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Pirates’ minor league recap: Bradenton

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Bradenton opened the season with a large percentage of the Pirates’ top prospects, most of them in the infield and the rotation. For most, but not all, of them, things went reasonably well on the field. Several of the top guys missed some time with injuries, but none of them look like long-term concerns.

Hitters

The top position playing prospects on the Marauders were shortstop Cole Tucker, first baseman Will Craig and third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes (pictured). The results for the three of them were variable.

Tucker got off to a bad start in April, but in May he got red hot, not only hitting very well but hitting for power for the first time. The hitting breakout came with a big spike in his strikeouts -- he’s always had good plate discipline — but that didn’t carry over to AA when he got promoted in late July. Despite the bad start, Tucker had well above average numbers for the league by the time he was promoted to Altoona in July, after losing some time to a broken finger. He also led the league in stolen bases despite playing less than half a season there. And his glovework improved to the point where he was producing YouTube highlights.

Hayes had a mixed season, hitting 278/345/363 with good plate discipline. All of those numbers were above the league average and he was one of the younger players there, but the lack of power remains a concern. He also went into the season noticeably underweight after spending the offseason recovering from a cracked rib and upper back problem. Between that, his age and the poor offensive environment in the Florida State League, I’m inclined to wait until he gets to Altoona before worrying about it. The odd thing was that he finished fifth in the league in steals, although he doesn’t run well.

It’s impossible not to call Craig a serious disappointment. He hit 271/373/371 and, while it’s nice to see the patience, he’s a first baseman now and needs to hit for power. The lack of power can’t be explained away because it’s the FSL. He was two years older than Hayes and comes from a major college program. His ISO was less than that of organizational utility infielder Logan Ratledge, or the struggling Casey Hughston. It was well below those of middle infielders Tucker (who’s also two years younger than Craig) and Mitchell Tolman. Craig seemed to be picking it up with a big month of June, but he collapsed after that, slugging just .220 in August and hitting only one HR in his last 65 games. The only positive was that he played well defensively with the shift to first.

The most noteworthy of the other hitters at Bradenton were outfielder Logan Hill and shortstop Stephen Alemais. After a rough 2016, Hill broke out, finishing tied for second in the league in HRs despite a mid-season promotion to Altoona. The caveat is that he turned 24 two months into the season. Alemais is a sometimes-spectacular defensive player whose bat is the big issue. After struggling to make contact during an injury-plagued stretch at West Virginia, Alemais spent the last month at Bradenton and seemingly toned down his swing. His K:BB ratio went from over 6:1 before the promotion to 1:1 after and he batted .317 at Bradenton. It was only 101 ABs, but hopefully the change will carry over.

Second baseman Mitchell Tolman, outfielder Ty Moore and outfielder/catcher Kevin Krause also put up good numbers. Tolman hit 267/364/393, which is good for the FSL. He got a promotion at the end of the year and played well for Altoona in the playoffs. In recent years, the Pirates have had a string of players — especially left-handed hitting, or switch-hitting, middle infielders (Kevin Kramer, Adam Frazier, Max Moroff) for some reason — take big steps forward after moving from Bradenton to Altoona, so Tolman could be interesting next year. Krause hit 276/370/459, although he’ll turn 25 in November. For some reason, it wasn’t until late in the season before the Pirates started playing him every day. I have no idea why. Moore was making slow progress until he got a mid-season promotion to Bradenton, where he hit 289/357/421, which was much better than he’d hit at lower levels.

Catcher Christian Kelley did not have a good season. The Pirates thought enough of him, mainly due to his defense, to give him a non-roster invitation to spring training. He got off to a good start, but completely stopped hitting during the season’s last three months, with a .494 OPS. He threw out 25% of base stealers; backup John Bormann, of fifteen-minutes-of-fame notoriety, caught 32%.

Pitchers

The Bradenton rotation was so loaded at the start of the season that college draftees Cam Vieaux and James Marvel, who normally would have opened the season with the Marauders, had to start off at West Virginia. Every starter in the rotation was noteworthy to some degree, although the results weren’t all good.

The two big-upside pitchers were Mitch Keller and lefty Taylor Hearn. Keller put a lot of effort into mixing his pitches better and using his change more. That may have contributed to a couple bad games that inflated his numbers, as well as a low K rate by his standards, but he nevertheless looked the part of a top prospect. He also missed about six weeks due to a back injury. More on his late-season promotion to Altoona next time. Hearn dominated much of the time, striking out just under 11 per nine innings. He had some problems with big innings, leading to a 4.11 ERA, but his xFIP of 2.84 is a better indicator of how he pitched. Hearn missed about the last six weeks with an oblique injury, although he got in one rehab start at the end. Even with that, he doubled his innings total from the previous year and at least didn’t have any arm problems.

Two other starters, Dario Agrazal and Pedro Vasquez, got good results. Agrazal doesn’t have a big strikeout pitch, but he throws in the mid-90s, pounds the strike zone and usually gets very deep into games. He was far less hittable this year than he was last year at West Virginia and increased his K/9 from 5.3 last year to 7.1. His ERA (2.91) and xFIP (2.92) were nearly identical, so the peripherals back the results. Agrazal got a mid-season promotion to Altoona and suffered an oblique strain in his first start there, knocking him out for the year. Vasquez, who came in the Arquimedes Caminero trade, had very little experience before this year, so the fact that he got through an entire season in the rotation is a plus by itself. He’s also a control guy who doesn’t quite have Agrazal’s velocity, although his K/9 (7.0) was nearly identical to Agrazal’s. He was leading the FSL in ERA around the beginning of July, but started getting bombed over the last two months, so he may have tired.

The last member of the season-opening rotation was Gage Hinsz, a prep pitcher from Keller’s draft class, and his season didn’t go well. He had command problems early, then every time he’d have a good game or two he’d go out with shoulder trouble. He finally was diagnosed with a scapular stress fracture, which isn’t expected to be a long-term problem.

The only member of the original rotation to stay in it all year was Vasquez, so that led to two promotions and two moves out of the bullpen. The promotions were Vieaux and Marvel. Vieaux, a fifth-round pick last year, is a lefty who’s a finesse guy. He got very good results at West Virginia with a low K rate. After a mid-season promotion, he just got hit hard, leading to a 4.69 ERA and 4.26 xFIP, so his stuff may be an issue. Marvel actually pitched better in four late-season starts for the Marauders than he did at West Virginia. He also didn’t miss a lot of bats, although he wasn’t as hittable as Vieaux. He was a late-round pick out of college back in 2015; the Pirates drafted him knowing he was recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The two other pitchers who moved from long relief to the rotation were Logan Sendelbach and Brett Helton, who were selected out of college in the tenth and ninth rounds in 2015. Sendelbach throws almost nothing besides a sinker and was more effective in relief. Helton did better as a starter, a role in which he struggled at West Virginia last year.

There were a lot of interesting relievers who passed through Bradenton this year, including three guys who started the year there and were very effective. Seth McGarry pitched very well as a closer but got traded to Philadelphia on purpose. I’ll discuss Jake Brentz in the next installment. Lefty Daniel Zamora had a good season, fanning over 10 per nine innings and generally getting hitters from both sides out. He got promoted to Altoona at the very end of the season.

Two relievers, righty Geoff Hartlieb and lefty Jordan Jess, earned promotions from West Virginia and found the going tougher in the FSL. Hartlieb, who was promoted at mid-season, got the Pirates’ attention by running his fastball up to 96-97. He had a couple bad outings for the Marauders but otherwise pitched well, fanning 10.5 per nine innings. Jess came up later and really struggled through eight outings for Bradenton. He fanned nearly 11 per nine innings at West Virginia and walked only two, but his command was way off at the higher level. Both Hartlieb and Jess were late-round picks (29 and 31) just last year, so they’ve been moving quickly.

Finally, Yunior Montero had a bizarre season, which is fitting because he has a bizarre background story. He originally signed with the Pirates when he was 17, but MLB voided his contract three times, not due to identity issues, but strictly due to inadequate documentation. He finally was able to pitch three years later. He started this season off by fanning 33 of the first 61 batters he faced, but he went rapidly downhill after that due to control problems.