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Pirates’ minor league recap: Bristol

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I’ve never entirely understood the point of the Appalachian League, or its counterpart, the Pioneer League. They’re classified as advanced rookie ball, a level at which only 18 teams have affiliates, compared to 30 at all other levels. That’s somewhere in between the New York-Penn League, which is intended mainly for college draftees, and the Gulf Coast League, which is intended mainly for prep draftees and players moving up from Latin America.

The Pirates have utilized their affiliate at Bristol for developing prep pitchers. Of course, that’s typically just 2-3 players per season, or less than a tenth of the roster. The real prospects among the college draftees start higher up, and those among the prep draftees and Latin American players skip the level. That has generally left the roster to be filled out by players who haven’t performed well enough to move farther up and college draftees who profile as organizational players. I have no idea what other teams do with their advanced rookie affiliates, but if they handled them the same way as the Pirates, all of the teams in those leagues would struggle to win 30% of their games, as Bristol does nearly every year. That can’t happen, so other teams must have different strategies, but I don’t know what they are.

In any event, Bristol had a much more interesting team than usual this year — they went 31-37! — but then the Pirates went and traded the team’s two best prospects. But there were still a few other possibilities left.

Two notes: First, I’m not going to discuss players more than once each, although some appeared at more than one level. Second, keep in mind, in looking at stats, that the Appalachian League is a hitters league. Four of the ten teams had ERAs well over 5.00. (Bristol was last at 5.74.) Walks are especially high; the league had a BB/9 of 4.2, compared to 3.7 in the GCL and 3.4 in the NYPL. I guess it’s a popular place to send scatter-armed throwers.

THE GOOD

Jonah Davis, OF: A 15th-round pick out of Berkeley, Davis (pictured) shredded Appy League pitching to the tune of 306/398/612. He also played a solid center field. It’s not clear why he fell to such a late round, although he wasn’t regarded as an early round talent. The caveat is a strikeout rate of 25%. We’ll just have to see how he does against more advanced pitching. It’d be interesting if the Pirates tried him at Bradenton, but that probably won’t happen.

Mikell Granberry, 1B: Originally a catcher but this year mostly a DH, Granberry is 23 and probably not a prospect. He had a nice year, though, batting 305/415/490, so I thought I’d include him here.

Chase Lambert, IF: Lambert was a 31st-round pick as a shortstop out of Pepperdine. He played second at Bristol and batted 340/433/455, with more walks than strikeouts. He still probably projects as an organizational player, but he could be a little more if he keeps hitting.

THE BAD

Conner Uselton, OF: A second-round pick who projected to hit for power and possibly to play center, Uselton had his debut season wiped out by a hamstring injury. This year was just a wipeout. With a .530 OPS, including no power at all, he was literally one of the worst hitters in the league. He also showed none of the athleticism attributed to him when he was drafted, playing only right, and not well. Ugh.

Oliver Garcia, RHP: Garcia had a very good year in 2017 in the DSL, with velocity that got to 92-93 mph and some projectability. The Pirates like him, which is why they skipped him over the GCL and put him in the rotation. It didn’t go well, with a 7.28 ERA and nearly as many walks as strikeouts.

Jacob Webb, RHP: The Pirates selected Webb out of high school in the 19th round last year. They considered him projectable and he does sit now at 93-94, touching higher. He’s had trouble staying healthy, though, managing just seven innings last year and 13 this year. He got off to a very shaky start in the GCL this year, walking over a batter an inning, but he got a much better handle on it in seven brief outings at Bristol. He still had a 7.56 ERA there, although his WHIP was much better at 1.32. He really needs to get some innings.

THE IN-BETWEEN

Steven Jennings, RHP: The Pirates picked Jennings out of high school in the second round last year. He didn’t make much progress this year, aside from throwing 65 innings and staying healthy, which does matter. He had a 4.82 ERA and a below average K rate, and his stuff didn’t take a step forward, as the Pirates no doubt hoped. Jennings had a cracked rib in the off-season that impacted his conditioning, so that may be a factor. How he does next year, likely at Greensboro, will mean more.

Roger Santana, LHP: Santana is a small lefty, but his fastball was getting up as high as 95 this year and he has a good change. He looked mostly very good until August, when a terrible month left him with a 5.83 ERA. He’s still worth watching.

Mason Martin, 1B: If I included Martin in the West Virginia Power writeup, I’d have to put him in with The Bad. Even so, he’s borderline. Martin opened the season with the Power and, after a good April, the pitchers figured him out. His approach at the plate is all-or-nothing. He waits until he gets a pitch he can drive, which leads to some bad counts. He takes a big cut and tries to pull every pitch, which leaves him vulnerable to anything away. In May, he hit 106/222/128 and fanned in over half his at-bats. That led to a demotion and the same pattern reappeared. He had four home runs in his first five games for Bristol and hit well for a while, but tailed off in July and had a .596 OPS in August, striking out in exactly half his at-bats. He also had defensive issues at first, although he had only limited experience there before this year. Martin was one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League at the start of the season and he’s still only 19, and power isn’t a common commodity with teenagers, so he’s still worth keeping an eye on.