named the MLB.com organizational pitcher of the year. Watson will never have overpowering stuff, but he has proven that knows how to pitch, not just throw. While he doesn't project as an ace or even a number two pitcher, Watson looks like he could be a very serviceable starter for the Pirates down the road.
9. Daniel Moskos, Pitcher, 22 years old
If there's anyone in the Pirates farm system that took a big step back this season, it's Moskos. After a solid 2007 as a reliever, the new regime decided to convert Moskos back into a starter with disastrous results. In twenty starts with Lynchburg, Moskos went 6-7 with a 6.72 ERA, while only striking out 58 batters in 89.2 innings. He was converted back to a reliever by the end of July and posted significantly better numbers, a 2.61 ERA in nine appearances as well as 20 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. It looks like Moskos' permanent spot will be in the rotation from here on out. While Moskos definitely has potential and a live arm, how high can you really rank someone who projects as a left-handed set up man? I just hope Matt Wieters begins to really struggle, so this pick doesn't look so terrible.
10-Tied. Jamie Romak, Outfield, 23 years old
Romak, the other player acquired in the Adam LaRoche deal, has proven at the minor league level that he can tear the cover off of the ball, with 20 home runs in 2007 and 25 in 2008. However, he has yet to prove that he can hit consistently enough to be a big league player. With a logjam of prospects ahead of him at outfield it is unlikely that we will see Romak with the club in 2009. But if he continues to make progress and work on hitting consistency, there's no reason that Romak can't make a splash with the Pirates in 2010 and beyond. His huge power will ensure that the Pirates keep an a big interest in his progress.
10-Tied. Daniel McCutchen, Ptcher, 26 years old
Its hard to imagine a 26 year old as a real, viable prospect, but that's what McCutchen is. After arriving in the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte deal, McCutchen went to Indianapolis and finished the year with a 3.57 ERA. Unlike the other two players acquired in that trade, Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf, McCutchen did not get the oppurtunity to join the rotation in Pittsburgh. While McCutchen didn't get a shot in 2008, management loves his potential and he will be given a shot to make the rotation in spring training. If he doesn't make the rotation, look for him to start at Indianapolis, and be a definite midseason call up.
Promising players from the 2008 draft not named Pedro Alvarez
Jordy Mercer, Shortstop, Round 3
Chase D'arnaud, Shortstop, Round 4
Justin Wilson, Pitcher, Round 5
Matthew Hague, Shortstop, Round 9
Robbie Grossman, Outfield, Round 6
Tyler Cox, Pitcher, Round 35
Players who helped their stock in 2008
Jim Negrych, Third Base
Miles Durham, First Base
Jeff Sues, Pitcher
Players who hurt their stock in 2008
Duke Welker, Pitcher
Andrew Walker, Catcher
Brad Corley, Outfield
James Boone, Outfield