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Pirates minor league preview: West Virginia

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Typically, the roster at the Pirates’ lowest full-season affiliate is all about breakout potential. After a down year last year, West Virginia will be loaded with players who may or may not be considered prospects yet, but who have significant chances to get on the map. This is partly because the Pirates went more heavily on prep players in last year’s draft than they have in many years, and partly because their international scouting is showing some signs of life after a lengthy down spell. There are also some college draftees from last year who could earn mid-season promotions, which would be nice because Bradenton is light on prospects.

Catcher

The regular catcher will be Deon Stafford, a college player who was drafted last year in round five. Stafford is an offense-first catcher with power potential who had a good debut last year. Defense isn’t his strong point, although he’s athletic enough that he could stick behind the plate, but it’s probably the reason he’s not at Bradenton. His backup will be Rafelin Lopez, whom the Pirates picked up from Tampa Bay in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. He’s a glove-first catcher who’s shown just a little power. The Pirates went with Lorenzo over Yoel Gonzalez, a good defensive catcher who started showing some power last year. He’s in extended spring training.

Corner Infield

The infield will have Mason Martin at first and Dylan Busby at third. Martin was a late-round draftee out of high school who got an above-slot bonus and went on to be the Gulf Coast League’s MVP, easily leading the league in HRs. He was drafted as an outfielder but it looks like he strictly play first now. He does have some contact issues, which will bear watching. Busby was a third round pick last year out of Florida State, where his game was all about power. He had a very rough debut last year, though, which is why he’s not at Bradenton.

The Power will also have Ben Bengtson. He was drafted as a shortstop, but the Pirates expect him to play mainly third. He’s shown a pretty good bat with some power. It’s also possible that Kyle Watson, another player drafted as a shortstop, will back up at the corners.

Middle Infield

The middle infield will have two of the system’s better breakout candidates. Oneil Cruz, at least for now, will try to make it as a 6’6” shortstop, which is where he played with the Dodgers before arriving in the Tony Watson trade. The Pirates think he’s a good enough athlete to play there, but it’s possible this effort won’t last long. More intriguing is his power potential, which may be the greatest in the organization. So far, he’s had far too much swing and miss to his game to be a productive hitter, but he played last year in low A at age 18, so it’s not a good idea to draw any conclusions yet.

The second baseman for now will be Rodolfo Castro, who played mostly short last year in the GCL, but who’s moving to accommodate Cruz. Castro had a strong season at the plate, a bit less so in the field, but he’s making the jump to West Virginia. He’d probably be Plan B at short if Cruz needs to move to third.

At this point, the backup in the middle infield would be Watson or Bengtson. The Pirates have Robbie Glendinning and Brett Pope, both shortstops drafted out of college last year, in extended spring training. Pope is an especially good defender.

Outfield

The outfield will be a big focus for West Virginia. Probably the top prospect on the team, as the season opens, will be center fielder Lolo Sanchez. He had a strong season in the GCL, showing a good bat, excellent plate discipline, some power, plus-plus speed, a good arm and strong defensive skills. He even attracted some attention with a straight steal of home in a major league exhibition game. The other breakout possibility among the outfielders at the start of the season is Cal Mitchell, drafted in round two last year. He had just a decent debut, but has strong hitting potential, including some power. He’s strictly a corner guy.

Right now, the other outfielders are Chris Sharpe and Ryan Peurifoy. Sharpe was a 14th round pick last year out of college and has some power potential, as well as the ability to play center. Peurifoy probably profiles more as an organizational player.

Eventually, two other outfielders should join the Power. One is Fabricio Macias, whom the Pirates recently signed out of Mexico. He just turned 20 and has hit well against much older players in Mexico. Macias should join the team soon. So should Edison Lantigua, who had a mini-breakout last year at Bristol, showing power for the first time. He’s close to returning from a hamstring problem.

Rotation

The rotation at the start of the season will feature two prep pitchers from the 2016 draft, fourth rounder Braeden Ogle and second rounder Travis MacGregor. The lefty Ogle throws in the mid-90s, with developing secondary stuff, and is one of the team’s leading breakout candidates. MacGregor, who requires more projection, had a very rough time at Bristol last year, but the Pirates think he’s made enough progress to move up to full season ball and he fanned a dozen in the team’s opener.

The other starters will be Sergio Cubilete, Domingo Robles and Gavin Wallace. Cubilete signed relatively late (nearly 21) out of the Dominican and the Pirates have been pushing him. He skipped straight from the Dominican Summer League to Morgantown, where he got hit hard, but he’s moving up again. Robles is a finesse lefty who was at Bristol last year and didn’t get great results, but he’s another guy the Pirates are pushing. Wallace was a late-round draftee last year out of Fairfield University and got very good results at Morgantown mainly by not walking anybody. He’s a big guy and the Pirates may think he can add velocity.

The West Virginia rotation should get much more interesting not long into the season, as they’re expected to add last year’s first rounder, Shane Baz, and another former prep draftee, Max Kranick. Baz will follow the same path Jameson Taillon did, going straight to full season ball from the GCL but waiting a little ways into the season to keep his workload down. He already has two potentially plus secondary pitches to go with his plus fastball, which puts him ahead of many prep pitchers. His main issue at this point may be pitching from the stretch. Kranick was an above-slot signee in 2016. He threw only 24 innings last year due to a sore shoulder, which is why he’ll start the season on more or less the same track as Baz.

Bullpen

West Virginia will have a fairly typical bullpen for this level, with a number of lottery ticket arms. You have to wonder whether pitching coach Joel Hanrahan sees something of himself in some of these guys.

Possibly the most noteworthy relievers are a couple of lefties. Ike Schlabach, drafted in the 19th round out of high school back in 2015, made huge progress last year after struggling for two years. He was one of the best starters in the New York-Penn League, but he’ll open 2018 in the pen. This doesn’t necessarily mean a lot, as starters at this level are often on relatively low pitch counts, so a lot of innings may be available in long relief roles. The other lefty, Blake Weiman, was drafted in the eighth round out of college last year. He has more of a starter’s repertoire, but he’s never had good stamina and appears to be limited to relief. He could move up quickly if he pitches well.

The most notable of the live-armed contingent are Joel Cesar, Blake Cederlind, Jacob Taylor and Dylan Prohoroff. Cesar is a short, stocky pitcher with mid-90s velocity who has reached triple digits. Cesar signed late and served as the closer last year at Morgantown despite having almost no prior experience. He did well enough considering how raw he was, although he had moderate control problems. Cederlind can reach 97, but has significant command issues and will be returning to the Power. Taylor was a fourth round pick in 2015, but lost nearly all of 2015-16 to Tommy John surgery. He struggled badly at Bristol last year and his velocity was well below the mid-90s level it had been in before. The Pirates, though, will try him at West Virginia. Prohoroff was an eight round pick out of college in 2016 and the Pirates have been trying to calm down his “head-whacking” delivery. Doing so has cost him some velocity, though, and he’ll be returning to the level.

The Power bullpen will have two other pitchers, Adam Oller and Evan Piechota. Oller was a 20th round college pick and struggled in his 2016 debut at Bristol, but he dominated last year at Morgantown. Although he’s not a hard thrower, he fanned ten batters per nine innings and eventually got a couple starts. Piechota is an organizational pitcher who signed as a non-drafted free agent out of college.

Regulars

C: Stafford
1B: Martin
2B: Castro
3B: Busby
SS: Cruz
OF: Sanchez, Mitchell, Sharpe (eventually Macias and maybe Lantigua)
SP: Ogle, MacGregor, Cubilete, Robles, Wallace (eventually Baz and Kranick)
Key Relievers: Weiman, Schlabach, Cesar

Top Prospects: Baz, Sanchez, Ogle, Mitchell, Cruz, Castro, Martin

Breakout Candidates: Almost everybody. Well, if you don’t count guys like Baz and Sanchez, who are already highly rated, the best candidates might be Mitchell, Cruz and Ogle.