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Pirates minor league recap: GCL Pirates

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The GCL Pirates had probably the best collection of prospects they’ve had in many years. Whether this will translate into help at the major league level won’t be known for a long time, but it’s a start. And it’s fortunate because there’s a gap to fill, as we’ll see when we get to Bristol and West Virginia.

As everybody knows by now, the big story was Mason Martin (pictured). He had a historic year, to the extent anything that happens in rookie ball can be considered historic. Not only did he set the team record for HRs (and did it despite missing the first two weeks of the very short GCL season), he had literally one of the best hitting seasons in the league’s history.

Martin was one of several prep hitters the Pirates drafted this year who have significant upsides with the bat. In addition, they picked up their usual group of prep pitchers, including first round pick Shane Baz. The GCL team also provided some evidence that the team’s Latin American program may be headed for a turnaround after a string of unproductive years.

Hitters

The Pirates went for two prep hitters near the top of their draft and then signed Martin to an above-slot bonus out of the 17th round. Martin obviously made the big impact, hitting 11 HRs in just 39 games and putting up an OPS of 1.087. He played both first base and the outfield, and spent about two-thirds of his time at first, so he could go forward as a first baseman. Like many teams, the Pirates don’t usually play their better hitting prospects at first in the low minors, but they’re going to have a logjam in the outfield.

The other two prep hitters were second rounder Calvin Mitchell and second round/competitive balance pick Conner Uselton. Mitchell just held his own in the GCL, with a .704 OPS. His BB:K ratio (24:35) was good, though, and scouts thought he needed to make some adjustments to his swing to become less pull-happy. Uselton may have the highest upside of the group, given the combination of power and good enough speed to play center, but he suffered a slight hamstring tear in his second game, putting him out for the season. He was slightly older than the typical prep draftee — he’ll be Rule 5 eligible a year before the others — so it’d help if the Pirates could push him up to a higher level next year even though his first season was wiped out.

The GCL Pirates also featured two legitimate hitting prospects from the Pirates’ struggling international program. Lolo (formerly Kevin) Sanchez was the Pirates’ top signee in the 2015-16 signing period. After not hitting much last year, he put up a 284/359/417 this year. That came with more walks than strikeouts. The power was surprising; this is a league that slugged only .349. Sanchez has center field/leadoff speed, so any power is a bonus, and he won’t turn 19 until next April. Unlike Sanchez, Rodolfo Castro was a low-profile signing who seems to have added a lot of strength. He hit 277/344/479; the slugging average was good enough for fourth in the league and Castro won’t turn 19 until next May. The main concern may be his glove. He split his time between third and short, moving around probably in response to some injuries the team had and also to let Victor Ngoepe, Gift’s brother, get some time at short. Castro was very erratic at both positions, although he definitely has the arm for the left side of the infield.

Two other Dominican prospects took steps forward. Outfielder Jeremias Portorreal, signed to a large (by Pirate standards) bonus back in 2013, started showing in-game power for the first time and had a .769 OPS. He continued to strike out excessively, though, and he was in rookie ball in his fourth pro season. Catcher Gabriel Brito had a decent season, with a .679 OPS. He’ll turn 20 in six weeks.

Most of the rest of the position players were just up from the Dominican Summer League and are guys who haven’t developed. The closest thing to an interesting player is Ngoepe, who like his brother has some talent on defense. He’s even more challenged with the bat, though.

Pitching

The Pirates had four prep pitchers from this year’s draft in the GCL. (Draft round is in parentheses.) I find pitching stats at this stage completely worthless, unless a guy just can’t throw a strike or something. Generally, the Pirates are being very cautious, both health- and coaching-wise, as they won’t have the pitcher throw many innings and they won’t make significant changes until fall instructional league.

Shane Baz (1) made ten starts; getting that much action is an advance by itself over the days when players would sign in August and throw maybe one inning. He had two starts, one of which I saw, in which his command just wasn’t there, but he pitched well in the other games. My understanding is that scouts were impressed with him.

Steven Jennings (2) also made ten starts and got hit hard in a few of them. He’s more of a projection guy than Baz. Cody Bolton (6) made nine starts and got the best results of the group, with a 3.16 ERA and good peripherals. Jacob Webb (19), another pitcher who’s mainly projection at this point, made five relief appearances. He had a rough time in the last one and was shut down with elbow soreness that isn’t considered major. Ideally, the last three will be at Bristol next year. The interesting question will be whether Baz goes to West Virginia as Jameson Taillon did. (The Pirates didn’t have the Bristol affiliate back then.) Baz probably isn’t quite as advanced as Taillon was but his stuff may be potentially better.

The GCL team had two prep pitching draftees left over from last year. Both were slated to go to Bristol but had setbacks in spring training. I’ll get to Max Kranick (11) when I cover Bristol. Austin Shields (33) was expected to be more of a project when drafted and had trouble throwing strikes last year. He was shut down for a while in the spring and the control problems returned after he came back, so the Pirates sent him to the GCL. He had a number of games in which he still couldn’t throw strikes and some games in which he pitched well, so he’s still a project.

The GCL Pirates had a few mildly interesting pitchers up from the Dominican Summer League. The team’s unwillingness to compete financially in the international market has even more impact with pitching prospects than with hitters. Any pitcher with good present velocity is going to generate interest, which means the Pirates are going to bow out. Their bonus ceiling with hitters has been $400-500K in recent years, but with pitchers it’s been $150-200K, so they’re signing only guys who are all projection or who are finesse pitchers. The exceptions are older pitchers who sign later than the norm because they’ve had a sudden uptick in velocity (Yeudy Garcia) or because they simply didn’t start pitching until a late age (Edgar Santana).

The most interesting pitches the Pirates brought up this year were Yeudry Manzanillo, Leandro Pina and lefty Roger Santana. All are finesse guys at this stage and all got hit a little hard while pitching adequately. (All three had ERAs in the 4.00s and WHIPs roughly around 1.50.) Pina, who was the best pitcher on the DSL Pirates last year, had good walk and K rates, but he was shut down midway through the season. Manzanillo and Santana had just so-so walk and K rates.