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First Pitch: Pirates Will Have Some Tough Roster Decisions in the Minors

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BRADENTON, Fl. – This week, I’ve got to write a season preview on the Indianapolis Indians, which is featured every year in the program they hand out for each game. This is either the fourth or fifth year that I’ve done this, and the preview always is due way early due to print times. Fortunately, with the way the Pirates operate, it’s usually pretty easy to get a feel for the Indianapolis roster and the top prospects they will see throughout the year.

If you asked me to write previews for Altoona, Bradenton, and West Virginia this week, I think my brain would explode. I wrote today about all of the prospect depth the Pirates have this year, and that mostly focuses on the Indianapolis roster. But below that, they’ve got a lot of position battles, and a lot of tough decisions to make this camp, which doesn’t make it easy when trying to project a roster.

It’s very difficult to sort through all of these decisions, but in an attempt to make it as simple as possible, I’m going to break each decision down by position. I won’t include the outfield, since that’s a position where the Pirates can, and probably will be very conservative. They can be conservative because of their current MLB outfield, and they probably will be conservative, keeping most of the outfielders on a “one level per year” type of approach, only giving promotions at the end of the year for some players. So with outfield out of the way, let’s start with catcher.

Catcher

The key decision here comes down to where Reese McGuire will play. His defense is as advertised, but his offense struggled last year. He’s got good hitting tools, and makes solid contact to the gaps, but doesn’t drive the ball consistently enough to have his skills show up in the stat lines. The defense is worthy of a promotion to Altoona, but the bat hasn’t looked the same way. He did perform better at the plate in the Arizona Fall League, so maybe that could be enough for the Pirates to consider a promotion.

The reason a promotion would be needed is because McGuire would be blocking everyone below him. He’d block Taylor Gushue from moving up to Bradenton from West Virginia. Gushue is another guy who hasn’t seen his offensive skills fully translate to the stat line. And if he stays in West Virginia, then the Pirates would be blocking 2015 draft pick Christian Kelley (who they gave a $100,000 bonus to in the 11th round) from moving up to full season ball.

This is a case where the guys behind McGuire aren’t nearly the calibre of prospect that he is, so it’s not imperative that he moves up to keep the system moving. But he would be stopping those guys from advancing, which would make it difficult for them to eventually become legit MLB catching prospects.

First Base

Josh Bell has the first base position in Indianapolis, which creates a few minor problems if the Pirates send Jason Rogers or Jake Goebbert down to Indianapolis. Bell is also blocking Jose Osuna from a promotion to Indianapolis, creating a repeat scenario from last year.

Osuna will probably have to remain in Altoona, sharing time at first base with Edwin Espinal, while also trying to get at-bats as the DH and in the outfield. The latter was easier in 2015, as Harold Ramirez and Barrett Barnes were out at the start of the season, opening right field for Osuna. If those two and Austin Meadows are healthy, then it would be difficult to get Osuna playing time, especially since Jin-De Jhang would be getting some time at DH when he’s not catching.

There’s another problem below Osuna at Bradenton, although I’ll leave this for the third base discussion. As for West Virginia, that will be an interesting decision. Carlos Munoz definitely deserves the chance to play full season ball, but that would leave no spot for 2015 college picks Albert Baur or Jordan George. The last thing isn’t as bad, since both guys were later round picks.

Second Base

The Indianapolis situation will be a mess here, only because of all the versatile infielders at the level. Beyond that, it gets somewhat simple, as Erich Weiss would take over in Altoona. This could get somewhat complicated if one of the Indianapolis infielders gets sent down to Altoona due to a lack of space in Triple-A.

From there, the only decision would be between promoting Kevin Kramer to Bradenton, or putting him in West Virginia. Sending him to Bradenton would put Pablo Reyes back in West Virginia. Reyes is a converted shortstop who has a lot of range at second, and good power for a young middle infielder, but is very raw and wild at times on the field and at the plate. Both have played shortstop in the past, and have practiced there this spring, but we’ll get to why that’s an issue in a second. And if you’ve got one per level, then you keep Trae Arbet in short-season ball a year after he posted some strong offensive numbers with Bristol.

This move would also leave Mitchell Tolman without a home at second base, which is where he’s been playing exclusively this spring. He could fit in on either team, but it would require moving Kramer or Reyes around, which is difficult when considering the makeup of other positions.

Shortstop

Altoona doesn’t have any prospects here. Chris Diaz is a strong defender, but lacks the bat to go beyond Double-A. Michael Fransoso is very athletic, but has lacked the defense in the past to be a good shortstop option. This is one of the few positions on a team in the system where the Pirates don’t have a true prospect competing for the job.

Then you’ve got Bradenton. I could see Kevin Newman making the jump to the level, due to his advanced approach. And Cole Tucker is returning earlier than expected, and is also a candidate to go to Bradenton. If he goes to Bradenton, then you obviously don’t have enough playing time for both of your recent first rounders. If he heads back to West Virginia, then he blocks Adrian Valerio from making an aggressive jump from the GCL.

It would be interesting to see if the Pirates give Newman a really aggressive push, sending him to Altoona to fill that void. This gives the starting job in Bradenton to Tucker, and the starting job in West Virginia to Valerio. It would also make it easier for guys like Pablo Reyes or Kevin Kramer to sub in during certain games when they need more playing time.

The Pirates have been very selective when skipping guys over High-A, and it usually involves first basemen. Matt Curry made the jump after destroying West Virginia. Stetson Allie did the same thing. So it’s not out of the question that Newman could get that aggressive push.

Third Base

So far in practices, Wyatt Mathisen and Eric Wood have been taking ground balls together. That makes sense, as Wood and Mathisen project to be in Altoona this year. The other ground ball group has been Jordan Luplow, Connor Joe, and Ke’Bryan Hayes. This is where things get interesting.

I’d fully expect Hayes to get an aggressive push to West Virginia. The Pirates did this with Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, and Cole Tucker, so it would make sense for Hayes. This leaves Joe and Luplow in Bradenton.

Joe has been practicing at third base all spring, and I haven’t seen him at first base yet. It was a similar case last year, although Luplow got the third base job in West Virginia, while Joe played mostly first base and DH. Over on the first base side, the Pirates have Chase Simpson. And if someone like Tolman moves up to this level, then you’re taking the DH away. So which player would play third base when the season came around, and how much would that block some of the college guys from moving up to Bradenton at the start of the year?

The Rotation

The Indianapolis rotation is pretty much set. Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon will start there, and if I had to guess, I’d say Chad Kuhl is most likely to start at the level from the NGTs. I also think that Kyle Lobstein and maybe Wilfredo Boscan could start at the level early in the season, in order to provide depth for the majors at the start of the season.

This would push Steven Brault and Trevor Williams down to Altoona, at least for the start of the year. And this would create a ripple that would either keep pushing guys down, pushing guys to the bullpen, or both.

Altoona also has Tyler Eppler, Cody Dickson, Clay Holmes, David Whitehead, Luis Heredia, Frank Duncan, and Jason Creasy as starting options. Of that group, I think the first three have the best chance to start, which means the others would have to move to relief. Or, the Pirates could hold someone like Holmes back for a bit, allowing one more starter from that group.

The Bradenton group looks pretty loaded already. Yeudy Garcia and Stephen Tarpley lead the pack. Austin Coley and Alex McRae seem like two others who are locks for the rotation. The Pirates always send a college guy or two straight to Bradenton, and this year I’d say that Brandon Waddell and JT Brubaker would be the top options for that promotion. But unless McRae moves to long relief, they couldn’t promote both guys. And it would be more difficult if a starter stays back from the Altoona group.

West Virginia has roster situations from both directions. If Waddell and/or Brubaker don’t go to Bradenton, then they will definitely be in the West Virginia rotation. Then you’ve got the young guys moving up from the short season leagues, like Mitch Keller, Gage Hinsz, Luis Escobar, and Billy Roth. It’s not a guarantee that any of those guys move up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened with any of the four of them.

Seth McGarry has the upside of a late inning reliever, but the Pirates will probably use him as a starter until he arrives in Double-A. Bret Helton was a top ten round pick, and should get plenty of innings. West Virginia can piggyback starters, and if the young guys get promoted, I doubt they’d go more than 4-5 innings per start. So they can have all of these guys on the team. But there still might be spots needed for guys like Dario Agrazal, Scooter Hightower, Neil Kozikowski, Logan Sendelbach, Chris Plitt, or Nathan Economos. None of these guys are top prospects at the moment, but all interesting arms who have started before, and might be moved to the bullpen going forward. And I haven’t even mentioned Colten Brewer and Jose Regalado, who should both get a lot of innings in Bradenton if they move up.

The thing about the pitching group is that you can expect a lot of movement this year, with the chain reaction being set off when some of the Indianapolis prospects move to the majors. That would create the opportunity for anyone left behind to move up to the level they deserve to be at. But until then, we might see some guys on the starting rotation side starting the season a level too low, in a piggyback role, or flat-out moving to the bullpen.

**Everyday, Pirates Prospects posts more analysis and information on the Pirates’ system than any other outlet. We also post information that you can’t find anywhere else, as we’re the only ones who cover this team’s minor league system live on a daily basis. You can get all of this information for our low monthly, annual, or three-year prices. Subscribe today to get the best and most in-depth Pirates coverage there is. You can also purchase the 2016 Prospect Guide for profiles on every player in the system, with book discounts for subscribers.

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**Pirates Have More Prospects Set to Arrive in 2016 Than Any Year Under Hurdle. Hurdle said this is the most prospect-laden camp he’s had, and the guys are showing some of their potential with their daily late-game comebacks. Also includes notes on shifting and versatility, plus some lineup related notes.

**Will Tyler Glasnow’s Nerves Keep Him From Reaching His Upside? Short answer: No. But I go into detail about the history of his nerves impacting him, and why it won’t hurt his future. I wrote this in the article, but I’ll repeat it here: I don’t talk about the mental game, as that’s something you can never really know unless a player tells you. In this case, Glasnow has been talking about this for the last three years.

**Here Are the Big Pitching Prospects After the Indianapolis Group Graduates. Video from Saturday of some of the best young pitching prospects in the system, in case you’re wondering who is behind the current Indianapolis group.

**Cole Tucker is Now Throwing From Shortstop, Could Return in April. Great news, as this means he will probably play most of the 2016 season, rather than missing most of the year.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Funkhouser Back on Track With Strong Outing. John Dreker has the latest updates on the guys ranked around where the Pirates are picking.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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