This year’s West Virginia Black Bears team was something different for the Pirates. Not totally different; the New York-Penn League affiliate always features college draftees as its most prominent prospects. The better prep draftees and Latin American prospects usually skip this level.
The big difference was the heavy focus not only on hitters, but on hitters with power potential. Maybe it was their experience with Pedro Alvarez, but the Pirates spent years primarily looking for line drive/contact type hitters, avoiding power hitters with a lot of swing and miss. They did an about-face in 2017 and it showed up in the Morgantown roster. Meanwhile, the Pirates didn’t draft a pitcher from a four-year college until the eighth round, and that was a reliever. Only one of the team’s regular starters . . . well, one and a half . . . arrived in this year’s draft.
Numbers in parentheses are draft rounds.
I should preface all this by saying that, although they probably mean more than rookie league stats, short-season stats still don’t tell us all that much. There seem to be two common patterns: guys who struggle initially due to the differences with the college hitting environment, and guys who get off to hot starts and then slump when the better draftees start showing up. So it’s not a good idea to get too excited or turned off by what these hitters did in their first two or two and a half months of pro ball.
Anyway, of the college hitters the Pirates drafted, excluding the ones who figure to be organizational players, the best and worst debuts were turned in by infielders. The team’s top college pick, third baseman Dylan Busby (3), had probably the most power potential among the college bats, but he struggled severely. Busby struggled to a .522 OPS, with strikeouts in 27% of his plate appearances. On the other hand, Tristan Gray (13) (pictured) started off hot and kept hitting. He finished at 269/329/486. Gray didn’t walk much, but he also didn’t strike out much and he showed enough power to finish second in the NYPL in slugging. (The NYPL is normally a pitchers league, but it was extreme in 2017. The whole league slugged just .340; anybody who managed a .400 SLG was doing well.) Gray started off playing second, but the Pirates moved him to short for the last several weeks of the season. It’d be quite a boon if he could stay there, and he hits from the left side as well.
Catcher Deon Stafford (5) and outfielder Bligh Madris (9) also had good debuts, hitting 280/332/418 and 270/344/429, respectively. Stafford had some strikeout issues, fanning about once every three and a half ABs. He was reputed to be a bat-first catcher, but he threw out a passable 24% of base stealers and had just one passed ball and one error. Madris was an under-the-radar pick out of Colorado Mesa. He had a more reasonable K rate, about one every five and a half ABs, and his SLG was good for ninth in the NYPL.
Three other college outfielders put up respectable numbers. Jared Oliva (7), put up decent hitting numbers (.700 OPS), albeit with strikeouts in a quarter of his ABs. Oliva is a center fielder and he showed good speed, leading the NYPL in triples and succeeding on 15 of 19 steal attempts. Chris Sharpe (14), who’s also capable of playing center, had a .684 OPS and fanned in nearly a third of his ABs, but showed a little power. Lucas Tancas (26) is somewhat similar to Logan Hill, who was a 25th round pick. He finished with a .719 OPS, but got very hot late, with an .868 OPS after the league’s all-star break. He ended up playing mainly at first, which may make it easier for him to find playing time with all the lower level outfield prospects the Pirates have now.
The Pirates also signed a couple of college shortstops, Brett Pope (22) and Australian Robbie Glendinning (21). Both struggled at the plate. Pope showed good defensive skills, but eventually lost playing time at short to Gray. The Black Bears also had the two De La Cruzes, Michael and Julio, who were the Pirates’ most expensive Latin American signings since Harold Ramirez. Both, however, continued to struggle badly.
The rotation was an odd assortment of prospects who’re trying to put things together, and it mostly worked. Two pitchers from the 2015 draft had very good seasons, although it remains to be seen how well their stuff will hold up at higher levels. Lefty Ike Schlabach (19), a prep draftee who’s struggled with command issues, had a breakout season with a 2.83 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. Scooter Hightower (15), a 6’6” junior college pitcher, parlayed borderline velocity, excellent command and a very good change into a 1.94 ERA and 0.98 WHIP.
Gavin Wallace (15), whose brother Mike was a Pirates’ 2015 signee, was the only 2017 draftee who was in the rotation all year. (Beau Sulser (10) joined the rotation at mid-season but mostly struggled. He replaced Stephan Meyer after Meyer was promoted.) Gavin had a 2.65 ERA and 0.96 WHIP, largely as a result of walking almost nobody. The remaining starter was Sergio Cubilete, who signed out of the Dominican at age 21. Cubilete has good velocity, reaching the mid-90s, and was making a big jump, having spent his only professional season in the Dominican Summer League. He struggled, with a 5.12 ERA, but considering his experience level he shouldn’t be dismissed yet.
Several Black Bears relievers had interesting seasons. The usual caveat applies: lower level minor leaguers pitching in relief rarely become major leaguers. Joel Cesar, who got some attention when Baseball America reported that he’d reached 100 mph, was the primary closer. He threw more in the mid-90s and had control issues, walking six per nine innings. He fanned a batter an inning, though, and came into the season with just six innings of experience since he signed out of the Dominican. Lefty Blake Weiman (8) was the earliest college pitcher drafted by the Pirates. He had a solid season, with a 1.1 BB/9 and 9.5 K/9. Matt Seelinger (28) had a WHIP of 0.87 and K/9 of 11.1.
The best bullpen performance, though, came from Adam Oller (20). He turned an average-ish fastball, and good curve and change, into a 1.57 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 1.8 BB/9 and 9.9 K/9.