Pirates' big year extended to Minors

Polanco, Lambo, Glasnow highlight Organization All-Stars

Tyler Glasnow held South Atlantic League foes to a .142 batting average. (Carl Kline/MiLB.com)

By John Parker / MiLB.com | December 2, 2013 6:00 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.

This was an outstanding year for the Pirates at nearly every level. Not only did the big league club notch its first winning season and playoff berth since 1992, but the team's long-dormant farm system continued to produce top prospects -- MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo pegs Pittsburgh's system as the best in baseball.

Six of the Bucs' eight affiliates -- Triple-A Indianapolis, Class A West Virginia, short-season Jamestown, the Rookie-level GCL Pirates and both Dominican Summer League clubs -- finished with .550 records or better, with all but the DSL Pirates 1 earning postseason spots.

Along with enviable organization depth, the Pirates boast top-flight prospects. The team has six players among MLB.com's Top 100, with outfielder Josh Bell looking to join the list in 2014.

Pirates Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Tony Sanchez, Altoona (four games), Indianapolis (76 games), Pittsburgh (22 games): The fourth overall pick in the 2009 Draft -- 21 spots ahead of Mike Trout -- batted .314/.416/.454 in his first full season in the Minors but had his share of struggles on and off the field before emerging in 2013 with a strong campaign at age 25.

"He has some tools. That's why he was selected where he was," Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor said during the season. "He still has some growing to do: we're tightening up some stuff on the receiving side. But if he's going to go up to the next level, it will be about calling a game and working with pitchers."

The Boston College product hit .288/.368/.504 with a career-high 10 homers in 76 Triple-A games, earning International League postseason All-Star honors as well as the Top Star award at the Triple-A All-Star Game. While Sanchez lacked the at-bats to qualify for the IL batting crown, his .872 OPS with the Indians would have ranked second behind MVP Chris Colabello. Sanchez made his big league debut on June 23 and contributed to a Pirates club that secured its first playoff berth in decades.

Starting catcher Russell Martin has a year left on his contract with Pittsburgh, so Sanchez is unlikely to be more than a backup in 2014, but his play this season demonstrated that he's ready for the next step.

First base -- Justin Howard, Altoona (98 games): Nearly 23 when he was drafted in 2010 -- out of New Mexico in the 24th round -- Howard has never been a prospect and lacks the power one might want in a first baseman. But he can hit, particularly against right-handed pitching. Howard narrowly missed the number of at-bats needed to qualify but would have ranked second in the Eastern League with his .314 average, and both that mark and his .405 on-base percentage were tops among full-season Pirates farmhands.

Howard missed nearly a month of action early in the season and was just 9-for-43 when he did play in April and May but batted .333/.420/.479 after June 1, good for the fifth-best OPS in the Eastern League.

Second base -- Ivan De Jesus, Indianapolis (103 games): Part of the deal that sent closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox last winter, De Jesus is a career .300 hitter over nine Minor League seasons but has only 80 big league plate appearances (.205/.253/.247).

The 26-year-old continued to shine at the Triple-A level in 2013, leading Indianapolis with a .319 average and .380 OBP. He can play second, third and shortstop and is more than solid, if lacking power, at the plate. He'll continue to look for a shot at the Majors, but it likely won't be with the Pirates, who granted him free agency in November.

Third base -- Adalberto Santos, Altoona (118 games): Like De Jesus, Santos is a 26-year-old with fine instincts at the plate -- he's a .309/.395/.439 hitter over four Minor League seasons -- but little power. The Oregon State product spent the second half of the 2012 campaign with Double-A Altoona, hitting .340 and reaching base at a .425 clip.

Back in the Eastern League this year, Santos did not quite replicate those numbers. He hit .281/.375/.386 and committed an unsightly 32 errors in 108 games at third base (no other Eastern League third baseman made more than 18). But he remains a solid hitter who puts the ball in play and gets on base, drawing 59 walks -- fourth-most in the Pirates system -- while fanning 70 times.

Shortstop -- Josh Harrison, Indianapolis (64 games), Pittsburgh (60 games): Harrison didn't spend a whole lot of time in the Minors this season but was excellent while there. The 26-year-old hit .317/.373/.507 with four homers and 19 stolen bases with the Indians, scoring 50 runs in 64 games. He committed only five errors in 60 games as a middle infielder.

Although Harrison is a career .308 hitter in the Minors, it is his versatility that makes him most valuable. In 60 games with the Pirates, he played second, short, third, right field, left field, served as a pinch-runner and even appearing on the mound against Colorado on Aug. 9, retiring the lone batter he faced in a 10-1 loss.

Honorable mention: Adam Frazier

Designated hitter -- Stetson Allie, West Virginia (66 games), Bradenton (66 games): Allie was one of the most intriguing stories of the first half of the Minor League season. Drafted as a pitcher out of high school in the second round in 2010, he proved unable to harness his high-90s fastball and went back to the Gulf Coast League as a hitter in 2012.

He began this season as a 22-year-old in Class A, where he destroyed South Atlantic League pitching for two months. By the end of May, Allie was second in the Minor Leagues with 51 RBIs, third with 16 homers, fifth with a 1.049 OPS and seventh with a .634 slugging percentage. After hitting .324/.414/.607 in the Sally League, he moved up to Class A Advanced Bradenton in the pitching-friendly Florida State League, where the bottom fell out.

While Allie still reached base at a .342 clip in the FSL, thanks to his organization-best 77 overall walks, his batting and power declined precipitously and no longer balanced his strikeout rate (Allie's 161 K's were 12th-most in the Minors). He hit only four homers and drove in 25 runs for the Marauders after posting 17 and 61 in the same number of games with West Virginia.

It remains to be seen whether Allie can master better pitching, but he remains an interesting prospect as those first two months featured extremely rare power.

"His work ethic has been outstanding," West Virginia manager Michael Ryan said. "He's a driven young man and extremely competitive. He's a quick learner and he puts the things he learns to use right away. Based on everything he's shown us so far this year, he has a chance to have a lot of success in this game."


Alex Dickerson, Altoona (126 games): Dickerson was a 2011 third-round pick after winning the Big Ten Triple Crown (.419 average, 24 homers, 75 RBIs) the previous season at Indiana. Skipping Class A, the left-handed slugger was an FSL postseason All-Star in 2012 and repeated the feat in the Eastern League, where he also was named its Rookie of the Year after finishing third with a .494 slugging percentage. His 17 homers ranked fourth in the Bucs system while his 36 doubles were third.

Though Dickerson can also play first base, the Pirates have something of a logjam in the outfield with NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and the two prospects listed below. So Dickerson was traded to the Padres on Nov. 25.

Andrew Lambo, Altoona (62 games), Indianapolis (58 games), Pittsburgh (18 games): Lambo leapt into the spotlight in 2013, his seventh season in the Minors. A 2007 fourth-round pick by the Dodgers, the California native made prospect lists in 2009 before being acquired by the Pirates -- with James McDonald -- for Octavio Dotel in 2010. A couple of quiet seasons at Double-A followed before a power surge this season -- which included Altoona's first-ever cycle -- took him all the way to the Majors.

Lambo hit 18 homers in 2008 but had not reached a dozen again before clubbing 32 this season (on Aug. 10, he was tied for the Minor League lead). He led the system in home runs, RBIs (99) and slugging (.574) but has yet to show he can consistently hit upper-level pitching, owning a .232/.305/.455 line in 122 Triple-A games. But the 25-year-old should be in the mix for a roster spot when the Pirates head to Spring Training.

Gregory Polanco, Bradenton (57 games), Altoona (68 games), Indianapolis (two games): Three years younger than Lambo, Polanco is the No. 13 prospect in baseball and already has Pirates fans thinking about him as part of a supremely athletic future outfield. The 6-foot-4 left-handed hitter did nothing to dash those hopes in 2013, batting .285/.356/.434 with 12 homers and 38 stolen bases across three levels.

"[Polanco is] a young man with a lot of ability, a young man who will beat the opposition in a few different ways: offensively, defensively and on the basepaths," Altoona manager Carlos Garcia said after his Double-A debut. "He's going to have a great impact on our ballclub."

Polanco showed increasing plate discipline during the season, totaling 36 walks while fanning 36 times in his first 68 Double-A games. After hitting 16 homers and slugging .522 in 2012, his power numbers were down as he rose through the system, but he's still young. An outstanding fielder with great speed, Polanco is a legitimate five-tool threat who could make his way to Pittsburgh as soon as 2014.

Honorable mentions: Josh Bell, Austin Meadows, Alex Presley

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Tyler Glasnow, West Virginia (24 games): The Minor Leagues feature a world of raw baseball talent, but only a few harness it well enough to reach the Majors. And even fewer made as big a leap forward in 2013 as Glasnow, who turned 20 in August. The 6-foot-7 California native increased his fastball velocity, learned a changeup on the fly as the season progressed and posted outstanding numbers in the South Atlantic League, earning him Topps Class A All-Star status.

Glasnow ranked fourth in the Minors with 164 strikeouts even though he pitched fewer innings (111 1/3) than anyone in the top 35. While he battled his command at times -- his 61 walks were third-most in the system -- Glasnow closed the season with a 1.033 WHIP after allowing one hit and striking out 24 over his final 14 innings.

"Tyler has worked extremely hard since we drafted him," said Pirates director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway. "He had a really nice season under the lights for the first time this year while helping the West Virginia club to a playoff berth."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Kris Johnson, Indianapolis (26 games), Pittsburgh (four games): At the other end of the prospect spectrum was Johnson, who delivered his finest season at age 28 and made his Major League debut in August. A 2006 first-round pick by the Red Sox, he posted ERAs of 6.35, 4.88 and 12.63 for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2009, 2010 and 2011 before being released. After a stint in independent ball, he signed with the Pirates and went 10-4 with a 2.39 ERA in 26 outings (21 starts) for Indianapolis this season.

Never a big strikeout pitcher -- he fanned 94 over 135 2/3 innings to rank 12th in the system -- Johnson relied on keeping the ball in the park, serving up only six homers all season. The Wichita State product was solid in three relief appearances for the Pirates but was hit hard in his lone big league start, allowing five runs on seven hits in two innings against the Cardinals on Sept. 1. The Pirates dealt Johnson to the Twins for reliever Duke Welker on Nov. 18.

Relief pitcher -- Zack Thornton, Bradenton (10 games), Altoona (19 games), Indianapolis (13 games): The Pirates acquired Thornton last winter from the A's after he was 4-0 with a 4.53 ERA and 16 saves for Class A Advanced Stockton in 2012. The right-hander, who turned 25 in May, opened 2013 with Bradenton and moved quickly through the Pirates system, striking out a lot of batters on the way.

By the time he finished the campaign with Triple-A Indianapolis, Thornton was 7-3 with a 2.63 ERA, five saves and 90 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings. The University of Oregon product held opponents to a .204 average and issued only 12 walks, good for a 0.929 WHIP.

John Parker is an editor for MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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