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First Pitch: 7 Pirates Prospects Below AAA Who Could Make a Long-Term Impact

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The main article in this year’s Prospect Guide was a focus on the prospects who could be arriving in the Majors in 2016. We called that group “The Next Wave”, signifying a new group of prospects who could join the previous group — a group that includes Gerrit Cole, Gregory Polanco, and Starling Marte from recent years.

So far, The Next Wave is working out about as well as you’d hope. Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are showing positive signs with their development, and could provide the Pirates with a boost at their biggest area of need this summer. Along with Taillon and Glasnow, Chad Kuhl is putting up impressive results.

Josh Bell has been hitting, and hitting for power, while looking improved this year at first base. He’s not needed at the moment, due to John Jaso’s success in the big leagues, but could provide a strong DH option, or a bat off the bench later in the season as he eases his way into Pittsburgh.

There have been some disappointments, but nothing that should impact the Pirates in the short-term or long-term. Elias Diaz had elbow surgery, but could still be on track to take over as the starter in 2017, and could arrive for the final months of the 2016 season if needed. Alen Hanson has struggled lately, but there’s no immediate need for him in the Majors. Trevor Williams and Steven Brault have both dealt with minor injuries, although Williams is working his way back and could return soon.

As I’ve written before, the Pirates are set up well in the short-term and long-term at each position. Every spot either has current starters under team control through the 2018 season, top 10 prospects in the system ready to arrive before then, or sometimes both. The Next Wave helps in this regard, filling in the final pieces, and also adding some depth. But what about the lower level guys, or the not-as-catchy “The Next, Next Wave”? The Pirates will need them to step up in order to keep the team competitive in the long-term, in the event that a few of the current stars leave.

Here are some of the top prospects in the system below Triple-A (with most of them below Double-A) who are good enough to be slated in the long-term plans.

Reese McGuire, C – He’s not hitting consistently, although his hitting tools look sound. It usually takes strong defensive catchers some time for their bats to catch up with their defense, as so much time is spent on the defense and the work with pitchers. In this case, the tools are there, and McGuire is too young to worry about. For perspective, if he would have gone to college, he would be draft eligible as a junior this year, and would likely be going to Bradenton next year, making it to Altoona by the second half. He’s a full year and a half ahead of schedule at his current level, giving him plenty of time to work on that offensive consistency. Elias Diaz projects to be the starter until McGuire is ready. At that point, the Pirates might have the best defensive combo in baseball behind the plate.

Kevin Newman, SS – I’d expect Newman to arrive in Altoona by the second half of this season, and if he does well, he could make it to Indianapolis for the start of the 2017 season. Right now his hitting is advanced for his current level, but the defense needs some work. He might benefit in the long-run working with Jordy Mercer, just as Mercer did with Clint Barmes. However, he will need to show improvements to get to that point. I could see him arriving as early as 2017, learning from Mercer, and taking over the starting role at some point in 2018.

Cole Tucker, SS – The Pirates went a few years without any internal shortstop options. Then they developed Jordy Mercer, who has been a quality starter in the majors, highlighted by his defense. It’s possible that a few years down the line, they could have two very talented shortstop prospects competing to take over for Mercer. Newman is currently ahead of Cole Tucker, but Tucker is very talented, with a lot of the same skills that Newman has. If they both work out, then you might have your entire middle infield from this combo, with Alen Hanson either being replaced, or moving into Josh Harrison’s Super Utility role (and Hanson has received a lot of outfield time lately, getting him prepared for that role). So while one of these guys could replace Mercer, the other guy could ultimately replace Harrison by shifting Hanson to the bench.

Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B – The Pirates can take their time with Hayes, since there is no immediate need for a third baseman in Pittsburgh. Jung-ho Kang is under team control through the 2019 season, meaning Hayes could spend a year at each level, and take over as the starter in 2020. He might be ready earlier than that, which would give the Pirates some strong depth in the final years that Kang is on the team. Hayes projects as a strong defender at third who will be able to hit for average with some gap power, and maybe some home run power by that point.

Austin Meadows, OF – Meadows could fit with The Next Wave in any other organization. But the Pirates have the best outfield in baseball, which means the Pirates can take their time developing him. He should spend the entire 2016 season in Altoona, and all of 2017 in Indianapolis. Andrew McCutchen is under team control through the 2018 season, and Meadows could arrive during that year, taking over as the starter in 2019 if, or when, McCutchen leaves. There would be some outrage over that switch, but Meadows projects as an impact player, and could maintain the strong outfield trio. You could also add Harold Ramirez to this mix, but Meadows ranks ahead of him for the future starting job.

Mitch Keller, RHP – We’re seeing a big year so far from Keller in West Virginia, drawing comparisons to Tyler Glasnow’s 2012 season. Keller will remain in West Virginia all year, which is what the Pirates do with young pitchers, regardless of performance. The biggest part of his development this year is getting used to a five-day schedule for a full season. He has already set a career high in innings this year, and we’re only in mid-May. Of course, that doesn’t count the extended Spring Training innings from last year, or his high school innings in 2014, but he won’t have far to go to get to that point. He’ll be more restricted in the second half, but should finish the year with a good amount of innings. From there, he could build on that amount in Bradenton and Altoona in 2017, and possibly Altoona and Indianapolis in 2018. It’s more likely that he takes an extra year, and arrives at mid-season 2019. That would be Gerrit Cole’s final year before free agency. Keller is shaping up to be a top of the rotation guy, and would be the replacement for Cole, keeping three top of the rotation guys in the mix, with Glasnow and Taillon.

Brandon Waddell, LHP – There are other pitchers I could mention for the long-term who have the potential to start for the Pirates — Stephen Tarpley, JT Brubaker, Luis Escobar, Gage Hinsz, Yeudy Garcia — but I’ll focus on Waddell for two reasons. One, it’s really hard to project a five man rotation three or four years down the line. Three or four years ago, no one in this article was even in the system. So I’m going to focus on Waddell for the other reason, that he looks a bit closer than the rest of the group. He looked advanced for High-A, leading to a quick promotion to Altoona, and he’s off to a great start there. I wouldn’t rule out him making it to Indianapolis at the end of the season for a playoff start, just like we saw with Chad Kuhl last year (although Kuhl started in Altoona at the beginning of the year). That would put him on pace for Indianapolis in 2017, and a potential jump to the big leagues in the second half. He projects as a strong number four starter, with the chance to reach a number three upside if his command and mixing of his pitches plays up in the upper levels. So he’s got competition from Kuhl, Brault, and Williams, but could compete for a rotation spot, or add strong depth out of Triple-A. I’d also put Tyler Eppler and Clay Holmes in this same category.

The best part about the long-term depth is that all of the prospects are slated to arrive about a year or more before the guys they are replacing become free agents. We don’t know yet whether the Pirates would keep guys like McCutchen, Cole, Kang, and others through free agency, or if they would trade them early. I wouldn’t look at Neil Walker as an example of what they will do, since Walker isn’t in the same class as the other guys. They are in a great position, allowing them to either make a trade and restock the system, or have a talented MLB guy on the roster who the prospect can learn from.

The Pirates have a lot of talent coming up in 2016, which should help boost their team this year, and in the next few years to come. But the guys lower in the system could make sure that the team remains competitive for the next decade, rather than the next few years.

Projected Lineup and Rotation, 2020 and Beyond

C – Reese McGuire

1B – Josh Bell (Under control through 2022 if he arrives this year)

2B – Cole Tucker (Don’t read anything into this, or Newman’s placement, as I’m putting Newman at shortstop because he’s projected to arrive first)

SS – Kevin Newman

3B – Ke’Bryan Hayes

LF – Austin Meadows

CF – Starling Marte (Under control through 2021)

RF – Gregory Polanco (Under control through 2023)

DH – Andrew McCutchen (This is just me joking around, and trying to start a war between anti-DH and extend-Cutch comments)

 

SP – Tyler Glasnow (Would be under control through 2022 if he arrives this year and sticks)

SP – Jameson Taillon (Same as Glasnow and Bell)

SP – Mitch Keller

SP – Chad Kuhl

SP – Steven Brault/Brandon Waddell/Stephen Tarpley (Add the other pitchers here, and you can have them competing with Kuhl, but I think he’s above the rest of the group)

**Why We Probably Haven’t Seen the Best From Josh Bell at the Plate Yet. Ryan Palencer breaks down Josh Bell’s offensive performance this year, some of the continued refinement he’s making with his swing, and how the best might still be yet to come with his offense.

**Giles: Is Starling Marte Underrated? Ed Giles writes about how Starling Marte isn’t as good as his numbers this year, but has quietly been one of the best players in baseball in the three years prior to this one.

**Prospect Watch: Stephen Tarpley Debuts, Waddell Cruises Through Seven Innings. Another great outing from Waddell in only his second Altoona start. Also, it’s good to see Tarpley back on the mound, adding to that trio of promising left-handed starting prospects.

**Minor Moves: Frank Duncan Promoted to Indy; Edgar Santana to Altoona, Brault to DL. Santana is the relief pitching version of Waddell, in that he looked way too advanced for Bradenton. In fact, on Monday I wrote just that, saying that he would be in Altoona by the middle of the year.

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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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