*Feel free to finish the sentence.
I spent the last two nights in Morgantown watching the West Virginia
Black Bears Moonshiners play the State College Spikes. The team is going by the name “Moonshiners” specially just for this series because . . . West Virginia. The Black Bears lost on Wednesday, 12-3, in a game that seemed a lot worse than the final score. They bounced back to win, 7-4, on Thursday.
The Black Bears are, or at least should be, an important piece of the Pirates’ future because this is mostly where their 2018 draft is now. With one exception, all of the players the Pirates signed out of the first ten rounds are with in West Virginia, along with quite a few other college draftees. So far, the results aren’t pretty. The Black Bears have the worst record in the New York-Penn League. Of the 14 teams, they’re tenth in hitting, last by a wide margin in ERA, and next to last in fielding percentage. And they do the little things, too: They lead the league in getting caught stealing and in passed balls by a very large margin. Their pitchers have the second highest walk rate and second lowest strikeout rate. And they have the lowest caught stealing percentage.
The pitching problems were on display on Wednesday, as all of the five West Virginia pitchers except Logan Stoelke struggled to throw strikes. Starter Zach Spears, a 6’7” lefty drafted in the eighth round, showed marginal velocity (there are no gun readings at the park in Morgantown) and poor command. He appears to have a decent change, but he was behind in the count so much he wasn’t able to use it effectively much. He missed few bats on Wednesday and got hit around for three innings. Relievers John Pomeroy and Miguel Hernandez throw hard, but didn’t show any useful secondary pitches or much command. In fact, Pomeroy just couldn’t throw strikes at all and came out after walking in two runs. Juan Henriquez followed and promptly walked in another.
DIGRESSION: The West Virginia bullpen is loaded with pitchers who throw hard and have some ability to miss bats, but who have significant control problems. Pomeroy, Shea Murray and Hernandez are the primary examples. (Henriquez signed at age 20 out of the Dominican and is making his pro debut at a relatively high level, so it’s probably fair to cut him a little slack.) One result is that the Black Bears are one of several teams in the system that have had bullpen issues; Altoona has, also, and Bradenton’s bullpen has been a dumpster fire. I’m not sure how terrible this is, because “relief prospect” is darn near an oxymoron (oxymoran?). The Pirates could load their lower level bullpens with finesse pitchers who know how to throw strikes and can get lower level hitters out, which is how Dave Littlefield did things. Their approach instead seems to be to load up on live but scattershot arms, hoping one or two will somehow come through. I’m not sure this is the worst thing to do, given the very low rate of major league success for minor league relievers.
The one pitcher on Wednesday night was Logan Stoelke, the team’s ninth-round draft pick.
Stoelke appeared to have good if not overpowering velocity along with a useful change. He also was able to locate his pitches and quickly struck out the side in his one inning.
The Thursday pitchers didn’t show a whole lot, although they were mostly effective. Starter Alex Manasa had reasonably good control and mostly focused on keeping the ball low. He didn’t have any kind of swing-and-miss stuff and fanned only one. He still got through most of his outing with only a solo HR for damage, but he seemed to be gassed after getting two quick outs in the fifth. Two walks and a two-run triple followed, and Manasa only got out of the inning on a line drive at the second baseman. Nick Economos threw three uneventful innings, partly because some hard-hit balls went at people. Conner Loeprich, a 20th round pick, pitched the ninth. He has a high-effort delivery that includes a grunt when he lets the ball loose. Loeprich was another pitcher who had control problems; he walked two and finally got the last out on a drive to the fence in right.
ANOTHER DIGRESSION: The Pirates for some time had a habit, in drafting college corner players, of going for hitters who mostly try to hit line drives gap-to-gap and to show decent or better plate discipline. This doesn’t seem like the best approach for corner players and they’ve succeeded with players fitting that profile exactly . . . never. They got away from it in 2017, when the college hitters they drafted almost all had some potential to hit for power. Now they seem to have gone back to their old approach, which fits seventh round pick Brett Kinneman and 25th rounder Luke Mangieri. They play right field and first base, and typically bat fourth and third. Neither has shown much power, although Kinneman did have two doubles on Thursday. The middle infielders drafted by the Pirates are a different story. Third round pick Connor Kaiser and 13th rounder Zack Kone take big cuts, generally swinging as hard as they can.
Of course, the hitter who matters the most is first round pick Travis Swaggerty. He’s mostly hit well so far, although he didn’t do much in these two games. On Wednesday, he went 1-4. He struck out twice, swinging and missing a lot on fastballs that were in the strike zone, so that seems like a concern. He had a double on a ball he chopped far over the first baseman’s head, and his last time up he hit a laser at the right fielder. On Thursday, he grounded out three times and popped out, and also walked. To the extent it’s possible to tell from two games, Swaggerty looked like a legitimate center fielder. He ran down a handful of balls in the gaps or in shallow center, and appears to have a plus arm to go with plus speed.
Of the other hitters, tenth rounder Mike Gretler showed the most patience. He walked three times on Thursday and also doubled. He played third both days and made a couple good stops, looking like he might be able to handle short.
Catcher Grant Koch, drafted in the fifth round, hit several balls hard on Wednesday, although he got only a double out of it. He had two drives caught short of the track in center, making me think he might have warning track power as they seemed to have been well hit coming off the bat. Koch didn’t look good behind the plate, as he stabbed at the ball a number of times rather than blocking it and made one throw to second that didn’t have much on it.
Zach Susi, the 12th round pick, looked better defensively. He caught Thursday, with Koch serving as DH.
Kaiser looked very vulnerable to offspeed stuff. The Thursday starter for State College was a soft-tossing lefty with poor control. He wasn’t fooling the West Virginia hitters much, but he struck Kaiser out twice on low changeups. Kaiser did lace a single later and also had a double on Wednesday. He had one nice, diving play at short on Thursday.
Finally, State College has an outfielder named Lars Nootbaar. I don’t know whether he’s any good, but he should be the Pirates’ top trade target this month.