Minor League Depth — Middle Infield

For the most part, “middle infield prospect” means “shortstop prospect.” A player with the ability to play secondbase at the major league level will usually be able to play short at the amateur and minor league levels. As a result, most major league secondbaseman start off at shortstop. There may be a few players who are strictly prospects at secondbase. Generally, they’re players with good bats who are trying to hang on in the middle rather than move to a corner. The Pirates’ Jarek Cunningham is an obvious example. But most middle infield prospects in the minors are shortstops.

The Pirates’ policy has been to keep players at the most challenging position as long as possible, so they try to keep the real prospects at short. Right now, though, they have an abundance of middle infielders at some levels. They’ve addressed this either by prioritizing, putting the better prospect at short even if he’s not the better defensive player, or by shifting players between positions (sometimes including third). On the plus side, they have a lot of players who could be major leaguers if they take a step forward. On the minus side, they don’t have a blue chip middle infield prospect, especially not at short, and so need somebody to emerge from a deep pool of potential prospects.

Parentheses indicate that there’s a reasonable chance that the player may not open at that level.  An asterisk (*) indicates that the player is strictly a secondbaseman.

Indianapolis (AAA)

Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Anderson Hernandez, (Yamaico Navarro), (Brock Holt), (Josh Rodriguez), Brian Friday

The Pirates figure to have a logjam of infielders in AAA. The three with the best chance of making a contribution at the major league level this year are d’Arnaud, Mercer and Navarro.  Of the three, d’Arnaud probably has the best chance to be a regular in the majors because he has the best mix of skills, if he can get acclimated to the majors.  Navarro profiles most clearly as a utility player, as he’s shown a good bat with some power, but lacks defensive range.  D’Arnaud and Mercer will open the season in AAA due to a need for more development, while Navarro’s chances of making the major league roster went down when the team selected Gustavo Nunez in the Rule 5 draft.

Holt is another solid prospect who’s on the borderline between a potential everyday player and a possible utility player.  He had a good season in AA and earned a promotion, but could be forced back to Altoona if d’Arnaud, Mercer, Navarro and Josh Harrison are all in AAA. Rodriguez, last year’s Rule 5 pick who was re-acquired after the Pirates sent him back to Cleveland, had a mediocre season in AA after hitting well in AAA the year before. He’ll have trouble securing a spot in Indianapolis. The veteran Hernandez figures to provide depth in AAA. Friday, whose prospect status is a thing of the past, could be released and otherwise will serve as a utility player.

Of all the middle infielders likely to be in AAA, Mercer is probably the most accomplished shortstop, but the Pirates still regard d’Arnaud as having the most potential of their upper level infield prospects. The two of them are likely to get the bulk of the time at short, and are likely also to see time at second and third. Harrison, who probably will end up as the regular at third, may get time at second and possibly short as well. The team will have to find starts at different positions for any of the others who are in AAA.

Altoona (AA)

(Brock Holt), (Benji Gonzalez), (Josh Rodriguez), Adalberto Santos*, (Jarek Cunningham*), Greg Picart, Yunesky Sanchez

Altoona’s middle infield will depend heavily on the fallout from Indianapolis. It’s reasonably likely that both Holt and Rodriguez could return, while Gonzalez and Cunningham could both return to Bradenton for a second season. Gonzalez’ glove is ready, but his bat isn’t. Cunningham brings a potential power bat to second base, but he missed a lot of time in 2011 with a concussion and the Pirates may want him to work on his defense and on hitting breaking balls. Santos played both the outfield and second at Bradenton in 2011 and had a big year with the bat. He profiles as a utility player; what position he plays will depend mainly on the other players in AA. Picart and Sanchez are organizational players. If Gonzalez is at Altoona, he’ll probably be the shortstop. If not, it’ll be either Holt or Rodriguez. Another possibility is that Elevys Gonzalez could move to second from third, where he played at Bradenton in 2011, with Jeremy Farrell returning to Altoona to play third.

Bradenton (High A)

Drew Maggi, (Gift Ngoepe), (Jarek Cunningham*), (Benji Gonzalez), Kelson Brown, (Kevin Mort)

The real prospects among this group are probably Maggi, Ngoepe and Cunningham. Gonzalez is an excellent defensive player, but his bat so far has not developed. Maggi has solid all-around skills, except for power.  He’ll be the regular shortstop at Bradenton in 2012, although he may lack the range and arm to stay there long-term. Ngoepe missed almost all of 2011 with a wrist injury and so will probably return to West Virginia. If he does make the Bradenton roster, he could switch back and forth between second and short with Maggi. If Cunningham returns to Bradenton, he’ll be the starting secondbaseman. If Gonzalez returns, he’ll probably have to shift to a utility role. Brown and Mort are organizational players.

West Virginia (Low A)

Dan Gamache*, (Gift Ngoepe), Alen Hanson, Kirk Singer, (Kevin Mort), (Ashley Ponce)

If Ngoepe returns to the Power, he’ll probably be their starting shortstop. He remains a remarkable story, as the first native South African signed by a MLB franchise. He has the speed and defensive skill to reach the majors if his bat comes around, which it showed signs of doing in early 2011, before the injury. If he moves up, the shortstop is could be Hanson, who’d be making the jump from the GCL after a promising 2011 season. He may profile better at second, but consistent with their practice of trying to keep the better prospects at tougher positions, the Pirates so far have played Hanson mostly at short. Gamache, a 2011 draftee, was a thirdbaseman in college, but the Pirates have shown some interest in moving him to second, where his bat would play better. Either he or Hanson should be the secondbaseman. Singer and Ponce are good defensively, but figure to be organizational players.

State College (Short-Season)

Yhonathan Barrios, Jodaneli Carvajal, Jorge Bishop, (Ashley Ponce), (Francisco Aponte), Walker Gourley

The Pirates undoubtedly will draft at least a couple of college infielders and they’ll get some of the playing time at State College. Of the players currently in the system, Carvajal has the most promise at short, although his bat is suspect. Barrios has a potentially good bat, but probably lacks the range for short. They both spent some time at short in the GCL, so they could share the position. Carvajal will probably also spend some time at second and Barrios at third. Bishop looked like a good prospect a year ago, but was overwhelmed in the New York-Penn League and struggled after he was demoted to the GCL. He should get another shot in 2012, probably at second rather than short, but he may not get a lot of playing time. Ponce and Aponte look to be organizational players. Gourley has struggled for three years since being drafted out of high school and could be a candidate to be released.  The Pirates have been trying him behind the plate, though, so he could stay on as a catcher.

Gulf Coast League Pirates (Rookie)

(Francisco Aponte)

The middle infield on the GCL entry will be manned mainly by players coming up from the Latin American leagues, plus any high school draftees the team signs.