Maybe I should have gotten this one out of the way first.
Typically, the Pirates’ low A affiliate has a number of promising young players who haven’t established themselves as serious prospects, but who have a lot of breakout potential. A lot of the system’s best breakout seasons have happened at this level, including players like Gregory Polanco and Mitch Keller. This year, the outlook is pretty dim.
There are probably a number of reasons for that, some of which I’ve written about previously. One is the fact that the Pirates didn’t draft any significant prep pitchers two years ago, so no Keller or Gage Hinsz this year. Another is the poor performance of the team’s international scouting program over the last four or five years, as the Pirates have refused to spend the money needed to keep pace with the many teams that are very aggressive on that front. A third is the Pirates’ odd inability to evaluate college hitters. For instance, they have three corner outfielders drafted out of college in the last two years (Ty Moore, Ryan Nagle and Matt Diorio) who’ve struggled enough at the plate that they all failed to make any full-season roster to start this season.
* = Left-handed
# = Switch-hitter
Catcher: Arden Pabst, Chris Harvey
Pabst was a 12th-round pick last year. He’s strong defensively, but may not provide much offense. Harvey is an organizational catcher. I was hoping Brent Gibbs, last year’s seventh-round pick out of junior college, would share the job with Pabst, but he’s staying in extended spring training.
Corner Infield: Albert Baur*, Hunter Owen
Baur and Owen will be the regulars at first and third. Baur was a late-round pick out of college, then spent two years at Morgantown. He hasn’t shown much power and he’s already 25, so . . . . Owen was a late-round pick last year and showed good power in the early going at Morgantown. He slumped as the season went on, as he struggled with contact issues. He did hit very well in camp this year and so could be a player to watch. Owen mostly played left field, but got a little time at third. He’ll try it on a longer-term basis this year. Carlos Munoz is not on any roster to start the season. I assume he could appear later.
Middle Infield: Stephen Alemais, Trae Arbet, Kevin Mahala, Logan Ratledge, eventually Adrian Valerio#
Eventually, the Power should feature a very strong defensive pair in the middle infield, but that will have to wait as Valerio will miss roughly the first month with a broken hand. A legitimate shortstop, Valerio was expected to play second most of the time in deference to Alemais, who arguably may be the best defensive player at any position in the entire system. (Check here and here for proof.) The big question with both players is how much they’ll hit. Alemais has been hampered at times by shoulder problems stemming from surgery he had back in high school. It’s possible that greater distance from that will help. Alemais could move up to Bradenton if Cole Tucker gets promoted, which would open the shortstop job for Valerio.
In Valerio’s absence, Mahala will start at second. An eighteenth-round pick last year, he’s big (6’3”) for a middle infielder and had a passable debut at the plate. Arbet could see time there, too. A fifth-round pick out of high school in 2013, he struggled badly, offensively and defensively, for two years before putting up big numbers at Bristol in 2015, albeit with terrible walk and strikeout rates. He missed nearly all of 2016 with a wrist injury and will now be making his full-season debut. Ratledge will be returning to the Power in the utility role he filled last year.
Outfield: Victor Fernandez, Sandy Santos, Clark Eagan*, Alexis Bastardo
Fernandez and Santos will probably be the closest thing to real hitting prospects with the Power. Fernandez was easily the best player on an awful Bristol team last year, putting up an OPS of .832. He was a little old for the level at 21, but he made a lot of progress over the previous year. Fernandez is very fast, but Santos will probably be the primary center fielder. Santos is a very toolsy player, with both power and speed, but his baseball skills have been a bit short; going 7-for-17 as a base stealer and striking out over three times more often than he walked in 2016 provide some clues. He made some progress late in the season at Morgantown, so it’s certainly worth the Pirates’ while to see what happens in full-season ball.
Eagan was the Pirates’ ninth-round pick last year. He makes contact, but he isn’t a burner, doesn’t have much power, and doesn’t walk much, so it’s a little difficult to see the attraction. He’s slated to start in the outfield. The fourth outfielder will be Bastardo. He had a .531 OPS at Morgantown in 2015, got demoted to Bristol in 2016, and put up a .532 OPS there. (He had exactly the same OBP and improved his slugging average by one point.) On top of all that, he’s already 23. This probably says a lot about the outfielders who, as noted above, didn’t make the team.
Rotation: Luis Escobar, Cam Vieux*, James Marvel, Matt Anderson, Oddy Nunez*
Escobar is the headliner here and also the best prospect on the team. He throws three potentially good pitches -- fastball, slider and change -- and gets his velocity into the mid-90s, as high as 97. He’s shown plenty of swing-and-miss ability, but his command has tended to come and go, leading to some outings where he has to throw a lot of pitches. He won’t turn 21 until the end of May.
The rotation (projected starters from Pirates Prospects, sub. req’d) will have two 2016 college draftees and one pitcher who’s sort of like a 2016 draftee. The latter would be Marvel, who looked promising for Duke as a sophomore, but had Tommy John surgery late that year and missed the next year. The Pirates drafted him in 2015 knowing he’d be unavailable until 2016. He pitched fairly well last year, but with a low strikeout rate. The Pirates considered him for the Bradenton rotation this year, but he’ll head to the Power instead. Vieux is a finesse lefty whom the Pirates took in round six last year. They were hoping he’d add some velocity, but that hasn’t happened so far. A sixth-round college pitcher would normally go to Bradenton for his first full year, but competition for that rotation was heavy. Anderson is an interesting pitcher. He’s put up very high strikeout rates, in college and at Morgantown after the draft, despite average-ish stuff, apparently due to deception.
Nunez is a lefty with good size who previously threw in the mid- to upper-80s. This spring, though, he was frequently hitting 93. He also has a tricky-looking, three-quarters angle motion. He’ll be making the jump all the way from the GCL. Given that he’s pitched a grand total of 56 innings as a pro, the Pirates will undoubtedly limit his workload, possibly using him in a piggyback arrangement with one or more of the relievers.
Bullpen: Blake Cederlind, Dylan Prohoroff, Hector Garcia*, Matt Frawley, Matt Eckelman, Eduardo Vera, Jordan Jess*, Geoff Hartlieb
Bullpens at this level tend to be works in progress, as the Pirates often shuttle players back and forth between the Power and extended spring training. They’re dealing with pitchers who aren’t top prospects and who don’t have much of a track record, so they essentially keep throwing guys at the wall to see who sticks. It’s also likely that at least some of the relievers will make mostly two- to three-inning outings, sometimes longer, especially when Nunez starts.
That being said, this looks like a pretty solid bullpen, with some upside. That’s especially true with Cederlind, who was drafted in round five last year out of junior college. His debut was cut short by forearm tightness, but he was healthy in camp and throwing in the mid-90s, up to 97. Prohoroff is another fairly high pick -- round eight — and he got into the mid-90s in college. He’s been more in the 90-91 mph range as a pro as the Pirates have worked with him to eliminate a violent head jerk in his delivery.
Two of the relievers have previously been starters as pros. Garcia looked like a legitimate prospect a couple years ago, but had Tommy John surgery and returned from it late last year. Eckelman, a college draftee, was by far the best starter for Bristol last year, succeeding with a low-90s fastball and very good control.
Of the others, Vera was signed out of Mexico and lost time to Tommy John, returning to pitch in the GCL last year. He impressed the Pirates in camp with his offspeed stuff and will make the jump to full-season ball. Jess and Hartlieb are both late-round college draftees who fanned well over a batter an inning at Bristol. Frawley was a starter in college, but pitched in relief at Morgantown last year, fanning 10.6 per nine innings.
Top Prospects: Luis Escobar, Stephen Alemais.
Breakout Candidates: Blake Cederlind, Hunter Owen.