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Pirates minor league preview: GCL Pirates

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The Pirates’ Gulf Coast League entry typically isn’t a great team for following prospects. There are several reasons. College draftees start higher up, unless they figure to be strictly organizational players. The Pirates generally draft very few prep position players and the prep pitchers they draft usually don’t log many innings in their first seasons. And the Pirates’ international scouting program, which typically provides most of the players on the GCL team, has been largely a bust for a number of years now.

This year is no exception. Two of the Pirates’ top three picks in the draft were prep pitchers, but one hasn’t signed yet. So far they’ve signed only one prep position player from the draft. They have a few good position prospects moving up from the Dominican Summer League, but the best one — Sherten Apostel — is skipping the GCL and going on to Bristol. Most of the position players from the DSL look like organizational players at best. There are several interesting pitchers moving up from the DSL, but they’re unproven as prospects so far. Otherwise, the GCL roster is heavily comprised of college draftees and non-drafted free agents, which is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Littlefield years.

Catcher

The regular catcher should be Samuel Inoa (pictured), who had a big year in the DSL in 2017, his second pro season. He batted .316 with excellent plate discipline and solid power, and according to reports from Pirates Prospects improved his defense. He’s played only first base so far this year, but that may be related to injury problems that hampered him in extended spring training.

The primary catcher so far has been Ryan Haug, drafted in the 27th round out of the University of Arizona, but he’s been moved up all the way to Bradenton due to catching injuries. The Pirates obviously consider him an organizational player. The GCL team has two other catchers, both up from the DSL: Yair Babilonia, signed out of Colombia two years ago, and Robinson Ramos, who’s in his first year and who played only one game in the DSL before being moved up due to the catching shortage. Both figure to be organizational players.

Corner Infield

The GCL Pirates don’t have any real corner infielders. The main first baseman so far has been Inoa. The team also has Nick Patten, a 28th round draft pick out of the University of Delaware. Presumably, he’ll get most of the time at first if and when Inoa returns to catching. I won’t repeat this any more: A college player at this level is not a prospect.

Third base so far has mostly been split between Cristopher Perez and Kyle Simmons, but they were both just released, which says a lot about the quality of players the Pirates have moving up from the DSL. Within the last few days, the Pirates signed four college players who weren’t drafted and assigned them all to the GCL: Steven Kraft, Patt Dorrian, Matt Morrow and Kyle Mottice. All four were primarily second basemen in college, but no doubt will play all over the place. Some combination of these four will probably play third. Another possibility is Williams Calderon, who spent three years in the DSL as a utility player.

Middle Infield

The GCL team has two shortstop prospects: Ji-Hwan Bae and Francisco Acuna. Bae originally signed with the Braves, but his contract was voided as part of Atlanta’s recent international signing scandal and he signed with the Pirates for $1.25M. That’s the most they’ve ever paid an international amateur apart from Luis Heredia (unless you count Yoslan Herrera as a serious signing). Bae is reputed to have every tool except power. Acuna is a small (5’7”) infielder from Colombia who’s had some success against older players in winter ball. They’ve alternated between short and second so far, with Bae getting more time at short.

The remaining infield work will likely be split amongst the four NDFAs and Calderon. The GCL team also has Justin Harrer, the team’s 35th round draft pick out of Washington State. The Pirates announced him as a shortstop, but so far he’s played only in the outfield.

Outfield

The GCL team has three interesting outfielders. Jean Eusebio was the Pirates’ top international signing in the 2016-17 signing period. He’s a center fielder with good speed, and did well as a base stealer in his debut season in the DSL. He didn’t hit much, but he played most of the season at age 16 and the Pirates are still high on him. Jack Herman was the Pirates’ 30th round pick out of a New Jersey high school. He’s considered to have speed and power, although scouts apparently were split on his upside. Fernando Villegas signed out of Mexico and, like Fabricio Macias, got mired in MLB’s approval process until a few days ago.

The other outfielders are players who struggled in the DSL, but who’ve been moved up anyway, seemingly more to clear room than for any other reason. Larry Alcime was the Pirates second biggest 2015 signing, but he’s had massive contact problems. Carlos Garcia (no, not him) showed a little power and drew a lot of walks last year, but overall hasn’t hit well. John Lantigua got only limited playing time in the DSL last year and had no extra base hits in nearly 100 plate appearances. It’s also likely that Harrer and the some of the four NDFA signees will see outfield time.

Pitchers

Starting and relieving aren’t meaningful distinctions at this level. Most of the pitchers will be working 3-4 innings at a time, at most, so what really matters is how many innings the pitchers are getting. I’m also not going to try to discuss every pitcher on the roster. In all honesty, some of them are little more than names on the web page to me, and most probably will come and go without being more than that. I’ll just mention the ones I know something about.

Obviously, the most prominent pitchers are going to be second round draft pick Braxton Ashcraft and, assuming he signs, supplemental first rounder Gunnar Hoglund. Ashcraft is a very athletic pitcher who, at 6’5”, should have a lot of projection. He signed for well over slot, so the Pirates presumably think he has a lot of upside. Hoglund, who has said he’s agreed to terms with the Pirates, is another tall, projectable pitcher who has already gotten into the mid-90s.

The top pitchers moving up from the DSL are probably Noe Toribio and Santiago Florez. Toribio isn’t a big guy, but he’s edged into the upper-90s in the past, although he normally sits in the low-90s. He had a passable debut season in the DSL last year at age 17 and pitched well in his second GCL start. Florez was getting into the low-90s at age 16 and got sort-of decent results as a starter last year in the DSL at age 17, although with bad walk and K rates. (Pitching stats in the DSL for guys that young are even more worthless than hitting stats.)

Some lower-profile pitchers moving up from the DSL are Jose Marcano, Luis Arrieta, Randy Jimenez and Saul de la Cruz. Marcano is a lefty who pitched well as a starter in the DSL at age 18 last year, with good control but not overwhelming stuff. Arrieta was one of the DSL team’s best pitchers last year, but also may be more of a finesse guy. Jimenez, another lefty, had significant control problems in his two DSL seasons, but he has good stuff and fanned over a batter an inning. It looks like the Pirates are going to try to get him a good number of innings this year, so they must think he has potential. De la Cruz missed two years due to Tommy John surgery. He throws hard and is pitching in short relief at least for now. So far this year he’s struck out six of the nine hitters he’s faced.

There are two college draftees on the GCL roster. (There were three, but one — Cody Smith — was transferred to the Morgantown roster without pitching in the DSL.) Brad Case, drafted in round 17, is a 6’7” righty from Rollins College. The team’s 40th round pick, Jake Mielock, hails from Colorado Mesa University.

Lineup

C: Inoa, hopefully
1B: Patten
2B: Acuna
3B: Whoever
SS: Bae
OF: Eusebio, Herman, Villegas
Key Pitchers: Hoglund (if he signs), Ashcraft, Toribio, Florez, De La Cruz

Top Prospects: Hoglund (if he signs), Ashcraft, Bae, Inoa, Eusebio