Backfield Blog: Pittsburgh Pirates

By Jake Seiner/MiLB.com

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After a pleasant long weekend off the clock around the Fort Myers area, my jaunt around the Gulf Coast League continued with an early-morning trek up to Bradenton for a day in Pirate City. Unlike the other Minor League camps I’ve visited this spring, Pittsburgh’s Spring Training facility is located in a separate complex from the Major League stadium, McKechnie Field. While I didn’t get a chance to go check out some of the recent renovations over at McKechnie, the experience at the MiLB complex — known as Pirate City — was a cool one. While the Twins and Red Sox generally drew fans to their Minor League complexes only as a sideshow to that day’s big league game, Pirate City was flooded with dozens of Pittsburgh fans.

I pulled into camp around 10 a.m., early enough to catch some morning workouts before the Phillies’ Double-A and Triple-A squads arrived for Spring Training contests. The Pirates rotated their players through some baseball drills and a number of conditioning sessions in the morning. Infield practice featured a good chance to catch Alen Hanson in action. The shortstop prospect was lithe up the middle with noticeable spring in each step. While he botched more balls than some of his teammates, his actions and confidence — as well as a late-day chat with Double-A manager Carlos Garcia — left me encouraged about his chances to stick at short. For more on what Garcia had to say, you’ll have to check out our preseason content when it starts rolling out next week.

The real star of the infield session was second baseman Gift Ngoepe, a 24-year-old South African likely to return to Altoona in ’14. Ngoepe moves well despite a thicker lower half, but what really stands out are his hands. He dropped a number of jaws with one play when he ranged 15-20 feet to his left, fielded on a full sprint and turned around a spinning throw to second in a remarkable fluid and quick motion.

I also got a nice view for a side session by 2013 fourth-round pick Cody Dickson. The left-hander out of Sam Houston State featured heavy life on his fastball with considerable movement running toward the left-handed batter’s box. His changeup had similar fade but also considerably more sink, plummeting down in the strike zone when he controlled it well. He also spun a few promising curves, although the location on those was inconsistent. I was without a radar gun, but if reports of the mid-90s heat are accurate, Dickson could be a considerable steal for the Pirates.

As the games got under way, I got a chance to catch up with Pirates director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway. Most of that content is going to go into our season preview content, but here are a few highlights:

  • I asked about the changeup-heavy repertoire right-hander Jameson Taillon has been forced to use in the upper Minors, which led to a discussion about the Pirates’ strategy of forcing Minor League pitchers to work in unusual ways, such as with fastball-heavy or changeup-heavy workloads. In particular, I was curious if the organization is ever concerned with how a pitcher’s confidence might be shaken if he’s a fastball-slider pitcher who gets repeatedly shelled throwing 20-30 changeups per start. I liked Broadway’s response:

    “It’s all on us being able to change their lens on what success and failure is. The Minor Leagues is a lab for getting tested and prepared to be a Major League player. You shape that mentality for guys and figure that you have to be ready when you get to Pittsburgh.”

    Broadway hinted that the team’s ultimate goal in developing starting pitchers is to groom guys to retire batters with strikeouts, if possible, but also via groundouts. Pirates pitchers at certain levels are challenged to induce early, weak contact from hitters, even if they already possess the stuff to rack up gaudy strikeout numbers. Broadway suggested Taillon’s massive strikeout rate spike (18.8 percent at Bradenton in 2012, 22.2 percent at Altoona in ’13) is less about Taillon’s stuff or command improving and more about his instructions and goals changing.

    “There’s a purpose to everything we do. Sometimes we’re focusing on early contact, trying to get ground balls. Sometimes they’re focused on using weapons and execution attacking hitters. He has the weapons to strike out anybody when he wants to and he has the weapons to get ground balls. It’s a matter of picking certain times and refining certain weapons and thought processes for him so he can have that whole arsenal when he gets to the big leagues. That’s what I would attribute most of the variation in those kinds of stats to.”

  • The Pirates entered 2014 with a glut of catching prospects ready for action at Class A West Virginia, including 2013 first-rounder Reese McGuire, Wyatt Mathisen and Jin-De Jhang. Broadway said that problem has been solved by moving Mathisen to third base full-time. The 2012 second-rounder was moved behind the plate as a pro but saw limited action there last year due to shoulder problems. A high school shortstop, Mathisen will move to third, mostly in an attempt to get more at-bats — Broadway left open the possibility that Mathisen could return to catching down the road, although for now he’ll work strictly as an infielder.
  • Playing next to Mathisen at short for the Power will be 2013 third-rounder JaCoby Jones. The LSU product was one of the most athletic players in last summer’s Draft, but he’s also incredibly raw for a college draftee. He’s spent time at shortstop and in the outfield in the past but will work exclusively at shortstop this season, Broadway said.
  • West Virginia should be a hot affiliate in 2014, featuring 2013 first-rounders McGuire and Austin Meadows, Mathisen, Jones, outfielder Harold Ramirez and Dickson, among others.
  • Speaking of Meadows, Broadway mentioned the outfielder has been slowed by a hamstring injury this spring. The injury isn’t serious and Meadows should resume playing soon.
  • Blake Taylor, a 2013 second-round pick, is likely to spend the first half of the summer in extended spring training before heading north with one of the organization’s short-season affiliates. The left-hander logged 21 Gulf Coast League innings in 2013.

That should just about do it for today. Tomorrow morning, I’ll conclude my Gulf tour with a short drive to Sarasota and Orioles camp. Be sure to check in tomorrow evening for more on that.

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