03/31/09 2:37 PM ET
Bucs will be watching Indy intently
Triple-A squad will feature many keys to Pirates' future
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
Together, this group is knocking on the door of the Majors.
When Andrew McCutchen and Brian Bixler were both sent out of Major League camp Monday, it helped solidify what looks to be a Triple-A lineup that has at least five players in it who the Pirates view as potential long-term Major League pieces.
Obviously McCutchen, a first-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft and Indianapolis' starting center fielder, highlights the group. But he's not the only first-round pick in the bunch.
Neil Walker, a 2004 first-round selection, will be Indianapolis' starting third baseman. There's Shelby Ford, a 2006 third-rounder, and Bixler, a 2004 second-round choice, occupying the middle-infield positions. First baseman Steve Pearce rounds out the infield. And though he wasn't a top draft pick, his 2007 Minor League numbers increased his stock significantly.
All five of these players are products of the organization's farm system and could conceivably be starters in Pittsburgh within a year. That may be an unlikely scenario, but it at least emphasizes one point that management has made all spring -- there is reason for renewed enthusiasm in the level of advanced Minor League depth.
There is experience in this bunch, too. Other than Ford, who spent all of 2008 in Double-A Altoona, the other four started in Triple-A last season.
"We feel like the 25 we take [from Spring Training] are the right 25 for Pittsburgh," manager John Russell said. "But we also feel like if something happens like an injury or lack of performance, we've got some very good candidates to come up and fill that, which we obviously didn't have last year. It's refreshing. These guys go out and play pretty well. That gives us hope not only this year, but that we are starting to get a lot of talent in our system."
McCutchen, 22, is viewed as the closest to being an everyday Major Leaguer, with a midseason call up to Pittsburgh a likely possibility. And Bixler, who left camp on Monday as one of the organization's most improved offensive and defensive players, is seen as a ready replacement at either of the Pirates' middle infield positions should Jack Wilson or Freddy Sanchez get hurt or be dealt midseason.
"In both instances, [Bixler and McCutchen] reaffirmed our belief in their ceiling as everyday, above-average Major League players," general manager Neal Huntington said. "In each case, they've also shown us of signs of what's to come in the future."
Ford, Walker and Pearce need a bit more fine-tuning before they are ready to step into an everyday role. But a certain buzz about all three remained this spring.
Ford made tremendous defensive strides at second base under the tutelage of infield coach Perry Hill, and assuming he can avoid succumbing to injuries as in recent years, the Pirates see him as a potential replacement for Sanchez in 2010 if Sanchez leaves via free agency. This will be Ford's first full season at Triple-A.
Walker is hands-down the best defensive third baseman the Pirates have in their system, and expect '09 to be a critical season for the Pittsburgh native as he looks to match that defensive consistency with offensive production. Since moving positions before the '07 season, Walker had been touted as the organization's third baseman of the future, though that was before Pedro Alvarez entered into the picture.
As for Pearce, the Pirates are hopeful the production he showed in a 2007 season that earned him MiLB and Topps Minor League Player of the Year honors will resurface. Pearce will be primarily starting at first base this season, a clear indication that he will be considered a replacement for Adam LaRoche -- likely to depart as a free agent after this season -- if his bat can carry him.
The intrigue in Indianapolis even goes a bit broader. Catcher Robinzon Diaz has offensive potential that the Pirates like. And outfielder/first baseman Garrett Jones, who is still in big league camp but is likely to start in Triple-A, has opened some eyes this spring as well.
It's also quite conceivable that two of the organization's top three prospects as ranked in Baseball America -- third baseman Pedro Alvarez and outfielder Jose Tabata -- will be in Indianapolis before season's end.
In other words, there may be another reason outside of auto racing to keep an eye on the Indianapolis sports scene this summer.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.