I’ve done early previews this off-season of the minor league infield and outfield alignments for the Pirates at the start of the 2016 season. With the 2015 recaps of the rotation and the bullpen complete, I wanted to wrap the series up with a look at the pitching groups at the four full-season levels.
Most of this will be focused on the rotations. The bullpens in the minors don’t feature a lot of true prospects, especially in the lower levels. I’ll mention the relievers who are expected to be at each level, while noting the guys who could actually be prospects that can reach the majors. Most of the upper level guys have that shot in some capacity, even if it’s a depth option. Very few lower level relievers will have that shot. As for the rotation options, a lot will eventually burn out or turn into relievers, but at the start of the year, the Pirates will have a lot of prospects at each level, with a lot of tough decisions.
Here are the previews for each level.
Indianapolis might be the easiest team to project heading into the 2016 season. They will have Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon for sure. The other three spots could be taken by Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, and Steven Brault.
One of those three could easily be left back in Altoona, and my money would be on Brault. It’s not because Brault doesn’t deserve to be in Indianapolis at the start of the year. It’s more of a depth issue early in the season. The Pirates tend to sign at least one minor league free agent for early season depth. After injuries that will wipe out the 2016 seasons for Casey Sadler and Brandon Cumpton, they will definitely need to go this route.
I picked Brault because Kuhl and Williams have already moved up to Triple-A. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but it makes them the favorites to start at the higher level. Brault will definitely make it to Indianapolis at some point in 2016. He could be joined later in the year by Nick Kingham, after the right-hander returns from Tommy John surgery. You can also expect other minor league free agents to make starts here and there throughout the year, while mostly working as bullpen depth.
In terms of relief pitching prospects who could pitch in Indianapolis, most of this will likely be minor league free agents. If he’s healthy again, John Holdzkom could be the top relief pitching prospect at the level. Waiver wire guys like Jorge Rondon and Guido Knudson could also factor in the mix here, assuming they don’t make the active roster and clear waivers. As for relief prospects who could make the jump from Double-A, the list includes John Kuchno, Tom Harlan, Jhondaniel Medina, Brett McKinney, and Montana DuRapau, although all of those guys would be expected later in the year, since the Triple-A bullpen will be mostly made up of minor league free agents and waiver claims.
The Altoona rotation gets a bit difficult to project at this time of year, although the situation might become more clear after some trades and moves to the bullpen. For example, at this time last year the Altoona rotation looked crowded, with Tyler Glasnow, Jason Creasy, Chad Kuhl, John Kuchno, Zack Dodson, Angel Sanchez, Joely Rodriguez, and Shane Carle all vying for spots. The Pirates traded Carle and Rodriguez, moved Kuchno to the bullpen, and the Opening Day rotation was set.
This time around they’ve got Jason Creasy as a guy who will probably return to the level. Tyler Eppler made the jump at the end of the year, and should return to Altoona to start the 2016 season. It’s hard to say where Clay Holmes will end up, since he was coming off Tommy John surgery last year, and had limited time in Bradenton, with just 23 innings pitched. Moving him to Altoona might be a bit aggressive, although he’s Rule 5 eligible this off-season, needs to be protected, and would then have options burning. An aggressive push wouldn’t be bad here, especially since he looked good in his limited playing time.
As noted above, I could also see Steve Brault returning to the level, or possibly one of Kuhl or Williams if Brault makes the Triple-A rotation. That’s four spots already for the rotation, with a few guys being pushed up from Bradenton.
Cody Dickson would be the top candidate for the final spot. He was sent to the AFL this off-season, and has the highest upside of the remaining group. Other candidates are Frank Duncan, Matt Benedict, and Luis Heredia. The first two are more control and command guys, and don’t have the highest upside. They could be candidates to move to relief, with Benedict serving as upper level organizational rotation depth the last two years. Heredia has struggled recently, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move to the bullpen next year, as he’s well behind the other rotation options listed.
As for relief prospects, out of the group listed in the Indianapolis section, the top guy is Montana DuRapau. Henry Hirsch and Isaac Sanchez are two of the top candidates that could join the rest of the previously mentioned list.
I mentioned that a few guys would be getting pushed up to Altoona, and that’s due to the amount of candidates in the lower levels. I’d expect most of the West Virginia rotation to move up to Bradenton. The top prospects — Yeudy Garcia and Stephen Tarpley — are sure bets to remain starters in Bradenton. I could also see Austin Coley and Alex McRae making the jump to the High-A rotation, although McRae seems like the most likely candidate to move to a long relief role in the bullpen.
The Pirates have given aggressive pushes to a lot of advanced middle round college arms in the past, taking this approach with Adrian Sampson, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Eppler. All of those guys were skipped over West Virginia in their first full seasons. This year, the Pirates have two candidates for that jump in Brandon Waddell and JT Brubaker. Waddell is a lefty who went in the fifth round, and Brubaker is a right-hander who went in the sixth round.
The chances of both of these guys making the jump to Bradenton depends on whether McRae starts, and also depends on how the Altoona situation plays out. I definitely think one of them will make the jump, and both could due to the crowded pitching in West Virginia.
In terms of relievers, John Sever is the top prospect. He has started in the past, but the Pirates see his upside best as a power lefty out of the bullpen. Jared Lakind and Sam Street are two other candidates to jump to Bradenton. Dovydas Neverauskas should return to Bradenton, after doing well at the level at the end of the season. There’s also the chance that the Pirates could take a few of the middle-to-late round college guys that would otherwise be candidates to start in West Virginia, and make them relievers in Bradenton.
The West Virginia group could be the most crowded, and it all depends on how the Pirates handle some of their youngest arms. They sent Billy Roth, Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, and Gage Hinsz to Bristol last year, and it’s hard to say whether they’ll jump those guys to West Virginia, or send them back to short-season ball in Morgantown.
I say it’s hard to say because we really haven’t seen their approach with prep arms now that Bristol is in the system. In the past, the Pirates would send guys to the NYPL affiliate (which is now represented by Morgantown) their first full season, and West Virginia their second full season. Roth went to Bristol twice, struggling his first year. The 2014 prep pitchers spent their first full year in Bristol. So is the next step West Virginia, skipping over Morgantown? Or do they go on a slower path with the new affiliate in the lower levels, and a stronger pitching group in the upper levels holding them back?
I could see a mixture of both. It makes the most sense to send Roth up, since he’s older and had the best results of the group. The other three had some inconsistencies with their command, and might have to wait until Spring Training, in order to see how their stuff looks coming out of the off-season.
The decision is tough because there are other strong candidates for West Virginia. Dario Agrazal was great in Morgantown, and should remain as a starter for now. Bret Helton and Seth McGarry were both drafted high enough and are some of the better arms at the level. Therefore, you can expect both to start.
Luis Escobar was one of the top arms in the GCL last year, and got a big push at the end of the season to Morgantown. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that push continuing, with the hard throwing right-hander going to full season ball.
Luis Paula and Logan Sendelbach are two other candidates to go to West Virginia, although they seem more likely to be long relievers or piggyback options. Scooter Hightower could be in the same situation. Hightower and Sendelbach are two candidates to skip over to Bradenton in relief roles if the Pirates give up on them as starting options.
Regardless of whether the four young arms from Bristol make the jump, you can expect a lot of piggybacking to take place at this level, with more starters than rotation spots. Neil Kozikowski could factor into that mix if he goes to West Virginia, although I’d expect him to start in Morgantown.
The Chain Reaction and Rotation Depth
There aren’t many open spots at each level for mid-season promotions, unless spots are created by a chain reaction of moves. That could start when Tyler Glasnow and/or Jameson Taillon are promoted to Pittsburgh.
The likely promotions from Altoona would be Steven Brault and Jason Creasy, assuming the latter is having a better season than he had last year.
Bradenton could see several candidates for promotions, and at this point you’d lean to Yeudy Garcia and Stephen Tarpley, since they’re the top prospects at the level.
As for West Virginia, there weren’t any big promotions in 2015 from the rotation, but that would definitely change in 2016 if Brandon Waddell and/or JT Brubaker start off in West Virginia.
The Pirates have a lot of starting options throughout the system. Obviously not all of those guys will remain starting options, with some jumping to the bullpen this year, and others making the jump in the future. There’s also the very likely possibility that not all of them will remain in the system until Spring Training, with some being used for trade chips, as we saw last year with Joely Rodriguez (Antonio Bastardo) and Shane Carle (Rob Scahill).
The big thing you want to see is upside, with the hope that someone turns into more than a number four or five starter. The guys below Indianapolis who have the best shot are Brault, Holmes, Garcia, Tarpley, and the four young pitchers from the 2015 Bristol rotation.