|Top-10 prospect Gerrit Cole highlights a strong Pirates farm system. (USATSI)|
Prior to the start of the season, we'll highlight a few players in each team's minor-league system to let you know which players you should be paying attention to throughout the year. These aren't meant to be comprehensive top-prospect lists, but should provide a look at some key players within each team's organization.
The Pirates had their highest win total since 1997 last season thanks largely to an early-season surge. The key to maintaining that growth will be the progress of the team's farm system. Picking 11th overall in 2004 and 2005, the Pirates drafted cornerstones Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen out of high school. The team picked in the top four in each of the next six drafts. Pedro Alvarez, selected No. 2 overall in 2008, is in the starting lineup, but will any other prospects join him in the big leagues this season?
2013 Impact Prospect
RHP Gerrit Cole
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft out of UCLA, Cole had a successful first full season in the Pirates' system, striking out more than a batter per inning at each of three stops, including in one Triple-A start. He had a 2.55 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 67 innings during 13 Class A Advanced starts and a 2.90 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 59 innings in 12 Double-A starts.
Rated a top-10 prospect overall by many evaluators, Cole, 22, has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s but can reach 100 mph. He also has a quality slider, but his changeup and curveball aren't yet major-league ready. The development of at least one of those two pitches into a plus isn't expected to be a major hurdle.
Cole should be ticketed for Triple-A Indianapolis to start the season, but if he produces there as he did in lower levels during 2012, it's only a matter of time before he'll be called upon to take the ball every fifth day for the Pirates. An ace in the making, Cole will join our next featured prospect to form a quality 1-2 punch atop the Pirates' rotation for years to come.
RHP Jameson Taillon
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Taillon has ace-quality stuff despite being overshadowed by Cole. He's put together solid seasons at the Class A and Class A Advanced levels over his first two years and even looked dominant in three Double-A starts in 2012, striking out 18 batters and walking one in 17 innings. Taillon, 21, is a year younger than Cole, and he should be back in Double-A this year, where his mid-90s fastball should continue to overpower hitters while his curveball and changeup continue to develop. The top-20 prospect should have a spot in the Pirates' rotation by 2014 at the latest.
SS Alen Hanson
A native of the Domincan Republic, Hanson joined the Pirates in 2010 at the age of 17, but it wasn't until his breakout season when he was 19 that evaluators could pencil him in as a future major-league starter. Playing in the Class A South Atlantic League, Hanson hit .309/.381/.528 with 16 home runs and 35 stolen bases in 558 plate appearances. His defense needs to improve, as does his base-running, as he was caught stealing 19 times. But his bat should carry him to a starting position somewhere in the Pirates' infield within a few years.
Polanco is also from the Dominican Republic and broke out in Class A last season, hitting .325/.388/.522 with 16 home runs and 40 stolen bases in 485 plate appearances. Despite his aggressive nature at the plate, Polanco limits strikeouts by making consistent contact and maintaining a high potential for power. He also has the speed and defensive acumen to stick in center field long-term, once he's ready for the big leagues. Likely to remain on the same developmental path as Hanson for the immediate future, Polanco should give the Pirates' lineup a jolt within the next few years.
OF Josh Bell
Taken in the second round in the 2011 draft, Bell was considered an advanced hitting prospect with star potential, and parlayed that assessment into a $5 million signing bonus, a record for a player not drafted in the first round. He struggled in 66 plate appearances, striking out 21 times and walking twice before a meniscus tear and later swelling in the recovering knee knocked him out for the rest of 2012. Will his initial cold streak eventually be exposed as the result of small sample size? If so, his quality power and strong arm should allow him to enjoy a long major-league career.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 draft, Sanchez, 24, has fallen off the prospect radar completely after subpar offensive seasons the past two years. After hitting .241/.340/.318 in 469 Double-A plate appearances in 2011, he hit .251/.338/.401 in 398 plate appearances split between Double-A and Triple-A last year. Considered a top-50 prospect overall heading into 2011, Sanchez isn't found in many organizational top-15 lists at this point. Although he reportedly does a good job defensively and with managing the game, his bat will have to progress in order to stick as a starter in the majors. The team hasn't given up on him, as was evidenced by his promotion to the 40-man roster this offseason to save him from eligibility for the Rule 5 draft. Will Pittsburgh's faith be rewarded?
The Pirates' minor-league system is one of only nine with five total players in Baseball America's Top 100 list (Cole, Taillon, Hanson, Polanco and RHP Luis Heredia) and one of just five with two players in the top 20. With that kind of potential star power working its way through the system, the Pirates could enjoy several contending seasons within the next few years.