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Pirates’ minor league recap: Bradenton

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Bradenton never figured to have a prospect-laden team. Happenstance just dictated that the bulk of the Pirates’ mid-level prospects would be at either Altoona or West Virginia. The Marauders had easily the oldest group of hitters in the Florida State League. In fact, their weighted average age was just barely younger than the Curve’s. The pitchers as a group were about average in age for the FSL, but some bad performances, especially in the bullpen, led to the league’s worst staff ERA by a wide margin.

THE GOOD

Jared Oliva, OF: Oliva (pictured) was the big success story at Bradenton. A seventh-round draft pick last year, he has legitimate center field skills and very good speed. He’d never shown much power before, but this year that started appearing, along with improved patience. He finished at 275/354/424 in the pitching-dominated FSL, with a league-leading 33 steals in 41 tries. His overall numbers suffered a little in a bad August in which he was in and out of the lineup with a hand injury.

Arden Pabst, C: Every year the Pirates draft a glove-oriented college catcher: Christian Kelley, Pabst, Jason Delay, and this year Zac Susi. A 12th round pick in 2016, Pabst hit very little that year and in 2017, but at Bradenton he suddenly started showing power. He batted 281/317/515 in the pitchers league while continuing to play good defense, throwing out 46% of base stealers. It’s hard to say how much the numbers mean, because the Pirates moved Pabst up to Altoona after just 46 games. He didn’t play much with the Curve (57 ABs) as he was behind Kelley, and Jin-De Jhang eventually made it there as well. Pabst should be the regular catcher there in 2019.

James Marvel, RHP: The Pirates drafted Marvel in 2015 knowing he’d miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. He’s made steady progress as a pitch-to-contact righty who throws strikes, doesn’t miss bats and gets deep into games. He pitched well for Bradenton without dominating, then had a strong, five-start stretch with Altoona at the end of the year. The advanced metrics aren’t sold on him, though, and he turned 25 a couple weeks ago.

Blake Weiman, LHP: A lefty drafted in round eight in 2017, Weiman has a starter’s repertoire (non-overwhelming stuff and good command). The Pirates slated him for relief all along, though, because he had a history of stamina issues. He opened the season at West Virginia and dominated there, then moved up to Bradenton after two months. He didn’t have great numbers with the Marauders (3.90 ERA), but that was the result of two terrible outings. He had double figure K/9 rates at both stops. Weiman got a late-season promotion to Altoona when Yeudy Garcia and Luis Escobar got suspended and pitched well in three games. If he continues to pitch well, it’s not out of the question that Weiman could be an option for the Pirates late in 2019. He’s been very tough on left-handed hitters so far.

THE BAD

Adrian Valerio, SS: Valerio has the defensive skills to reach the majors at short, but his bat has always been a question. He took a step forward at West Virginia in 2017. It came mainly in the form of increased power, as his plate discipline has always been weak. This year the power disappeared and his plate discipline got worse, with a K:BB ratio of nearly 7:1. An OBP of .269 isn’t going to get him to AAA, much less the majors.

Oddy Nunez, LHP: Nunez looked like an interesting prospect after a semi-breakout year in 2017 in which his velocity increased to 93 mph. At 6’8”, the Pirates were probably hoping his stuff would continue to improve, but instead he dropped back to the upper-80s or even lower and his breaking pitches weren’t as effective. Despite an eight-inning no-hitter, he struggled enough at Bradenton that the Pirates demoted him to West Virginia in July.

Bligh Madris, OF: Madris looked like a dark-horse candidate from the 2017 draft. He had playstation numbers in college, but lasted until the ninth round because of the difficulty in evaluating hitting stats from Colorado Mesa University. After a good debut, the Pirates jumped him up to Bradenton, but he didn’t hit there. His final line was 238/292/371.

Blake Cederlind, RHP: The Pirates drafted Cederlind in the fifth round out of junior college on the strength of a promising arm, with velocity that sometimes reached the upper-90s. His command figured to be a project and he returned to West Virginia this year after struggling there last year. He seemed to get things figured out, dominating in the first half and earning a promotion to Bradenton. He came unglued in the FSL, walking more than he struck out and letting opponents bat .302 against him.

Jake Brentz, LHP, and Angel German, Deivy Mendez, RHPs: The Pirates loaded the Marauders’ bullpen with strong-armed pitchers from other systems, including these three. Brentz, a rare lefty with 100 mph velocity, came from Seattle for Arquimedes Caminero. German came from the Dodgers in the Tony Watson trade and Mendez was a free agent signing after the Royals cut him loose. All three feature great arms and largely non-existent command. Things stayed that way this year. German had a 6.92 ERA and 1.71 WHIP, and he was easily the best of the three.

THE IN-BETWEEN

Luis Escobar, RHP: The good news is that Escobar continued to show the outstanding stuff — a mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss breaking ball — that got him a 40-man roster spot despite his not having played above low A. The bad news is that he’s not making a lot of progress with his command and higher level hitters aren’t chasing the breaking ball out of the strike zone as much as the hitters did at lower levels. Escobar dominated at times with Bradenton, but he also had some bad games where he wasn’t throwing strikes and his pitch counts got too high. Despite the very erratic performance, the Pirates promoted him to Altoona in mid-July, probably because he has only two options after this year. The command problems intensified there and he had some early exits due to pitch counts. He also saw his walk and K rates get dramatically worse. To top it off, he was suspended near the end of the season for an undisclosed violation of team policy.

Hunter Owen, 3B: Owen got off to a bad start, struggling for two months before getting hot in June. He was one of the FSL’s best hitters over the last three months and finished tied for third in the league in home runs (18). There are two big caveats: Owen turned 25 shortly after the season, so he was quite old for the level, and his plate discipline (19 BB, 114 K) was terrible. He caught a few games, but it was evidently just a “versatility” experiment rather than a shift to a new position.