This GCL team has the most upside of any of the three short-season teams in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system. The top prospects at the level include first round pick Cole Tucker, and second round picks Mitch Keller and Trey Supak. They also have Michael de la Cruz, who is the top international prospect making the jump from the US this year. That combination gives the GCL team four of the top 20 prospects in the overall system, which ties Altoona for the second most, and ranks just behind West Virginia.
Behind those four is a group of talented players with breakout potential. The GCL team features prospects with some promise at every position, including first base, third base, and especially shortstop. There are also some interesting starting pitchers behind the two 2014 draft picks, and some toolsy outfielders other than de la Cruz.
The interesting thing about this team is that it looks like a DSL team more than a GCL team. There are only five US players on this team, out of 35 players. There are two players from Australia, one from Taiwan, and one from Puerto Rico. The rest of the players on the roster are either making the jump from the DSL this year, or are in their second season in the GCL after previously making the jump from the DSL.
The strength of this teams looks to be offense, which isn’t a surprise considering the makeup of the team. The Pirates have done a better job getting pitching from the draft, and hitting from the international scene. Since this team is heavily built from international prospects, it’s not a surprise that there are so many promising hitters, and not a lot of promising pitchers outside of the three US guys.
Here is a breakdown of every player at the level, along with the top ten prospects at the start of the year.
Dario Agrazal, RHP – He’s in the Opening Day rotation, although that could change once Mitch Keller and Trey Supak are ready. Agrazal had good numbers in the DSL last year, and reaches 91 with his fastball. He’s 6′ 3″, 187 pounds, so he has more projection than most guys out of the DSL. Regardless of whether he stays in the rotation or moves to relief, I think he’ll get plenty of innings.
Jose Batista, LHP – The Pirates seem to love international left-handers, although Batista has a bit of an advantage over most of the other guys. He’s not a soft tosser, throwing in the low 90s and pairing his fastball with a slider. He also has the chance to add velocity going forward due to a projectable frame. He’s another guy who will be at risk when Keller and Supak are ready, although he should still get plenty of innings. He and Agrazal seem like the two most likely to remain in the rotation.
Nick Hutchings, RHP – He was signed out of Australia in late 2012, and is now making the jump to the US. He throws in the mid-to-upper 80s, also throwing a slider and a changeup. The Pirates have signed plenty of players out of Australia, although none have made it as prospects. They obviously like Hutchings enough to make him a starter, although he’s another guy at risk of his spot later in the season.
Mitch Keller, RHP – The Pirates signed him for $1 M as a second round pick, and we already rate him as the 11th best prospect in the system. He has a projectable frame and reaches 95 with his fastball, usually sitting 90-92. He has good movement on the pitch, and has a curveball with average to above-average potential. The Pirates usually wait a few weeks to ease pitchers into pro ball, especially if they have had a layoff for several weeks due to the draft. I expect Keller to be pitching in the rotation in early July. Last year Neil Kozikowski got 24 innings and Blake Taylor got 21 innings. I’d expect Keller in the 20-25 inning range this season.
Neil Kozikowski, RHP – The Pirates signed him to a $425,000 bonus, which was over-slot for the 8th round. He’s a projectable right-hander who can hit 90-92 MPH with his fastball. When I watched him last year, he looked inconsistent with his command, often flattening out his fastball and leaving the ball up in the zone. It wasn’t anything alarming, as he obviously had good numbers and limited walks, but it did show up in a few starts. His return to the GCL was a bit surprising, especially with the new team in Bristol. He only threw 24 innings last year, but might see an increase to the 50 inning range this year. He’ll need a big season to make the jump to West Virginia in 2015.
Gerardo Navarro, LHP – Navarro made the start in yesterday’s home opener. He’s a lefty who throws 85-89, and pairs that with a nice curveball that sits low-70s and has good break. His changeup needs work, as it looks like a different fastball, with not much difference in velocity from his actual fastball. He’s another guy who is at risk of losing his spot when Keller and Supak arrive. He seems to have less upside than the rest of the group.
Trey Supak, RHP – Supak is very similar to Keller. He’s a highly projectable pitcher who received $1 M from the Pirates in the second round, with Supak being drafted in the Competitive Balance portion. He’s 6′ 5″, 210 pounds and sits in the low 90s with his fastball, touching 94. His curve and change have the potential to be average, so he’ll need to work on adding to his secondary stuff, and maybe finding a better out pitch.
Remy De Aza, RHP – As a second year player last year in the DSL, De Aza got hurt in his first start, then came back too soon from the injury and didn’t pitch well. He has a big frame and a good arm, but lacks control, with 42 walks in his first 31.1 innings as a pro. The reports from the Dominican were good on him when healthy, so he could be more than a filler.
Christopher De Leon, RHP – He spent four years in the DSL, which used to mean the end for most careers, but with the extra affiliate this year in the States, it gives De Leon another chance. At one time, he had potential and he’s a good bullpen arm to have around, but as a player that turns 22 in a month his role going forward will likely be a long man out of the pen in the lower levels.
Jen-Lei Liao, RHP – He is a monster on the mound at 6’6″, 255 pounds. Liao is a 20-year-old righty the Pirates signed out of Taiwan this off-season, who can hit 92 MPH. He is raw as a pitcher, but his frame and fastball suggest that he can be more than just a filler down the line. Right now he’s a project that will probably see limited time.
Jonathan Minier, RHP – He pitched twice for Jamestown this year and got hit around before being sent down to the GCL. Minier is already 24 years old and saw limited time in the DSL as a rookie last year, so there likely isn’t much potential there.
Yunior Montero, RHP – Montero is the most interesting player here. He can hit 94 MPH and he’s a talented pitcher, but identity issues have cost him a large chunk of time. The Pirates have actually signed him three times after MLB voided the first two contracts. After the third time he signed, he still had a long delay and couldn’t get to the States until recently. He has been around and pitching on the side, but his career stats show just one(dominant) game back in 2011. Montero could be a sleep prospect in this group. He was highly regarded when signed and required a six figure bonus.
Jesus Paredes, LHP – He looks like a lefty filler out of the bullpen. Already 21 years old, Paredes had some control issues and doesn’t get many ground balls, so he doesn’t profile well for the future, especially since he was being used as a reliever for three seasons in the DSL/VSL.
Horelbin Ramos, LHP – He didn’t begin pitching until last year at age nineteen and he was just a bullpen arm, though he did usually see multiple innings when he pitched. Ramos had success in that role and he is a southpaw that is tough on lefty batters, so he has that going for him.
Carlos Ruiz, RHP – He is nicknamed “El Submarino” and has dominated in both the VSL and DSL for four years before coming to the States. He keeps the ball on the ground better than any pitcher in the Pirates system and allowed just one homer in four seasons. Ruiz pitched in the Venezuelan Winter League this past off-season and should do well in the GCL, but he doesn’t profile as much more than a lower-level bullpen arm due to his velocity and size.
Jandy Vasquez, RHP – He was a starter for the DSL Pirates last year, and while he didn’t put up the best numbers, the reports were that he had a good fastball and just lacked strong command, which got him into trouble last year. With some adjustments, he could be more than a bullpen arm down the line. Vasquez is a 6’4″, right-hander, just shy of his 20th birthday.
Eduardo Vera, RHP – He’s a 6’3″ righty that is also just shy of his 20th birthday. Vera pitched great as a starter in the DSL last year, but lacks the frame to pitch starter innings down the line. If he can translate that starting success into success in the bullpen, he could be more than just a low level filler
Julio Vivas, RHP – He pitched well as a starter last year, picking up strikeouts, keeping runs off the board and getting a lot of ground balls. It’s a bit surprising that he is in the bullpen, because of both the success he had last year and he had a big frame suitable for the starting role. The 20-year-old righty showed the progress you like to see over three seasons, working his way up from a long man in the pen to a successful starter. He pitched well in the opener yesterday, with no walks and six strikeouts in three innings. He should get extended relief opportunities.
Reggie Cerda, C – He spent the last two years in the DSL, throwing out 26% of base stealers in each season. He didn’t do much at the plate in either year. He’s an athletic catcher who will be 19 all season. He’ll get some playing time, splitting with Gonzalez, but doesn’t profile as one of the top prospects on this team, and will most likely end up a lower level organizational guy.
Yoel Gonzalez, C – The Pirates signed Gonzalez for $350,000 in 2012. He’s got good defensive potential, but questions surrounding his bat. Those questions showed up last year, when he only had a .188 average and a .523 OPS in the DSL. He’s still very young, and will be 17 for most of this season. He should get a lot of playing time behind the plate, and spend time as a DH when he’s not catching, due to the investment the team made in him.
Carlos Marquez, C – Marquez was brought up this year because he had spent the maximum four years in the DSL. He should serve as the third catcher, getting very little playing time, and working more as a bullpen catcher.
Bealyn Chourio, SS – Chourio had Tommy John surgery in 2012, and missed the entire season. He’s naturally a shortstop, and will get some time at the position in the GCL, although his playing time could be scarce with Cole Tucker, Nelson Jorge, and Sam Kennelly at the level. It’s more likely that he gets time at second base. Chourio shows good potential in batting practice, but hasn’t carried the results over to the game. He’s a toolsy middle infielder who is very athletic, and could be an interesting guy to watch if he carries his approach over to the game.
Julio de la Cruz, 3B – Julio is no relation to Michael, although they signed at the same time and for the same bonus. He’s a third baseman with a big frame and a lot of power potential. He’s very raw on both sides of the game, committing 12 errors in 32 games last year, and only hitting for a .639 OPS. He showed some power and plate patience last year, and has the potential for average or better power in the future. He’ll be one of the most interesting guys to watch this year, as the Pirates don’t have a lot of third base prospects.
Nelson Jorge, SS – Jorge is listed as a pitcher on the online roster, but he was drafted as a shortstop and is listed as a shortstop in the roster I received yesterday. He’ll probably be an infielder, although it will be tough finding playing time. Cole Tucker is expected to get the bulk of the time at shortstop. Jorge will have to compete with Sam Kennelly and Bealyn Chourio for time. He could get some time at second base, which seems like the most likely avenue for playing time for the non-Tucker shortstops. Jorge does have a strong arm, throwing 90 MPH from short and 93 from the outfield, so the idea that he could be a pitcher isn’t far-fetched. However, that’s usually a last resort for a position player, rather than an immediate plan.
Sam Kennelly, SS – Kennelly is getting the bulk of the early playing time at shortstop, starting in the first two games. He received $225,000 when he signed out of Australia in 2012. This is his first year in the US. He played in the Australian Baseball League last year, playing all four positions in the infield. He’s best at shortstop, but will yield most of the playing time to Tucker. I’d expect Kennelly to get the second most playing time at the position this year. He comes from a good baseball family, with three brothers in pro ball.
Carlos Munoz, 1B – Munoz is a big first baseman who hit for some power last year in the DSL — his third season at the level. He also draws a lot of walks, and doesn’t strike out a lot, leading to an OBP of .456 last year, and .443 the year before. Because of his size, he is limited to first base. His power and plate patience is very interesting, especially since the Pirates don’t have a lot of first base prospects in the system.
Edgardo Munoz, 3B – Munoz is an older player who will probably serve as a utility player off the bench. He can play middle infield, as well as all three outfield positions and third base. He’s a small player, and profiles as lower level depth.
Jose Salazar, 3B – He hasn’t done much at the plate in his three years in international ball. He should serve as a utility player and lower level depth, with the ability to play first and third base.
Cole Tucker, SS – Tucker was taken in the first round in the 2014 draft, and should get the bulk of the playing time at shortstop. He won’t play every day, but should get in about 45 of the ~60 games the GCL team will play this year, spending some time as a DH. To give a good comparison, last year Austin Meadows played 36 games in center field, leaving 24 games for other players. Trae Arbet played 38 games at shortstop. That’s the playing time expectation for Tucker. He will be making his debut early next week. Tucker has a good arm and hands, with a good chance to stick at shortstop. The Pirates were high on his offense, citing some improvements during his senior season in high school. That was the big difference between the Pirates and other rankings that had Tucker lower than where he was drafted. For that reason, his offense will be a focus this year.
Alexis Bastardo, OF – Bastardo will have trouble getting playing time at the corner spots behind Tito Polo and Eric Thomas. However, he should get some work as a primary guy off the bench. He showed some improvements last year with an OPS that got better as the season went on, finishing with a 1.012 OPS in August. He draws a lot of walks, but also strikes out a lot. He’s a corner outfield option only.
Luis Benitez, OF – He’s a speedy guy who should get a lot of playing time this year off the bench. He stole 33 bases last year in the DSL, but didn’t do much else at the plate. He doesn’t have any power, and strikes out too much, which doesn’t project well. His main value comes from his speed.
Michael de la Cruz, CF – He’s one of the top prospects at the level, and a week younger than first round pick Cole Tucker, who was young for his draft class. MDLC is very athletic, and a very toolsy outfielder. He shows great defense in center field, with a lot of speed and range, and a decent arm. He drives balls to the gaps, and projects to add power in the future when he adds strength to his frame. He’s got good plate patience, and the speed to be a threat on the bases when he gets on. He’s got the chance to be the next big breakout international prospect, possibly ending up in the top 10 in the system by the end of the year.
Tito Polo, RF – Polo has one of the best names in the system, and is also a decent prospect. He has a good arm, and will be playing a lot of right field this year. His other skills include speed, some power, and an ability to get on base. He does have a tendency to be a free swinger at times, and in the home opener he swung at two pitches well outside of the strike zone. He should get the bulk of the playing time in the outfield, next to MDLC and Thomas.
Henrry Rosario, OF – Rosario is a very small organizational guy who can play all three outfield spots. He didn’t get much playing time last year, and doesn’t project to get much time this year.
Eric Thomas, OF – He was a 21st round pick in 2014, and has a ton of speed. He’s gotten an 80 grade for his speed by some scouts, and has the arm strength needed to pitch. The speed and arm are the only thing he’s got, as his offense and defense are raw. He makes mistakes on the field, and strikes out too much at the plate, while adding no power. The speed makes him an interesting project, capable of being a good center field prospect if he can develop other areas of his game.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Cole Tucker, SS
2. Mitch Keller, RHP
3. Michael de la Cruz, CF
4. Trey Supak, RHP
5. Neil Kozikowski, RHP
6. Julio de la Cruz, 3B
7. Yoel Gonzalez, C
8. Sam Kennelly, SS
9. Tito Polo, RF
10. Nelson Jorge, SS