This part covers the lower levels, which is mainly guys who played most or all of the 2016 season below Bradenton. I’m also including a couple of players I think may not be ready to help in the majors until after 2018, although they spent most or all of the season at Bradenton. So . . . good news or bad news first?
Let’s start with the bad news: There just isn’t much here. The only position players I feel confident calling “prospects” are Cole Tucker, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Will Craig and, due to his glove, Stephen Alemais. There are maybe a couple of wild cards after that, and then a lot of suspects. I attribute this mainly to the Pirates’ strict adherence to the international spending limits imposed by the just-expired collective bargaining agreement, and their odd problems drafting college hitters.
Since the Pirates spent $1.05M on Harold Ramirez in 2011, they’ve sharply curtailed their international bonuses. They gave $700K each to the unrelated Michael and Julio De La Cruz the following year and, since then, haven’t exceeded $450K. Despite the fact that their top 2-3 bonuses every year have gone to position players, none of the hitters they’ve signed since Ramirez has established himself as a prospect. In almost all cases, they’ve struggled severely. Naturally, you have to take into account the fact that the top guys are starting their careers typically at age 17, but when you see a player putting up Charlie Mortonish hitting numbers over his first 2-3 years, it’s very unlikely he’s ever going to be a prospect. What follows is the performance of the Pirates’ top Latin American hitting prospects since the year after they signed Ramirez, including slash line, K/AB and highest level reached (R+ = Bristol, R = GCL). I’m including K/AB because prospects striking out in over a quarter of their ABs are facing very long odds of ever getting things straight. These are all of the position players who got six figure bonuses, as far as I can tell:
Julio De La Cruz, 3B ($700K): 221/290/317, 25% K/AB, R+
Michael De La Cruz, OF ($700K): 247/365/324, 26%, R+
Yoel Gonzalez, C ($350K): 196/271/256, 20%, R+
Jhoan Herrera, 3B ($300K): 255/331/358, 23%, R+
Johan De Jesus, SS ($200K): 195/292/245, 32%, R
Adrian Valerio, SS ($400K): 237/276/322, 17%, R+
Jeremias Portorreal, OF ($375K): 216/346/320, 29%, R
Edison Lantigua, OF ($275K): 260/339/378, 23%, R
Eliezer Ramirez, OF ($120K): 191/341/209, 30%, DSL (released)
Yondry Contreras, OF ($400K): 187/272/245, 36%, R
Gabriel Brito, C ($200K): 277/394/378, 18%, R
Christopher Perez, SS ($150K): 236/331/302, 18%, DSL
Kevin Sanchez, OF ($450K): 235/359/275, 12%, DSL
Larry Alcime, OF ($350K): 138/193/188, 29%, DSL
Samuel Inoa, C ($240K): 220/294/299, 20%, DSL
Sherton Apostel, 3B ($200K): 205/308/275, 36%, DSL
Rodolfo Castro, SS ($150K): 271/360/411, 25%, DSL
It’s easy to dismiss the significance of these dismal numbers by saying it’s still early for these guys (well, not with the 2012 group any more and not so much with the 2013 signees, either). Given how completely overwhelmed so many of these players have been, not just based on the slash lines but the sometimes-alarming K rates as well, it’s really pushing it to think that many, if any, of them will get established as legitimate prospects. The Latin American hitters who signed with the Pirates before this period, and who ultimately turned into real prospects, didn’t struggle like this. Starling Marte didn’t hit much his first year, but he took off in his second and never looked back. Gregory Polanco held his own his first year, with good plate discipline, then had some struggles before breaking out later. Dilson Herrera and Alen Hanson both hit well right from the start. Harold Ramirez skipped the DSL and hit decently as a 17-year-old in the GCL. None of them had anywhere close to the K/AB figures of Portorreal, Contreras, Alcime or Apostel; they were all below 23% in their first seasons. Even Willy Garcia, who’s suffered from serious plate discipline issues throughout his career, fanned in only 17% of his ABs in his first season.
The struggles of the Pirates’ international program should be pretty evident from the rest of this piece. Furthermore, in the draft they seem to be returning to their earlier focus on prep pitchers (with better results). They lessened the impact of this focus in earlier years by getting a lot of talented hitters out of Latin America. That’s not happening now.
There’s not much to see here. Christian Kelley is the most advanced of the Pirates’ lower level catchers. He didn’t have as much experience as the typical college draftee and he hasn’t hit much in his two seasons. He is a good defensive player and started to hit better at the end of the 2016, especially in the brief time he got at Bradenton after a mid-August promotion. The Pirates took Brent Gibbs out of JC ball in the 7th round this year, but he played only briefly at Bristol before getting hurt. He’s another good defensive catcher with a questionable bat. (He put up good numbers in school this year, but it came in a very high-offense environment.) Kevin Krause has a lot of raw power, but he missed all of 2015 and half of 2016 following Tommy John surgery; he’s now 24 and has yet to play in full season ball. The Pirates appear to have a lot of doubts about his defense, as he got the majority of his time this year in right field. Gabriel Brito, a small catcher signed out of the Dominican, may have some upside. He’s hit decently in his first two seasons, mostly in the DSL, but his playing time has been limited by nagging injuries.
The big names here obviously are the two third basemen, Hayes and Craig. Hayes looked like he was headed for a breakout season early this year. He was hitting for good power, which was the big question mark in his game, but he tailed off about six weeks into the season. He ended up missing a chunk of the year with an upper back strain and, later, a cracked rib that may or may not have been related to the back problem. It’s unclear exactly when the injuries occurred and how much impact they had (Hayes himself was unsure), but it’s hard not to think they had an effect. There’s no reason to think Hayes can’t get back on track as a prospect who has good upside on both offense and defense. Craig, I suspect, may end up as one of the more controversial players in the system. After a slow start following his selection in the first round, he hit for average and drew a lot of walks, but he didn’t show much power. His defense at third is . . . um . . . let’s just not go there. One interesting point: As an early-round college draftee, Craig will almost certainly go to Bradenton, while Hayes could conceivably start the season there, too. My guess is that Hayes will return to West Virginia, but hopefully he won’t be there long. The Pirates are probably going to want Connor Joe to play third regularly at Altoona, so we’ll see how they resolve the situation.
There’s really nothing else at the corners. Third at the lowest level has been manned by several of the Latin American players listed above (mainly Julio De La Cruz and Johan De Jesus), none with any success on offense or defense. First has been handled by various late-round draft picks who profile as organizational players, and also by Daniel Arribas and Carlos Munoz. The latter two have some ability, but neither has established himself as a prospect.
The highlights here are shortstops Cole Tucker and Stephen Alemais. Tucker, at the least, addressed concerns that he might have to move off the position due to the labrum surgery he had in 2015. He improved on defense but had a rough year at the plate at Bradenton. He’s still only 20 and was hitting the ball with more authority in fall instructionals, possibly due to an added leg kick and possibly due to the increased distance from the surgery. Alemais can be spectacular in the field, which you can see on Youtube. He didn’t hit much this year, but he may have been hampered after aggravating an old shoulder injury early in the college season. Scouts at least think he has a chance to be a solid hitter. If Tucker returns to Bradenton to start the year, Alemais could see some time at second. He was working out at the position in the fall.
Of the other middle infielders at the low levels, the most interesting are shortstops Adrian Valerio and Rodolfo Castro, and second baseman Mitchell Tolman. Valerio is a good defensive shortstop who, so far, hasn’t hit. Castro signed a year ago out of the Dominican, supposedly as a good-glove, suspect-bat prospect. He actually hit well in his debut but had serious error problems. A lot of errors by a 17-year-old in the DSL, though, isn’t necessarily alarming. Tolman moved from third to second after being drafted and played very well defensively this year for West Virginia. He showed good plate discipline, but his overall .741 OPS wasn’t all that impressive for a college draftee spending his first full year in low A. He could move back to third temporarily if Alemais is at second with Bradenton.
This is really bleak. The Latin American scouting, as noted, hasn’t produced a bona fide hitting prospect in a while, and the Pirates don’t draft many prep position players. That leaves college outfielders, which obviously should be a significant source of hitting prospects, especially power hitters, in any system. For some reason, though, the Pirates can’t seem to identify college players, especially corner players, who can hit. Apart from Craig and Pedro Alvarez, and excluding junior college draftees, here are all the college corner players drafted by the current front office in the first 20 rounds (college players drafted after round 20 generally profile as organizational players):
8. Jeremy Farrell: Played just eight games in AAA.
9. Matt Hague: AAAA player with 84 ML ABs.
11. David Rubinstein: Failed to get past class A.
12. Calvin Anderson: Failed to get past class A.
11. Aaron Baker: Failed to get past AA.
11. Dan Grovatt: Failed to get past class A.
16. Matt Curry: Played just nine games in AAA.
20. Justin Bencsko: Failed to get past low class A.
3. Alex Dickerson: Hit well for Padres in 2016.
10. Taylor Lewis: Failed to get past class A.
1S. Barrett Barnes: Had big second half in second AA season but passed over in Rule 5.
13. Danny Collins: Failed to get past low class A.
1S. Connor Joe: Should be in AA in 2017.
3. Jordan Luplow: Should be in AA in 2017.
5. Michael Suchy: Had .694 OPS in high class A in 2016.
14. Chase Simpson: Has hit decently but appears to be organizational player.
3. Casey Hughston: Massive contact issues, spent 2016 in low class A.
12. Ty Moore: Spent most of 2016 in short season ball.
16. Matt Diorio: Had .634 OPS in short season ball.
The best of these players so far is Dickerson, whom the Pirates traded for nothing and who looks like he could be a solid platoon player. Barnes, Joe and Luplow could still be major leaguers, but none profiles as more than a role player. Of the ten players drafted from 2008-11, only Hague and Dickerson made more than a token appearance in AAA and half failed even to reach AA. Granted, the percentage of players drafted in these rounds who have significant major league careers is low, but the Pirates have trouble getting the college corner players they draft even to AAA. By contrast, St. Louis got Matt Carpenter in round 13, Matt Adams in round 23, Steve Piscotty in the supplemental first round, Allen Craig in round 8 and John Jay in round 2. It’s possible to find quality college hitters after the first round, but the Pirates can’t seem to do it.
The result is that, at the lower levels of their system, the closest the Pirates can come to an outfield prospect is Victor Fernandez or Kevin Sanchez. Fernandez was a low-profile signee from the Dominican who put up an .832 OPS at Bristol this year. He’s already 22, though, and if the Pirates thought he was a significant prospect I doubt they’d have left him at Bristol all season. There certainly wasn’t anybody blocking him. Sanchez is a speedster from the Dominican who was the Pirates’ top international signing in 2015. He didn’t hit much this year, but he walked more than he struck out. He’s just 17 and listed at 6’0”, 150, so he could certainly get stronger.
Beyond those two, there are just a few extreme longshots. College draftee Logan Hill had a good debut after being drafted in 2015, but he struggled severely at low A this year until he got hot over the final six weeks. Casey Hughston has a lot of raw power and surprising range in center for a big guy. He’s been overmatched at the plate so far, though, due to an inability to hit anything over the outer half. Yondry Contreras is a very toolsy outfielder who was the Pirates’ top international signing in 2014. He’s a good defensive center fielder, but he’s been badly overmatched at the plate, both in the DSL in 2015 and the GCL in 2016. Jeremias Portorreal was one of the team’s top international signings in 2013. He had severe problems making contact for two and a half seasons in the DSL before a strong finish there this year.
The news here is a lot better. This is primarily because the Pirates seem to have come a long way from their disastrous, prep-pitching-heavy draft in 2009. Of course, these pitchers are a long ways away, but the Pirates have some lower level pitchers with real upside. I’m not going to try to divide the discussion into starters and relievers; like most teams, the Pirates try to develop as many as possible of their pitching prospects as starters. I’ll start with the upside guys instead.
The marquee pitcher at the lower levels, possibly the best pitching prospect in the system, is Mitch Keller. He had a major breakout in low A and didn’t miss a beat when he moved up late in the season. I’m still seeing some sources that have him throwing a low-90s fastball, but that’s not right. He sat in the mid-90s most of the year, edging higher, and late in the year was holding it throughout his starts. He adds a good curve, rapidly improving command, and a change that’s at least useable. Gage Hinsz, drafted the same year as Keller, had his own, lesser breakout, enough to be rated the 17th best prospect in the South Atlantic League. (Keller was ranked second, behind some guy named Robles.) Hinsz is similar to Keller, just a shade behind in most areas. (The same draft class produced a third prep pitcher, Mitch Supak, who made good progress this year with Milwaukee after being traded.) A third high-ceiling pitcher who was at West Virginia this year, albeit briefly, was trade acquisition Taylor Hearn. He’s a big lefty with a mid-, sometimes upper-90s fastball. Hearn misses a whole lot of bats, but needs to improve his control, not that it’s terrible or anything. The Pirates made a minor change to his delivery in fall instructs, which hopefully will help.
The Pirates went back to prep pitching in the 2016 draft. The most impressive product so far is lefty Braeden Ogle, taken in the fourth round. His velocity, by fall instructs, was up to 93-95. The Pirates had him scrap his curve for a slider after the draft and the latter pitch had improved noticeably by the fall. Eleventh rounder Max Kranick showed less consistent velocity than Ogle, but a better breaking ball and good control for a prep draftee. Scouts from other teams have said they would have drafted Kranick in the early rounds, but didn’t think he’d sign. Second round pick Travis MacGregor is probably more of a projectability pick than Ogle or Kranick. His stuff isn’t up to their level yet, but could improve if he gets stronger, as he’s more slightly built now. Late-round pick Austin Shields is even more of a projectability guy. He’s relatively inexperienced, being from Canada, and has much farther to go with his control. Shields is a big guy with solid velocity now and the potential for more.
International pitching hasn’t been a strength for the Pirates, seemingly due to a preference for position players. In 2010, they signed Luis Heredia for $2.6M and Cesar Lopez, the current front office’s only excursion into the Cuban talent pool, for $600K. Since then, as far as I can tell, the most they’ve paid any pitcher in an international signing is $190K, paid to Hector Garcia in 2013. Unless I’m missing somebody, no pitcher signed initially as an international free agent by the current front office has ever pitched in the majors for the Pirates. (Wei-Chung Wang pitched for the Brewers as a Rule 5 pick and Yhonathan Barrios, who was signed as a hitter, also got into five games for Milwaukee.) Of course, that could change this year when either Dovydas Neverauskas or Edgar Santana reaches Pittsburgh.
International Scouting Director Rene Gayo does, however, make it a point to look off the beaten track for pitchers. Santana signed at an unusually late age and so did Yeudy Garcia, who was nearly 21. Garcia didn’t show the upper-90s velocity in 2016 that he did in 2015 and struggled with walks and high pitch counts. Despite all that, he still posted a 2.76 ERA and struck out a batter an inning. After the season, Garcia went to Pittsburgh to have his shoulder examined. There’s been no further word since. If he’s healthy, he could go to Altoona next year, but you have to wonder whether he might be better off in the bullpen. The other most promising pitcher at the lower levels from the international sector is Luis Escobar. He’s from Colombia, so he’s also from slightly off the beaten track. Escobar has three potentially average or better pitches and can dominate at times, but there are also times when his command just isn’t there.
The 2016 draft produced several college and JC pitchers with good arms who figure to be projects. Fifth rounder Blake Cederlind is a JC product who can throw in the mid-90s with a couple different breaking balls, but his command is a work in progress. His debut season was cut short by “mild forearm tightness.” Eighth rounder Dylan Prohoroff has solid velocity, but the Pirates are trying to iron out his delivery, which features a violent head jerk. John Pomeroy, the team’s 13th round pick, threw only 14 innings in his college career due to control problems, but he has mid-90s velocity and misses plenty of bats. One guy from the draft who doesn’t fit this mold is lefty Cam Vieaux, selected in round six. He’s a finesse guy, fairly similar to Brandon Waddell, and profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter.
A couple of pitchers returning from injuries have potential. Jacob Taylor, a JC draftee in round 4 in 2015, has gotten into only a handful of games due to Tommy John surgery, from which he returned late in 2016. He has very good staff but always figured to be a project. Hector Garcia (mentioned above), a lefty from the Dominican, had a strong 2014 season as a starter at Bristol after skipping the GCL. He had Tommy John surgery early in the 2015 season, then pitched well after returning late in the 2016 season.
The Pirates have a number of other dark horse candidates at the rookie levels, too many to cover here. I’ll finish with two high-upside, very high-risk relief possibilities. Jake Brentz came from Seattle in the trade for Arquimedes Caminero. He’s a lefty who can get his fastball into the upper-90s and who fanned a lot of hitters this year, but control has been a significant issue. Joel Cesar Toribio is a short, stocky righty who signed a year ago at age 19. His fastball sits about 96-97 and he has hit triple digits. Everything else about his game is very rudimentary, so he has a long ways to go.