SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – This is not a list tied only to 2013 value, rather, it’s all-encompassing value ranking. The list takes into account present skills, future projection, age, contract and club control. It’s essentially the trade value list ESPN’s Bill Simmons made famous.
It contains a wide range of players from current Pirates regulars to minor league players yet to play in Low-A ball, from ages 36 (Jason Grilli) to 18 (Luis Heredia). It’s a delicate balance between current and future production.
It becomes much harder to rank after the first tier, a tier that should have Pirates fans excited because those four blue-chip talents are under club control through 2018. And even that tier’s ranking was subject to internal debate here at South Hills Command Center. Enjoy!
TIER 1: THE UNTOUCHABLES
1. Andrew McCutchen, OF
He’s the face of baseball, well, at least the face of MLB 2013 the video game. McCutchen blossomed into an MVP candidate last season. He can impact the game in the field, at bat and on the base paths. He’s just entered his prime at 26. He’s signed through 2017 but the Pirates hold a club option for 2018, when he’ll only be 31 and likely be paid below market value at $14.7 million (going rate for a superstar will likely be at least $30 million per in 2018). There are probably only 20 players or so in the game the Pirates would consider trading him for in a one-on-one deal.
2. Gerrit Cole, RHP
He has Stephen Strasburg’s arm, though the results haven’t quite matched the tools profile to date. Still, he has the build, arm talent, and mechanics you look for in a No. 1 starter. If the Pirates make a return to glory it will likely be because Cole lives up to his potential. You could make a case he’s the Pirates’ most valuable asset as they need him to develop into an ace to compete with the pitching-rich Cardinals. He was ranked as the third overall prospect by Baseball Prospectus entering the season.
3. Jameson Taillon, RHP
I think the Pirates would trade Taillon for Bryce Harper if Mike Rizzo called. Still, Taillon is a rare talent. Like Cole he has the size, fastball, and offspeed complements to be a dynamic top-of-the-rotation starter. His outing for Canada against the USA in the WBC was most impressive. It can be argued that Cole and Taillon are the best 1-2 pitching prospect punch in baseball. That’s something to be excited about, Pirate fan.
4. Starling Marte, OF
Marte has been one of the breakout stars of 2013, posting a 2.3 WAR through Mary 15, which ranks 10th in baseball. Marte has grown as a hitter in 2013, cutting his strikeout rate and improving his ability to hit breaking balls. He has great speed, impressive bat-to-ball ability and more power than you think. Marte has even more value to the Pirates as PNC Park’s deep left-field requires another player with the speed and athleticism of a center fielder to play there. He’s a prime contract for a McCutchen-like contract extension.
Oh, Marte can throw, too. He can also make a case he should be No. 1 on this list.
TIER 2: SUPERSTAR CEILINGS, BUT A WAYS AWAY
5. Gregory Polanco, OF
One scout likened the 20-year-old Polanco to the Cobra Part 2.0. Dave Parker won an NL MVP award while with the Pirates if you need a refresher on the original Cobra. This 6-foot-4 lefty has all five tools. A scout said he has more power potential than the Cardinals’ Oscar Taveras. He can hit and has kept his strikeout totals low while making the leap to face more advanced pitching in High-A this season, and his run tool plays anywhere. I think he has more upside than Starling Marte, and that’s saying something.
6. Luis Heredia, RHP
Sure, he hasn’t pitched above short-season, A-ball and the Pirates are treating him with mink gloves. But there’s a reason the Pirates gave him a $2.6 million bonus out of Mexico, their most ever for an international free agent. Heredia could touch the mid 90s as a 16-year-old. A scout told me he’s now taller than his listed 6-foot-6 frame. He has tremendous raw tools and the worth ethic to match. A lot can go wrong with an 18-year-old arm’s patch to the big leagues, but he has the upside of a No. 1 starter. That’s why he’s here.
TIER 3: LOCAL BOY DONE GOOD
7. Neil Walker, 2B
I don’t think Walker will ever develop into the next Chase Utley. But he doesn’t need to be to be a valuable piece. Walker appeared to be reaching another level of performance before he suffered a back injury last season. He still posted an above-average OPS for a middle infielder (.763). With the Pirates thin on infield talent, it might be wise to talk contract extension Walker but he’s now arbitration eligible in 2014. He’s under club control through the 2016 season.
TIER 4: THAT PERPLEXING CLIENT OF SCOTT BORAS
8. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
Alvarez is the most frustrating asset the Pirates’ possess. He has rare raw-power. He posted a 30-home run season last year, and while he’ll never be Brooks Robinson, he probably doesn’t have to move off of third base in the near term. But he has a tremendous amount of swing-and-miss in his game, Boras is his agent, and it seems unlikely he’ll the expectations of being drafted No. 2 overall. (Hey, even the Rays passed on Buster Posey). I think there’s still upside remaining here but it might not be reached in Pittsburgh. He’s arbitration eligible this winter, and eligible to become a free agent in 2017.
TIER 5: AN ACE AND A CLOSER – BUT ARE THEY RENTING OR BUYING?
9. AJ Burnett, RHP
AJ Burnett has enjoyed a rebirth in Pittsburgh. He’s leading the NL in strikeouts. He’s improved his command. He’s pitching like a top-of-the-rotation arm. I’m not sure if he’s a true ace, but he’s No. 2 on a playoff-caliber team. There’s a ton of value in that only there’s one problem: he’s a free agent after this season. Burnett has expressed some interest in remaining in Pittsburgh. He might also retire. But if he elects to stay in the game he could receive an offer the Pirates’ can’t match in what will be a weak free agent class. If the Pirates fall out of contention, he’s prime candidate to move at the trading deadline — but he could bring back considerable value.
10. Jason Grilli , RHP
Grilli has been great, one of the game’s best closers this season – if not the best closer in the game. He’s under club control for another season at a reasonable price. But just how much value does any closer have? The A’s nabbed Josh Reddick in return for Andrew Bailey, but Bailey was younger and had more years of club control. The Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan last season for a modest package, headlined by Mark Melancon.
TIER 6: BECAUSE THEY THROW LEFT-HANDED
11. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP
Rodriguez has a player option of $14 million for 2014 and it will be interesting to see what he decides to do given the weakness of the free agent class. He’s proven to be a solid middle-of-the rotation arm, but one with extreme road-home splits throughout his career. He’s a candidate to be moved at the deadline if the Pirates cannot sustain their early season success.
12. Francisco Liriano, LHP
Liriano is one of the more intriguing names on this list. He still has rare velocity (93 mph fastball) for a lefty and if his tweaked delivery really has improved his command he could be back to his 2010 form when he was one of the best lefties in the game. He has a rare three-pitch mix with plus velocity for a lefty. Now can he throw strikes? If he can the Pirates will be picking up his option for next season. (The option can become guaranteed if he records enough playing time…it’s likely he’s on the roster in 2014).
Liriano has the upside of a No. 1 starter and the downside of a middle-relief option. What will he be in Pittsburgh?
13. Jeff Locke, LHP
He’s not big. He’s not especially impressive stuff-wise. But he is left-handed, he can touch 91-92 mph, and he has shown major strides in regard to confidence and mound presence. He’s also under club control through 2018. A former second round pick of the Braves, Locke is looking more and more like a No. 4 starter in the Majors. Yes, he’s unlikely to sustain a .213 BABIP or sub-3.00 ERA, but there’s plenty of value in a mid- to- back-of-the-rotation starter who is relatively cheap.
TIER 7: RUSSELL MARTIN
14. Russell Martin, C
Yes, he’s only under contract through 2014. Yes, he’s on the wrong side of 30. But we’ve seen what his offense and defense means at the catcher position for Clint Hurdle. It’s also tough to value what his experience and pitch framing means to the Pirates staff, especially one that figures to be much younger next season. If the Pirates contend this summer or next, Martin will be a big reason why.
TIER 7: INTERSTING YOUNG PIECES LOOKING FOR A HOME
15. Alen Hanson, 2B/SS
Hanson is perhaps the only player in the minor league system with the change to be an above average hitter at a middle-of-the infield position. Dilson Herrera is in the conversation, too. He’s scuffling a bit at High-A, but there’s a lot to like about his game. He can run, hit, and hit with some surprising power. Scouts don’t think he can stick at short. His future home is likely second base, and he could eventually be Walker’s replacement. But if he could stick at short, his value would skyrocket.
16. Tyler Glasnow, RHP
Glasnow has a chance to be one of the bigger draft steals of the Neal Huntington Era as a fifth-round pick in 2011. Baseball Prospectus’s May 12 scouting report on his start for Low-A West Virginia: (5.0 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 9 K); fastball up to 94; curveball is a hammer with easy plus potential; developing changeup; stock on the rise, big time; 30.0 IP, 13 H, 6 ER, 19 BB, 42 K in seven starts.
Glasnow is 6-7, 200, and has tons of projection. Helium watch.
17. Jose Tabata, OF
Tabata can hit a little and he can run a little. The problem is he’s not a center fielder, and he doesn’t hit enough to be a corner outfielder. He looks like a fourth outfielder going forward, perhaps part of a platoon with Travis Snider in right-field, keeping the position warm for Polanco or Josh Bell. But there’s some Melky Cabrera going on here, too. There’s potential for more. He’s signed through 2016 and the Pirates have three years of club options following that.
18. Vic Black, RHP
Speaking of future closers, Black has 31 Ks against 11 walks and 13 hits in 21 innings with Indianapolis. He looks like a potential late-innings option, and is a cheaper future option than Mark Melancon who is arbitration eligible.
19. Josh Bell, OF
Last year was a lost year for this second-rounder of 2011, as a knee injury sidelined him for much of the season. But in Low-A West Virginia, Bell is beginning to show what made him a $5 million over-slot signing in 2011. He has plus raw power and has already homered six times, carrying over from an impressive spring training. He looks a like a future right fielder at 6-3, 215. He could give the Pirates yet another dynamic outfield option.
20. Mark Melancon, RHP
It’s tough to value relievers too greatly because of their year-to-year fluctuations but Melancon has pitched like a guy who could be a future closer, and might be Grilli’s replacement. One problem is that he’s about to get more expensive as he’s arbitration eligible this winter.
21. Justin Wilson, LHP
He’s a short-reliever, but he’s a lefty who can touch 98 mph. Rare stuff.
22. Tony Sanchez, C
In the 2009 draft, Sanchez went fourth overall. Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor, Mike Leake and Jacob Turner went 6-7-8-9.
Then consider of the three ACC catchers to be drafted in the top five since 2007, the Pirates passed on Buster Posey and Matt Wieters and took Sanchez.
But don’t completely write off Sanchez. He can catch-and-throw, pitchers like throwing to him, and he’s having a breakout offensive year at Triple-A (.913 OPS). He might not even be the best catcher in the system. But he’s most likely to be the catcher of 2015-17. He’ll never be a star, but if he can become a MLB regular there’s considerable value there.
23. Garrett Jones, 1B (edited)
Orginally I had pegged Jones a few spots later. He’s probably had his peak years. He’s 32. And he’s just an average offensive player for a 1B. But he did hit 27 home runs last year. After cries from the masses he’s back in the top 25.
TIER 8 and beyond: LOTTERY TICKETS
24. Jordy Mercer, SS/2B/3B
The Pirates need a shortstop in 2014 and Mercer is the most likely in-house option, assuming Clint Barmes isn’t resigned. Mercer has been impressive in his limited time with the Pirates this season. He has raised his stock. At Triple-A he was having a breakout offensive performance, after being a.250ish hitter for most of his pro career. The bigger question is can he handle SS, defensively. If he can, he has more value than this ranking. Worst case is he becomes a versatile and cheap utility man for the club.
25t. James McDonald, RHP
If this list were created a year ago, McDonald would be ranked much higher. But he’s on the DL with a sore shoulder and he hasn’t looked healthy all season. He’s under contract for two more years but he’s also in the arbitration phase of his career.
25t. Travis Snider, OF/1B
There’s still a chance Snider becomes a poor man’s Chris Davis. He has on-base skills, he has some power, though it’s yet to manifest in Pittsburgh, and he’s left-handed. He’s at least a platoon candidate and a bat off the bench. Hurdle like’s his defense more than Tabata’s in right field.
First five out: Stetson Allie, Clint Barmes, Dilson Herrera, Gabby Sanchez, Bryan Morris,
Next five out: Nick Kingham, Kyle McPherson, Barrett Barnes, Wyatt Mathisen, Jeanmar Gomez