It's difficult to gather a prospect group as talented as the group that will start the year in Bradenton. The Marauders are headlined by Mitch Keller, who is the top pitching prospect in the system, but it doesn't stop there. They have six of the top ten prospects in the system heading into the year (or six of eight, if you remove Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow), and three of the five first round picks between 2014 and 2016 (with the other two starting in Altoona). They also have two more top young pitchers in Gage Hinsz and Taylor Hearn just behind Keller.
From a national standpoint, Keller is the only guy in the group who rates as a consensus top 100 prospect, but the other five could step up this year into those rankings. That would help replace some of the top talent that will be graduating from Indianapolis, with Josh Bell already losing prospect eligibility this year, and Tyler Glasnow not far behind him.
On the hitting side, the Florida State League is one of the most pitcher friendly leagues in baseball. That tends to keep the offensive numbers down, making it difficult to evaluate players by their numbers. This will make the live reports more important for this level, with the numbers being more of a focus when players move up to Altoona.
Here are the top ten prospects at the level, based on our rankings in the 2017 Prospect Guide.
1. Mitch Keller, RHP - This time last year, Keller looked like one of the more promising pitching prospects in the lower levels. He was primed for a breakout season, but I don't think anyone expected him to improve as much as he did in such a quick way. He went from a promising young pitching prospect to the best pitching prospect in the system, and that includes Tyler Glasnow. Keller has the mid-90s velocity that Glasnow and Jameson Taillon had when they were coming through A-ball. He's got the plus breaking pitch to get a lot of strikeouts. The difference is that he has better fastball command than Glasnow did at the time, and better movement than Taillon had at the time. He's also more advanced than either of them were with the changeup at this stage.
Keller is ahead of where Glasnow and Taillon were at this stage in their development. If you wanted to compare his progression and expectations to another Pirates pitching prospect, I'd go with Gerrit Cole. When Cole was in High-A, he had some things to work on, but you knew he had top of the rotation upside one day, and it wouldn't be long until he was in the majors. I could see Keller making it to Altoona in the second half of this season, with a chance to reach the majors in the second half of 2018. His work this year will involve adjusting to a higher level of hitters, and learning when to throw his pitches, while also continuing to improve the changeup and the extension fastball for his approach against lefties.
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