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Pirates’ minor league recap: Indianapolis

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Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Indianapolis had an unusual team this year. The typical AAA team has a lot of minor league veterans who serve as emergency callups and roster filler. Indy’s roster, though, was made up mostly of players who had a real chance of helping the Pirates at some point in the near future. A lot were guys who figured to be cup-of-coffee types or utility players, but there were quite a few prospects who, seemingly, could be regulars of some sort at the major league level. The results ran the gamut, from guys who had very good seasons, to guys who more or less treaded water and guys who struggled. In all, 23 players (including some on rehab) saw time at both Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. How they did in the majors isn’t something I’m going to address here. I’m also not going to discuss players, such as Jose Osuna, who were with Indy only briefly, or ones, such as Phil Gosselin and Drew Hutchison, who are gone or shortly will be.

Hitters

Indianapolis, at different times, hosted four players who potentially profiled as major league starters. The four were outfielders Austin Meadows and Jordan Luplow, shortstop Kevin Newman, and catcher Elias Diaz. The results were very different and, mostly, not so good.

Meadows’ season was a disaster. He got off to a horrible start, with a .503 OPS in April. He came around somewhat after that, with a good month in May but another slump in June. His 247/309/365 line after April wasn’t exactly what you want from your #1 prospect. And, of course, he went on the disabled list three times, twice with hamstring injuries, playing in only 81 total games, including rehab games.

Newman and Diaz had unimpressive showings. Newman got a late promotion and played in 40 games in AAA. He batted .283, but didn’t hit for much power, which meant pitchers weren’t afraid to throw him strikes. In spite of the good average, his OPS was only .688. Diaz just didn’t hit, posting a .638 OPS. He did, at least, throw out 46% of base stealers.

Luplow, the year’s big breakout story in the Pirates’ system, had a much more successful stint in AAA. He picked up where he left off at Altoona, batting 325/401/513 with Indy.

Indianapolis had a pair of potential utility players who had very good seasons. Max Moroff had one of the stranger seasons in the system, suddenly hitting for serious power and battling for the league lead in HRs through the end of May. He spent most of the rest of the season in the majors. In AAA he hit 254/390/519 with 13 HRs in just 51 games. Chris Bostick got off to a fast start, but for some reason the Pirates showed little interest in him. He spent nearly the entire season in AAA, playing mostly the outfield and hitting 294/362/418.

Two other potential utility players didn’t do as well. Gift Ngoepe got a historical callup, but spent most of the season in AAA. He continued to make highlight-reel plays in the field but also to fan at an alarming rate due to his inability to handle offspeed stuff. Eric Wood showed the solid power he’d shown the previous year, but struggled over the last two months and finished at 238/311/438.

Three other hitters — catcher Jacob Stallings, infielder Erich Weiss and first baseman Edwin Espinal — played well at the end of the season. Stallings, previously a glove-only, emergency callup type, got red hot late in the year and finished at 301/358/431. He’s made a good case not to be removed from the 40-man roster as he was after the 2016 season. Weiss hit very little in limited playing time early in the season, but was one of Indy’s best hitters in the second half, finishing at 274/353/422. He’s 26 now and doesn’t play short, but is a good defender at second. Espinal got a late-season promotion from Altoona. He hit .323, but didn’t show the power he’d shown in AA, with no HRs in 35 games. He also never walks, so hitting for power is not optional.

Pitchers

Indianapolis had five starters who spent all or a majority of the season in AAA, all of whom could start for the Pirates at some point. Two already have and put up impressive numbers in AAA. Lefty Steven Brault was one of the best starters in the minors this year, overcoming some control issues early in the year to finish his time in AAA with an ERA of 1.94. That was partially the result, though, of a .252 BABIP; Brault’s xFIP was 3.81. After being sent down, Tyler Glasnow had an ERA of 1.93 and much less of a divergence with advanced metrics; his xFIP was 2.17. Glasnow had much less trouble with the strike zone than he had last year in AAA, walking only 3.1 per nine innings while fanning 13.5. Whether that’ll ever translate into big league success . . . .

The other three starting prospects got variable results. Clay Holmes had an ERA of 3.36 and made it extremely difficult for hitters to elevate the ball. Opponents had an ISO against him of just .062. The downside was frequent control meltdowns, leading to 4.7 walks per nine innings and some early exits. Nick Kingham missed the first six weeks with an ankle injury, then started off very well. He hit a bad slump around the middle six weeks or so, then had a very strong stretch, and then finished with two bad starts. He finished with a 4.13 ERA and 3.96 xFIP. Tyler Eppler had a less equivocal season; after pitching well the first two months, he simply got battered over the last three and finished with a 4.89 ERA and 4.22 xFIP. He had significant gopher ball problems, 23 in 136.1 IP.

The Indy bullpen was deep in pitchers with a chance to help out in the majors. Three eventually made their big league debuts: Dovydas Neverauskas, Edgar Santana and Angel Sanchez. None of the three was exactly dominant and Santana, in particular, didn’t pitch so well after returning at the beginning of July from a callup. He finished with a 2.79 ERA and 3.32 xFIP. Neverauskas finished more strongly and had a 2.86 ERA, but the advanced metrics were less convinced as his xFIP was 3.96. Sanchez was coming off Tommy John surgery. He had the worst ERA (3.74) but best peripherals (2.88 xFIP) of the three, striking out 10.6 per nine innings.

Three other Indy relievers also finished the season in Pittsburgh. A.J. Schugel was still recovering from shoulder trouble at the beginning of the year and got off to a terrible start, with a 9.82 ERA in April. He got things straightened out, though, and pitched very well until had got called up to stay in July. The Pirates acquired Johnny Barbato in mid-April and he spent the bulk of the season in AAA. He pitched just decently, benefiting from a .236 BABIP. He had a 3.06 ERA and 3.88 xFIP. Lefty Dan Runzler spent the entire AAA season at Indianapolis, putting up mediocre numbers: 4.23 xFIP, 7.8 K/9, 4.8 BB/9. For no readily apparent reason, the Pirates called him up in September.

One other reliever had an interesting showing at the end of the season. Montana DuRapau came up from Altoona for the last six weeks and struck out 23 in 16.2 IP. He’ll be 26 when the next season starts.