Pirates prospects take big step forward

Polanco, Hanson, Cole enjoyed productive seasons for Bucs

By John Parker / MLB.com | December 3, 2012 5:00 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

As Pittsburgh remained in contention past the All-Star break for the second year in a row, it relied on young homegrown hitters like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. They were joined by outfielder Starling Marte -- who homered on the first big league pitch he saw -- but are still waiting for the hyped Minor League arms of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to arrive. They should not have to wait long.

The Pirates system was superb at the top and bottom in 2012, but less successful in the middle. Indianapolis rolled to the top regular-season record in Triple-A before bowing out in the first round of the International League playoffs. Double-A Altoona won its final six games to finish 72-70 in the Eastern League, but Class A Advanced Bradenton (60-77) and Class A West Virginia (61-79) toiled near the bottom of their respective leagues. At 35-41, short-season State College posted its best record since 2009 in its last year as a Pirates affiliate. And in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, the Pirates tied for the circuit's top regular-season mark at 36-24 and captured their first title since joining the league in 1968.

Pirates Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Tony Sanchez, Altoona (40 games), Indianapolis (62 games): The fourth overall pick in the 2009 Draft, Sanchez has had an inconsistent Minor League career that saw him hit .314 at Class A Advanced Bradenton in 2010 but .241 at Double-A Altoona in 2011. The Boston College product's 2010 campaign ended in June when he was struck by a pitch, suffering a broken jaw and concussion. He reinjured the jaw in an altercation following the 2011 season.

Sanchez began the 2012 campaign back in Altoona and got off to a solid start, posting a .370 on-base percentage in 40 games through June 3.

"Tony's been good," Curve hitting coach Ryan Long said in April. "He's matured his approach. If he'll stay within his approach and trust his strengths, he'll be fine."

Promoted to Triple-A, the Florida native was less effective at the plate, hitting .233/.316/.408, but he did slug eight homers in 62 games after failing to go deep with the Curve.

Sanchez earned increasing plaudits for his play behind the plate, where he proved adept at handling pitchers and threw out 31 percent of potential International League base-stealers. The Pirates added him to the 40-man roster in November, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft.

First base -- Alex Dickerson, Bradenton (129 games): Dickerson jumped straight to Class A Advanced after putting up stellar numbers in his debut at State College in 2011. A third-round pick in that year's Draft, he led the system and ranked second in the Florida State League with 90 RBIs. That total helped him become the first Marauder to win FSL Player of the Year honors.

An outfielder and designated hitter at the University of Indiana, Dickerson had no regrets about the Pirates switching positions.

"It didn't hurt my feelings when they asked me to move to first base," he said in July. "I knew I didn't have a lot of speed or a great arm."

Though improving at first, Dickerson's defense remains a work in progress. His work at the plate is his strongest asset, particularly his ability to hit southpaws. The 22-year-old's splits were actually better against lefties (.310/.368/.437).

Second base -- Dan Gamache, West Virginia (125 games): A 2011 sixth-round pick, Gamache was solid for the Power in his first full season. The Auburn product batted .302 in the second half, led the system and set a team record with 40 doubles and grounded into only three double plays all season.

Gamache also stepped up his defense, although there remains room for improvement. Playing both second and third base in 26 games with the GCL Pirates and State College in 2011, he committed a whopping nine errors in only 63 chances. Over 105 games at second with West Virginia in 2012, he made 21 -- still below average for South Atlantic League second basemen but not egregiously so.

Shortstop -- Alen Hanson, West Virginia (124 games): Still a teenager -- he turned 20 in October -- Hanson put together a breakout season with the Power in his first year of full-season ball. The native of the Dominican Republic led the system in triples (13), slugging (.528) and runs scored (99), ranked second in homers (16) and stolen bases (35) and finished third in batting (.309).

Hanson kicked off the year in style, batting .410 and compiling a 16-game hitting streak in April, and was named a South Atlantic League mid- and postseason All-Star. Boasting an advanced approach at the plate, the switch-hitter drew 55 walks (he batted leadoff for the Power) and flashed power more rapidly than had been expected. A borderline five-tool player, Hanson finished the season as MLB.com's No. 53 prospect, one of six Pirates in the Top 100.

Utility infielder -- Brock Holt, Altoona (102 games), Indianapolis (24 games), Pittsburgh (24 games): While Hanson emerged as a top-level prospect, Brock Holt -- who played shortstop for Altoona and Indianapolis -- was impossible to overlook, so we went with a utility infielder instead of a third baseman. The 24-year-old has hit consistently since the Bucs made him their ninth-round pick out of Rice in 2009 and has been named a mid- or postseason All-Star in each of his four pro campaigns.

In 2012, all he did was lead the system in batting at .344 -- one of three Pittsburgh farmhands to top .300 -- and finish second with a .406 on-base percentage. Returning to Altoona to start the year, Holt jumped to Triple-A in August and torched the International League with a .432/.476/.537 line in 24 games, earning a big league callup.

With Walker sidelined by a herniated disc, Holt saw significant time at second base in September and acquitted himself well, batting .292 in 24 games with a four-hit performance against the Astros on Sept. 4. If Holt can maintain a hot bat in 2013, he has a chance to supplant shortstop Clint Barmes, whose .593 OPS was the lowest of any National Leaguer with at least 400 plate appearances.

Designated hitter -- Matt Curry, Altoona (111 games), Indianapolis (two games): In 2011, Curry thoroughly dominated the SAL for two months, hitting .361/.477/.671 with nine homers and 34 RBIs in 46 games. The Pirates promoted him straight to Double-A, where he saw his slugging percentage plummet to .374.

Back with the Curve to start 2012, Curry cemented his place in Double-A by hitting .320/.376/.533 over the first half of the season. The 24-year-old TCU product went on the disabled list for two weeks in June with an injured hamstring and was unable to recover his stroke -- he batted .230 after the All-Star break -- but finished off a fine season in the Arizona Fall League.


Starling Marte, State College (one game), Indianapolis (99 games), Pittsburgh (47 games): Marte began the season as the organization's top hitting prospect and ended it in the Major Leagues. After leading the Double-A Eastern League in batting (.332), hits (178), doubles (38) and outfield assists (18) in 2011, he was not as dominant in the IL, where he still merited mid- and postseason All-Star honors.

Called up in late July to Pittsburgh, where he homered on the first Major League pitch he saw, Marte's appearance coincided with the club's disastrous second-half slide: The Pirates were 55-42 at that point and went 24-41 the rest of the way. The collapse was hardly the 23-year-old's fault as he slugged .437.

Marte has all the skills to play alongside McCutchen in Pittsburgh, but -- like most of the Pirates lineup, which was last in the NL in walks -- could use a more discerning eye. It comes as little surprise that his baseball idol is fellow Dominican Vladimir Guererro. Marte drew only eight free passes in 47 games and posted a .300 on-base percentage.

"He's been a special player all the way up," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said upon Marte's arrival. "A lot of people have had an opportunity to watch him. Now it's our turn."

Gregory Polanco, West Virginia (116 games): After two mediocre seasons in the GCL, Polanco emerged as the best story in the organization in 2012 and was honored as the Topps/Minor League Baseball Player of the Year in the South Atlantic League.

The left-handed hitter, who turned 21 in September, led the system in stolen bases (40), finished second in batting (.325), slugging (.522), homers (16), RBIs (85) and runs (84) and third with a .388 OBP. Polanco only struck out 64 times while drawing 44 walks and is 58-for-73 in stolen base attempts over the last two seasons. Pretty heady stuff for a guy who hit .229/.322/.346 in 2011.

With a plus arm that recorded 12 assists in center field this season, Polanco's all-around skill set has him ranked No. 87 among MLB.com's Top Prospects. If the Pirates can avoid damaging him -- Polanco reportedly aggravated an ankle injury during controversial Navy SEAL-inspired exercises in the instructional league -- he looks to be a prominent part of their future.

Adalberto Santos, GCL Pirates (10 games), Altoona (68 games): Santos, who turned 25 in September, is an intriguing player who's been beset by injuries throughout his career. The Bronx-born slugger was selected by the Blue Jays in the 17th round of the 2007 Draft but failed his physical when a torn labrum was discovered. The ensuing surgery cost him all of the 2008 season, with the Pirates ultimately making him their 22nd-round pick after his senior season at Oregon State in 2010.

Santos tore up the New York-Penn League in 2010 and posted a .314/.392/.476 line with 27 stolen bases for Bradenton in 2011, but again was hit by the injury bug this year. After hitting .396 in April for Altoona, he missed two months with a sprained right knee. Still, he posted an impressive .340/.425/.433 line with 17 steals in 68 Eastern League games and went on to shine in the AFL, where he had a .413 on-base percentage in 21 games.

At 25, Santos isn't really a prospect. He's played mostly the outfield with the Pirates but was an infielder in college. If he keeps hitting the way he has, however, he'll be hard to ignore.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Gerrit Cole, Bradenton (13 games), Altoona (12 games), Indianapolis (one game) and Phil Irwin, Bradenton (one game), Altoona (18 games), Indianapolis (four games): Cole is easily the bigger name, having been the top overall pick in the 2011 Draft and reaching Triple-A -- where he won his debut -- before his 22nd birthday. A 21st-round selection in 2009 and 3 1/2 years older, Irwin was just as good in 2012, leading us to split the vote at this position.

Cole was as good as advertised in his first year as a pro, recording a 2.80 ERA and fanning 136 (second-most in the system) over 132 innings while tearing through three levels. Opponents hit just .230 against him, and he seems poised to become the front-end power starter the Pirates envisioned when they signed him.

Irwin was less overwhelming but equally effective, posting a 1.10 WHIP that was tops among the organization's starters. The Ole Miss product struck out 117 while walking only 24 over 130 1/3 innings across three levels, saving his best for last by going 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA in his first four Triple-A starts. He joined Sanchez on the Bucs' 40-man roster on Nov. 20.

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Jeff Locke, Indianapolis (24 games), Pittsburgh (eight games): Locke was a key contributor to Indianapolis' success, helping the Indians compile the best record in Triple-A at 89-55. The 25-year-old, acquired from the Braves for Nate McLouth in 2009, owned the lowest ERA among full-season farmhands (2.48) and ranked third in both strikeouts (131) and innings pitched (141 2/3).

Having helped lead Indy to the Governors' Cup playoffs, Locke joined the big league rotation when the Pirates released Erik Bedard in late August. He maintained a high strikeout rate but struggled with the gopher ball, allowing six in his first four starts. He closed out the season by earning his first Major League victory with a six-inning, two-hit performance against Atlanta on Oct. 1.

Relief pitcher -- Vic Black, Altoona (51 games): A 2009 first-round pick, Black has struggled with injuries (he was limited to two appearances by a shoulder ailment in 2010) and control (he walked 20 over 35 2/3 innings in 2011). Somewhat surprisingly, the Pirates sent him to Double-A to start the 2012 season and the move paid off handsomely as Black posted a 1.65 ERA, struck out 85 batters over 60 innings and notched 13 saves after taking over the closer role for the Curve.

The 24-year-old still issued a healthy number of walks (29) but held foes to a .189 batting average. Though Black's command issues returned with a vengeance in the AFL, where he walked 11 in 10 2/3 innings and was torched for 14 earned runs, his mid-90s fastball remains enticing if he can stay healthy.

John Parker is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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