Last week I finished my 2015 season recaps for all of the infield positions in the Pirates’ system. Those recaps included a look to the future at what the Pirates had in the minors, focusing on the top options for the future at each position. With the infield recaps now complete, I wanted to take an early look at the depth throughout the minor league system for 2016, looking at who could be playing where, and which teams could see roster crunches and position battles. In previous years, these roster crunches have led to aggressive promotions, position changes, or trades, which makes this a very relevant topic heading into the off-season.
Here is a breakdown of each position, with the catcher spot being included in the infield mix.
Indianapolis – I’d expect Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart to start the 2016 season in Pittsburgh, which will put Elias Diaz in Triple-A as the top depth option once again. In 2015, the Pirates rotated Diaz with Tony Sanchez. However, I’d be surprised if Sanchez is still around, as he’s out of options next year, and seems likely to be traded or claimed off waivers before the start of the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jacob Stallings moves up to Indianapolis, serving as the backup to Diaz, and getting a bit more time than a backup usually receives. Indianapolis will probably also have a third catcher who will be a minor league free agent, similar to Wilkin Castillo this past season.
Altoona – This one is tricky to call at this point. Reese McGuire didn’t do much offensively to earn a promotion to Altoona, but his defense looks ready. The big question is whether the Pirates will aggressively promote the offense due to the defense, or give him some more time to develop the bat. They held Diaz back in full season A-ball for a second season, although that was low-A. I do think that Jin-De Jhang will move up to Altoona, and if McGuire doesn’t move up with him, then he’ll split the catching duties with a minor league free agent, similar to how Stallings started the 2015 season with Sebastian Valle.
Bradenton – If McGuire is back at the level, then he’ll get most of the catching duties. Taylor Gushue could move up, although he didn’t have a great season in West Virginia. That said, there are several options to move up to West Virginia, which means they could give Gushue a push. He would split time with McGuire in that role, although he’s one of the better catching prospects in the lower levels, and the Pirates could afford to give him more playing time, which further complicates the McGuire decision.
West Virginia – There are three top candidates to catch in West Virginia from the lower levels. Christian Kelley and John Bormann were both drafted out of college in 2015, and both played significant roles with their short-season teams. The Pirates seem higher on Kelley, since he started in Morgantown. Bormann is strong defensively, and could be a backup at either A-ball level. The Pirates also moved Erik Lunde behind the plate in 2015, after taking him as a second baseman in the 2014 draft. He got the most starts in Bristol, and put up great offensive numbers. Lunde should factor in the mix at the two A-ball levels.
Positional Analysis – There’s some depth here, with two of the best defensive catchers in the minors in the same system. The big question mark is whether Reese McGuire will move up. There’s a void in Altoona that he could fill, and his promotion would clear up playing time in the lower levels. It would allow Gushue to get more time, and it would allow one of Kelley or Bormann to move up to Bradenton to split time with Gushue, leaving more time in West Virginia for Lunde. McGuire didn’t have a great 2015 season, but his time in the AFL against upper level guys, and his performance in Spring Training leading up to the season could influence whether he goes to Altoona in 2016.
Indianapolis – There’s no surprise here. Josh Bell will be holding down the first base position in Indianapolis, and could be in the majors by mid-season if his defense shows improvements.
Altoona – I’d expect Jose Osuna to get most of the time at first base at the start of the year. However, if the Pirates opt to move up Edwin Espinal from Bradenton, then they could find a repeat of the 2015 Bradenton season, where Osuna moves to a corner outfield spot, with Espinal being limited to first base, and very rare playing time at third.
Bradenton – The West Virginia squad should move up, and that means Connor Joe getting time at first base, splitting with Chase Simpson, with the odd man out serving as the DH that day. The job could be Simpson’s alone if the Pirates opt to move Joe to a different position. However, third base would be held by Jordan Luplow, and the catching plans seem to have been scrapped after his back injury in 2014.
West Virginia – The Pirates drafted Albert Baur in the late rounds out of college, and he got most of the playing time in Morgantown. However, I’d be surprised if Carlos Munoz doesn’t get the starting role in West Virginia next year, with Baur serving in a backup/DH role.
Positional Analysis – The Pirates have their first baseman of the future in Bell, and they’ve got some other interesting prospects. There’s not a ton of depth here, and not many tough decisions. You’ve mostly got some minor position battles (Espinal vs Osuna, Joe vs Simpson, Munoz vs Baur), but most of those can be solved with athletic players getting time at other spots (Osuna in the outfield, Joe or Simpson at third base or DH). Munoz vs Baur seems like the only battle where the loser would be limited mostly to DH duties.
Indianapolis – The second base position could be crowded in Indianapolis. Alen Hanson projects to return to the position, as I doubt the Pirates would be calling on him on Opening Day, since they didn’t call him up in September. Max Moroff and Adam Frazier both look deserving of a promotion to Indianapolis, which could further crowd the infield. Frazier can play all over the field, so that shouldn’t impact the situation as much. Moroff is a former shortstop, and played some third base in 2015. Hanson fits the same description. I don’t think either are options at short, but the Pirates could move one of them to third in order to divide up playing time. Another factor here is Dan Gamache, who would probably be used in a utility role, rather than being a guy who gets regular playing time at one spot.
Altoona – Erich Weiss got most of the playing time at second in Bradenton, and moved up to Altoona at the end of the season. He projects to get most of the playing time in Altoona next year, with no real challenger for time, unless someone gets held back from moving up to Indianapolis.
Bradenton – This is another tricky position battle. Pablo Reyes didn’t have great numbers in 2015, but he showed some good tools, with the range of a shortstop (no surprise, as he’s a former shortstop) and some power potential. However, Kevin Kramer is more polished and a better prospect, and could get a promotion to Bradenton, where he would take the bulk of the playing time at second base.
West Virginia – There’s no single prospect in the lower levels who stands out for second base in West Virginia. Trae Arbet had a great season offensively in Bristol, but had poor defense at the position. Raul Siri is an interesting prospect from the GCL, but I’m not sure he’s the type of prospect you give an aggressive push to. The second base role could end up going to Mitchell Tolman. He played mostly third base in Morgantown, but also spent time at second. Third base in Bradenton should be held by Jordan Luplow, and second base looks crowded. That could keep Tolman in West Virginia at the start of the year, where Ke’Bryan Hayes could be playing third base. If Tolman is in West Virginia, he would seem the best bet for time at second, with Arbet potentially entering the mix.
Positional Analysis – There are a few position battles, with the toughest one being in Indianapolis. Hanson and Moroff could give the Pirates a second baseman of the future (or second basemen of the future if they’re platooned), but neither would be ready on Opening Day. That means the Pirates will have to find time for each of them in Triple-A until one gets the call to the majors. There are some position battles in A-ball, although the guys getting squeezed out from playing time aren’t close to the caliber of prospect as Hanson or Moroff. Reyes is the most interesting, and a toolsy player. You’d want to give him playing time to see what develops, but you also don’t want to take away time from a better prospect in Kramer.
Indianapolis – If Pedro Florimon (out of options) or Gift Ngoepe (minor league free agent) return to the organization in the minors, then they’d be the top options for the shortstop role in Triple-A. Out of the second base mix, Adam Frazier seems most likely to get time at shortstop, although he doesn’t have the defense to be a future starter at the position.
Altoona – Bradenton’s shortstop was JaCoby Jones, and he was traded at the deadline, which leaves a hole at the position for the start of the year. They could go with a minor league free agent, or they could promote Chris Diaz, who doesn’t have a great bat, but showed impressive defensive skills in Bradenton at the end of the season after Jones was moved up and traded.
Bradenton – I’d expect 2015 first round pick Kevin Newman to get the promotion to Bradenton, where he will start at shortstop. Kevin Kramer could factor in the mix here, especially in the second half if Newman moves up to Altoona. That would open second base for Reyes.
West Virginia – I wouldn’t be surprised if Adrian Valerio gets an aggressive promotion to West Virginia, and the bulk of the shortstop duties at the start of the year. If it doesn’t work out, he could move down to Morgantown at the end of June. But Valerio has exceptional defensive skills, plus speed, and the ability to make solid contact and drive the ball to the gaps. That’s the type of player who usually receives an aggressive push from the GCL to full-season A-ball. Cole Tucker could return to this level when he returns from shoulder surgery in the second half.
Positional Analysis – As I wrote last week, the Pirates are starting to build up some shortstop depth in the lower levels, which allowed them to trade Jones. Their depth in the upper levels is pretty much limited to defense-only options, or in Frazier’s case, an offense-only option that looks like a super utility player. There aren’t many position battles here, although that could change when Tucker returns.
Indianapolis – There isn’t a strong option for third base in Indianapolis, which is why I think Moroff and Hanson could fill this position, depending on who isn’t playing second base that day. Dan Gamache could also get some time here, as could Adam Frazier. Of the two utility guys, I’d expect Gamache to get a priority here.
Altoona – He didn’t have the best offensive numbers, but Wyatt Mathisen could be a candidate to move up to Altoona, as holding him back would block a lot of guys in the lower levels. It’s a situation that’s similar to McGuire at catcher, except Mathisen had better offensive results than McGuire. Eric Wood could also factor in the mix here, as it didn’t look like he did enough to get a promotion to Indianapolis, and the Pirates still seem to love his power potential.
Bradenton – I’d expect Jordan Luplow to get the bulk of the playing time here, with Connor Joe and Chase Simpson getting some occasional time. That trio is why I think Mathisen will move up to Altoona, although if Luplow has a strong performance in the first half, and Mathisen struggles in Altoona, the Pirates could switch them at mid-season.
West Virginia – This is another area where I think the Pirates could go with an aggressive promotion, sending Ke’Bryan Hayes to the level in the same way that they sent Cole Tucker to full-season ball in his first year. Mitchell Tolman might get some time at this position as well. This would block Julio De La Cruz and keep him in Morgantown, although that’s not a big deal, as he doesn’t project to stick at third base defensively in the long-term.
Positional Analysis – Yesterday I wrote about how third base is turning into a position of strength for the Pirates. They’ve got Jung-ho Kang and Josh Harrison under team control for several more seasons, and a lot of interesting prospects in the minors. I think Hayes has the best shot of being the third baseman of the future, but that’s not ruling out anyone else, with Luplow looking like the next best option if he can improve his defense at the position. The biggest crunch here is in Bradenton, where Joe and Simpson would have a lot more value if they were able to get regular work at third base.
Indianapolis – If you look at the overall infield, you only have one position that is really locked down, and that’s Bell at first base. I’d expect Moroff and Hanson to split between second and third, Frazier to get time at shortstop, with some time at second, third, and the outfield, and Gamache to get time at first, second, and third. The DH spot could also be used to give more playing time here.
Altoona – The infield here will mostly be a repeat of Bradenton’s infield in 2015. You’ll have Espinal and Osuna battling for first, with Osuna possibly going to the outfield. Weiss and Mathisen will get regular time at second and third, respectively. The main change would be Chris Diaz at shortstop, and that will last until mid-season, when Kevin Newman could be ready for a promotion.
Bradenton – Just like Altoona, the Bradenton infield could be a repeat of a lower level. Luplow will take the third base duties, which will keep Joe and Simpson at first base. Newman and Kramer will both probably get aggressive pushes to the advanced A-ball level, and will get the bulk of the time in the middle infield. That does leave a lack of playing time for Pablo Reyes, and it prevents Mitchell Tolman from moving up, which might be just as deserved as promotions for Newman and Kramer.
West Virginia – This is going to be a young and high upside team, which is an annual trend for West Virginia. First base could see Carlos Munoz get his first test at trying to hold up physically in full-season ball. Mitchell Tolman would probably get most of the time at second base, due to a lack of other positions to play. Then I’d expect two aggressive promotions on the left side of the infield, with Hayes and Valerio moving up from the GCL and taking third and shortstop, respectively. Trae Arbet could also move around the infield as a utility guy to get some at-bats. Cole Tucker would factor into the mix in the second half after returning from his injury, assuming he’s not going to be moving up to Bradenton.