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Pirates’ minor league recap: West Virginia

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In a typical season, the Pirates’ South Atlantic League franchise is like the Land of Promise. Prospects are basically a game of attrition; over time, more and more fall by the wayside so that, at the higher levels, minor league rosters increasingly are made up of more suspects (or veterans) and fewer real prospects. At the lowest full season level, though, usually there are a bunch of guys coming up from leagues that serve mainly to introduce young players to pro ball. The weeding-out hasn’t really begun and every player looks like he could still be a prospect.

With this year’s West Virginia entry . . . not so much. I’m not going to try to analyze the reasons here. Sometimes it’s just happenstance; I really liked the rosters at Morgantown and Bradenton, so West Virginia was a bit of a donut hole. Whatever the reason, the Power’s lineup was loaded with guys who really aren’t prospects. In fact, by weighted average, the Power had the oldest group of position players in the SAL. The pitchers were a different story. There was only one high-profile pitcher, but some dark horses as well. Their weighted average age was very close to league average despite the fact that a couple of college draftees ended up in the West Virginia rotation for large parts of the season. This was strictly due to overcrowding at Bradenton.

Hitters

The Power had one of the SAL’s better-hitting teams, but it was largely due to overage players who are hard to see as prospects. Apart from Hunter Owen (more on him in a moment), the team’s best hitter was first baseman Albert Baur, who at 25 isn’t a prospect. The Power also got a fair amount of production from Carlos Munoz, who’ll be a free agent this fall.

Some other hitters whose production was decent, but not particularly good, were outfielders Clark Eagan, Ty Moore, Ryan Nagle and Garrett Brown. Eagan and Brown were 2016 draftees who didn’t exactly struggle, but didn’t put up the sort of numbers you’d want to see from college draftees playing at high A, much less low A. Nagle was drafted in 2015 and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I’ll cover Moore when I get to Bradenton.

The two most prominent position prospects with the Power were shortstops Adrian Valerio (pictured) and Stephen Alemais. With Cole Tucker in Bradenton, the two of them were expected to share the middle infield at West Virginia. Instead, Valerio suffered a broken hand in spring training. When he came back, Alemais got hurt, then Valerio got hurt again (twice), then Alemais got promoted. (More on Alemais with the Bradenton recap.) In the end, Valerio got into 81 games and had something of a breakout, batting 273/301/442. He’s a pretty wild swinger -- he walked only 11 times — but 11 HRs from a guy who plays a legit shortstop and who won’t be 21 until next March is hopeful.

The team’s best hitter was Owen, who had a 292/388/505 line. He didn’t walk much; the OBP was bolstered by 24 HBPs in just 83 games, which cost him some time here and there. And if you don’t think Pirate outfielders have some sort of hamstring jinx, try this: Owen is really an outfielder but played third at West Virginia because somebody had to. My understanding is that he struggled there, but in mid-July he played his first game all year in left. It appeared as though he was getting ready to move up to Bradenton to replace Logan Hill, who’d just been promoted. Sure enough, in his very first game in the outfield, Owen suffered a hamstring injury. He didn’t return until near the end of the season. In any event, as a prospect he’s suspect because he turns 24 in a few days.

Several catchers who appeared with the Power are kind-of worth noting. Arden Pabst and Brent Gibbs were selected last year in rounds 12 and 7, respectively. They more or less shared the catching duties, although Gibbs, a junior college pick, was hurt a lot. Both struggled offensively. Pabst is a good defensive player but Gibbs may not be. Yoel Gonzalez, who got a modest bonus out of the Dominican, got 112 late-season plate appearances due to other catchers getting hurt. He’d never hit anything at all previously, but he suddenly started hitting for power this year. His batting line of 248/282/448 was accompanied, though, by seriously bad plate discipline: four walks and 30 Ks.

Finally, the Power had Tony-Watson-trade-acquisition Oneil Cruz for 16 games. Cruz is interesting because he won’t turn 19 until October and has huge, left-handed power. His time with the Power was consistent with what we already knew about him. He batted 218/317/400, which by itself isn’t that bad for a player so young, but he fanned in over a third of his plate appearances and had an alarming .840 fielding percentage at third.

Pitchers

The highest-profile pitcher with the Power was Luis Escobar. He got off to a crazy start, fanning 41 of the first 93 hitters he faced. The hitters apparently figured out, though, that his breaking stuff wasn’t in the strike zone much. He had some ups and downs all year, going through stretches where he had trouble with walks and high pitch counts. His final ERA, 3.83, wasn’t spectacular, but he fanned 11.5 per nine innings as a starter and easily led the league in whiffs. You can’t teach stuff like that.

The Power also had two starters who came out of nowhere. Oddy Nunez is a 6’8” lefty who looked like a random, low-level reliever until he came to camp throwing 93 mph with improved breaking stuff. The Pirates brought him along slowly because his past workloads weren’t much. He had a good year and still has a lot of projection, as he won’t turn 21 until December. His ERA (3.71) was inflated by some awful defense (he was literally having to get 6-7 outs per inning at times) and bizarre scoring decisions early in the year. The other breakout was Eduardo Vera, who’s older (23 and already eligible for the Rule 5 draft) due to time lost to Tommy John. He also came to camp with dramatically improved stuff, specifically a great curve and a fastball that by the end of the year was reaching 97 mph. Near the end of the season, Vera came within one out of a seven-inning perfect game and was pitching deep into his starts.

Two of the team’s starters for significant parts of the season, Cam Vieaux and James Marvel, and two relievers, Geoff Hartlieb and Jordan Jess, ended up with Bradenton. I’ll discuss them in that recap.

Two of the Power’s pitchers served in swing roles, with different results. Matt Anderson doesn’t have impressive stuff, but going back to college he’s always had very high K rates due to deception. The Pirates tried him as a starter and he was erratic due to control problems, so they moved him to relief. At times he was very good and he fanned ten per nine innings. Blake Cederlind, a junior college pitcher drafted in round 5 last year, came to camp throwing 97 mph. The Pirates tried him as a starter with low pitch limits, but he struggled, went to the bullpen, and ended up having a horrible year.

A couple other relievers put up some impressive numbers in partial seasons at West Virginia, but . . . relief prospect. Ronny Agustin relies heavily on a very nasty curve that produced a 13.2 K/9, but his fastball isn’t that effective and it’s hard to succeed with one pitch. Pasquale Mazzoccoli got moved up late in the year after being unhittable at Morgantown. He sits in the mid-90s and has a good breaking ball, and had an 0.74 WHIP. He’s already 25, although he was drafted just last year.

Finally, there’s Angel German, whom the Pirates also got in the Watson trade. He throws hard, but he’s already Rule 5 eligible and he walked eight in ten innings after the trade.