Primer Addendum: Pittsburgh Pirates

By Jake Seiner / MiLB.com

Over at MiLB.com today, we’ve offered a snapshot look at all the teams in the NL Central and prospects of note from their farm system, including the Pirates. Those pieces can give you a nice idea of who’s who within those farm systems, but we know there are plenty of diehards out there looking for more. With that in mind, I’m going to empty out the notebook with some more thoughts and quotes on some of the top Pirates prospects below:

Gregory Polanco, Outfielder

Wrote plenty about Polanco in the Pirates Primer, but there’s always more to say about the blossoming 22-year old.

Gregory PolancoThe Pirates are keeping Polanco in Triple-A to begin the 2014 season, citing his mere 252 at-bats at Double-A or above as reason to think he may not be ready. Polanco has handled advanced pitching well in Double-A, the Dominican Winter League and in Major League Spring Training, but Pittsburgh wants to see it in a larger sample.

The team hasn’t said as much, but it makes sense for the Pirates to be somewhat risk-averse when it comes to prospect promotions, especially for players with star potential like Polanco. The outfielder’s service clock begins as soon as he’s promoted, creating a six-year window in which to suck the most value out of the youngster’s abilities. Letting Polanco potentially struggle for three months in the Majors isn’t an attractive option when every penny saved carries so much weight.

As for what the Pirates need to see to promote Polanco?

“It’s more the number of at-bats,” director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway said. “He’s got a good foundation. He just needs to build on it and just see upper-level pitching and just be in those environments and continue to progress without skipping steps.”

Jameson Taillon, Right-Handed Pitcher

I wrote from Florida about some of the strides Taillon has made with his changeup and also transcribed some interesting thoughts from Broadway on the Pirates’ unorthodox instructions for their Minor League hurlers. Then in the Primer, I talked a little about what Pittsburgh wants to see Taillon accomplish in Triple-A before giving him a shot in the Majors.

I don’t have much more to add about the right-hander, but thought it was worth mentioning that he won’t be on any sort of innings limit this season, which surprised me given the Pirates reputation as a forward-thinking organization, especially when it comes to the development of pitching prospects.

Taillon threw 147 1/3 innings last year and 142 innings the year before. In 2014, the plan is to let him throw as many frames as he can, even if it means a potential jump of 50-plus innings with the extra five to seven starts he’d get finishing his season in the Majors.

“By this point, there’s not a whole lot of restriction on it,” Broadway said. “Systematically, you add however much each year and you’re at a point where the next add is, if you take the ball every start, that’s what that’s going to be. There’s not a whole lot we’re going to look at this year.”

Alen Hanson, Shortstop

Hanson, like Polanco, was a breakout performer in 2012. Though Polanco’s star continued to rise, Hanson’s stock held steady as a good, but not quite elite, prospect in 2013.MiLB: MAY 08 Bradenton Marauders at Dunedin Blue Jays

Offensively, the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder had a strong 2013, batting .281 with a .783 OPS in Bradenton before struggling a bit in Double-A. The offensive profile at shortstop could make him a star, but if he can’t stick there, he may not hit enough to truly stand out elsewhere.

That puts a lot of pressure on the leather. The athleticism and range are there, and his actions have made progress over the past couple years. The issue is that his arm is fringy for the position, meaning his feel and mechanics need to be excellent to stick long term.

For a while, Double-A Altoona manager Carlos Garcia was skeptical Hanson could make it work. This spring, Hanson has changed the skipper’s mind.

“One of the things I saw was he was more passive going to the bag,” Garcia said about Hanson in ’13. “Right now, he’s moving his feet very well, making strong throws.”

Nick Kingham, Right-handed Pitcher

Like Taillon, Kingham is a hard-throwing Texan who has made big strides with his changeup over the past few seasons. After dominating in Bradenton, the 22-year-old posted a 2.70 ERA in 14 Double-A appearances last summer.

Most impressive to Garcia, the hurler appears to have gotten better this offseason, especially from a makeup standpoint.

“Definitely in this training camp, I saw a more mature guy,” Garcia said. “He wanted to take ownership of his career. He’s in great shape. He’s working hard and throwing the ball very well. The ball is coming out of his hand very well.”

Willy Garcia, Outfielder

He’s not quite Gregory Polanco 2.0, but depending on whom you ask, Garcia might be able to breakout in a similar — if muted — fashion. The 21-year-old’s power is no joke, anchoring a strong skill set that fits well in a right-field profile. Strikeouts have been his undoing so far — 154 of them in 118 Class A Advanced games last year — but the potential is there for a bust-out campaign.

Carlos Garcia thinks Willy has enough feel offensively to tap into his power in short order.

“He can drive the ball the other way and drive it out of the ballpark,” Garcia said. “If you can do that at a young age, definitely you’re having success. He’s in good shape. He’s a young kid who wants to play. Good tools, good arm, enjoying playing. I think he’s going to be good for us.”

Josh Bell, Outfielder

Bell figures to be the marquee attraction in Bradenton this summer. Now 21, the switch-hitter has grown into a physically imposing player with a prototypical right-field body.

After suffering a tough knee injury in 2012, the 2011 second-round pick shined in his first full season last summer. His 52 extra-base hits were impressive, though his output was overlooked in part because he belted just 13 homers.Bell Matt Burton MiLB

What might have been overlooked were his 37 doubles. It’s not a strength issue with Bell — he can drive the ball out of any park. The Pirates wanted Bell focused on hard contact to the middle of the field, something he’s done consistently since returning from the knee injury.

“I think the more doubles, the better,” Broadway said. “The worst thing for a young player is hitting a bunch of home runs. Been around long enough to see it usually goes the wrong way when you go up to Double-A and Triple-A and into the big leagues. Start getting holes exposed and things like that.

“Our focus with everybody is hitter first and power second. He’s doing a job. You mention the doubles — that’s really what we’re looking for is hard contact in the middle of the field. Those things, as you move up the levels and pitchers are around the zones more and hitters get a better feel for their body, those things turn into home runs, but that’s not something we’re concerned with this early in his career.”

Austin Meadows, Outfielder

Meadows is another player covered in the Primer. One talking point among baseball people about the 18-year-old is his size. He’s already listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and he has room on his frame to add even more good weight. He runs well enough now to play center field, but realistically, he could outgrow the position before he reaches the Majors.

The Pirates aren’t very concerned about how his size might affect his defensive profile.

“Time will tell,” Broadway said. “Eighteen-year-old kids, especially a big kid like that, you never know. He could lean out and wind up being a deer out in center field, or he could bulk up and wind up being a big, strong right fielder hitting homers.”

Wyatt Mathisen, Third Base

I’ve already written a bit about Mathisen’s move from catcher to third but wanted to expand on that here. A high school shortstop, Mathisen had the talents to catch, but injuries have prevented him from getting the experience necessary to improve. With Jin-De Jhang slated to catch at Class A Advanced Bradenton and Reese McGuire handling duties in West Virginia, there would be no way to get Mathisen full-season at-bats if he was going to continue catching every day.

And thus, the end of the Mathisen catching experiment.

“Right now, it’s more full-time infielder, then we’ll readdress down the line,” Broadway said. “We just want him to get going and get playing every day. He hasn’t had the ability to do that yet with the injury issues. Now, with Reese coming along, we love them both, but Wyatt has played the infield, has played third. He’s comfortable there, so we’ll give him a chance to get out there and get comfortable again and play every day.”

Cody Dickson, Left-handed Pitcher

The 2013 fourth-rounder is a sleeper candidate in the Pirates system. Ranked 20th in the organization by MLB.com, Dickson generates tremendous movement on a fastball, which can reach the mid-90s. He gets similar fade on his changeup, pairing that with tremendous dive. His curveball is also a hard breaking pitch.

The Sam Houston State product may be held back from an innings standpoint, though. Broadway estimated Dickson threw around 200 innings last season between his various stops and said he’d be monitored more closely than the average college hurler in his first pro season.

“We have to keep an eye on him, but he’s ready to go, no restrictions,” Broadway said. “Going to let him go out there and compete, see what it’s like to be on the five-day professional routine. It’s different than college. He got a taste of it last year. Just acclimating your body to that, acclimating your mind to that type of routine.”

Harold Ramirez, Outfielder

Last year’s first-rounders, Meadows and McGuire, will be the marquee attractions in the early going at West Virginia, but don’t be surprised if the Power’s biggest crowd-pleaser is Ramirez. The speedy Colombian outfielder has big-time tools, and at 19, could be the next Pirates prospect to break out on the national scene.

“He’s got bat, he’s got arm, he’s got power in there, he’s got instincts on the bases,” Broadway said. “He’s come a long way. He had the tools to start. We’ve taken it slow with him. He came over at 16. He didn’t go through the academy first. He’s been young. He’s going to play every day at West Virginia this year, get out under the lights right away. We’re looking forward to seeing him roam around in the outfield a little bit.”

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