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Prospects Report: Do the Pirates need a push?

Senior Fantasy Writer
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For the first time in 21 years, the Pirates had reason to celebrate last season.

But with accomplishment comes expectations, and when expectations aren't met in the world of professional sports, heads roll.

Whose heads exactly remains to be seen, but while general manager Neal Huntington's and manager Clint Hurdle's jobs are about as safe as it gets right now, what they accomplished last year has shifted the fan base's focus from the present to the future, for better or worse. A poor showing could quickly turn the tides against them.

Which makes the Pirates' sub-.500 record to begin the season especially troublesome.

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They can do only so much for the pitching staff. Ray Searage has already worked his magic on Edinson Volquez to give them a serviceable top four that also includes Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, but they just don't have the talent the Cardinals and Reds do. And the Brewers are making a case of their own with Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta.

No, the Pirates' best hope for distinguishing themselves is their starting lineup, which remains as top-heavy as ever with reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen leading the charge. Pedro Alvarez can hit some homers, and Neil Walker and Russell Martin certainly don't embarrass themselves relative to the positions they play. But particularly with Starling Marte scuffling to begin the season, the Pirates lineup isn't keeping anybody up at night.

What they need is another impact bat, and I'm not talking Ike Davis. I'm not talking anyone they could find on the trade market this time of year, but what's already right under their noses.

Through 18 games at Triple-A Indianapolis, prospect Gregory Polanco is hitting .419 (31 for 74) with three home runs, three triples, four doubles and three stolen bases.

Granted, it's a small sample, which is true for every player at every level this time of year, but when a prospect considered "on the verge" makes it look that easy at the highest level he can go, it usually means he's ready to graduate. It certainly did for Mike Trout in 2012, when he hit .403 (31 for 77) with one home run, five triples, four doubles and six stolen bases in 20 games at Triple-A Salt Lake.

Which isn't to say Polanco is as good as Trout. A player that good comes along once a generation. But Polanco is still about as high-end as prospects get, with Baseball America ranking him 10th overall, between Archie Bradley and Taijuan Walker (who are probably already owned in your league), coming into the season.

In terms of what he can do, he fits the mold of a Pirates outfield prospect perfectly, offering a skill set as well-rounded as McCutchen's and Marte's. But in terms of plate discipline and power potential, he comes closer to the former than the latter, making him worth stashing ahead of time.

Yeah, he's only 22, and you can't expect any 22-year-old to meet the full extent of his potential right away. But he's shown more in the minors than McCutchen did, and McCutchen arrived to hit .286 with 12 home runs 22 stolen bases and an .836 OPS in 108 games back in 2009.

In a worst-case scenario, Polanco's power takes a little longer to develop and he does about what Christian Yelich did after his arrival last year. But in a best-case scenario, he's too valuable to take out your lineup the rest of the way.

Of course, to deliver on any scenario, he'll need to arrive first, but that's where the Pirates' need to compete comes in. The biggest hole in their lineup happens to be the position Polanco plays at Triple-A, right field, where they're currently giving never-weres Travis Snider and Jose Tabata one last chance to prove they don't belong. Rebuilding teams like the Cubs can afford to be patient with reclamation projects, but the Pirates, with the expectations they've created for themselves, need to know when to cut bait.

And I have enough confidence in Huntington, with all the moves he's made to put his team in this position, to believe he does.

What's the argument against it? Yeah, Super 2 is on every general manager's mind, but it's a greater concern for those in rebuilding mode. As early as teams hand out long-term deals these days -- including the ones Huntington himself gave McCutchen and Marte -- it ends up being irrelevant much of the time. Trout and Bryce Harper arrived in late April two years ago to try to help their teams get over the hump, let's not forget. I can't help but see the parallels here.

And continuing with those parallels, I can't imagine a scenario, at least not in a five-outfielder league, where I couldn't find room for Polanco.

Five on the Farm ... by Michael Hurcomb (@CBSHurc), CBSSports.com

I can't help but think while watching Phillies third baseman Cody Asche struggle that it presents a perfect opportunity for the media to stir the pot and start conjuring up speculation about when highly touted prospect Maikel Franco will bump Asche from the starting lineup.

The only problem -- and it's a big one -- is that Franco hasn't given the media a reason to create controversy. As bad as Asche has been offensively, Franco has been equally as bad for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Franco is batting .134 with no home runs, two doubles and four RBI in 18 games, while Asche is batting .196 with one home run, two doubles and three RBI through 17 games.

So what's general manager Ruben Amaro's take on the struggles of both players?

"Kids, man," Amaro told reporters Monday. "It takes some time to adjust. They’re kids. You have to go through some growing pains with the kiddies. Everybody wants everybody to be an All-Star right away. It's not happening."

Amaro said the Phillies are going to give Asche "chances to play," but if Franco was hitting the cover off the ball, there would be plenty of debate of having him replace Asche. Though, it still could happen sooner than you think.

Amaro hinted Monday Franco isn't playing well because of the cold weather in Pennsylvania. Amaro alluded to a similar issue Franco endured when he played in New Jersey a few a years ago for Class A Lakewood. Franco hit .208 through the first 25 games before batting .297 over his final 107 games, per The Philadelphia Daily News.

The Phillies handed Asche the starting job this spring partly because of how well he performed defensively after his promotion to the majors last season. He's shown at times he's no slouch offensively, slugging .481 in 2012 and .485 at Triple-A last season before his promotion.

However, most folks would probably agree Franco has a higher ceiling, and Fantasy owners would much rather see him in the starting lineup than Asche. But as long as a Franco's offensive production matches the chilly weather in Pennsylvania, a media-fueled controversy is on hold.

Bubba Starling, OF, Royals
Affiliate: Class A Wilmington
2014 stats:.133/.284/.250/.534, one home run, four doubles, six RBI, eight runs, nine walks, 24 strikeouts and one stolen base in 17 games
After undergoing laser-eye surgery last May, Starling gave us hope with a strong second half last season that he was ready to turn the corner in his career. Unfortunately, concern is building again as he's off to a horrid start in 2014. It seems like yesterday the baseball world was buzzing about Starling being an all-world athlete coming out of high school and being billed as a future All-Star. While Starling's defensive skills have lived up to the hype, his offense has not. The Royals have tweaked Starling's stance on a few occasions, but they just can't seem to get his timing down and find a comfort level for the former top-100 prospect. It might not be time to throw in the towel just yet. Starling could just be off to a rough start. But his poor performance means he has some ground to make up or else it might be time for Fantasy owners to use that spot in long-term keeper leagues on someone else.

Joey Gallo, 3B, Rangers
Affiliate: Class A Myrtle Beach
2014 stats:.333/.421/.750/1.171, two triples, three doubles, six home runs, 16 RBI, 17 runs, 12 walks and 21 strikeouts in 18 games
There's no denying Gallo can hit the ball a country mile. All he's done since turning pro in 2012 has hit for power. He has totaled 68 home runs and has a .645 slugging percentage in 188 games. It seems he can't get to the majors fast enough with those power numbers. Still, Gallo has a hole in his swing that is very concerning to the scouts. His strikeout average is more than one per game and his long swing creates contact issues. Though, Gallo is batting .333 this season and has 12 walks in 18 games, so maybe he's starting to correct some of his flaws. Plenty of power hitters strike out a lot, but we just hope Gallo is more like Chris Davis, who is a high-end Fantasy option despite a high strikeout rate, and not Mark Reynolds, who is an all-or-nothing slugger. Slugger Paul Goldschmidt was promoted to the majors after just 2 1/2 seasons in the minors, but he had the advantage of being older and more polished out of college. Gallo was a high-school draftee, so it wouldn't be surprising if he doesn't even sniff the majors until next year.

Micah Johnson, 2B, White Sox
Affiliate: Double-A Birmingham
2014 stats:.343/.432/.500/.932, one triple, two home runs, three doubles, eight RBI, eight runs, 10 walks, 12 strikeouts and seven stolen bases in 18 games
Johnson wasn't expected to last as long as he did in major-league camp this spring, but the 23-year-old second baseman remained with the team until some of the final cuts. After a strong spring, Johnson has carried that momentum into the start of the season at Double-A Birmingham, leaving plenty to speculate about his arrival to the majors. Johnson, who underwent elbow surgery in October, had some defensive shortcomings he needs to shore up before getting the call to the majors, but it appeared he was making great strides in that area this spring. Last season, Marcus Semien and Erik Johnson both started the year in Double-A and made their MLB debuts later in the season for Chicago. However, both players did make a pit stop at Triple-A prior to their major-league debuts, which Johnson will likely do as well. But if he keeps producing at his current pace, then he could be at Triple-A by midseason, if not sooner. Fantasy owners are going to want to keep tabs on Johnson's progress because he could be the next great base stealer making his way to the majors.

Aaron Sanchez, SP, Blue Jays
Affiliate: Double-A New Hampshire
2014 stats:1-1, 2.29 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 18 strikeouts, 10 walks and one home run allowed in four starts (19 2/3 innings)
The scouts love to talk about Sanchez's potential as a frontline starter. They consider him to have a standout repertoire of pitches and they like his intelligence in game situations. Sanchez, who is considered the Blue Jays' top prospect by Baseball America, has had plenty of success in his career. He owns a 3.26 ERA and has a 9.2 K/9 rate through 275 2/3 innings. However, his weakness continues to be his control. The scouts are amazed Sanchez continues to be plagued by control issues despite his easy arm action. Sanchez might be able to get away with control problems in the minors, but major-league hitters make you pay. Just look at Indians starting pitcher prospect Trevor Bauer. Sanchez also has to work on staying healthy and getting his innings up in the minors. He's never thrown more than 90 1/3 innings in a season, so the Blue Jays probably won't bring him to the majors until he's ready to prove he can handle a large workload. Sanchez is a predominantly groundball pitcher. The upside comparison for Sanchez would be Justin Masterson, who is a groundball pitcher with a high strikeout rate. The polar opposite might be Tyler Chatwood, who is an effective groundball pitcher with a low strikeout rate.

Carlos Correa, SS, Astros
Affiliate: Class A Lancaster
2014 stats:.306/.361/.486/.848, two triples, two home runs, three doubles, 15 RBI, 12 runs, seven walks, 11 strikeouts and two stolen bases in 18 games
CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman reported last week that some scouts feel Correa is ready for the big leagues. It definitely took me by surprise since Correa is just 19 years old and has never played above Class A. His game is also still very raw, but it's quite evident to see he's progressing quickly. As my colleague Joe Polito pointed out, the Red Sox brought Xander Bogaerts to the majors at 20 years old in 2013, so age might not be a factor. Though, the Red Sox had a pressing need for Bogaerts, and he at least got some time above Class A before his promotion. Even though the Astros have already promoted George Springer and Jon Singleton isn't too far away from his MLB debut, the Astros are not built to contend this season and saving service time for Correa is going to be a factor in his promotion. There's no doubt Correa has good offensive skills, and it seems he's only getting better in the power categories. But he still remains more of a long-term Fantasy keeper than seasonal-league stashee.

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Player News
Report: Mets' Daniel Murphy dealing with bruised hand
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(9:18 pm ET) Mets infielder Daniel Murphy is dealing with a bruised right hand, according to ESPN.

X-rays reportedly came back "OK," and Murphy shouldn't miss much time. Murphy was hit in the hand during Friday's game against the Tigers. He stayed in the game to run the bases, but was replaced at the start of the next inning. 

The 29-year-old Murphy hit .289/.332/.403 over 596 at-bats last season. 


Diamondbacks' Chris Owings takes batting practice on Friday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(9:10 pm ET) Diamondbacks shortstop Chris Owings was able to take batting practice on Friday, according to MLB.com.

Owings is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and has been limited early in camp. Manager Chip Hale said he was happy with Owings progress, and noted it was a big day for the infielder.

"Everything he's done has been right on time," D-backs manager Chip Hale said. "We've slowed him down, because it's important that that swing is right. This was a huge day for him."

Owings will likely go through another round of BP before he's ready for game action. The team may also opt to give him at-bats in minor-league games before using him during actual spring training games.

The 23-year-old Owings hit .261/.300/.406 over 310 at-bats last season. He's expected to open the year as the team's starting shortstop. 


Angels' Matt Lindstrom feeling 100 percent this spring
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(9:03 pm ET) Angels reliever Matt Lindstrom is feeling pretty good after having ankle surgery last season, according to the Los Angeles Times

Lindstrom struggled with oblique and ankle injuries last season, but has drawn some rave reviews during camp. "Right now, his stuff is very similar to when he was throwing the ball well early last year," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "That's exciting. This guy has closer's stuff. It's just a matter of how consistent he is and if he can keep it going."

Lindstrom admitted he came back from ankle surgery too soon last year, and it impacted his numbers. He was able to rehab the injury during the offseason, though, and feels much better now. "I can tell the ball is coming out of my hand better, the way it's supposed to," Lindstrom said. "It wasn't right last year, but now, I don't have any reservations. I can concentrate on getting people out."

The 35-year-old posted a 5.03 ERA over 34 innings last season. He's competing for a role in the Angels bullpen this spring. 


Orioles sign Elih Villanueva to a minor-league deal
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(8:54 pm ET) The Orioles have signed pitcher Elih Villanueva to a minor-league deal, according to MLB.com.

Villanueva has played in just one game in the majors. He gave up eight runs over three innings in a start for the Marlins back in 2011. Villanueva had a strong showing in the Dominican League, leading the circuit with a 2.63 ERA.


Reds' Stephenson hoping to make an impact this season
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(8:49 pm ET) Reds pitcher Robert Stephenson is hoping to make an impact in the majors this season, according to MLB.com.

Stephenson may not open the year in the majors, but is hoping he arrives sooner rather than later. "My goal by the end of the year is to be in Cincinnati," Stephenson said. "It's your dream growing up as a kid. It would be awesome to be there but at the same time, I want to get to a point where I deserve to be there and belong there."

Stephenson is considered the team's top prospect. He dealt with shoulder issues earlier in camp, but is cleared for action now. 

Manager Bryan Price said Stephenson has a few things to work on, but seemed optimistic about his long-term outlook. With Robert, it's command -- not necessarily throwing strikes, but the quality of the strikes," Price said.

The 22-year-old should start the year in the minors, but could earn a promotion based on how well he pitches.


Mariners' Chris Taylor homers, triples on Friday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(8:42 pm ET) Mariners shortstop Chris Taylor hit a home run and tripled on Friday against the Dodgers.

Taylor came into camp competing for the team's shortstop position with Brad Miller. While Miller likely has the upper hand, he's coming off a down season. Taylor, on the other hand, played well in the minors in 2014, and hit .287 in a brief major-league debut. It's believed whoever loses out on the starting role will be sent to the minors. 


Reds' Tony Cingrani goes two scoreless innings in debut
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(8:36 pm ET) Reds pitcher Tony Cingrani tossed two scoreless innings in his spring debut on Friday.

Cingrani allowed two hits in two innings of work. He walked one and struck out two during the outing. After an injury-riddled 2014, Cingrani has received a clean bill of health, and is competing for a spot in the team's rotation. 

The 25-year-old posted a 4.55 ERA over 63 1/3 innings last season. 


Athletics' Graveman tosses two scoreless innings in debut
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(8:20 pm ET) Athletics pitcher Kendall Graveman tossed two scoreless innings in his spring debut on Friday.

Graveman was acquired by the club during the offseason, and is one of the few pitchers competing for the fifth spot in the team's rotation. He gave up two hits over two scoreless innings in his debut. Graveman struck out one and did not issue any walks.

Graveman came away satisfied with the outing. I thought it went well," he said. "Stuff felt good, and thought I located well today. All in all I thought it was a good first outing."

Graveman appeared in five games last season, putting up a 3.86 ERA. 


Rangers' Nick Tepesch gets crushed in first spring start
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(8:15 pm ET) Rangers pitcher Nick Tepesch got destroyed in his first spring start on Friday.

Tepesch allowed seven runs on seven hits over just 1 1/3 innings. He walked one and did not strike out any batters during the outing. Tepesch is competing for a spot in the team's rotation, but didn't make the best impression. It's still early in camp, and Tepesch admitted he was trying to be aggressive during the outing.

"I was just trying to attack hitters and get ahead of hitters," Tepesch said. "They took advantage of my mistakes. I didn't really have good command. They put some good swings on some balls."

The 26-year-old posted a 4.36 ERA over 126 innings last year. 


Padres' Despaigne, Morrow impress in bid to win fifth spot
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(8:09 pm ET) Padres pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne and Brandon Morrow impressed during their first taste of spring action, according to MLB.com.

"I thought they threw the ball well," said Padres manager Bud Black. Both Despaigne and Morrow are competing for the fifth spot in the team's rotation. While Despaigne got the start, Morrow came on and pitched two innings in relief.

Both players were effective, keeping the White Sox off the board for four innings. Despaigne struck out two batters to Morrow's one, but they posted identical stat lines otherwise. 

Despite the strong performances, Black said it was far too early to draw any conclusions about who will open the season in the rotation.


 
 
 
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