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Pirates minor league preview: Bradenton

Bradenton should have a much more interesting team than it did last year, thanks largely to three of the Pirates’ top prospects. The team won’t have a lot of prospects, but there will be a few interesting pitchers and several other players who have a chance of getting on the prospect map.

Note: The team’s roster lists more players than can be active at one time. Probably several of these players will travel with the team but will be inactive on a more or less rotating basis.

Catcher

The regular catcher will be Deon Stafford, but he’s out for now with an oblique injury, hopefully not for long. Stafford was a fifth-round pick in 2017 and has the potential to hit for power. He had a solid but not outstanding season last year in the South Atlantic League, probably not quite what you’d want to see from a college draftee. His bat is better than his defense at this point. The catchers currently on the roster are John Bormann and Raul Hernandez, both of whom are organizational players. Bormann, of course, actually got into one game with the Pirates and is a good defensive player.

Corner Infield

First base will probably be something of a group effort. Lucas Tancas, a 2017 late-round draftee, played the position for the Marauders part-time last year, struggling badly at the plate after skipping over the SAL. He’ll return and could also see time in the outfield, his original position. Randolph Gassaway, selected from the Orioles in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft, could also play both the outfield and first.

The regular third baseman will be Dylan Busby, the team’s 2017 third round pick. Busby has good power but major issues making contact. After a rough debut in the New York-Penn League, he showed some improvement in the SAL, but ended up missing most of the season with concussion symptoms due to two beanings. Last year’s tenth-round pick, Mike Gretler, could also see time at third. He’s a strong defender with good on-base skills but not a lot of power. Gretler got some time at first in camp, so he could play there as well, and he also caught a couple games last year in the NYPL. One way or another, he’ll probably be in the lineup most of the time. Another player on the roster, Jesse Medrano, also was originally a third baseman and serves as an organizational utility player now. He’s caught a little, too.

Middle Infield

The big name here is Oneil Cruz, who’ll continue to try to become a 6’7” shortstop. Cruz is one of the most interesting prospects in the minors due to his exceptional potential — some scouts give him two 80 grades (power and arm), which you don’t see much — and high risk. The primary issue he has to solve is making contact, although he made considerable progress with that last year. He’s very athletic and runs well, so even if he doesn’t make it at short, third base or the outfield are options.

The other middle infielders are Adrian Valerio and Robbie Glendinning. Valerio will probably start at second after playing short at Bradenton last year. He took a step backward on offense and is now stuck between Cruz and Stephen Alemais, who’ll open at Altoona. The Australian Glendinning is a late-round draft pick who played well last year in a utility role. Gretler and Medrano could also back up in the middle.

Outfield

The outfield features Bradenton’s other two top prospects, Travis Swaggerty (pictured) and Cal Mitchell. Last year’s first round pick, Swaggerty is a potential five-tool player (really) who’ll play center. He struggled after a late-season promotion to the SAL last year, though, and needs to make adjustments in his approach at the plate. Mitchell is a bat-first player who got off to a great start last year as one of the youngest players in the SAL, but tailed off as the season went along. He’s going to have to hit well to succeed, but for now he and Swaggerty both will face the challenge of the offense-stifling Florida State League.

The other outfielders are Chris Sharpe, Ryan Peurifoy and Daniel Amaral. Sharpe and Peurifoy were both drafted out of college in 2017 and played in the SAL last year. Sharpe had just a decent season and Peurifoy struggled. Amaral has very good speed and profiles as a center fielder, although Swaggerty will be playing there. Amaral had only decent numbers in the NYPL last year, but he finished very strongly, even showing some power, and easily led the league in steals. I’m guessing he’ll play the most of the three.

Rotation

The two most notable starters will be former prep draftees Cody Bolton and Max Kranick. Bolton, drafted in 2017, surprisingly went straight to the SAL last year while first-rounder Shane Baz went to Bristol. Bolton threw only 44 innings, though, after getting a late start (for workload-control reasons) and then being shut down with forearm stiffness. He had very good numbers when he pitched. Kranick was drafted in 2016, but missed most of 2017 before pitching reasonably well in the SAL in 2018. He showed improved velocity and a strong breaking ball.

The other starters will be right-hander Aaron Shortridge, and lefties Domingo Robles and Oddy Nunez. Shortridge was a fourth-round pick out of college. He doesn’t throw hard, but he had an 11.3 K/9 in the NYPL. Robles is a finesse pitcher who got good results last year in the SAL without missing many bats. The 6’8” Nunez showed a velocity spike in 2017, but the velocity disappeared last year and he ended up being demoted at mid-season from Bradenton to the SAL despite having thrown a no-hitter.

Bullpen

The most notable relievers will be Luis Escobar and Blake Cederlind. Escobar, of course, is on the 40-man roster. He has outstanding stuff, but chronic command issues will force him to the bullpen. He’ll also be moving down from Altoona, where he finished last year. That’s not good, as he’ll have only one option left after this year. Cederlind was drafted in the fifth round out of junior college in 2016. He has a strong arm — he frequently hit triple digits last year — but has also battled command issues. He had a big first half in the SAL in 2018, but struggled badly at Bradenton after a promotion.

The other relievers will be Gavin Wallace, Joel Cesar, Ike Schlabach, Ronnie Agustin, Beau Sulser, Ryan Valdes, Drew Fischer and Hunter Stratton. Wallace has mostly been a starter so far, but got hit hard with the Marauders last year. Cesar is only 5’11”, but throws in the mid-90s. Schlabach and Agustin are the only lefties. Schlabach was drafted back in 2015 as a projectable prep pitcher, but has mostly struggled so far. Agustin, who relies heavily on a curve, had trouble throwing strikes last year at Bradenton. Sulser, a 2017 draftee, had outstanding 2018 numbers in the SAL, but turned 24 during the season and wasn’t promoted, which suggests the Pirates have doubts about his ceiling. Fischer and Valdes were both late-round draftees in 2017. Fischer has a history of good K rates, but has had moderate control problems. Valdes throws a palm ball, but hasn’t had impressive numbers so far. Stratton was a 16th-round pick in 2017 and didn’t pitch very well in the SAL last year.

Regulars

C: Stafford (eventually)
1B: Tancas/Gretler
2B: Valerio
3B: Busby/Gretler
SS: Cruz
OF: Swaggerty, Mitchell, Amaral/Sharpe
Rotation: Bolton, Kranick, Robles, Shortridge, Nunez
Key Relievers: Escobar, Cederlind

Top Prospects: Cruz, Swaggerty, Mitchell

Breakout Candidates: Bolton, Kranick, Cederlind