BRADENTON FL - FEBRUARY 20: Pitcher Rudy Owens #73 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photo during photo day at Pirate City on February 20 2011 in Bradenton Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
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With the Pirates set to begin their season in a couple weeks, Bucs fans will turn their attention to the team's young talent. Many of the franchise's best young players made their major-league debuts last year, and there are likely to be few rookies heading north with the team out of Spring Training. But there are several who could make an impact at some point this season. Here are five to watch out for. I wrote a similar post on this topic several months ago at Bucs Dugout, but this one focuses specifically on rookies, and is updated with new information.
1. Rudy Owens. Owens, a lefty starting pitcher is likely to begin the season at Class AAA Indianapolis, but with a strong performance there, he could be in the Pirates' rotation by June or so. At PirateFest this winter, team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington both told a group of bloggers that they love Owens, and they don't understand why he isn't widely considered to be among the top 50 or so prospects in baseball. Owens has outstanding control, but he isn't merely a soft-tosser - he also gets lots of strikeouts, particularly with his fastball. His performance record in the past two years is also just about unassailable. He's currently the Bucs' most polished pitching prospect, and he's a decent bet to have success in the majors right away.
2. Josh Rodriguez. Rodriguez was selected from the Cleveland Indians in last year's Rule 5 draft. Reports on his play in Spring Training haven't always been glowing, but Rodriguez is still very likely to make the team right out of the gate, because if he doesn't, the Pirates risk losing him. Assuming he does make the team, he'll be a utility infielder, probably along with Pedro Ciriaco. Rodriguez doesn't have a particularly strong defensive reputation, but his minor league pedigree suggests he can hit a little, and the Pirates aren't necessarily wedded to Ronny Cedeno as their starting shortstop. There's the potential for Rodriguez to seize a lot of playing time.
3. Michael Crotta. This isn't a name I included a few months ago, but Crotta has pitched very well this Spring, allowing his first run - an unearned one - on Sunday. His history of minor-league performance is checkered, but the Pirates have used him primarily as a starter in the minors, and he might improve if moved to a bullpen role. He throws a good sinker and could generate a fair number of ground balls. He's still in Spring Training and has a small chance of going north with the team, but the much more likely scenario is that he pitches out of the bullpen in Indianapolis. Expect to hear more from him soon if he takes well to relieving.
4. Alex Presley. A week or so ago, there was a scary moment when it was reported that Andrew McCutchen had hurt his wrist. Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing, but if McCutchen had been on the shelf for a while, the Bucs might have turned to Presley to be their center fielder instead. (They also might have moved Jose Tabata there.) Presley is a mysterious player - he was drafted in 2006 and really did nothing in his first three years. He was so bad in Class A+ in 2009 that it wouldn't have been surprising if the Pirates had simply dumped him, but he wound up playing for Class AA Altoona in 2010 and tore the cover off the ball. The Bucs promoted him to Indianapolis at midseason and he continued to hit. It wouldn't be a shock if Presley disappeared into the void yet again, and even if he doesn't, it might be tricky to find a spot for him in the majors unless McCutchen gets hurt. If he finds playing time, it will mark one of the stranger career turnarounds in recent Pirates history.
5. Pedro Ciriaco. Of the players on this list, Ciriaco has the best shot at making the team out of Spring Training. He can't hit much at all and, for that reason, probably won't ever be a starter, but his biggest asset - shortstop defense - isn't easy to find. He can also play second and third, and the Pirates are currently experimenting with using him in center field. (This suggests that the Pirates would like to have Ciriaco on their bench rather than Corey Wimberly, an infielder/center fielder whose defense has been disappointing in Spring Training.) I saw Ciriaco play center in a scrimmage at Pirate City a few days ago, and he made a very nice sliding catch. That's anecdotal, of course, but Ciriaco appears to have the speed and hands to at least fake his way through a few innings here and there in the outfield. He appears to be ticketed for 150 or so at bats in a utility role.
Other rookies who could make their mark with the Pirates this season include Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Jeff Locke, Diego Moreno, Danny Moskos, Tony Watson, Andrew Lambo, Gorkys Hernandez, Chase D'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, and Josh Harrison.