The Bucs were runner ups to the Redbirds in more ways than one last season -- they also clocked in with the second best farm system in the division from top to bottom in 2013. Just like the Cardinals, they graduated significant talent to the major leagues last year in the form of future ace Gerrit Cole, corner outfielder Starling Marte, and a super utility man Jordy Mercer, as well as the relative surprises from lefty pitchers Jeff Locke (166 innings of 4.19 xFIP in the rotation) and Justin Wilson (73 innings of completely unsustainable peripherals as a 7th inning reliever who should be a LOOGY).
Just like the Cardinals (sensing a trend yet?), the Pirates still have plenty of dry powder down on the farm as well, lying in wait to help their club come June or possibly beforehand if injuries happen to ravage the big club like they have so many other teams this spring.
1. Gregory Polanco, OF
You know how Cardinal fans talk about Oscar Taveras? That's how Pirate fans talk about Polanco. For proof, read no further than KentuckyPirate's glowing review over at Minor League Ball. The BP crew compares him to a nice cross between Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano -- like, a combination of those two guys...who are also top 20 prospects. Speed, power, hit, Polanco has it all and he might actually project to be a better player than Andrew McCutchen when it's all said and done. The tools are certainly there: 3.90 speed down the line, fantastic arm, a hit tool that's shown up plenty in the minors and power projection to match it, although the big power has yet to show up in games -- he's not yet had an ISO over .200 in any of his stops thus far.
With the spring he had, the only thing that kept him on the farm was his arb clock starting early, so I'd expect to see him penciled into the Pirates right field no later than June and possibly by mid-May. With McCutchen and Marte signed long term, Polanco is the last piece in the Pirates outfield puzzle for the next half decade, and the talent out there will make a lot of Pirate fans think about the early 90's outfields of Bonds, Bonilla, and Van Slyke.
2. Jameson Taillon, SP
A whole lot was made about the Pirates refusal to dither on a contract for A.J. Burnett this offseason, and it's hard not to think that Taillon is the reason why. The minor league numbers are nothing to write home about, but that's not strange for a pitcher in this Pirates outfit, where method and development mean much more than results. Gerrit Cole never lit any hair on fire in the minors either and look how he turned out last year.
Taillon is a 6'6" right hander clocked in as the Pirates top prospect on BP's list this year, and #19th on the Top 101, just ahead of Polanco -- but I'm putting the position player in front of the pitcher when it's that close. Featuring a plus-plus fastball and plus curve, Taillon's real struggle thus far in his career has been command which drop the grades on his pitches slightly. He's also got no average third offering at this point either, although he's been working on a change up for the last two seasons, he's not quite gotten the hang of throwing it with the proper arm speed just yet.
I'd peg his debut sometime in June if things go as the Pirates have likely planned them, but if Edinson Volquez doesn't completely stink (and isn't walking 5+ hitters every start) that could push Taillon back later in the year while limiting his innings at AAA, much like the Cardinals did with Wacha last season. Adding Taillon to the Pirate rotation certainly puts them in the company of the Cardinals and Reds for the best staffs in the division, especially with the back end strength of their bullpen backing up their starting staff.
3. Austin Meadows, OF
Wait, aren't these guys who are supposed to help them this year? Yup.
And didn't you just say that Gregory Polanco fills in the Buc outfield for the next half decade? Guilty as charged.
So how does an 18 year old kid with just 22 PA's in low A help them out this season?
Well, because the Pirates have a few holes at the big league level, and trading Austin Meadows could help them fill those holes. There's a lot more questions about Meadows at this point than there are about Josh Bell, who basically had Meadows profile a couple of years ago before finding his stride last year in AA. I'm not saying they will trade him -- in fact, I'd bet against it, mostly because he's 18 and could be Jim Edmonds.
However, this Pirate team has a significant hole at 1B (actually, it's more like the Mariana Trench at 1B -- isn't that what you'd call a platoon of Gaby Sanchez and Travis Ishikawa?) and they've got nobody in the high minors who can fill it with any sensible amount of production. Assuming they throw Andrew Lambo and Jaff Decker at the spot when Ishikawa and Sanchez don't work out, and assuming the Pirates were right to replace Lambo and Decker with the latter two in the first place, it's hard to see how they aren't shopping for a 1B come July. Meadows would seem to be the expendable prospect, what with his high ceiling, low floor, youth, and the fact that he plays a position at which the Pirates are seemingly loaded.
What's more, there's likely to be a number of 1B types on the market too: Billy Butler, Michael Cuddyer, and Adam Lind will all likely be on the block with free agency looming and their team's possibly out of it come July. Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, and Corey Hart of the "nearly washed up, take a flier on me Will Clark-style" archetype will also likely be out there since they're on one year deals and either retired or looking for a long term contract if they can prove they are healthy.
Tyler Glasnow (SP): Big arm, great K/9 and H/9 rates in A ball but struggles with command. I'd hazard a guess he gets look in the bullpen at some point when all the guys who outperformed by leaps and bounds last year regress in 2014. Starter long term, but not likely this year with Taillon and Locke waiting in the wings for an injury or ineffectiveness.
Andrew Lambo (1B): Big left handed hitter who finally showed some power in AAA last year; lots of strikeouts, an inability to hit left handed pitching at all, and below average contact rates likely hamper him from being a full time solution.
Jaff Decker (1B/OF): A younger, shorter version of Andrew Lambo. Strikes out a bit less, but the Padres totally gave up on him and it's not like they have a bevy of awesome talent at 1B either. He's also a younger version of Travis Snider who can't even put up Travis Snider numbers in the high minors.
The Pirates have a deep system with some intriguing players at the lower levels, but these are the 6 guys that might have an impact for them in 2014.
Over at Minor League Ball, John Sickels is having his annual Cardinals organization chat today centering on the 2014 Cardinals as well as the farm system for 2015 and beyond. No better time to get your prospect thoughts heard and champion your Future Redbird sleepers.