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Talented players making their way to PNC Park

Pirates followers were reminded of the volatility of MLB's First-Year Player Draft on the very eve of the latest edition, as the courses of two of the club's most conspicuous recent draftees reversed direction within minutes of each other.

Catcher Tony Sanchez, the No. 1 pick in 2009, regarded to be on a descent after a regressive 2011 season followed by a worrisome off-field episode -- his jaw was broken during a scuffle last fall -- got his first bump to Triple-A.

At the same time, Stetson Allie, a pitcher considered to be on the fast track after the Pirates overextended themselves to sign him in 2010, had the pitching rubber pulled out from under him; he is being converted into a position player, even though his next professional hit will be his first.

So much for timetables, and keeping them. Still, there is a talent cache making its assured way toward PNC Park. It isn't even too early to hitch the welcome wagon for the cream of the '11 Draft, either.

Right-hander Gerrit Cole, the overall No. 1 pick a year ago, has been one of the most closely watched pitchers in the organization -- and that includes the guys on the big league staff who have made the first two months of this season so much fun. Cole has a 2.53 ERA for his first 57 pro innings, and 56 strikeouts.

Cole also is 4-1, but won-loss records don't matter for Pittsburgh's starter prospects, because they are held to a strict pitch limit.

"And there's a reason for that: An 85-pitch count forces you to be efficient," says general manager Neal Huntington. "We're teaching guys to get hitters out on three pitches or less."

On most prospect lists, Cole is second to Jameson Taillon, who beat him to the organization by a year. Taillon's ERA is about a run higher, but he is showing identical command (52 strikeouts and 16 walks in 58 innings).

Cole and Taillon are both playing for Class A Bradenton, but there is no way they will do the level-a-year climb and not reach the Majors until 2015. Their acceleration could start soon.

"Fastball command is the big issue with Jameson," Huntington said. "He's got that devastating breaking ball, and he continues to develop his change. They're both on the right track, and we're certainly looking at [promoting them]."

Offseasons are about to get interesting with that pair approaching the door, if not quite yet knocking on it. The only member of the rotation signed beyond 2012 is A.J. Burnett, and the Pirates would love for him to be around as a mentor when Cole and Taillon break in.

Josh Bell, the teenage outfielder whose signing was the coup of the '11 Draft, was kayoed by a torn meniscus in his left knee a couple of weeks into his impressive pro debut. The injury won't dramatically slow his progress, however.

Alex Dickerson, the Bucs' third pick a year ago, was completely overshadowed by Cole and Bell but has begun to nicely emerge on the field. He signed in time to play 41 games in 2011, and in his first 402 pro at-bats has a .304 average with good power (37 extra-base hits).

Josh Poytress is already outpitching his 16th-round seeding. The lefty from Fresno State earned a quick promotion from West Virginia earlier this season by posting an 0.79 ERA in four long-relief outings, and he has kept that up in Bradenton (1.33 ERA in eight games).

Overall, that 2011 class is in the hole. On deck are several other prospects who figure to arrive -- at least temporarily -- in September, the traditional opening act for careers.

Sanchez would check in as the fourth No. 1 Draft choice on the '12 Pirates team, joining Neil Walker (2004), Andrew McCutchen (2005) and Pedro Alvarez (2008). Sanchez appeared to shift into reverse by hitting .241 in Double-A last year, but this spring raised that to .277 in Altoona to earn his first foray into Triple-A.

He has also scored points by keeping his mind on baseball and his jaw in one piece.

"He's been solid," Huntington said. "His game-calling continues to get much better, and he's working hard on earning future trust. He's back to using the whole field again [as a hitter]. We're moving forward with catching depth."

Other pitchers who have been in the farm-system greenhouse longer are also on the horizon. Southpaw Justin Wilson, picked four rounds after Alvarez, pitched 7 1/3 innings of a late-April no-hitter and is averaging one strikeout per inning in Indianapolis. Another lefty, Rudy Owens, looks like a low-round bloomer; the 28th-round pick in 2006 has a 2.35 ERA with the Indians. Right-hander Brandon Cumpton (2010, ninth round), is second in the Eastern League in wins, with seven for Altoona.

On the other side of the ball, the outstanding prospect falls outside the Draft milieu. Dominican Sterling Marte is holding his own in his first Triple-A test, batting .270, but pitch-recognition remains an issue; in 1,774 Minor League plate appearances, he has drawn 85 walks.

Robbie Grossman, the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2011 (104 walks and 127 runs for a .418 on-base percentage in A-ball), has found Double-A more challenging (.217 through 54 games).

Pittsburgh Pirates