Tim Williams, Pirates Prospects


Tim Williams, Pirates Prospects (August 11,  2011):

First, can you tell readers about your Piratesprospects.com web site – how it got started and what your plans are for it moving forward?

I started Pirates Prospects in January 2009.  At the time it was called BUCCO Fans.  I was writing for a company called AccuScore, providing content to ESPN, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and Versus on the NFL, NHL, and MLB.  For obvious reasons, I didn’t get a lot of opportunities to talk about the Pirates.  

I also noticed a lot of the same questions being asked on Pirates forums: how many options does Player A have?  What’s the contract status of Player B?  And then there were the general questions about the prospects.  

At the time, I lived close to Lynchburg, which was home to the high-A team.  I figured I could provide some first hand reports on the players coming in to the system, and answer all of the contract questions, since I love researching the rules of baseball.

Going forward, I’ve got big plans for the site.  It’s already a credentialed media outlet with every level in the Pirates’ system, but my goal is to make it the top outlet for all Pirates news.  

I’m planning on covering the MLB Winter Meetings this off-season from Dallas, and I’ll be down in Spring Training next year for the entire month of March.  

When I started the site, I didn’t think there was any way it would be a full time job.  We’ve seen over a million hits in the last two months, and at this point I’m not putting any limitations on what the site can one day be.  

I always say thank you to the readers, and that’s not just a token thanks.  I can’t really express how much the support shown to the site has meant to me.

How do you think Clint Hurdle has handled what might be his first big challenge as the Pirates manager – i.e. the big losing streak?

I think the real impact will be displayed over the next few weeks.  

They rebounded well in the last few games, taking the series against the San Francisco Giants on the road.  They have a very tough schedule coming up, and a lot of people have pretty much written them off because of the losing streak.  

They can make a big statement with how they rebound from the losing streak over the next few weeks.  They’re off to a good start.

How has the team dealt with it – do they seem to be playing with the same fire/energy -was .500 a rallying cry?

When you think about it, what this team has gone through this year has been pretty impressive.  

Their expected top hitter, Pedro Alvarez, has had an extremely disappointing season.  Their other top hitters,Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Andrew McCutchen, have had periods of inconsistent play.  Their top starter from the last two seasons, Ross Ohlendorf, struggled early on and has been injured all year.  They played a third of the season with catchers six and seven on their depth chart.  Two of their big free agent additions on offense were big disappointments.  They’ve lost Ronny Cedeno twice due to injury, which is a big loss considering his defense, and considering that the pitching staff has been carrying the team.

It’s impressive that the team has managed to overcome all of that, while plugging in replacements from AAAwith little to no major league experience, and keeping things together until late-July/early-August.  

I don’t think .500 was really a goal, and it shouldn’t be, but it would definitely be nice to see for the fans, and I think the team has a good shot with a lot of their injured players set to return soon.

 Do you feel the All-Star break hurt this team in cutting short the momentum and focus it had?

I think you could make that argument for some players.  Andrew McCutchen has certainly struggled since the break.  However, the team won four out of five coming out of the break, and took sole possession of first place for the first time all year.  

I think a better focus point would be the injuries to Alex Presley and Chase d’Arnaud.  They were providing a spark at the top of the lineup that really seemed to disappear during the losing streak.
In discussing prospects, which “under-the-radar” prospects do you think will surprise fans next season and make it to the big leagues?

I always have a hard time figuring out who is “under-the-radar”, mostly because no one is under the radar to me.  

I think if we’re talking about someone who is under the radar to casual fans and national media, it could be Matt Curry.  He dominated the South Atlantic League, and after some early struggles, has done well in the Eastern League at the AA level.  Curry is a left handed hitting first baseman who gets his value from his bat, hitting with power to all fields.  If he continues hitting in the upper minors like he has been over the last month, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as the starting first baseman by mid-season 2012.

Curry definitely isn’t under the radar for anyone following Pirates Prospects. A guy who might be under the radar, even to my readers, could be Jared Hughes.  He’s been quietly putting up a strong season out of the bullpen this year, recently flashing a 96 MPH sinker in AAA.  

I saw Hughes a lot in 2010, mostly as a starter, but also saw him hitting 94 as a reliever.  He’s a guy who could provide strong depth out of the bullpen next year, and with a 96 MPH sinker, he might even emerge as a potential late inning reliever.
Indianapolis’ Hague seems to be hitting well again. Could he be the Pirates 1B of the future? If not, why? And if so, what does he still need to work on?

I’ve always seen Hague as having the ceiling of an average major league starter.  He’s hit for average at every level, gets on base at a strong rate, plays great defense at first base, and has good gap power, with 15 HR a year potential.  

The downside is that he struggles against left handers, which might limit his average in the majors.  You also want to see more power from your first baseman.  Hague does have power, but it’s shown more as gap power, with a lot of doubles.  

I’ve already mentioned Matt Curry.  He’s got home run power, plus he’s left handed, which might play better at PNC Park.  Hague would have been an upgrade this year over Lyle Overbay, but he ranks third or fourth on our depth chart for first base prospects in the Pirates’ system.

How does Sterling Marte fit on this squad? Is he a man without a position with McCutchen in center field?

We came in to the season higher on Marte than anyone else, having him as our number two overall prospect.  He’s got the defensive skills – speed, range, arm strength – to move McCutchen over to left field.  That wouldn’t be a bad thing for McCutchen, as left field needs a guy with his range.  

The question for Marte is really about his bat, and whether he can hit for average and add some power.  He answered a lot of questions this year by hitting for average in AA, and even showing some power.  

The biggest concern comes with his low walk rates, and high strikeout rates.  We’re not as concerned, since he’s lowered his strikeouts to an acceptable rate, and his speed allows him to bunt his way on base and beat out infield singles, keeping his average high and making up for the lack of walks.

There seem to be conflicting reports on Taillon. Is his record/ERA indicative of his play, or is there more to that? Some reporters say he’s widely inaccurate, others not….

I’ve seen Taillon several times this year, and have spoken with a few scouts about him.  His stats don’t Really tell the story.

I talked about this last week on the site.  I spoke with an American League scout who said Taillon has the best curveball in the game, Major Leagues included.  Combine that with his upper 90s fastball, and you potentially have one of the best combinations in the game.  

The key for Taillon will be whether he can drive the ball down through the zone.  He’s been leaving his fastball up, and even a 98 MPH fastball is going to get hit when it’s coming in chest high.  If he can learn to put the ball low around the knees, he could become a very dangerous pitcher.  

He’s still young, and is working on some minor adjustments to make these things happen.  Those adjustments might hurt the stats now, but they’ll help down the line when it matters: in the majors.
Sanchez is still struggling in the minor leagues. What’s the issue behind his hitting woes – are the past injuries still affecting him?

At this point I think the biggest issue is that Sanchez is pressing.  

It’s hard to say what made the struggles start up.  The jump to AA is the hardest for hitters, but Sanchez was also coming off of an injury.  The biggest concern is the total lack of power.  Ultimately Sanchez will be valuable because of his defense behind the plate, which hasn’t struggled nearly as much as his offense has.  

However, his power and hitting skills will determine whether he’s an average catcher with strong defense, or a potential All-Star catcher.  It would be nice to see him get his hitting back on track, as the Pirates don’t have any other starting options in the upper levels.

Do you think the Pirates sign their first and second round picks Cole and Bell? How are the odds l ooking for both prospects to sign?

I think they will definitely sign Cole.  

As for Bell, I don’t think anyone really knows.  In either case, we won’t know until August 15th around midnight.  I’ve always been skeptical about Bell and the talk that there’s zero chance of signing him.  If that’s the case, why hire Scott Boras as an adviser?  Why not see if MLB can remove you from the draft?  

I don’t think he’s a guaranteed sign by any means, but if he does sign, I won’t be surprised.

And is there more PR pressure to sign them now in the midst of the team’s downward spiral?

I think the biggest PR pressure will be with Bell.  

From what I’ve seen, people understand that if they don’t sign him, it will be because he truly didn’t want to go pro right now, and wanted to go to college instead.  

The issue, and it’s something we’ve already started to see, is the talk that it was a mistake to draft Bell in the first place.  I don’t see it as a mistake.  It’s a high risk/high reward type move.  It’s the same approach the Pirates have been taking the last few years with guys like Stetson Allie, Zack Von Rosenberg, Robbie Grossman, and Colton Cain.  They’ve been going after guys with strong commitments to college, and trying to lure them away with over-slot bonuses.  Bell just happens to have the strongest commitment yet.

 Any other thoughts for readers?

Having seen pretty much every player in the system over the last few years, I really think things are starting to look up for the Pirates.  We’re starting to see that this year with how the team has performed, even with all of the obstacles they’ve faced.  

I think we’ll start to see more prospects make the jump to the majors in the next few years.  The highlight will be Jameson Taillon, and Gerrit Cole after he gets in the system.  But I think we could also see some good things from people like Curry, Marte, and Robbie Grossman.  

It’s definitely a fun time to be covering the minor league system.

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