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Pirates minor league preview: West Virginia Black Bears

The focus of the roster at Morgantown generally is on college draftees. The Pirates didn’t use any of their top four picks on college players this year, though, so there won’t be any marquee prospects with the Black Bears. The top pick who’ll be there — hopefully — is third rounder Dylan Busby, who was playing in the college world series until recently and hasn’t signed yet. Morgantown also won’t have its typical compliment of college pitchers, as the Pirates didn’t select one before round eight and possibly none who may be a starter. Still, the team will have a potentially interesting complement of college hitters throughout the lineup, especially if Busby signs, including considerably more power potential than the Pirates usually have at this level.

Catcher

The primary catchers will be fifth-round pick Deon Stafford and Yoel Gonzalez. Stafford was the top hitter in the Atlantic 10 as a sophomore in 2016, putting up huge power numbers, but fell off in 2017 as opponents pitched around him. He may not have the ability to stay behind the plate, so a lot will depend on whether his power re-emerges. Gonzalez is a good defensive catcher who’s struggled mightily at the plate in his four pro seasons. Also on the roster is Jose Barrazza, a former White Sox prospect who signed out of independent ball. He has some power potential and may play first some of the time.

Infield Corners

The most prominent prospect here will be Busby if he signs. He’s a third baseman with significant power and a lot of swing-and-miss. Currently, the third baseman is Julio De La Cruz, who’s struggled in all phases of the game since signing for $700,000 prior to the 2013 season. The first baseman initially was Huascar Fuentes, but he was sent down to Bristol when the college draftees joined the team. So far, Barrazza has started at first when Fuentes hasn’t, but Stafford, De La Cruz and Busby could all get time there, as could some of the other infielders.

Middle Infield

Middle infielders seem to present some organizational challenges, as the Pirates have been chronically short of them at the lower levels since adding a team at Bristol. They had to sign several non-drafted free agent infielders a year ago when they came up short due to injuries. Middle infielders also seem to be more prone to sudden retirements (i.e., players realizing at an early stage that they’re just going to be organizational fill-ins and deciding to move on with their lives) than other players. And, of course, it’s a lot easier to put an infielder in the outfield at need than the reverse.

Anyway, the Pirates addressed this issue by drafting a slew of college middle infielders who may or may not profile more as organizational players than prospects, including four straight with their round 21-24 picks. Two of those four — Australian Robbie Glendinning (round 21) and Brett Pope (22) — are on the Morgantown roster, along with Nick King and Andrew Walker, who were both among the NDFAs signed a year ago to fill in at the lower levels. Glendinning and Pope both showed solid bats in college, including a little power. Walker and King so far have been handling shortstop, but I expect Glendinning and Pope will get the bulk of the time there going forward.

The most prominent draftee in the middle infield is Tristan Gray (13), who’s a bat-oriented infielder with some power. Gray played all over the field in college, but projects as a second baseman, so I assume he’ll be the primary starter there. So far the starter at second has usually been Raul Siri, who’s hit very little since a strong showing in the Dominican Summer League back in 2014. He’s had defensive issues so far this year.

Outfield

This is potentially the most interesting area of the team, but is also very high-risk. Two second-day draftees, Jared Oliva (7) and Bligh Madris (9), figure to be the primary corner outfielders. The Pirates drafted Oliva as a college senior, although it didn’t save them any slot money as they paid him exactly the slot amount. He appears to have solid all-around skills rather than any standout tool, and probably could play some in center. Madris was a sleeper pick who put up big numbers, including very good power, in a high-offense environment at Colorado Mesa. Another outfield draftee at Morgantown is Lucas Tancas (26), who appears a little similar to Logan Hill. He’s old for a draftee — 24 next November — but had a very good year in a tough park for hitters at Cal State Long Beach. He’s missed a lot of time due to injury, so he’s not as experienced as the age would suggest.

The main center fielder will probably be Michael De La Cruz, who signed for the same bonus at the same time as the unrelated Julio, and who’s struggled almost as much at the plate. He at least has center field speed and defensive skills. Even though this will be his fifth pro season, he’ll be the youngest outfielder on the team. Sandy Santos is on the roster as well, having gotten demoted from West Virginia with his K rate approaching 50% of his ABs.

Rotation

The Morgantown rotation is unusual because it’s possible there won’t be any 2017 draftees in it for parts or even all of the season. Even the top-drafted college pitcher, eighth rounder Blake Weiman, probably profiles as a reliever.

The current rotation is Ike Schlabach, Sergio Cubilete (pictured), Scooter Hightower, Stephan Meyer and a rehabbing Mitch Keller. Schlabach is a lefty who signed out of prep school in 2015. He has good size (6’5”) and improving stuff, but has struggled through his first two seasons with 5+ ERAs in the GCL and at Bristol. The fact that the Pirates are sticking with him as a starter says a lot and he’s pitched well in two games so far this year. Cubilete fits the pattern of the team’s international program: every year it seems they produce a pitcher who signed when he was older than the norm after showing a velocity increase, to the mid-90s in Cubilete’s case. He’s making the jump to the New York-Penn League after just one season in the DSL, but he finished that season strongly and looked good in camp. Hightower and Meyer were both drafted two years ago, in the 15th and 18th rounds, respectively, out of JuCo programs. Hightower was already named the league’s pitcher of the week for fanning a dozen, without allowing a hit or walk, over his first six innings in two outings. Meyer is a finesse pitcher who’s returning to the Morgantown rotation after posting just adequate numbers there last year.

I’m not sure who else might see time in the rotation. Nick Economos, a 2015 JuCo draftee, might be the best possibility. He struggled as a starter last year at Bristol but has pitched well in two relief outings so far this year. Also, he’s 6’6”, which will no doubt appeal to the Pirates. Adam Oller, drafted out of college last year, got mixed results as a starter at Bristol in 2016 but could get another shot. This year’s tenth rounder, Beau Sulser, was the Ivy League pitcher of the year this year and could be another possibility.

Bullpen

The most interesting reliever on this team is Joel Cesar. He’s a small righty who’s hit 100 mph in the past. He signed at a late age and, due to injury, had only 6.2 IP to his credit before this year, but the Pirates are having him close games for the Black Bears. He also has an improving slider, so the big issue with him will be throwing strikes. Morgantown will also have Weiman, a lefty who got good results after moving to the bullpen in college due to stamina issues. Other key relievers:

Brandon Bingel, returning after sharing the closer role for the Black Bears last year.
Gavin Wallace, younger brother of Pirate prospect Mike Wallace, although Gavin seems to be a bit more of a power guy than Mike, who’s a finesse pitcher.
Julio Eusebio, getting demoted for some reason after posting an ERA of .162 and BAA of .165 last year with the West Virginia Power.
Pasquale Mazzocoli, because . . . Pasquale Mazzocoli.

Regulars

C: Deon Stafford, Yoel Gonzalez
1B: Jose Barrazza, maybe Stafford or Julio De La Cruz
2B: Tristan Gray
SS: Robbie Glendinning, Brett Pope
3B: Dylan Busby if he signs, De La Cruz if he doesn’t
OF/DH: Michael De La Cruz, Jared Oliva, Bligh Madris, Lucas Tancas
Rotation: Ike Schlabach, Sergio Cubilete, Scooter Hightower, Stephen Meyer, maybe Nick Economos
Key Relievers: Joel Cesar, Blake Weiman