The Pirates farm system is defined by what they gave away during the 2018 season.
Austin Meadows and Shane Baz were known commodities. Taylor Hearn and Sherten Apostel were emerging prospects. Each of the four would have a strong case for a top-10 ranking in the list below if present on the team today.
The win-now moves Neal Huntington made to acquire Chris Archer and Keone Kela to set in motion this turnover, makes it easy to pepper him with criticism. The counter is his 11-year tenure and three-year run of success from 2013 to 2015. General Managers are larger than life when they’re successful and front-office scapegoat when struggling. One of the first teams to embrace a competitive advantage on the diamond through defense needs to pull another rabbit out of their hat to keep the Steel City satisfied.
2018 marks the third consecutive season of mediocrity for the Buccos. They head into 2019 as the fourth-strongest team in the National League Central. The system has a nice floor, but in terms of impact commodities, their two top prospects present some of the only hope for star-power.
Author’s note: My top 30’s might be a little bit different stylistically than others from the Prospects Live (PL) crew. We each have our strengths. I’m a reporter at heart (hence the “if I could ask him one question” tags below). I love talking about mechanics, even if I admit I don’t know nearly as much as some of the savants I’ve learned from on Twitter and YouTube. That’s what you’ll see below. It’s a string of my thoughts that I hope you find productive rather than a full consistent breakdown of each player. Enjoy my first top 30 with PL.
1. Mitch Keller, RHP
Age: 22 (4/4/96)
Highest Level: AAA
52.1 IP, 4.82 ERA, 3.95 xFIP, 24% K, 9% BB, .277 AVG against (AAA)
A phrase to describe Keller: easy velocity
If I could ask him one question: Is there a mechanical aspect of your delivery that limits the development of your changeup? Follow up if/when he says “no”: How many grips have you tried over the last three years with the pitch?
One of the first videos that turned me onto Keller was from Mike Farnham on Youtube (link). I kept my eye on Keller after he tossed 100-plus innings in his age-20 season in 2016. He followed that up with consecutive 100-inning seasons. His frame looks bigger to the naked eye than the 195 pounds it’s listed at.
It is slightly ironic that I see most of his strength built in his lower half, yet his delivery is relatively upright. He’s more of a rotator than a driver off his back foot, generating a lot of his velocity from upper body rotation as he reaches back far with arm to achieve separation from his lower half. (Watch the distance between his right hand and the numbers on his back in the video below. It’s similar to Jon Duplantier of the Diamondbacks.)
The overall outcome works well. Keller is a workhorse. I’m a fan of the mechanics and build, even if they aren’t of the hyper-athletic variety we’re used to seeing from recent MLB studs like Walker Buehler or Jack Flaherty.
He can survive with above-average command and an above-average curveball. His changeup is still a work in progress and has perpetually been the missing piece. You’re buying into Keller for the command above all. Because of that, I don’t think he’ll run into the same issues the usual right-handed starter would against left-handed bats.
I’m not overly concerned with the poor results from his 52 1/3-inning sample in Indianapolis. His BABIP was high, he wasn’t pitching well with runners on (something he’s never had a substantial issue with), and he maintained the level of whiffs you want to see in a frontline starter.
Let Keller’s command take you to the promised land.
2. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
Age: 21 (1/28/97)
Highest Level: AA
.293/.375/.444, 7 HR, .151 ISO, 129 wRC+, 11% BB, 17% K, 12 SB (AA - 117 games)
A phrase to describe Hayes: Poor Man’s Senzel
If I could ask him one question: What percentage of plus defense is reps and what percent is natural, instinctual ability?
Hayes is 1B, Keller is 1A. I don’t see as much difference between the two in terms of ranking. Fangraphs looks like the only prominent rankings site with Hayes ahead of Keller, but I have a feeling more will follow in the coming months. I considered it on multiple occasions, eventually coming back to the value a potential frontline-starter has to a team over a third baseman who can play two ways exceptionally well (even that doesn’t sound convincing to my own ears).
Defense is Hayes’ calling card. His arm and glove grade out as future 60’s, with plus instincts and feel for the position. He has future gold glove potential, something that will push his WAR higher than offensive surface stats may suggest throughout his career.
My affinity for Hayes comes back to what I see in his bat that others may not. His hit tool is in the 55-60 window, but his future game power is mostly projection. Some have it squarely below average, others, like myself, have it squarely at average with thoughts of more with maturity at the plate. I’m happy to bet on an exceptional hitter adding power, especially one like Hayes who isn’t bogged down by poor mechanics.
His hands are quick and he possesses fantastic pitch recognition with an exceptional understanding of the strike zone. It stood out as some of the best I saw all season in my brief two-month stretch watching Eastern League games (excluding Vlady Jr.). He’s able to touch nearly anything in the zone because of his ability to control the zone and lower center of gravity at the plate. When pitchers work inside, his hands spray balls down the line and into left-center. His lower half feels more timing-based than fully engaged in his swing. For this reason, his swing is reminiscent of fellow third base prospect Nick Senzel—compact, short and explosive. Both hitters stand out because of how they’re able to succeed without perfect lower-half mechanics. Hayes has pushed that tag aside with some of the adjustments he has made, including getting more upright and getting his front leg off the dirt.
He has the potential to be a perennial .280-.285 hitter at the major league level with double-digit walk rates and well below average strikeout rates. You can toss in gold-glove defense and mobility too. I’m excited about Hayes and am willing to die on whatever hill exists related to his potential. ETA: 2020
3. Travis Swaggerty, OF
Age: 21 (8/19/97)
Highest Level: A
.129/.225/.226, 1 HR, .097 ISO, 108 wRC+, 10% BB, 25% K, 0 SB (A - 16 games)
Two words to describe Swaggerty: Aggressive, Explosive
If I could ask him one question: What do you see in your hips and lower body when you watch tape of yourself?
The Pirates took a polished college bat with their first-round pick in 2018. Swaggerty held a .455 OBP in his final season with South Alabama, posting 13 home runs and swiping 9 bases. He fields a lot of Brett Gardner comps, as do almost all tools-y outfielders with a small build and feel for above-average power.
I’ve seen his speed graded out around 65-70, which helps his range in whatever outfield position the Pirates envision him staying at long term. I would bet for the majority of his minor league career he’s a center fielder, but what awaits at the major league level could be a corner spot, like right field given his plus arm.
His swing is aggressive, with a stance that starts upright and coils into a distinct stride with a very engaged back knee. He generates a lot of power out of his exploding hips and that energy makes its way north to his torso. It feels like he might always post strikeout rates in the low- to mid-20’s, but given his above average raw power grade, it comes with a benefit.
Swaggerty’s floor feels high, especially given the slew of tools that all land around average. The upside will hinge on ability to tie his power back to a refined approach, as opposed to staying in a state of perpetual aggression. He’s an everyday player and an effective replacement once more turnover occurs in the Pirates’ outfield.
4. Oneil Cruz, SS
Age: 20 (10/4/98)
Highest Level: A
.286/.343/.488, 14 HR, .201 ISO, 134 wRC+, 8% BB, 23% K, 11 SB (A - 103 games)
Two words to describe Cruz: raw, tall
If I could ask him one question: What do you say to people who tell you you’re too tall to be a shortstop?
The most intriguing point about Cruz is the positional change after his trade from the Dodgers. The Pirates seem to be committed to the 6-foot-6, 175-pound native of the Dominican Republic at shortstop. He played under 50 percent of his games with the Dodgers in 2017 at short and in 2018 with the Pirates, played 100 percent of his games there. His height at short defies everything everything our baseball ancestors ingrained in our minds. Yet it doesn’t seem like Huntington or the Pirates care. I like that.
His throwing motion in the field is whippy, a word I will also use to describe his bat at the plate. It has length, but at his size, it’s far more impressive that he cut his strikeout rate by 7 percent after repeating Class A. This improvement comes from adjustments to multiple parts of his swing. Cruz works off an extremely small stride according to 2018 video from June, with lowered hands and less of a bat wrap than some of his non-stateside video.
On first glance, the structure of his swing without context made me think he hits about 7-9 home runs in a given year. The hard contact and natural loft that he can unlock makes you think the game impact of his power could be 20-plus. Statistically, the 14 homers he popped across 103 games with a decent HR/FB ratio bodes well for future power development. The more you watch Cruz, the more you see roots of Gregory Polanco (admittedly Pirates-biased) from the left side from setup to follow through.
I think Cruz is far from a finished product in a lot of areas. His improvements at a young age are extremely impressive, making even the casual fan of Cruz admit he has substantial, above-average upside in multiple tools. I would guess he ends up at third base and have no problem expecting a potential impact back with risk even with that offensive baseline. A lot of outcomes are possible. The Pirates farm feels extremely safe through the top 10. Cruz is the outlier and that gives this list much-needed character.
5. Cole Tucker, SS
Age: 22 (7/3/96)
Highest Level: AA
.259/.333/.356, 5 HR, .097 ISO, 93 wRC+, 9% BB, 18% K, 35 SB (AA - 133 games)
One word to describe Tucker: glove
If I could ask him one question: If you took 200 grounders on your back hand in the hole, how many do you think you’d muff or throw away?
Our very own Jason Pennini has praised the defense of Cole Tucker. I saw him this season in Hartford at the position as well when Altoona was in Hartford. I came away impressed with his instincts, wondering how much value the left-side combination of Tucker and Hayes could be to a future Pirates team.
His arm is plus-plus, instincts are premium and mobility lends itself well to his range both left and right. He’s another tall shortstop the Pirates are developing, with less upside offensively than Cruz, but a substantially better chance to stick at short.
The offense for Tucker is still a relative mystery, but the profile doesn’t come with a lot of warts. He feels like a safe bet for 50-hit, 45-game-power bat with discipline and the ability to get on base. I think he can maintain a high BABIP with his baserunning ability, which pops more than his straight-line speed. I think if he can be a .260 hitter at the major league level with an average OBP, the complete profile lends itself well to continual production with little variance.
6. Luis Escobar, RHP
Age: 22 (5/30/96)
Highest level: AA
35.2 IP, 4.54 ERA, 5.37 xFIP, 16% K, 13% BB, .222 AVG against (AA)
A phrase word to describe Escobar: Fluid without command
If I could ask him one question: How much did the change in strike zone from High-A to Double-A affect you?
Escobar’s mixes a fastball, curveball and changeup, each grading out to potential average-to-plus pitches. That phrase is something that can apply to a ton of players in the minor leagues. At one time—before bullpenning—it mattered to me. Since, I’ve gone through a lot of introspection about where to value a player like Escobar. His command isn’t great, but the mix of pitches is valuable and there’s velocity present (he touched 98 in his 2017 Futures Game appearance). Am I betting he refines his command enough to become a rotation arm? Am I hoping his harder curve is a good enough pitch to make him a high-leverage reliever? It’s combination of multiple things.
The key for me ranking him sixth is his delivery. He has a lineal path to the plate, with athleticism and good separation and extension. It’s efficient, albeit a little bit violent, which likely hinders some of his control. His arm speed and changeup feel make most of that irrelevant for me. I think the floor is a multi-inning reliever with some potential for impact if bullpenning takes over the rest of the league. The ceiling is a mid-rotation arm. The confidence I have in him becoming and impact “bullpenner” is higher than the other arms on this list. This also begins the second tier of Pirates prospects, so the difference between 6 and 14 really isn’t much to me.
7. Calvin Mitchell, OF
Age: 19 (3/8/99)
Highest level: A
.280/.344/.427, 10 HR, .147 ISO, 120 wRC+, 8% BB, 22% K, 4 SB (A - 119 games)
One word to describe Mitchell: compact
If I could ask him one question: Were you ever comfortable using a bigger leg lift? Were you ever comfortable with it? Do you think you’ll go back to it in the future?
Mitchell doesn’t possess the same defense-first build other Pirates prospects do, but he has a nice mix of 50 hit and the potential for 50 game power. His swing is extremely compact, with video from June of 2018 showing a slight, extremely quick rock back into his hips with a slight bat wrap. I wouldn’t be surprised if the wrap is smoothed out at higher levels, dropping his strikeout rate more than the 23 percent it sat at in A ball.
His bat speed is ok, not special, but the calling card is the potential for a 10-percent-walk, 18-percent-strikeout profile. At 19 years old, the baseline of tools other players take years to develop is encouraging. There are a lot of components in Mitchell that if different would pump his stock up—body, for example—but we’re left with the player he is. And I’m ok with that because the hit tool and potential offensive impact is what you’re buying into here.
8. Lolo Sanchez, OF
Age: 19 (4/23/99)
Highest level: A
.243/.322/.328, 4 HR, .085 ISO, 90 wRC+, 9% BB, 16% K, 30 SB (A - 114 games)
A phrase to describe Sanchez: more defense
If I could ask him one question: How much do you anticipate using advanced analytics to further improve your defense at higher levels?
If you haven’t noticed, the bulk of the Pirates list is made up of good to great defenders. Sanchez fits this mold perfectly. He’s an outfielder who doesn’t project to hit for much power or contact, but should be able to provide aggregate value that’s net positive long term. There doesn’t seem to much projecting going on with his bat given his 5-foot-11 frame. The complimentary parts of his game are his combination of above-average speed and an above-average arm.
His hands are a little bit noisy, using long stretch back and a flattening of his bat path before firing his hips. He’s able to generate some loft and doesn’t hold too much swing and miss, which makes up for the mechanical knocks and lack of offensive impact. It’s reasonable to project an average hitter as his ceiling. Combine that with plus defense and while it might seem like the mold every other Pirates prospect fits in, if the mold produces major leaguers, it’s successful.
9. Steven Jennings, RHP
Age: 19 (11/13/98)
Highest level: Rookie Ball
65.1 IP, 4.82 ERA, 5.00 xFIP, 18% K, 9% BB, .259 AVG against (Rookie)
One word to describe Jennings: fluid
If I could ask him one question: How different do you think your development will be working with two breaking balls? Do you think your changeup will ever overtake either of your breaking balls?
Jennings completes the trio of pitchers inside my Pirates top-10 prospects. The common theme between all three is how much I like each pitcher’s delivery. You can stop and section off the different parts of Jennings’ delivery, but his transfer of energy is so efficient, it’s mesmerizing to watch him throw. The athleticism is apparent, along with aggressive projection on certain characteristics—potential for one plus and one above-average breaking ball—makes Jennings one of the more interesting arms in the Pirates system.
Unlike Keller, who is working on his changeup, and Escobar, who is working on his command, Jennings spins two breaking balls with effectiveness. His changeup seems to be pretty far off at the moment, but that’s not overly concerning give his current makeup, even if the fastball isn’t as lively as I’d like.
He has an ACL injury in his past and is still only 19 years old. 2019 is going to be a huge year for Jennings and the justification of this ranking with little results to show for it. Mediocre strikeout rates have followed him along with struggles stranding runners.
There’s potential for a mid-rotation arm hidden in Jennings and I’m cautiously buying in.
10. Kevin Newman, SS
Age: 25 (8/4/93)
Highest level: MLB
.302/.350/.407, 4 HR, .105 ISO, 114 wRC+, 7% BB, 11% K, 28 SB (AAA - 109 games)
A word to describe Newman: floor
If I could ask him one question: Have you read Big Data Baseball by Travis Sawchik? If yes: Do you think the defensive philosophies presented are still in play with the Pirates organization? If no: Do you think a team can have a high enough upside to win a World Series if their farm system is built off of good defenders and contact hitters?
Newman is yet another example of the tendency of Pittsburgh to carry and develop defensively apt players. There is a strong theme on this list if you haven’t noticed, one that’s insanely consistent from player to player inside this top 30.
We have a 97 plate appearance sample of Newman’s bat at the major league level and the results aren’t great. His average exit velocity was in the bottom quarter of the league and he had trouble barreling baseball. I’ve seen tags of a 55 to 60 hit tool, but the stats don’t back it up at the moment. I can squint and see it from the structure of his swing, which pushes me back to the internal debate of stats versus eyes. At the moment, the stats are winning, but I think the Pirates will be patient, to Newman’s benefit.
Newman has a better hit too than Jordy Mercer (more Pirates bias), and Pittsburgh had the key piece of their defensive buy-in from 2013 continually playing 130-plus games a year.
I don’t see enough for substantial impact from Newman, but that doesn’t mean he’s worthless.
11. Kevin Kramer, 2B/3B/SS
Age: 25 (10/3/93)
Highest level: MLB
.311/.365/.492, 15 HR, .181 ISO, 141 wRC+, 7% BB, 24% K, 13 SB (AAA - 129 games)
A phrase to describe Kramer: fly balls
If I could ask him one question: Do you model your swing or fly-ball approach to anybody else in the major leagues currently?
It seems like I’m a little bit lower on Kramer than others in the industry. I will point out, however, that the differences between Kramer at 11 and Sanchez at 7 aren’t substantial. My usual process for evaluation on a player I haven’t seen a substantial amount of comes with a mix of video watching first, followed by stats, followed by reading some other reports to see if my initial thoughts aren’t too insane.
With Kramer, the video watching had me shrugging. His hands start pretty low, which leads to some natural loft and an exceptional fly-ball rate, but there’s a hard stretch back with his hands during load that lengthens his swing for me. You see this a little bit with a player like Paul Goldschmidt, but his bat speed and nearly every other peripheral plate skill is elite. I think if the structure of Kramer’s swing existed and he had better bat speed, I could squint and project out 55ish power.
Instead, I don’t see anything projecting out above average and the majority of the peripheral skills—defense, speed—land below average. He feels like a fly-ball revolution hitter who embraced a change, but the ceiling of the results isn’t as high as others. I think he could land in a decent platoon role, but it might be a weak-side one that targets left-handed pitchers for homers.
12. Travis MacGregor, RHP
Age: 21 (10/15/97)
Highest level: A
63.2 IP, 3.25 ERA, 3.27 xFIP, 27% K, 8% BB, .235 AVG against (A)
One word to describe MacGregor: projectable
If I could ask him one question: What do you think the key is to taking a curveball or changeup and turning it into above average pitch?
Good frame, athletic, clean delivery. Does that sound familiar? It’s nearly every other Pirates pitching prospect on this list. MacGregor is no different. He has a nice higher three-quarters motion with plus plane on his fastball from his 6-foot-3 frame. I think he’s a little bit bigger than the 180 pounds I’ve seen him listed at, but like Jennings, that comes in his lower half, which I like for projection and arm-health purposes.
He might even be able to tap into his front leg a little bit more in his delivery, but that’s being nit picky. The structure is good and projectable.
I contemplated an aggressive rank around 8th overall, near Jennings, but MacGregor’s stuff isn’t as good. He has feel for a changeup, but neither the cambio or his curveball have flashed above average. There’s concern from the stuff perspective, hence this rank. If he flashed two 55s or even a 55 and a 50, I think he’s number 6 or 7 on this list.
13. Bryan Reynolds, OF
Age: 23 (1/27/95)
Highest level: AA
.302/.381/.438, 7 HR, .136 ISO, 128 wRC+, 11% BB, 19% K, 13 SB (AA - 88 games)
A phrase to describe Reynolds: smooth switch-hitter
If I could ask him one question: How did you start switch hitting? Will it always be a part of your game? Is your prep different from either side of the plate?
Reynolds was the Giants 2018 second-round pick sent to Pittsburgh in the Andrew McCutchen package. He’s a switch hitter with a better swing from the left than right side in the tape I have seen. He hammered the ball from both sides of the plate in 2017, but reverted to some struggle as a righty in 2018 at a higher level.
He sets up very wide from the left side with a leg lift and essentially no stride. His upper body is deceptively strong. He pushed out 7 homers in less than 90 games with a stance I didn’t expect much power from initially. But I’m willing to change that take based on results and hope for 55 power with a 50 hit tool.
Reynolds feels like a utility player at the end of the day, but could be more if his fielding and speed complimented a predominantly balanced profile. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Not bad, not great, but serviceable. There’s rumblings his game power is better than expected and Ralph loves Reynolds, so I have to oblige.
14. Stephen Alemais, SS
Age: 23 (4/12/95)
Highest level: AA
.279/.346/.346, 1 HR, .067 ISO, 96 wRC+, 10% BB, 15% K, 16 SB (AA - 120 games)
A phrase to describe Alemais: the defender
If I could ask him one question: How often did Hayes, Tucker and yourself talk about defense? How much have you learned from them defensively?
Alemais is already an above-average defender with the potential for a plus-plus glove. He has the potential to be better than Tucker or Hayes defensively, but the issue is how depleted the rest of his profile is. Everything on the hit side is below average to non existent.
His swing is compact, with an upright set up and little excessive movement, but his bat speed isn’t great and the plane isn’t conducive to too many fly balls.
At best, he’s a line-drive hitter who you hope can stretch some balls into the gap and let him run on his 60-grade speed. I think his profile is platoon at best, which is unfortunate because if he pushed to fringe-average on some combination of his hit and power, this could be a stable, everyday player. Body doesn’t leave much for projection in any respect. This is a utility defender and a really good one, but the aggregate value of that is tough to fit into the top 10 on even an average list like the Pirates.
15. Will Craig, 1B
Age: 23 (11/16/94)
Highest level: AA
.248/.321/.448, 20 HR, .200 ISO, 110 wRC+, 7% BB, 23% K, 6 SB (AA - 132 games)
One word to describe Craig: power
If I could ask him one question: Do you believe in the concept that some player can’t hit with wood bats? Did you hear any of that buzz when you were in college? What was the key to proving everybody wrong?
From “he can’t hit with wood” to “maybe he can,” Craig represents a multitude of characteristics. First is not giving a player enough time to develop—we’re all guilty of it. Second is a player who embraces the fly-ball kick the rest of the league has been in on. Craig jumped his fly-ball rate nearly 20 percent between 2017 and 2018, with an extra 14 home runs to show for it.
Third is the negative that bogs down his profile: he’s a lumbering first baseman with no shot of playing the outfield (then again, that’s what I said about Matt Adams for years). Josh Bell is under contract through 2023. Bell also hits left-handed pitching well relative to other lefty first basemen. Craig doesn’t seem like a platoon option and if he is and the Pirates decide to limit Bell, it’s a weak-side platoon and I guess Craig gets to steal at-bats from the workhorse that is Bell.
In sum, I really have no idea what the Pirates are going to do with Craig. I don’t see many situations where they trade him because most teams have an immobile player they want to stick somewhere. Maybe he sits the bench with an AL team and mashes left-handers for the rest of his career? If he can find a role, I think it’s an average power profile with swing and miss.
Huntington has some thinking to do with this one.
16. Braxton Ashcraft, RHP
Age: 19 (10/5/99)
Highest level: Rookie Ball
17.2 IP, 4.58 ERA, 4.27 xFIP, 16% K, 7% BB, .235 AVG against (Rookie)
Two words to describe Ashcraft: lanky, electric
If I could ask him one question: When did you first feel comfortable with your mechanics given your size? How did growth affect your game when you were younger? How do you think it’ll affect you in the future?
Even when the Pirates draft a high-risk, high school righty, he comes with the mold of their other top organizational pitchers - projectable, athletic and promising. Ashcraft is a Texas boy and one of two standout picks from the 2018 draft for the Pirates next to Swaggerty.
His mechanics are clean for a 19-year-old. His he extends really well for his size, using all of his 6-foot-5 frame to generate exceptional forward trunk tilt off his separation and extension. I noticed a slight head knock in tape I watched, but it’s not concerning given the time he has to develop and his current age.
I like his fastball despite consistent below average present grades. It possesses some solid arm-side run that could make it squarely above average at peak. His slider is his best breaking ball which he mixes with a below-average changeup. There is a lot of projection going on with Ashcraft. The Pirates have no reason to rush him. I’m tempted to put him higher, but we know the fate of so many high school righties.
I’ll peg him as a riser next year, hopefully he breaks into the top 8-10 to replace the upside lost with Baz.
17. Pablo Reyes, OF
Age: 25 (9/5/93)
Highest level: MLB
.293/.349/.483, 3 HR, .190 ISO, 113 wRC+, 8% BB, 18% K, 0 SB (MLB - 18 games)
A phrase to describe Reyes: Underdog
If I could ask him one question: Do you consider yourself underrated? If yes: Does it motivate you?
I was turned onto Pablo Reyes on Fangraphs list last season. Reyes was “Cistulli’s Guy,” which is a small tag given to a player who is pretty fringy, but has produced. That’s exactly what Reyes. Never really considered for lists, he kind of sputtered around, hitting at every level, but never standing out.
The plus is that he kept producing similar lines with little deviation as he got higher and higher in the Pirates system. The major leagues was no different. In a really small sample, he was very serviceable. Even if the upside is low, there’s production that I don’t think will deviate much in a platoon/utility role. On top of that, the advanced metrics on his exit velocity and barrel rate were well above average.
He has a lot of pre-pitch barrel movement as he draws his body back in building momentum towards the ball, and multiple moving parts, but the overall product is really smooth. His eye at the plate and ability to make contact are impressive, especially with the motion he has. He’s one of those players where the stats tell you to take another look if the eye doesn’t.
18. Jared Oliva, OF
Age: 22 (11/27/95)
Highest level: High A
.275/.354/.424, 15 HR, .149 ISO, 124 wRC+, 9% BB, 20% K, 33 SB (High A - 108 games)
A longer phrase to describe Oliva: front-footer hoping for extra pop
If I could ask him one question: Have the Pirates talked to you about getting off your front foot at all and into more of a leg kick? What do you think the result would be if you did?
Oliva is a little bit stiff at the plate and the result is confusion for me around his profile, but something is drawing me to him. He’s an athletic 6-foot-3 with a power jump between 2017 and 2018. He feels a little bit pull-heavy at the moment, using a little toe tap and a lot of upper body to drive balls down the line and into left-center.
He doesn’t separate particularly well, watching his swing makes you think “explosive,” but it feels more like a compact and even slightly delayed to minimal swing and load rather than the explosiveness of Swaggerty, for example. You can survive without exceptional separation, each hitter is like a snowflake, but that means a little bit more whip and bat speed is needed. The bat speed is there, but the whip isn’t. He seems like a project with some potential. I’d love to see him get off his front foot and into a leg kick. I’d be interested to see if this causes his swing to lengthen or if he maintains balance well. If the latter is true, there could be 50-55 game power, but that’s still a long shot at the moment.
At this point on most middle-of-the-road team lists, the difference between 18 and 25 isn’t much. Oliva doesn’t stand out, but I want another year or two before I drop him to the back of this utility tier and into oblivion
19. Conner Uselton, OF
Age: 20 (10/3/93)
Highest level: Rookie Ball
.225/.280/.250, 0 HR, .025 ISO, 46 wRC+, 7% BB, 18% K, 0 SB (Rookie Ball - 43 games)
A phrase to describe Uselton: Risky power, finally!
If I could ask him one question: You’re not a particularly big guy body-wise, where do you think your power comes from? Do watch swings of players with similar builds to you to polish yourself up? Or do you watch players with different body types?
Future raw power with Uselton sits around 65-70 with hopes game power can get to the 55-60 window. There really aren’t many players like this in the Pirates system. I’ve read that he’s a little bit unathletic, but for some reason I don’t really see that, unless it comes across strongly in person. He feels a little bit like the Hunter Pence kind of awkward
His “bat pop”—bat going away from his body, perpendicular to the ground during his load—reminds me a little bit of Brent Rooker from the Twins. It’s effective, even if it’ll result continually in elevated strikeout rates. Bat speed is very good, hands are quick and sure he might struggle with breaking balls for a while and he’s a little bit older than other Rookie Ball candidates, but 2019 should be his first look at full-season ball and I think the reaction will be positive.
Oh and he’s played 45 games without a home run. Aka, he’s confusing, which I’ve said before on this list, but not on this kind of profile. He’s an upside-y player I was tempted to elevate on this list simply because there is so much floor. My brain worked over my heart and Uselton is 19 (for now!).
20. Jason Martin, OF
Age: 23 (9/5/95)
Highest level: AAA
.211/.270/.319, 4 HR, .108 ISO, 113 wRC+, 7% BB, 22% K, 5 SB (AAA - 59 games)
A phrase to describe Martin: A lot of 45/50 grades
If I could ask him one question: What’s the biggest different in terms of development between the Astros organization and the Pirates for you?
Martin is short, with a heavy momentum build and back-hip coil in his swing to try and tap into some power. It looks a little bit Jose Altuve-y from the left side, which obvious differences in barrel control and bat speed. There’s more swing and miss than you’d expect, which makes me a little bit concerned that a 28 percent strikeout rate is possible at the major league level, neutralizing most of his potential value. He rode a high BABIP at Altoona and struggled in the International League during the second half of last season.
The differences between Martin and others slightly above on this list aren’t large. Martin is close to the majors as well, but I don’t think it’s anything more than a platoon role, hence my rank.
I think I’m low on Martin here, but I just don’t see much impact and I’d rather bet on players a little further off at this point than stick with the safe profiles that clogged 4-12 on this list.
21. Ji-Hwan Bae, SS
Age: 19 (7/26/99)
Highest level: Rookie Ball
.271/.362/.349, 0 HR, .078 ISO, 104 wRC+, 10% BB, 11% K, 10 SB (Rookie Ball - 35 games)
We’re tossing the cute phrases to describe players and questions I would ask players. I’m sorry, Bae (see what I did there?).
The man with an 80-grade last name is an international signee that the Pirates shelled out serious cash for in 2017 (~$1.25m). He’s really young, with an extremely polished approach for Rookie Ball, demonstrating plus understanding of the zone. For a 19-year-old, his swing is clean as well. I can’t say I have much experience breaking down the naturally high hands and strong back-hip coil a lot of Asian and Pacific Island players employ, but there’s little wasted motion. I don’t expect his peripherals to dip much in the future and would like to see him take a stab at full-season ball before he turns 20 years old.
Questions remain around what exactly the upside is. While his swing and structure are enticing, the results haven’t been too encouraging. But again, he’s only 19 years old. With this investment, the Pirates are happy to wait and nurture him into a beneficial role.
I moved him up two spots solely because of his last name (kidding) and I still think I under-ranked him here.
22. JT Brubaker, RHP
Age: 24 (11/17/93)
Highest level: AAA
119 IP, 3.10 ERA, 3.99 xFIP, 19% K, 7% BB, .264 AVG against (AAA)
He’s tall and lanky with decent extension, an AFL stint on his resume and successful Triple-A inning under his belt. The Pirates have developed him as a starter, but it doesn’t look like either of his secondary pitches—slider. changeup—project out to average or above.
For this reason, the likely outcome is a reliever of the multi-inning variety. His lower three-quarters delivery is probably tough for right-handers to pick up, making the prospects of him actually being a productive reliever decently high. He’s ranked here because of the potential for the other arms to end up as a starter. But if you recall my earlier blurb on Escobar, I’m continually torn as to where I value bullpenning pieces next to other variations of pitchers.
A common stuff-based knock was given to MacGregor, but he has more time to turn things around and possesses inherently more upside. Brubaker’s ceiling is a fifth starter at best, or an ok bullpen piece if his track bends that way.
23. Jordan Luplow, OF
Age: 25 (9/26/93)89
Highest level: MLB
.185/.272/.359, 3 HR, .174 ISO, 134 wRC+, 10% BB, 18% K, 2 SB (MLB - 37 games)
It’s especially difficult to rank players who have major league reps, but not enough to buck prospect status. Every time I stumble upon one, I find myself wondering whether it’s better to over rank and defend it with the guaranteed production it seems like he will produce, or take the data and project out a little bit more than I should. The reality is both approaches alone are poor. A combination is needed, which leads to my struggle.
Luplow’s swing is smooth and conducive to fly balls. His spray data is a little heavy to the pull side, particularly for power. The approach is very solid, floating around 10 percent walk and 18 percent strikeout, suggesting a tolerable OBP even if he struggles to hit over .260.
His batted-ball data is pretty average all around, which confirms some of the average-ness that was expected through the minor leagues. I think Luplow can be a serviceable platoon option, he doesn’t seem to have split issues and his swing doesn’t concern me at all. More of a shrug on the 25-year-old than anything.
24. Rodolfo Castro, 2B
Age: 19 (5/21/99)
Highest level: A
.231/.278/.395, 12 HR, .164 ISO, 89 wRC+, 6% BB, 24% K, 6 SB (A - 105 games)
In terms of age and polish, there probably aren’t two prospect as different as Luplow and Castro, so putting them back-to-back is as confusing as it looks, trust me. But as I said, we’re at the point on a middle-of-the-road list where lines blur.
Castro is a switch-hitter with a small, built frame. He saw a nice power uptick from 2017 to 2018 and started spraying the ball all over the field. The result was elevated levels of respect and projection for his hit and game power tools. There isn’t as much discipline here as there is in other profiles above, which is why Castro is outside the top 20, but he’s interesting enough that Pirates fans and prospectors should at least give him a passing thought.
His stance is crouched, with a little bounce in his hands as he loads. I would expect this to be smoothed out at higher level and likely contributes to some of the swing and miss at the moment. (Maybe some of the whiffs are due to pitch recognition at this age as well.) His bat is pretty loose otherwise, possesses quick hands, giving some hope for a future utility role.
25. Nick Burdi, RHP
Age: 25 (1/19/93)
Highest level: MLB
5 IP, 5.40 ERA, 5.11 xFIP, 18% K, 14% BB, .375 AVG against (AAA)
Burdi is a pretty heavy drop-and-drive pitcher from the stretch. The motion is violent and aggressive. He relies a ton on his lower half to build up energy and transfers it relatively well to his upper body, but the motion and follow-through are stiff. His front leg is stiff as well, similar to Nathan Eovaldi in some respects, and while he gets some forward trunk tilt it almost feels like there’s a lack of flexibility in Burdi’s hips that limits him.
I describe his motion as having a rainbow effect as opposed to being the efficient, linear path to the plate a lot of the biomechanics space stresses.
The result is deceptive, despite all the knocks you can throw at him. His fastball and slider both grade out as 70-grade pitches, with Tanner Scott-like rumblings about an 80-grade on his fastball. Strikeouts galore, but unfortunately little command (I think this is due primarily to the delivery knocks). I’d rather bet on a lot of the other, looser arms in the Pirates system—ranked above—to be impact relievers over Burdi at the moment. My admission is that he will get strikeouts at the major league level, however.
26. Braeden Ogle, LHP
Age: 21 (7/30/97)
Highest level: A
17 IP, 2.65 ERA, 3.89 xFIP, 29% K, 14% BB, .254 AVG against (A)
Ogle had some nice results in A Ball, running with a decent mix of three pitches—fastball, curveball, changeup—that all could get to average.
His delivery is a little bit funky. From video it almost feels like he’s going to come out of a higher slot than he does with good action off his drive leg, but a little halting of his motion with a stiff front leg. This forces him upright into his delivery as his arms comes over low-three-quarters to sidearm in his delivery. I imagine he’s really hard for left-handed hitters to pick up.
His ultimate role is likely probably a lefty specialist, which limits his value (hence the rank). But I think there is a really small chance with three pitches he can actually neutralize right-handed hitters and become a bullpenning asset.
27. Connor Kaiser, SS
Age: 21 (11/20/95)
Highest level: A
.302/.338/.381, 1 HR, .079 ISO, 85 wRC+, 6% BB, 22% K, 0 SB (AAA - 59 games)
Finally! Back to what the Pirates know best: defensive middle infielders with hit tools. Kaiser was a 2018 pick for the Pirates and given their track record with players like Alemais, Newman and Tucker, why not toss another middle infielder with a glove.
Kaiser is a Vandy kid with a tall frame and good mobility. He’s is a little bit older and jumped up to A Ball in his first season, producing well in his 47 games. The righty is a little bit upright in his stance, with high hands that tense up as he loads and progresses into his swing. The overall result is pretty compact and given his discipline, I actually think there’s a chance for a nice 50-grade hit tool here with solid defense despite simple mechanics and not the best lower-half engagement. Is it enough to overcome some of the assets Pittsburgh has up the middle? Likely not.
If he has to move to third base at some point, I’m not confident the bat will be able to play up to the corner’s standard. Productive? Sure. Impactful? Likely not, but if he’s a riser on a floor basis in 2019, I won’t be stunned. I could see him as a a 10-20 guy next season around this time, but don’t think he has the ceiling to push into the top 10.
28. Deon Stafford, C
Age: 22 (3/17/96)
Highest level: A
.253/.316/.433, 11 HR, .180 ISO, 113 wRC+, 7% BB, 26% K, 0 SB (A - 94 games)
Have to get all the way down to 28 in order to talk about a Pirates catcher. (I’m interested to see how many other systems we rank with no catcher until after 25 overall.) Stafford has a solid frame and displayed some serious pop at St. Joe’s. He carried that into his first full season look in 2018, popping 11 homers in 94 games. Not great for some, but as a catcher with a chance to still stick behind the plate, given everything he’s going through in the lower levels with pitching staffs and prep, I’m fine saying the power translates to some extent. He can easily unlock more at higher levels.
He starts his hands pretty high, dropping them into his load which is a little bit higher than average. The movement is probably unnecessary, leading to added hand motion and a better chance he’s late or out of position during his swing. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him drop his hands and just slide back into his load, using his upper body strength to muscle balls. Up the discipline and we could be looking at a standard 24 percent strikeout, 8 percent walk player.
29. Jose Maldonado, RHP
Age: 19 (1/17/99)
Highest level: Rookie Ball
13.2 IP, 3.29 ERA, 3.08 xFIP, 29% K, 12% BB, .212 AVG against (Rookie Ball)
Right before the finalization of this list, I pushed Maldonado into the Pirates top 30 at the request of Jason Pennini. I’m happy to do so and thank JP for opening my eyes to another lively arm in the Pirates system.
Maldonado’s arm speed is plus. It immediately jumps out watching video and becomes even more important when you learn he throws three pitches with decent velocity. He’s a little bit upright in his delivery, with a pretty stocky frame, but the stuff seems solid enough to warrant some consideration.
He worked out of the pen a little bit in Rookie Ball and started two games as well. The future role might be in question, but in JP I trust. Keep an eye on Maldonado.
30. Grant Koch, C
Age: 21 (2/5/97)
Highest level: Low A
.188/.304/.263, 2 HR, .075 ISO, 78 wRC+, 14% BB, 22% K, 1 SB (Low A - 40 games)
Another catcher and 2018 pick in Koch, I don’t see much difference between him and Stafford at the moment. They both should move pretty quick, Koch has more discipline at the plate, but hasn’t really shown out for power aside from his 2016 season with Arkansas.
His swing is whippy compared to Stafford, with looser hands, but a little bit more length and some strikeout risk early in his career until he quiets his pre-pitch barrel movement down.
It seems like he will be able to stick behind the plate as well and should run through the minors in tandem with Stafford. I expect one of the two make a climb up this list inside 20 overall by next year. My bet right now is Stafford.
For a deeper dive into the system check out our trip through Pirates instructs here