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Pirates minor league preview: West Virginia Black Bears

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The New York-Penn League is basically for college draftees, so the makeup of the Pirates’ Morgantown entry depends mainly on the sort of players they draft. This year, their college draftees included their top pick, as well as the rest of their picks from the first ten rounds except for their picks in the supplemental first and the second rounds. It’s not clear, though, just how much upside this group has.

The roster still isn’t set, though, as the Pirates still have close to two weeks to sign draftees. Their fifth and tenth round picks are still playing in the college world series, as their teams have reached the finals. Most likely will sign afterwards.

Catcher

Ultimately, the Morgantown catcher should be Grant Koch, the Pirates’ fifth round pick out of Arkansas. He hit for good power prior to 2018, but had a down year this year. Defensively, he probably projects more to be solid rather than good. For now, the starter is 12th round pick Zac Susi. He’s a contact-oriented hitter with good defensive skills. The backup now is Paul Brands, an organizational catcher.

Infield Corners

First base so far has been divided between Luke Mangieri and Jhoan Herrera. Mangieri, drafted in the 25th round out of Bradley, was announced by the Pirates as an outfielder, but he was a first baseman in college. He’s been more of a line drive hitter than a power hitter. Herrera has made very slow progress, partly because he missed all but a couple games last year with an injury, and is 23 now. He does have some power and has gotten off to a big start this year.

The third baseman eventually should be tenth round pick Mike Gretler, who’s in the CWS finals with Oregon State. The Pirates also drafted Gretler in 2017 and he’s now a senior, so he’ll likely have to sign for well below the slot amount. He hasn’t been a big hitter in college, but his power has improved the last couple years. The Pirates have a bunch of multi-purpose infielders at Morgantown, all of them likely organizational players, and two — Raul Siri and Melvin Jimenez — have gotten the bulk of the playing time so far.

Middle Infield

Starting shortly, the shortstop should be Connor Kaiser, who just signed after Vanderbilt got knocked out of the CWS. Kaiser is interesting because he’s a big shortstop with some power potential. He reportedly has at least average defensive abilities. The shortstop so far has been Robbie Glendinning, an Australian who was drafted last year out of the University of Missouri. He’s repeating the level and hasn’t shown much hitting ability. He’ll probably move into a utility role once Kaiser takes over.

Second base will probably be a rotation all season. Currently it’s being shared between Siri and Jimenez, depending on who’s not playing third. Morgantown also has Nick Valaika, another 2017 draftee, who figures to be a lower level utility player.

Outfield

The Black Bears have a lot of outfielders on the roster, but the clear standout is first round pick Travis Swaggerty. He’s a potential five-tool player, with the biggest question mark hovering over his power. It’ll be disappointing if Swaggerty doesn’t finish the season with the West Virginia Power.

Of the other outfielders, the two most interesting are Fabricio Macias and Brett Kinneman. Macias just turned 20, but hit very well against much older competition in Mexican summer league play. He was originally supposed to start his Pirates career with the Power, but he got caught up in the issues MLB is having with the Mexican signing process and was just recently cleared to play. Kinneman was the team’s 7th round draft pick out of NC State and has shown good power with some contact issues.

The other outfielders are Edison Lantigua, Daniel Amaral, Felix Vinicio and Michael De La Cruz. Lantigua was the team’s top international signing way back in 2013 and developed very slowly until he had a good year in Bristol in 2017. It probably says something, though, that the Pirates didn’t sent him to low A. The Pirates drafted Amaral in the 14th round out of UCLA. He’s a line drive hitter with speed but probably not much power. It’s hard to see where the playing time for Vinicio, a lower level organizational player, and De La Cruz will come from. De La Cruz remains one of the Pirates’ most expensive ($700,000) international signings, but he’s probably on his last legs with the organization.

Starting Pitchers

The Morgantown rotation doesn’t have any standout prospects. In fact, the Pirates already seem to be sorting through the possibilities; nine games into the season, they’ve used six starters and have a seventh announced for game ten. The two most prominent are probably Alex Manasa and their 2018 4th round pick, Aaron Shortridge. Manasa was an 11th round draft pick out of a junior college in 2017 and has limited experience on the mound. He’s athletic with some projection, though, and the team is pushing him as a starter. He’s already had two good starts for the Black Bears. Shortridge probably profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter, but he still may have some projection left.

The other starters so far have been Michael Flynn, Osvaldo Bido, Michael LoPresti and Zach Spears. Flynn was the team’s 6th round pick out of the University of Arizona. Scouts think his stuff is better than the results he’s gotten, so he’s a project for the Pirates. Bido was already 21 when he signed out of the Dominican during spring training last year. He pitched, not very well, in the Dominican Summer League, so the Pirates must think he’s made a lot of progress to be jumping him up to the NYPL. LoPresti was drafted in the 18th round out of St. John’s and fits the Pirates’ favored template of a 6’4” RHP who gets groundballs and doesn’t miss bats. Spears is a huge (6’7”) LHP who might be able to throw harder than the 89-93 mph where he currently sits. The Pirates drafted him in the 8th round out of Miami (OH).

Bullpen

The two most interesting relievers with the Black Bears are big guys drafted out of college with almost no track record who throw hard (upper-90s, although not currently) and have had injury issues. John Pomeroy was drafted back in 2016 but missed 2017 due to Tommy John surgery. He has a history of significant control problems (as in, can’t-get-through-an-inning type problems), but in three and a third innings this year he’s walked just one while fanning four. Shea Murray was drafted in 2017 and never pitched until a few days ago. He had a modified ligament surgery last year in which the ligament is reattached and not replaced. He was yanked after throwing twelve straight balls in his first outing, but got through an inning with “only” two walks his second time out.

From this year’s draft, the Black Bears have Logan Stoelke (round 9), Conner Loeprich (20), Cam Alldred (24) and Cody Smith (39). Stoelke is a converted outfielder who had little pitching experience prior to 2018, which was his senior year at U. Louisiana-Lafayette. He gets into the mid-90s currently. Loeprich was drafted out of St. Mary’s and Alldred, a finesse lefty, out of U. Cincinnati. Smith, a college senior drafted from Charleston Southern, was initially on the GCL roster but was moved up. He hasn’t made his pro debut yet.

The other relievers are Miguel Hernandez, Nick Economos, Ryan Valdes, Francis Del Orbe and Juan Henriquez. Hernandez is a hard thrower who’s had significant control problems so far. Economos is in his fourth pro season and has yet to get out of short season ball, although he fanned over ten batters per nine innings with Morgantown last year. Valdes is a 2017 draftee who’s likely to be an organizational guy. Del Orbe was in the DSL last year, his first pro season, so he’s trying to make a big jump. Henriquez is 21 and had yet to pitch as a pro until a week ago, so he’s starting off at a high level.

Lineup

C: Susi (eventually Koch if he signs)
1B/DH: Herrera, Mangieri
2B: Siri, Jimenez, Glendinning
3B: Siri, Jimenez (eventually Gretler if he signs)
SS: Kaiser
OF: Swaggerty, Macias, Kinneman
Rotation: Manasa, Shortridge, Flynn, Bido, Spears
Key Relievers: Pomeroy, Stoelke

Top Prospects: Swaggerty, Macias, Kaiser, Shortridge