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Pirates’ minor league recap: West Virginia Power

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As the Pirates’ lowest-level full-season affiliate, West Virginia has typically had very interesting, and volatile, rosters. This year was no exception, as the Power had quite a few of the South Atlantic League’s youngest players at the start of the season, mainly position players. The results were highly variable, everything from breakout to demotion (the latter being Mason Martin, whom I covered in the Bristol entry).

The Power also had a number of promising young pitchers, products of the Pirates’ penchant for drafting projectable prep pitchers. The performances of most of the young pitchers were quite good, but there were generally only one or two in the rotation at any one time due to a variety of health factors.

A year from now, I’ll be writing about Greensboro, as the Power chose to affiliate with Seattle for 2019 and the Pirates signed on with the Grasshoppers.

THE GOOD

Oneil Cruz, SS: Cruz was the system’s big breakout player. At the start of the season, he struggled to make contact as he did last year, but after ten games a light apparently went on. Cruz hammered opponents — especially LHPs, interestingly, as he hits left-handed — through May and June before cooling off in July. He missed most of August with a hip injury. He seemingly toned down his swing and probably started going the other way more; his power is so massive that it matters little which way the ball goes if he makes hard contact and gets the ball in the air. Cruz finished with a 286/343/488 line and cut his whiffs from one every three to one every four ABs. Shortstop was an adventure, as he had 33 errors and didn’t show great range, despite his speed and athleticism. I have no idea how long the Pirates will continue the experiment, as no scouts seem to think he can stay at short. He has an extremely strong arm, though, so he should be able to handle third.

Cal Mitchell, OF: The 50th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Mitchell had more of a breakout month than breakout season. He had a 1.043 OPS in April, but tailed off every month after that before hitting well very late in the season. He finished at 280/344/427, which is very good for a 19-year-old in full-season ball.

Travis MacGregor, RHP: MacGregor was a second-round pick out of high school in 2016. He had a dismal season last year at Bristol, but the addition of a slider seemed to turn things completely around. His K/9 shot up to 10.5, and he had a 3.25 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. Unfortunately, a forearm tightness limited him to 63.2 IP. As so often happens, that particular problem led to Tommy John surgery. He’ll miss all of 2019.

Cody Bolton, RHP: Going into the season, the Pirates were expected at some point in May to promote Shane Baz to the Power, while Bolton, an above-slot, sixth-round pick last year, was expected to head to Bristol. Their performances in extended spring training led the Pirates to the opposite arrangement. Bolton pitched well through nine starts, striking out a batter an inning and walking just 1.4 per nine, with a 1.13 WHIP. He was shut down in mid-July with forearm soreness that the Pirates say is not similar to MacGregor’s in severity.

Max Kranick, RHP: Kranick was an 11th round pick in 2016 who signed an above-slot deal out of high school. He was hampered last year by shoulder soreness, but threw 78 innings for the Power despite being held back initially to keep his innings down and then missing some time with a couple of blister problems. He pitched well, with a 1.15 WHIP and 8.9 K/9, and just 2.1 BB/9.

Domingo Robles, LHP: Robles is a finesse lefty who averages about 90 mph and throws a curve and change. He pitched well for the Power, although the team’s dubious infield defense seemed to have its worst games behind him. Over a third of the runs he allowed were unearned. He didn’t miss a lot of bats, but had a 1.25 WHIP and 2.97 ERA. The Pirates moved Robles up to Bradenton late in the season and his first start was a fiasco, but he pitched very well in his last four. He doesn’t profile as more than a fifth starter.

THE BAD

Lolo Sanchez, OF: Sanchez went into the season as one of the Pirates’ top prospects, a plus defensive center fielder and plus-plus runner with a good bat and strike zone judgment. He had a terrible time the first two months, highlighted by a 2-for-39 drought. After a very good June, he slumped again in July and then finished very well. He continued to show solid plate discipline and, considering that Sanchez won’t turn 20 until a few weeks into the 2019 season, it’s too soon to downgrade him.

Braeden Ogle, LHP: Another prep draftee from 2016, Ogle probably has one of the higher ceilings among the Pirates’ pitching prospects. The “bad” for him, though, is health-related. He pitched well in four starts to open the season, fanning 11 per nine innings with some control problems. He went out with should inflammation, though, and due to setbacks didn’t return. He’s back on the mound this fall and hopefully will be ready for the 2019 season.

Rodolfo Castro, IF: Castro was another of the Pirates’ young position players at West Virginia, a month younger than Sanchez. He also got off to a rough start, but recovered from it less well than Sanchez. His plate discipline was weak — he struck out four times as often as he walked — but he did start showing good power late in the season. He finished with a 231/278/395 line. The Pirates moved Castro to second in deference to Cruz. He had a lot of error issues early, but improved after about the first month.

Fabricio Macias, OF: Like the Pirates’ other Mexican signees, Macias had his season delayed by visa issues. He played the season at age 20, but he had enough experience in pro-type ball in Mexico that the Pirates sent him to West Virginia. He struggled with the Power, batting 222/315/325 with strikeouts in a third of his at-bats. The Pirates sent him down to Morgantown in mid-August and he hit well there.

THE IN-BETWEEN

Deon Stafford, C: A fifth-round draft pick last year, Stafford is a catcher who had huge power numbers his sophomore year in college but not as much in his junior year. He had a solid year for the Power, but 253/316/433 isn’t that impressive for a college draftee in low A whose bat is his strongest asset. He did have a big month in August after missing a little time with a concussion. He had some issues on defense.

Joel Cesar, RHP: A 5’11” righty, Cesar has hit 100 mph in the past, but works more in the mid-90s. Despite being 22 now, Cesar had almost no pro experience before the Pirates sent him to Morgantown last year. He was just a thrower at that point, but he made a lot of progress with his control this year, walking 3.8 per nine innings after a 6.0 BB/9 last year. He improved over the course of the season and finished with a 3.15 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. As always, the caveat is that guys who are strictly relievers in the low minors rarely turn into prospects.

Samuel Reyes, RHP: I have to put Samuel in here because he’s Pablo’s younger brother. Well, also he had a good year. He’s a small (5’11”) righty who gets up to 95 mph and has very good control, although he hasn’t gotten a lot of swing-and-miss so far. He pitched in the GCL last year and, in June, the Pirates moved him up to the Power from extended spring training. He pitched well in West Virginia, with a 2.72 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. He even threw six shutout innings as a starter at the end of the year.

Dylan Busby, 3B: Busby was the Pirates’ third round pick last year. His big asset is power, but it comes with a lot of swings and misses. He had a terrible time last year at Morgantown, but was making progress this year. He had a 243/341/461 line for the Power when he got beaned in mid-May. He got beaned again during a rehab, then made it back to West Virginia near the end of the year only to finish the season back on the disabled list.