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This is the first part of a series that will appear sporadically over the next couple weeks.
The rookie levels of an organization are a lot like candy stores, or at least should be. Nearly everything is appealing at that stage. The players were all signed because they have ability that holds at least some promise and the relentless attrition that holds sway in every farm system hasn’t had an impact yet. Everything is promise and promise is everything.
Of course, I said "should be" because it didn’t use to be this way with the GCL Pirates. Back in the days of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, the team in some years didn’t have a single intriguing player. To get an idea of how soul-crushingly discouraging it could be to follow the Pirates and their farm system in those days, consider the infield of the 2006 GCL Pirates:
1B – John Fitzpatrick, age 22, non-drafted, signed as college senior
2B – Caleb Fields, age 21, drafted in round 33 as college senior
3B – Danny Bomback, age 22, drafted in round 42 as college senior
SS – Chad Rice, age 22, drafted in round 24 as college senior
This, in a league intended for players drafted out of high school and teenagers moving up from the Dominican and Venezuela. So you can imagine my enthusiasm over a GCL team that not only won the Pirates’ first ever GCL title, but had so many interesting position players that not all of them could play in the playoffs. And the team didn’t win just because it was filled with ringers: the Bucs had the GCL’s third-youngest hitters and fourth-youngest pitchers.
The GCL Bucs had easily the league’s best hitting team and it didn’t hurt that they had two potential catching prospects who showed good bats. Second round pick Wyatt Mathisen and Taiwanese signee Jin-De Jhang were very similar at the plate, both hitting for average (.295 and .305 respectively) with barely more strikeouts than walks. Both also played well behind the plate and showed good arms. Physically they’re not similar at all, as Mathisen is very athletic and Jhang is very stocky, but Jhang actually runs well for now, getting to first in 4.3/4.4 seconds.
Another strong point for the Bucs had was the middle infield, especially once 16th round pick Max Moroff joined the team. Moroff hit .343 and had over 50% more walks than strikeouts. He at least appears to have the arm for short, so the Pirates no doubt will try to keep him there. Secondbaseman Dilson Herrera showed some similarities to Alen Hanson, hitting for good power despite not being a big guy. He slugged .482 and finished second in the GCL with seven HRs; the one guy ahead of him was two years older and the next nearest player had five. Herrera’s stockier than Hanson, though, and doesn’t have Hanson’s speed. He’s never played short as a pro; the question will be whether he can stay at second.
Seventeen-year-old outfielders Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar were two of only four hitters in the GCL younger than 18 who got at least 59 at-bats. Both just held their own and Escobar had some strikeout issues, but they did as well as could be expected at their age, especially considering they skipped over the Dominican Summer League. Ramirez posted a .644 OPS after missing half the season with an infection. Escobar’s OPS was .712. The outfield was deep. It also had speedster Candon Myles, who hit .279 with a good walk rate before missing the last month with an injury. Luis Urena, a very raw player with massive issues making contact, showed very good power, with over half his hits going for extra bases. Unfortunately, he fanned in 45% of his ABs.
The infield corners also had depth, much of it in players with good ceilings who haven’t produced much yet. All four have power potential, but also have drawbacks. Stetson Allie we all know about. He had a lot of trouble making contact but at least was willing to take a walk and hit three HRs. Edwin Espinal is a big guy who hasn’t started to hit for power yet. He was terrible the first two months of the season, hitting .202 with no walks and 23 Ks, but started figuring it out rapidly in August, when he hit .319 with three walks and three strikeouts. Kevin Ross signed late and didn’t hit much in 21 games. Finally, JC signee Eric Wood, who was mostly unknown when the Pirates drafted him, hit for power (.467 SLG) with good plate discipline (.371 OBP). Espinal and Wood showed enough promise that, with the two catchers sharing DH duties, Allie and Ross were relegated to the bench in the playoffs.
The GCL Bucs’ mound staff wasn’t nearly as interesting as the hitters, but there were a few intriguing pitchers. The one who drew by far the most interest was Tyler Glasnow, who posted a 2.10 ERA and 1.02 WHIP while striking out well over a batter an inning. Glasnow drew attention by sitting at 93-94 and reaching 96 in a late-season cameo at State College.
The GCL team had two other products of the Pirates’ Projectable High School Pitcher strategy. Colten Brewer, like Glasnow drafted in 2012, had a good ERA (3.24), but ordinary peripherals. He also missed a little time due to an injury. This year’s third round pick, Jon Sandfort, threw 15 innings but walked ten while striking out only seven. He's obviously going to be a project.
Of the rest of the pitchers, probably the most potential belongs to Dovydas Neverauskas and Bryton Trepagnier. The Lithuanian Neverauskas won’t turn 20 until January and is starting to fill out. He frequently hit 95 this summer, but his control and mechanics are a work in progress. Trepagnier scuffled along for two years in the GCL, but his stuff took a step forward this summer as his fastball sat around 92-93 and he showed a good slider. Pitching in relief, he didn’t have a high strikeout rate but did have a very high groundball rate.
Odds are, two years from now over half these players will have fallen off the prospect track. There are a lot of candidates, though, to have the sort of breakout the Pirates got from Hanson and Gregory Polanco.