When you start looking at your team’s AAA affiliate, hopefully you’re beyond the “developing prospects” stage and on to the “Can we expect help?” stage. The Pirates are very much there, with an affiliate at Indianapolis that’s loaded with players who could potentially help at the major league level. It’s very early still, but then a major league team may need help at any time. The Pirates have found that out with Jason Martin, who got the game-winner in the rubber game in Washington.
There’s also the question whether help is available for the short term or long term. The potential help available at Indy breaks down quite neatly into hitters and pitchers, with the former looking like longer term help (by which I mean beyond the next month or two) and the latter possibly providing some short term help if needed.
With Martin and Kevin Kramer in the majors, and not counting players on rehab, the focus here is squarely on four players: first baseman Will Craig, shortstop Cole Tucker, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and outfielder Bryan Reynolds. The short and simple answer is that, in the very early going, things are about as good as the Pirates could have hoped.
Tucker is probably the most vital for the Pirates, because shortstop remains the Pirates’ clearest position of need. His early season has been good enough to draw this writeup from Eric Longerhagen at FanGraphs:
Readers are often looking for a prospect outside the top 50 who might break out and move near the top of our overall list. My answer to that question is typically some big, projectable teenager who I expect to experience sizable physical growth. Tucker is rare in that he’s also a viable answer to this question even though he turns 23 this summer. Having answered once-relevant, shoulder-related questions about his arm strength, Tucker is now seen as a plus-gloved shortstop who has good feel for contact. But because he still has this big, seemingly unfinished frame on him, we think it’s possible that he comes into power a little late, and he might take a sizable leap. A source indicated to me that Tucker looks noticeably bigger and stronger this year. He hit for power during the first week of the season, and his batted ball data should be monitored for a possible indicator that he’s made a mechanical adjustment, too.
Meanwhile, Hayes has done nothing to detract from his status as the best position prospect in the system. He posted a .904 OPS through Sunday, with a lot of doubles and a good walk total. He’s striking out more than he typically does, 26% compared to 17% for his career. When I’ve seen him he’s gotten caught looking a few times by offspeed stuff over the plate. Possibly, he’s getting slow stuff in what were fastball counts in the lower minors, but there’s no reason to think he won’t adjust.
Reynolds and Craig have shown signs of improvement in critical areas. There have always been questions about Reynolds’ power, but he’s slugging .714 so far. Yeah, okay, that’s not going to last, but it’s an encouraging sign, and he’s done it without sacrificing the improvement in patience he showed last year. Combined with Martin’s good performance so far in the majors, it increases the possibility that the Pirates can replace Corey Dickerson internally when he leaves for free agency after this season. Craig took a step forward with his power last year, but at the cost of his previously strong plate discipline. This year, as of the end of Sunday’s games he was tied for the minor league lead in home runs and he was walking at a rate well ahead of last year’s. His path forward is murkier than Reynolds’ with Josh Bell hitting well, but injuries do happen. Who knows . . . Craig has a good arm and the Pirates could look at him in right field.
A couple of other notes on the subject of potential help:
Hopefully, the Pirates will be adding outfielders in the next couple weeks as players get healthy, not subtracting them the way they’ve been so far. Just in case depth beyond even J.B. Shuck becomes relevant, though, Trayvon Robinson is off to a hot start. His prospect days are long past — his brief major league time came all the way back in 2011-12 — but he recently had a two-game stretch with eight hits. And the other veteran outfield depth option, Patrick Kivlehan, is struggling.
The “third catcher” situation is at a really early stage. It’d be nice to see Christian Kelley move ahead of Steve Baron on the depth chart, but Kelley needs to get time in AAA. He’s only played three games, but he’s 3-for-11 with a double and a home run. Baron, not known for his bat, is 0-for-15.
The pitching situation at Indy is much more of a mixed bag in the early going. That’s not so great, given the way pitching needs can mount suddenly due to injuries, but it’s not necessarily dire.
If the Pirates suddenly need starting depth, they’re probably going to turn to Nick Kingham or Steve Brault, both of whom are in the majors. (Brault seems likely to join the Indy rotation once the Pirates activate Kyle Crick, which is expected to happen in Detroit.) If they need a starter from Indy for some reason, the prospect options would be Mitch Keller and J.T. Brubaker. Keller, as I’m sure everybody is aware, has not pitched well in his first two starts. It’s unlikely the Pirates would want him in the majors in the next couple months. (And, no, not because of Super Two, he’s just not ready.) That would leave Brubaker, who’s pitched reasonably well without dominating in his two starts so far. (Brubaker did leave his third start with a possible injury.) Eduardo Vera could be an option at some point if he pitches well, but that’s a long ways down the road. The one veteran option would be Rookie Davis, who’s had one bad start and one good one. He’s also not likely to be an option for quite some time. The Pirates really need their rotation to hold up for a while.
Nearly everybody in the Indy bullpen has at least the potential to be a major leaguer at some point. This is good, because with relievers always being volatile, a team needs to be able to reach into its system for reinforcements. Indy’s relievers have been a mixture of good and bad so far.
To start with the good news, Michael Feliz is off to a nice start, with four hits and a walk allowed, and eight strikeouts, through five innings (again, all stats are through the end of Sunday). He might be the first callup in the event the Pirates needed to replace one of their late-inning guys, although his propensity for gopher balls (none yet this year) remains a concern. Another obvious possibility is Dovydas Neverauskas, who was having a good spring until an oblique issue intervened, and who’s just returned to AAA action. Probably Indy’s most reliable reliever has been Montana DuRapau. He doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, which may weigh against him as a possible callup, but he has a history of getting outs and somehow misses a lot of bats. He’s also not on the 40-man roster, unlike Feliz and Neverauskas.
On the downside, the Pirates have moved Clay Holmes and Brandon Waddell to relief, and both are struggling, with WHIPs over 2.00. Geoff Hartlieb and Jesus Liranzo, who arguably have the best stuff among the relievers, have both had trouble finding the plate. Hartlieb somehow hasn’t allowed a run, but he’s walking over a batter an inning, which will definitely eliminate him from callup consideration.
Finally, two veteran relievers, Tyler Lyons and Brandon Maurer, could interest the Pirates due to their extensive major league experience. Lyons hasn’t been especially effective so far. Maurer has better numbers, with two hits and two walks allowed, and five strikeouts, in four and a third innings.
So there are definitely relievers to whom the Pirates could turn if they needed somebody. None looks like a sure bet, but then relievers never do.