Top 5 fantasy prospects
1- Jameson Taillon, SP
Taillon ranks behind Cole on most prospect lists, and usually, I'd go with the crowd. This is a rare instance where I won't. Taillon is a year younger than Cole, and already has 92.2 impressive professional innings under his belt. Taillon paired an elite 9.42 K/9 with an awesome 2.14 BB/9 in Low-A. The Pirates handled him very carefully restricting his innings and pitches per start. Those restrictions should be eased a bit in 2012 as he takes aim at High-A batters.
Taillon has an ace ceiling, and the Pirates have sworn up and down that if they held the top pick in the 2010 amateur draft, they would have selected him over Bryce Harper. The first thing that one will notice just looking at Taillon is that he's a big young man. He is 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds. He throws seeds with his fastball sitting in the 95-97 mph range and can hit 99 mph. Taillon backs it with a filthy power curve, a second plus breaking ball in his slider, and a developing change-up that is way behind his two breakers. One of the Pirates primary focuses for Taillon in 2011 was to work on his fastball control and command, and they limited his usage of his breaking pitches. The results speak for themselves, and the thought of his strikeout rate going up is scary. He'll start the year in High-A, and doesn't look like he'll need as much time in the majors as most prep arms.
2- Gerrit Cole, SP
Cole could have easily ranked ahead of Taillon. While the youngers power arm has professional experience under his belt, the college draftee is closer to reaching the majors. Cole made his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League (AFL). He made five starts, throwing 15 innings. In that span he had a 9.60 K/9 and 2.60 BB/9 with a 3.00 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. Impressive stuff.
Speaking of stuff, Cole has some of the best in baseball, not just in the minors. His fastball is blistering, touching 102 mph in the AFL. He throws it comfortably in the upper-90s. His bread and butter breaking pitch is a plus-plus slider. His change-up isn't as consistent as his slider, but it also earns the occasional plus-plus grade. In spite of his off the charts stuff, he has left many puzzled as to why he hasn't completely dominated hitters. Eventually he should, but since he hasn't yet, there is at least some question as to whether he'll become an ace. At worst, his floor is really high. While he's probably ready to start the year in Double-A, it's suggested he'll open in High-A and move fast. If he and Taillon both begin in High-A, there won't be a better 1-2 in all of the minors. Some think Cole will be ready for a September call-up, if that's the case, get your popcorn ready.
3- Josh Bell, OF
Bell was considered unsignable after sending an e-mail to all 30 MLB clubs stating his intention to honor a college commitment to the University of Texas. He fell to the Pirates in the second round, and they took a shot on him, eventually signing him to a record high second round $5 million bonus. Bell had first round talent, and was considered to have the most power of any prep hitter. He isn't just projected to be a slugger, he should also hit for a high average as he matures. He profiles as a corner outfielder that hits in the heart of an order. He'll start in Low-A, but given his advanced approach, may end up at High-A before years end.
4- Luis Heredia, SP
The Pirates spent $2.6 million to net Heredia out of the international free agent market in 2010. The most impressive thing about Heredia is his age and level of competition. He spent almost all of last year pitching as a 16 year old in Rookie Level ball. He turned 17 in August, and will likely begin the year as one of, if not the, youngest players in Short Season ball.
The results last year weren't eye popping, but simply holding his own at such a young age against others years older than him is a feet in itself. Heredia already throws hard, hitting the mid-90s with his fastball, and projects to possibly throw harder as he fills out his 6-foot-6 205 pound frame. While he's raw, he also flashes a plus curveball, and his developing change-up also has plus moments. Heredia comes with much less certainty than the two starters ranking ahead of him, but his ceiling rivals that of both.
5- Starling Marte, OF
Marte is an athletic outfielder that stings the ball and runs like a deer. He hit .332 in Double-A in 2011, and has a career .309 average in 1403 minor league at-bats. He tapped into his power last year hitting 12 home runs. Marte added 38 doubles, eight triples, bringing his total to 58 extra base hits and helping his isolated slugging (ISO) settle in at .168.
There are some warts in Marte's game. He's hyper aggressive, leading to an unacceptable 3.8 percent walk rate in 2011. As fast as he is, he's an inefficient base stealer going 24 for 36 in stolen base attempts (66.67 percent success rate). If it all comes together, Marte should hit 15-20 home runs, eclipse 20 stolen bases, perhaps even besting 30, and hit .300 year in and year out. That should probably rank him ahead of at least Heredia, but my concerns about advanced pitchers picking apart his aggressive approach have me tempering expectations a bit.
Bonus- Stetson Allie
The forgotten man from the 2010 amateur draft. Allie was Bell, before Bell. A second round pick expected to be a tough sign due to a college commitment. The Pirates swayed him to choose pro ball with a big signing bonus, and ended up with one of the more lively prep arms available that year. Everything that could go wrong on the diamond did for Allie in his pro debut. He simply could not find the strikezone walking 29 batters in 26 innings pitched.
Hold off on dismissing Allie. He still throws hard, 95-99 mph, and has a sharp biting slider. There were questions as to whether he'd be better off being developed as a starter, something the Pirates tried, or developed in the bullpen, something they transitioned to during the year. If Allie can iron out his mechanics, his two pitch mix could make him a lethal closer in the future.
Top 5 in 2012
1- Starling Marte, OF
Marte will start the year in Triple-A, where he'll spend most of 2012. The Pirates have a host of outfielders that include a star, Andrew McCutchen, a very good youngster, Jose Tabata, a scrappy over achieving fourth outfielder type, Alex Pressley, a veteran hoping for a rebound, Nate McLouth, and a platoon corner outfielder/first baseman, Garrett Jones. It will be an uphill battle for Marte to see significant time, but the outfield cluster could sort itself out by the time he's ready.
2- Gerrit Cole, SP
You read about the stuff above, even a handful of starts in September could move the needle.
3- Yamaico Navarro, INF/OF
Navarro has been a man on the move in more ways than one. He began last year with the Red Sox, was sent to the Royals in a trade for Mike Aviles, and found his way to Pittsburgh in a deal to clear room on the Royals 40 man roster for the Rule Five draft. In addition to changing cities, he has also changed positions. He was developed as a shortstop, but has seen time at all of the infield positions, and even gotten some playing time in the outfield. He's had his makeup questioned at times in the past, which is concerning. At his best, he offers a little bit of pop and a palatable, but below average, batting average. If he earns positional eligibility around the diamond backing up third base, shortstop, second base and making cameos in the outfield, he could be a bench option in NL-only formats with semi-regular playing time.
4- Jeff Locke, SP
Locke was one of the pieces that the Pirates received in return for McLouth. He is a southpaw that gets by more on control and command than stuff. His room for error is small with a high-80s to low-90s fastball and a couple average secondary pitches. Jeff Karstens circa 2011 showed that sometimes having top notch control and being lucky is good enough. That's roughly a best case for Locke.
5- Robbie Grossman, OF
Grossman had to make this list somewhere, and this was the place I could most justify sneaking him on. Grossman displayed Zen like patience in 2011 walking 104 times in 616 plate appearances. He doesn't project for more than average power, but showed he's a pretty safe bet to get there (15-20 home runs). He's not the fastest outfielder in the world (or in this system for that matter), but he was speedy enough to steal 24 bases in 34 chances. His range is lacking for center field, and he lacks the big bat for a corner, so he's a bit of a tweener in the Melky Cabrera mold. Grossman could be a great glue guy, and a jack of all trades but master of none type. His debut is more likely in 2013 than in 2012, but he'll be starting in Double-A and isn't far off.