The Pittsburgh Pirates have no shortage of quality outfielders. They’ve got Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte at the major league level, with Gregory Polanco on the way to possibly provide the best outfield trio in the majors. They’ve got top prospects in the minor leagues, beyond Polanco, who could either shift to first base, serve as depth/eventual replacements for the big three, or be used as a trade chip if needed. One of those top prospects is Austin Meadows, who was taken in the first round of the 2013 draft.
Meadows was one of the top prep hitters in the draft, but fell to the Pirates with the ninth pick in the draft. That pick is looking like an early steal. Jonathan Mayo recently compiled an average list of the various top 100 prospect rankings, and Meadows ranked sixth among 2013 draft picks, coming in at number 51. Three of the players drafted ahead of him were ranked lower, and two other guys ended up just a few spots ahead of him.
A big reason for this was the big season Meadows had after he was drafted. He put up a .918 OPS in the Gulf Coast League in 160 at-bats, with five homers and 11 doubles. That earned him a late season promotion to Jamestown at the end of the year, where he exploded by going 9-for-17 with two home runs in the final five games of the season, along with hits in each of the three playoff games in Jamestown.
“I felt really good,” Meadows said of his pro debut. “Especially in Jamestown, I felt really comfortable in the environment. Being under the lights and the bus trips and all of that. And then being around a bunch of older guys just felt like it was the right place to be.”
The surprising thing about the success Meadows had was that he had that success in two of the most pitcher friendly leagues in the minors. The NYPL is very pitcher friendly, while the GCL is the most pitcher friendly league in the minors. The huge ballparks are a big reason the league is so pitcher friendly, but the weather plays a factor. The games are played at noon in the middle of the summer in Florida, when the sun is beating down on you, and it’s over 90 degrees, with a ton of humidity that makes the air thick.
“I definitely used the cold tub a lot,” Meadows joked about his time in the GCL. “That was my best friend.”
The offense was a huge positive, but it did come at the lowest levels of the minors, and should be expected from a top hitting prospect like Meadows. Like any prospect, he’s not without flaws. A big issue for Meadows was pitch recognition, and trouble with breaking pitches. He had a 22% strikeout rate, which isn’t horrible, but again came at the lowest levels. Seeing him in person, there were some issues with off-speed pitches. Meadows chalked that up to the difference in approaches between high school and pro ball.
“The breaking balls was just kind of a count…especially when you get a 2-0 changeup,” Meadows said. “High schoolers it’s a 2-0 fastball. I felt like I was going to get pretty used to that and know it was going to come a little bit more.”
It’s definitely possible that Meadows just needed to adjust to pro ball and learn when to expect off-speed pitches. It’s also possible that he does have pitch recognition issues that could become an issue in the upper levels. The 2014 season should give a better idea of where Meadows stands with breaking pitches. He’s expected to jump to West Virginia, where he will see plenty of pitchers who have quality breaking stuff that he didn’t see in high school, or the short-season levels. If he does limit the strikeouts in West Virginia, then he could easily be this year’s breakout prospect, propelling himself from a top 50 prospect to a top 10 prospect.
If that happens, then it would give the Pirates an amazing situation for their outfield. Assuming the trio of McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco perform as expected, the Pirates wouldn’t need an outfielder until at least 2019. Even if Meadows goes a level per year, he will be set to arrive in the majors for the start of the 2018 season. That gives the Pirates a lot of options. They could hold Meadows as Andrew McCutchen’s eventual replacement if they can’t extend McCutchen. They could deal Starling Marte during his arbitration years, trying to get a big return while replacing him with Meadows. Or they could deal Meadows for a need, which would work better if they continue developing their other outfield prospects as eventual replacements for the guys in the majors. But that’s not an issue to worry about for a few more years. For now, Meadows will enter the 2014 season looking to take a jump from being a top 50 prospect in the game, to one of the best prospects in the game.