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Pleasant surprises in the Pirates’ system so far

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MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s just over a month into the minor league season and there’ve been a few surprising performances in the system. Of course, some aren’t pleasant ones, but I don’t think I need to run through which top prospects are having trouble. No doubt everybody knows Austin Meadows is struggling. Instead, I want to focus on the players who’ve done surprisingly well. (I suppose I could call this the Duncan Digest, after the guy who was possibly last year’s biggest surprise. Frank’s having a rough time in the D’backs’ system, though, which I’m sorry to see.)

All stats are through Sunday.

Indianapolis

Not a whole lot of pleasant surprises here, as this team has really struggled.

Max Moroff: The surprise is that Moroff is currently tied for the International League lead in HRs with eight. It looks like he’s gotten more aggressive, probably selling out a bit for power. He’s walking a lot less than last year, although his walk rate is still high. His K rate is really high, a third of his ABs. I don’t know how real this is, but a middle infielder slugging .546 is nice.

Chris Bostick: Bostick (pictured) has a history of taking time to adjust to new levels. He struggled late last year in AAA, but he really took off a few weeks ago and he’s cut way down on the whiffs, which have been a problem for him. With a line of 320/347/495, his OPS isn’t much lower than John Jaso and Phil Gosselin combined.

Tyler Eppler: The Pirates have pushed Eppler aggressively, moving him up to AAA this year despite unimpressive numbers last year in AA. They seem to have known what they were doing, as he currently has an ERA of 2.96 and WHIP of 0.95. He’s also missing more bats, possibly due to a new breaking ball.

Angel Sanchez: The most surprising development with Sanchez was apparent in camp, where he was sitting at 96-97 mph with his fastball. He’s just off of Tommy John surgery and he’s had some command issues, but he’s fanning 13.2 per nine innings.

Altoona

I think most of the surprises here can be categorized as, “Thank heavens I’m out of the Florida State League.”

Kevin Kramer: Kramer’s possible (it’s still early) breakout this year isn’t all that surprising if you saw him in the FSL. He was hitting the ball hard consistently, but it’s almost like hitting underwater there, as the ball just doesn’t go anywhere. Still, a 386/491/636 line is surprising for just about anybody. His plate discipline has been solid (11 BB, 18 K, 88 AB), so there’s no reason to think that this isn’t a real step forward, even if he can’t keep his OPS over 1.000. If he does . . . damn.

Connor Joe: After a slow start, he’s up to 312/391/455. More power would be nice since he’s a first baseman now, but his walk and K numbers (9 BB, 12 K, 77 AB) suggest, as with Kramer, that his improved hitting isn’t a fluke, and he’s still dealing with an environment in Altoona that’s very tough for right-handed power.

Jordan Luplow: Luplow seems to be turning up the power, even at home, where he’s slugging .579. Overall, he’s hitting 267/323/533, with just 13 Ks in 90 ABs.

Sean Keselica: The Pirates jumped Keselica up from West Virginia, and he missed a couple months there last year due to injury, so the move was a bit surprising. He’s a lefty reliever who gets up to 94 mph and he’s putting up great numbers. He’s allowed only one earned run, which came in his spot start on Sunday, and has a WHIP of 0.60 and K/9 of 10.3.

Buddy Borden: After being traded for Sean Rodriguez, Borden fell apart last year and didn’t turn things around after being released and returning to the Pirates. This year they surprisingly moved him up to Altoona and also moved him to relief, and it’s working so far. He has a 0.63 WHIP, hasn’t allowed an earned run, and has fanned a batter an inning.

Bradenton

Bradenton has most of the Pirates’ more highly regarded position prospects, but a few of the other hitters are making more noise.

Christian Kelley: The Pirates like Kelley’s glove enough that they gave him an NRI this spring even though he didn’t hit much last year. Some of that may have stemmed from the fact that he didn’t have all that much experience for a college draftee. This year, he’s hitting 333/422/436 with very good plate discipline (9 BB, 12 K, 78 AB). A real catching prospect would be a big thing.

Logan Hill: Hill had a very rough first half last year, getting demoted from Bradenton and struggling for a while at West Virginia. Right now, he’s one off the FSL lead in HRs with eight and he’s slugging .564. That’s accompanied, though, by whiffs in a third of his ABs, and he’s old for the level.

Casey Hughston: With the massive contact issues he had last year, I thought Hughston might have trouble batting .100 in the FSL. Instead, he’s got a line of 294/348/461. Since fanning eight times in his first three games, he’s been striking out in slightly less than a quarter of his ABs. He’s only got one HR and he still struggles with pitches on the outer half of the plate, but it’s really significant progress.

Kevin Krause: I can’t figure out what’s up with this guy. He didn’t play until the fourth game of the season, homered in his first two ABs and is now batting 304/381/643 (his SLG would lead the league if he qualified), but he’s still played in only a little over half the team’s games. His walk rate is good and his K rate is non-alarming. He’s old for the level -- he missed all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery and didn’t appear to be fully recovered last year — but the power seems to be real. I don’t get it.

Yunior Montero: Montero lost three years right off the beginning of his career because MLB kept voiding his contract due to inadequate documentation. He only throws about 91-94 mph, but apparently has a lot of movement, leading to a K/9 of 17.4 while pitching mainly in two-inning relief stints. He’s had command issues, but it’ll be interesting to see whether this goes anywhere.

Jacob Brentz: Brentz was another spring training surprise, as he started throwing in the upper-90s and has hit 100, which is pretty enticing for a lefty. It’s showing up in the numbers, as he’s allowed just one run and has a WHIP of 1.00 in 11 IP, with 16 Ks.

West Virginia

This is one of the stranger teams the system has had in a while. The lineup has been putting up runs, but it’s a very old one by South Atlantic League standards, so I’m skeptical whether any of the position players apart from Stephen Alemais can be considered prospects. There are some obscure pitchers who are very interesting, though.

Trae Arbet: After struggling for two years in rookie ball, Arbet put up big numbers at Bristol in 2015, then missed nearly all of last year due to a wrist injury. His K rate at Bristol was off the charts, so it was hard to see him as a prospect. (Trust me, a guy whiffing in a third of his ABs just isn’t going to make it.) This year, he has the K rate down to 25% and has a 307/369/564 line.

Ty Moore: Moore spent his second season in short season ball last year, which isn’t good for a college draftee, and opened this season in extended spring training. Injuries got him activated, though, and he’s now hitting 333/387/455 with solid plate discipline. But there’s the caveat about his age/level.

Matt Anderson: Anderson is a righty who has only average-ish stuff, but he has a tricky motion that made him a strikeout machine in college. I think his future will be in the bullpen, but the Pirates put him in the Power’s rotation, so he’s getting more innings. He’s had some control problems, but they’ve improved in his last few starts; in his last two times out, he’s walked just one and fanned 15 in 12 IP. Overall, he’s fanned 29 in 30 IP.

Oddy Nunez: Nunez is a lefty with good size who threw only around 87-88 mph until he started hitting 93 in camp this year. That got him moved up from the Gulf Coast League to the SAL, and also moved from the bullpen to the rotation. He is, however, on a pitch limit that appears to be 65, as he builds up his stamina. His 4.29 ERA doesn’t look so good, but that’s mainly the product of a bad first start and a second start in which his defense simply couldn’t catch anything. Literally — he allowed nine hits in three innings, when decent defense would have prevented all but maybe two. Even so, his WHIP is 1.19 and he’s been an extreme groundball pitcher. He’s definitely a guy to watch.

Eduardo Vera: Vera is a breaking-ball-heavy righty who impressed the Pirates enough in camp that they jumped him to low A from the GCL. He’s been pitching mainly in three-inning stints and has a 1.93 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 9.6 K/9.