As we reach the non-mathematical halfway point of the Major League season known as the All-Star Break, I thought it would be a great time to look at some of the successes, struggles and surprises we’ve seen in the minor league system. Overall, there have been quite a few positives enough that the system still looks strong even as we get set for some high profile graduations.
Top Prospects and Mid-Level Prospects Beating Down the Door – The Pirates rotation has struggled all year long and from its genesis in the offseason, it appeared as though the door was wide open for pitchers like Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon to make the jump after the Super 2 deadline passed. Taillon was ready and made the jump. Glasnow still may have some work to do, despite the dominant AAA ERA and BAA he’s posted.
The door seemed locked and barred for Josh Bell with the signing of John Jaso for two years and the late addition of David Freese to spell Jung-ho Kang while injured and Jaso against lefties after the Korean slugger recovered. Bell’s having a great year at the plate in Indy and kicked the door in. He could outperform Jaso now and with his added power, Bell has a chance to develop into one of the best all around hitters in baseball by the time he turns 26. Bold statement for sure, but he could hit for average and modest power with a ton of doubles. Problem is, the Pirates have no room for both he and Jaso on the team right now. The front office is left with a serious question. Do you trade a guy who could be an excellent and cheap bench bat next season or do you send a guy who could make your everyday lineup better to the minors because you can?
Outside of the top prospects, three mid-level guys have taken steps forward and earned a shot. Adam Frazier has brought his contact and hustle to the majors after breaking out in Altoona last year. I’ve said it for a while that he’s a Jeff Keppinger type who I hope the Pirates don’t squander this time. Chad Kuhl has the look of a back of the rotation innings eater if he can generate more ground balls and improve his secondary pitches. His sinker is solid and his slider looks more like a cutter. The change up is present, but not a go to pitch yet. Steven Brault’s the biggest surprise of all. He’s more comfortable with three pitches than any other Pirates pitching rookie and could force their hand sooner than later.
Meadows becoming elite – Austin Meadows has taken his game to a new level. I honestly think that by the end of the year, he could be in the conversation for the best prospect in baseball, provided he keeps up his early season ride following his injury. In a very young age-21 season, he was one of the best hitters in AA and has held his own after being promoted to AAA. The power potential that scouts have hinted at has become a power reality. He’s already surpassed his previous career high in home runs and 37 of his 63 hits have gone for extra bases. The Pirates will be able to slow down his development, but if he repeats this success in 2017, the Pirates will have some tough choices to make in their outfield in 2018.
Newman! – Kevin Newman went from having a so-so short season debut to killing it in Bradenton after an aggressive promotion to start the year in A+. What’s impressed me most is his consistency. He hasn’t had a crazy hot streak, but he also hasn’t gone cold. He’s difficult to strike out and puts a ton of balls in play. It also appears as though he’s closer to sticking at shortstop. Jordy Mercer’s having what might be his best all around year in Pittsburgh, but it won’t be long for Newman is pressing him.
Tucker and his brand new shoulder – When I heard last year that Cole Tucker would undergo surgery to repair his torn labrum, I thought his career at shortstop and maybe his career in general was over. Not only is he back, but he’s still playing short and his defense has actually improved slightly compared to last year. His hitting is down in A+, but he’s extremely young for the level. I’ll give him a pass after returning early from one of the most devastating surgeries a ball player can have.
Others – Somewhat outshined at the AAA level by other elite performances, Max Moroff has quietly turned around a tough May. His K rate is elevated, but he’s showing he belongs at the level. Yeudy Garcia‘s a touch old for A+, but he is dominating accordingly. I think it’s a matter of time before he moves to Altoona. While both have struggled early at the next level, it was nice to see Jonathan Brubaker and Brandon Waddell force the Pirates hands early.
McGuire – Reese McGuire got off to a hot start the first couple of weeks of the season and then settled into well below-average production. I get the defense and age arguments, but there isn’t a great track record of 21 year olds in AA with OPSes in the mid .600’s amounting to much in the majors over the last 10 years.
The AA rotation – There was never a ton of upside in this group to begin with, but most of them are looking like relievers at this point. Not that that’s an issue as the Pirates need a ton of them in key roles over the next 2 years. Due to the Pirates need for pitchers in the majors, and overall thin minor league depth, I suspect it will get more difficult to convert any of them to the pen right now. Clay Holmes could be the first to make the switch and the Pirates may need to figure out a way to re-invent Cody Dickson to salvage him. Waddell gets a pass given that reached AA faster than anyone drafted by this front office. Tyler Eppler is really the only one to improve his prospect status this year, in my opinion.
The Bradenton Frat House – I’m talking about the college hitters drafted in 2014 and 15. I thought Jordan Luplow was a break out candidate this year, but he got off to another slow start. While he’s recovered, he hasn’t done anything to blow me away. Connor Joe is looking like a straight bust and I don’t like to call a player a bust until there is almost no hope at all. Kevin Kramer has been OK and at least he has second base to fall back on. The rest are too old for the level and struggling anyway.
Others – Still early, but I expected Will Craig to mash and mash now. On the positive, he’s drawn a ton of walks and kept his strikeouts to a minimum. I had high hopes for Carlos Munoz especially after his first month of winter ball. On the plus, he hasn’t had one of his crazy hot streaks this year nor is his BABIP helping him out so he could be due. I have a weird obsession with Scooter Hightower. While he’s performed well enough, I was disappointed that he’s not only in low A but working out of the bullpen. Alen Hanson got a cup of coffee, but his prospect status has really declined. With Moroff and Frazier passing him by and Newman coming up fast in the rear, he’s a prime trade candidate at the deadline. People were selling Dario Agrazal in the offseason as a potential breakout pitcher for the system and he hasn’t made much toast in Charleston with a K rate under 5.5 per 9. He’s also been victimized by the long ball. Jason Rogers hasn’t been terrible, but he hasn’t looked like the kind of player you feel happy giving up a solid pitching prospect for.
Keller’s breakout – I couldn’t figure out whether Mitch Keller was a surprise or a positive. I think fans expected him to be a good prospect, but it’s the way he’s made the jump to the elite level. In his first two years in the system, Keller had some pretty extreme control issues posting a 7.32 BB/9 in a small sample last year. That’s dropped well under two. While he struggled a bit in June, the early numbers were Tyler Glasnow-esque. In 21 IP in April, he posted an astonishing 28:1 K:BB.
Prospect #38 – Tito Polo was nearly the last man into our TPOP Top 40 prospects list and after knocking a pair of hits against David Price in spring training, he hasn’t looked back. Repeating in West Virginia, Polo found a surprising power stroke which put him among the best hitters in the SAL during what appears to be a particularly good year for the league.
Reinventing Heredia – The Pirates moved Luis Heredia to bullpen in 2016 with some promising results. While the two million dollar arm won’t live up to its original billing, it seems like the Pirates could have a salvage plan in place. He should move up to Altoona ASAP and he should bring his bullpen friend Sam Street along for the ride.
Frank Duncan – When the Pirates promoted Frank Duncan to AAA, it seemed like Duncan was getting the organizational player treatment. Duncan did nothing but perform and he may have put himself in the running for a September call up. With a ton of ground balls and a low walk I wouldn’t sleep on him to fill Jared Hughes role in the future.
Without question, it’s been a good year in the minors despite some disappointments. The minor league success, coupled with Gregory Polanco’s major league breakout, have pretty much quelled any conversation of the contention window closing anytime soon in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are a good team now and the future’s looking every bit as bright.