Jose Osuna has been absolutely destroying the ball lately. This is his third year in Bradenton, and some of the hits he has had lately are some of the hardest hit balls I’ve seen from him during that three-year span. This includes a home run on Monday night that he crushed over the center field wall, almost hitting the batter’s eye beyond the 400 foot sign. He’s looking like a guy who belongs in Altoona, rather than a guy who should be spending his third year in High-A.
A similar story is playing out in West Virginia. Chase Simpson, taken in the 14th round of the 2014 draft, currently has a .305/.424/.475 line in Low-A. This follows a strong debut in Jamestown last year, where he hit for a .286/.369/.481 line. When I saw Simpson while in West Virginia a little over a week ago, he easily looked like the most polished hitter on the team. Just like Osuna, this was a case where you had a player who should be playing a level higher than where he is currently playing. Nothing about Simpson’s hitting suggests he should be in West Virginia right now.
In theory, it would make all the sense in the world to move Osuna up to Altoona, which would create a spot for Simpson to move up to Bradenton. I don’t know if either player has a strong possibility for a solid MLB career, but they both have bats that are intriguing, and they’re both guys who you’d want to give a chance to see what they become.
Unfortunately, the reality is that both players are blocked, with the log-jam in the system coming from the strong Altoona offense. This has led to both players learning new positions, although even with the new positions it is hard to move up.
Osuna has been a first baseman the last few years, and finished the 2014 season with a strong performance at the plate, worthy of him moving up. But with Josh Bell moving to first base in Altoona, there was no spot for Osuna to move up. As a result, the Pirates moved Osuna to right field, which was a position he hasn’t played since 2010, when he was in the VSL.
“The position move there hurt him a little bit,” Bradenton manager Michael Ryan said about Bell moving to first base in Altoona. “They decided to get him some time in the outfield this year to get him ready to go there. He’ll be doing both when he gets there. It’s just a matter of time before he will be there.”
Ryan said that Osuna doesn’t have much to work on, outside of getting more comfortable in right field. He noted improvements in his routes and jumps. From what I’ve seen, Osuna also has a plus arm. But there are aspects that will be a weakness for him, such as speed and range, which can’t exactly be taught. There’s no timetable for a promotion to Altoona, but Ryan thinks it will happen this year.
Pirates Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway said that the team expects to get him up to Altoona at some point this year, although that will probably require someone from Indianapolis to move up.
“He’s playing well,” Broadway said. “Ideally we’d get him up to Altoona at some point. Some things are out of his control, because that club is stacked up there.”
Osuna is blocked at first base by Bell, but it doesn’t end there. He might have normally been able to learn right field in Altoona, although Stetson Allie is currently learning right field at the level, after moving off the first base position for Bell. Osuna has played left field on a regular basis as recently as 2011, and has played a few games in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues the last few years. However, that’s not an option with Willy Garcia at the position.
Keon Broxton, who Sean McCool wrote about today as being a blocked prospect, is another fixture in the outfield, preventing Garcia from moving over to center field to make room.
You could argue that Osuna could get enough time playing all around the field, while also getting work as the designated hitter. However, Altoona currently has a few other guys doing the same thing. Adam Frazier, normally a shortstop, is getting time in center field and as the DH. Edward Salcedo, an interesting hitter acquired from Atlanta, is getting time in right field.
Until someone moves on from Altoona, there isn’t a spot to be found for Osuna. Once he does move up, that will create a spot for Simpson, who is in the same situation.
Simpson was drafted as a third baseman, and played first and third last year in Jamestown. This year he has split most of his time between first base and DH, with Jordan Luplow getting the priority at third base. And now with Connor Joe in the mix at first base, expect Simpson to get more playing time as the DH. So far, Simpson said the move to the new position has worked for him.
“The positions are relatively the same,” Simpson said on the move from third to first. “It’s kind of the same idea. They’re both hot corners. It was an easy transition…I’ve been all in as far as learning it, and it’s been good so far.”
Moving up to Bradenton isn’t an option for Simpson, as he’s blocked at every position. Third base features Wyatt Mathisen, who has shown some great pure hitting skills, and has a better chance to stick at third than any other third base prospect in the lower levels, Simpson included. Edwin Espinal is at first base, and while he has struggled from a stats perspective, he features a ton of raw power. When Espinal isn’t starting, the first base job goes to either Osuna or Jordan Steranka, with the latter being more of an organizational player.
With Mathisen and Espinal at the corners, there’s not much of a difference from Simpson’s current situation with Luplow and Joe. That is until you get to the designated hitter position. The Marauders have a split between Reese McGuire and Jin-De Jhang behind the plate. McGuire gets the priority for catching, but Jhang has a good bat, and has been showing that off a lot this year as the DH, hitting for a .347/.388/.407 line in 118 at-bats.
Simpson is blocked like Osuna, and that should be the case until someone moves up to Altoona. In this case, he might need two guys to move up, or for Edwin Espinal to go back down to West Virginia if he’s still not putting up strong numbers by the middle of the season.
There’s no easy solution to this. You don’t want to rush Josh Bell, and you don’t want to prevent him from learning first base. He’s the best prospect of this entire group, and the best option for the Pirates for their future at first base. Other options like Allie, Osuna, Espinal, and Simpson are interesting bats, and all have good power potential, but they’re all fliers. You hope that one of them breaks through to be a starter in the majors one day, and you give them playing time to see if that will happen. But right now, no one in that group is currently projected as a starter.
Overall, this is a good problem to have, because it’s a symptom of a very strong farm system. There aren’t many organizational players in Altoona and Bradenton, and in fact there are more prospects than there are positions. This means that the guys who used to be guaranteed for playing time and promotions a few years ago are now struggling to find time in the lineup, and are playing at lower levels than where they should be playing.
Eventually, Osuna and Simpson will move up, and most likely that will happen this year. Until that happens, expect continued strong results, as both players are playing at a lower level than where they should be right now.