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Significant developments in the Pirates’ system: Hitters

With the minor league season past the halfway point, there have naturally been both positive and negative developments among the hitting prospects in the Pirates’ system. I think the positive ones outweigh the negatives so far, although one of the negatives is a pretty big one. I’m going to stick with the players whose outlook has taken a meaningful step forward or back. I don’t think the status of players like Will Craig and Ke’Bryan Hayes, to take a couple examples, has changed much, so I’m not addressing them.

Top Prospects Struggle

Excluding Josh Bell, who opened the season in the majors, the team’s top two hitting prospects coming into the season were Austin Meadows and Kevin Newman. It hasn’t been a good season for either, especially Meadows. After a good spring, he got off to a dismal start, hitting 195/247/256. He rebounded pretty well in May, with an OPS of .804, then slumped again to .658 in 16 June games. Then, worst of all, he suffered his third hamstring injury. Newman suffered through a miserable month in May, with a .487 OPS, but he’s batting .302 since then and has a .990 OPS in nine games in July. Hopefully, he’s corrected whatever issue it was.

Middle Infielders Pick It Up

Newman’s early struggles have been more than offset by some other middle infielders picking it up. Kevin Kramer got off to a fast start, cashing in on his chance not to be hitting in the stifling environs of the Florida State League. He gradually cooled off, but still had an .880 OPS when he went out with a broken finger, probably until late in the season. Cole Tucker, by contrast, got off to a slow start. He’s always been about projection and had never hit the ball with a great deal of authority until, in May, the power suddenly showed up. He had 15 extra base hits in 27 games, putting up a .935 OPS. He missed much of June with a hand injury, but has a 1.259 OPS in seven July games so far. He’s also turned into a prolific base stealer, with 34 in 45 attempts, and he’s played short well enough that it seems likely he’ll stick there.

Further down in the system, Adrian Valerio got off to a late start at West Virginia due to a broken hand. He’s always had shortstop skills, but never hit much until this year. Now he’s not only hitting, but hitting for power, with a 278/304/443 line. He’s probably not going to hit for a lot of power long-term and there’s some risk of him getting homer-happy (the OBP shows he doesn’t walk much), but he’s clearly taken a significant step forward at the plate.

Power Breakouts

Probably the biggest deficiency in the Pirates’ farm system for years has been power, so it’s been a relief to see several players start to produce the kind of power numbers you hope to see from corner players. The two most notable have been Jordan Luplow (pictured) and Logan Hill, both of whom earned recent promotions. Luplow has always shown good plate discipline, but his previous high in HRs was 12. This year he has 19 between two levels and he hasn’t slowed down since the promotion. Another interesting fact in Luplow’s numbers has to do with Altoona’s ballpark, which is tough on right-handed power. He hit just four HRs there and a dozen on the road in AA, so the ballpark may have kept his numbers down quite a bit. Luplow moved slowly through the system until now, but he isn’t quite 24 as he was younger than the typical college junior when he was drafted. He could be an option for the Pirates as soon as this September.

Hill is actually four months older than Luplow and had a rough time most of last year, including a demotion from Bradenton. He returned there this year and is still the FSL leader in HRs, where he had a 266/351/513 line. He was old for that league, but not so much for the Eastern League and he’s hit just as well since moving up. An additional caveat with Hill is poor plate discipline, but his BB:K ratio improved each month and hasn’t been bad at all the last six weeks or so.

Yet another Altoona player has suddenly started hitting the ball with much more authority, but hasn’t gotten the attention that Luplow and Hill have gotten. Jerrick Suiter is a big guy, but never for much power at all before this year, with a career high slugging average of .394. He missed the start of this season with a hand injury (which seems to be this year’s version of orbital bone fractures). Excluding a ten-game rehab at Bradenton, Suiter now has a 314/400/497 line, with one more HR (6) than his previous career high, in fewer than half as many games.

Of course, the strangest power spike of all this year was Max Moroff. He’s had a much rougher go of it in the majors, but he spent much of his time in AAA battling for the International League lead in HRs. His 13 longballs in AAA were five more than his career high in a fraction of the games and his .569 slugging average was nearly 200 points above his career high. Maybe some of that will translate to the majors at some point.

Dominican Breakouts?

With one exception, I’m not going to say anything about the short-season leagues because they haven’t played much yet. The exception is the Dominican Summer League, which starts play a couple of weeks earlier than the other leagues. There’s still a small sample size issue, but two 18-year-old players in the DSL have seen major improvements so far. Catcher Samuel Inoa is hitting 385/480/603 with a 1:1 BB:K ratio. That’s a big jump from his first DSL season, when he had an OPS ten points lower than his current slugging average, with a BB:K ratio of 1:2.5. Third baseman Sherten Apostel struggled even more in his first DSL season, with a .583 OPS and strikeouts in 30% of his plate appearances. Now he’s just coming off a stretch of five HRs in four games and he has 16 extra base hits among his 29 hits. He had one HR and nine extra base hits all last year. He’s hitting 259/344/527 and has cut his K rate to 18%.