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Pirates’ minor league recaps: Indianapolis Part 1

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MLB: Kansas City Royals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There’s not a lot of mystery here, as every one of these guys played in the majors this year. Indianapolis has become Utility Land, as it’s been loaded the last couple years with players who should be viable utility players in the majors. Whether any of them will be more than that is open to question.

I’m not going to cover players who spent the bulk of their time in the majors, like Adam Frazier or (in Part 2) Michael Feliz.

In minor news, the Pirates have outrighted LHP Nik Turley to AAA. They claimed him off waivers from Minnesota last fall, but he missed the whole season due to a PED suspension and an injury. He’ll become a free agent either by election or after the World Series.

THE GOOD

Kevin Kramer, 2B: Kramer had just an OK first two months at Indianapolis, but he got hot in June and, over the last three months, slugged .545. The change in his approach that’s resulted in the increased power has come at the cost of strikeouts, which hovered around one every 3-4 ABs all year until August, when he cut them to one every five. His .311 batting average was helped by a .392 BABIP, which isn’t sustainable. He hit LHPs and RHPs about the same this year, although he had a big platoon split last year. As far as I can determine, he’s very good defensively at second. He played some at short and third in AAA this year, and also at third in the majors, but the Pirates have said they see him as a second baseman. He had a bad time in sporadic chances in the majors in September, striking out in half of his 40 plate appearances, including ten in a row at one point. The strikeouts are going to be part of his game unless he changes back to his former contact-oriented approach, but if he does that, he becomes a lot less interesting as a prospect. His path forward is cloudy now because Adam Frazier has earned the second base job. Kramer should get at least a chance at a utility job in the spring, if he doesn’t have the same contact issues.

Pablo Reyes, UT: Reyes didn’t really take a step forward so much this year, as he’s always been a very solid player and has consistently gotten a little better as he’s moved up. He did start hitting for surprising power in the second half, slugging .528. As everybody knows, Reyes had an impressive debut with the Pirates. He’s spent the bulk of his career as a second baseman, where he’s very solid, but he played very little there or at short this year due to the presence of Kramer and Kevin Newman. (I’ve seen Reyes at short a few times and it’s not an ideal spot for him.) The one thing that makes me concerned about him is the Pirates’ growing obsession with employing infielders as fourth outfielders. Reyes could be a good hitter as utility infielder, but casting him as an outfielder isn’t realistic. Unfortunately, offense seems to be an afterthought with the Pirates, which is the single biggest reason they’ve finished out of contention that last three years.

Ryan Lavarnway, C: Lavarnway was a top Red Sox prospect on the strength of a power bat, but way back in 2013 the bat just disappeared on him. This year, as a result of the Pirates getting him to look at old video of himself, he made some adjustments and suddenly the bat resurfaced. He hit 288/375/485 at Indianapolis, getting better as the year went along. The Pirates called him up in September and he went 4-for-6. He’s out of options, so it’s very hard to see a path forward for him. In fact, when he was called up the Pirates characterized it as a reward rather than as a long-term consideration, and he got no time behind the plate in September. It’s possible, though, that they could keep him on the roster through spring, in case something unexpected happens with one of the three catchers ahead of him. Or maybe they’ll trade him for Mr. Cash. Somebody ought to be interested.

THE BAD

Max Moroff, IF: The really “bad” part for Moroff was that the Pirates called Reyes up in September and not Moroff. He didn’t have a terrible year in AAA, although his OPS fell from .909 there last year (which was probably something of a small sample size fluke) to .727 this year. He did not hit well in very brief chances (67 PAs), but again he wasn’t horrible. His 75 OPS+ was a dozen points better than Sean Rodriguez’, at least. Moroff will probably always be a guy who hits for a low average, strikes out a lot, walks a lot and has decent power. The biggest advantage he has over Reyes is that he’s much better at short. Not getting called up has generally proved to be a sendoff for players in Moroff’s situation with the Pirates, but he’s not nearly the worst player on the 40-man roster.

THE IN-BETWEEN

Kevin Newman, SS: Newman got off to a terrible start at Indianapolis, with a .565 OPS in April. He got going after that and finished with a .302 average and a lot of doubles (30, which was 5th in the league). He seldom struck out and didn’t walk a lot. He was rated the league’s best shortstop. He also finished second in the league with 28 steals (there were only two players in the league who reached even 20), but he got caught 11 times. Fans appear to underrate Newman’s speed and range, probably because he’s not flashy. Statcast rates his sprint speed as the best on the Pirates, equal to Jarrod Dyson, Dee Gordon and Michael A. Taylor. During his time in the majors, Newman had trouble with strikeouts, fanning in a quarter of his ABs. There’s no particular reason to think that’ll continue. He took time to get adjusted to both AA and AAA, so it stands to reason he’ll need time in the majors.

Jordan Luplow, OF: Luplow ostensibly had a shot at an outfield job in the spring, but had a bad spring and then a terrible start at Indianapolis, with a .511 OPS in April. He came around after that and finished with a 287/367/462 line in AAA. He got only limited chances with the Pirates and hit 185/272/359. He hasn’t been overwhelmed in the majors; in fact, his walk and K rates this year were good, as they have been consistently in the minors. Like Newman, Luplow runs surprisingly well: Statcast rates his sprint speed second on the Pirates after Newman, tied with Starling Marte. He’s a good defensive outfielder. Luplow should get a shot at some sort of outfield job next spring.

Jose Osuna, UT: Osuna had his best minor league season in AAA this year, with an .875 OPS and much-improved plate discipline. He got a lot of time at third base and seems to be solid there. His hitting in the majors is a different story. For some reason, there’s a perception that Osuna has shown promise in the majors and Luplow hasn’t, but Osuna’s OPS+ is barely higher (79 to 72) and he’s had twice as many plate appearances. Osuna did not do any better with the Pirates this year than he did last year, and his walk and K rates in the majors have been very bad. He does hit LHPs well, but has been overwhelmed by RHPs in the majors. The Pirates would probably like to see Osuna win a David Freese-type role in 2019, but that may depend on what happens with Jung-Ho Kang. Osuna has two options left.

Jacob Stallings, C: Stallings continued as before, hitting well in AAA, playing good defense and shuttling back and forth to Pittsburgh when needed. In five strips to the majors he got only 37 ABs, but such is life for a #3 catcher. It’s a great situation for the Pirates, if not for Stallings himself, because he should be a perfectly good backup catcher at the major league level. It’s nice that he’s not useless with the bat, as shown by the fact that he has two walkoff hits in just 72 PAs in the majors. Oddly, the Post-Gazette stated in a recent article that he’s out of options. That can’t be correct. According to every source out there, including his page at MLB.com, the Pirates first added Stallings to the 40-man roster in June 2016, optioned him five days later, then dfa’d him 11 days after that. It takes 20 days to burn an option. He wasn’t added back to the roster until September. He stayed in the majors until the season ended and then was outrighted again, so no option was used in 2016. The Pirates used options for him in 2017 and 2018, so he has one left. FWIW, RosterResource.com agrees with me.