The Bradenton Marauders entered the 2015 season as one of the most talented teams in the Pirates’ system. So far they have lived up to that hype, although it hasn’t always shown up in the standings. Continuing with our “Top Five Stories” series, let’s take a look at the top five situations in Bradenton from the first half. If you missed our other two features, you can check out the top five first half stories from Indianapolis and Altoona at those links.
A Loaded Outfield
The Marauders have the best outfield trio in the Pirates’ minor league system, and while I don’t cover any other organization, I wouldn’t be surprised if this group was one of the best outfield trios in the minors. Austin Meadows entered the year as not only one of the top prospects in the system, but one of the top prospects in baseball. Harold Ramirez and Barrett Barnes both received seven-figure bonuses and were high-profile signings/picks when they were added.
So far the trio has lived up to the hype.
Meadows is currently hitting for a .300/.365/.394 line in 327 at-bats. The power doesn’t show up in the box score, but it is there, currently in the form of extra base hits and gap power. The Pirates gave him a ten day break around the All-Star break in June, and he has responded well to the rest, hitting for a .347/.390/.459 line in 98 at-bats since returning. Meadows hits to the middle of the field, using both gaps, and his short and quick swing leads to a lot of contact and not a lot of strikeouts.
When I saw him on a regular basis in the GCL during his rookie campaign, he struggled a lot with off-speed stuff, especially breaking stuff. It’s now rare for him to look foolish on a curveball, which is an improvement over the last two years. Meadows can play center field, but lacks the arm strength to be an asset at the position in the long-term, and probably profiles best as a left fielder in PNC Park. However, he’s the best all-around prospect on the team, and the Pirates will give him the priority in center field until he eventually has to move.
Barrett Barnes entered the season with his stock down, due to a massive wave of injuries every year since he was drafted in 2012. He has remained healthy this year, and is starting to show why he was taken in the first round by the Pirates and given $1 M to sign. He’s got some of the best raw power on the team, and the Florida State League is only holding that back in the stat sheet.
The FSL is one of the most pitcher friendly leagues in the minors, and for good reason. The games start around the time that the weather gets really humid. A lot of games are played right after or during a rain shower. As a result, the air is thick and the ball doesn’t seem to carry as much. There have been several hits from Barnes that I thought were going out based on the hard contact, which were held in the park for a warning track fly out, or a double.
Barnes also takes some good routes to balls, and is an all-out player, making a lot of diving plays and hard slides into the bag as he tries to take an extra base. He’s not hitting for a high average, but is showing good plate patience, and he doesn’t look overmatched at the plate. Barnes looks like a guy who could benefit from some time in Altoona at the end of the season, especially since he’s Rule 5 eligible at the end of the year.
Just like Barnes, Ramirez has seen his stock drop due to injuries. He missed some time last year while with West Virginia, and missed the start of the 2015 season with a skin infection, holding him back in extended Spring Training for about a month. This followed a delay during Spring Training where he was held out of action until the end of camp due to conditioning issues. Neither problem seems to be affecting him now.
Ramirez is the second biggest international signing by the Pirates, and for good reason. He’s one of the best pure hitters in the system, and has some gap power to go along with the bat. He’s hitting for a .356/.402/.477 line in 149 at-bats this year, while showing good plate patience and some modest power numbers. The scouting reports on Ramirez have always said he has a weak arm, but that hasn’t been my view this year. He’s got a strong arm in right field, and while it’s not anywhere near Willy Garcia level, it’s strong enough to play the position and stick in center field, which is his natural position. I haven’t seen many runners testing his arm, even on borderline plays.
Ramirez is also Rule 5 eligible this off-season, which will give the Pirates an interesting decision to make. Both he and Barnes are must-protect guys, as they are both top 20 prospects in the system. However, the system is rich with outfield talent, and the 2015 Rule 5 class is crowded, so the Pirates could afford to get creative here and trade from their strength.
Reese McGuire’s Defense
The scouting report on McGuire coming into the year was that he was one of the best defensive catchers in all of minor league baseball, with a bat that showed enough potential to eventually make him a starter, and potentially an All-Star. He has lived up to the hype in both areas.
The defense has been great this year. McGuire shows a lot of agility behind the plate, and is quick to field the ball close to home and make blocks on balls in the dirt when needed. While it’s not tracked at the level, he shows excellent framing skills, getting a lot of called strikes on what look like borderline pitches. The one downside this year is that his caught stealing rate is only at 28%, down from the 40% range he’s been at the last two seasons. He does show off plenty of arm strength, including making one throw from his knees for a perfect strike to second base earlier in the season, getting one of the fastest runners in the league.
Offensively, the bat hasn’t fully come around, although there are noticeable improvements. In his first two months, McGuire had a .240/.294/.273 line in 154 at-bats. Since the start of June he has a .314/.351/.352 line. The power isn’t there, but McGuire makes a ton of hard contact and uses the middle of the field. He might not become a big home run hitter in the future, but he should get a lot of doubles. That gap power, combined with his ability to hit for average and get on base will give him the offense he needs to pair with the solid defense, making him a future starter in the majors.
The one big downside for McGuire this year have been some minor off-field issues. He was benched for a few games earlier in the season after not running out a ground ball. At the start of this month he was relegated to more of a backup role, with Jin-De Jhang getting more time behind the plate, due to what was described as a “coach’s decision”. Neither McGuire nor manager Michael Ryan talked much about the playing time. McGuire is seen as a good character guy, so the two incidents do come as a surprise. He has played well immediately after each incident.
Can JaCoby Jones Stick at Shortstop?
The Pirates have had a trend the last few years of drafting athletic players with good hitting skills and trying them at difficult positions. One of the first big examples of this was JaCoby Jones, who was taken in the third round in 2013 as a center fielder, but was moved to shortstop in 2014. Jones hit for a .288/.347/.503 line in 501 plate appearances last year with West Virginia, raising the possibility that he could be a solid shortstop option — that is, if he could learn the position.
The results this year have been very encouraging, with a noticeable difference for Jones as the year goes on. His athleticism and speed allows him to get to a lot of balls that most shortstops can’t get to. He makes a lot of plays over the middle on harder ground balls. Early in the season his routes were poor, leading to a lot of errors in fielding hits behind the bag, despite getting to those hits. As the season has gone on, his routes have improved, and he is now making the up-the-middle play look smooth.
Jones has the range and arm strength to play shortstop, and his routes and glove work are improving. I think he has a chance to stick at the position for the long-term, although if he doesn’t make it, I think he’d be fine starting at second, with the chance to be a super utility player due to his ability to play center field. His offense has been down this year, mostly due to a poor month of June. He is still striking out too much, with a 26.7% strikeout rate, although his walk rate has gone up slightly. His power has taken a dip from last year, and I think part of that could be the league factors. He’s hitting the ball hard, and showing some good power to all fields. It’s also possible that all of the work he has put in to his defense has taken something away from his offense.
The good news is that the defense has improved a lot this season. Jones still needs to put it all together, but has plenty of time for that to happen.
Injuries in the Rotation and Struggles From Heredia
Coming into the year, the Marauders looked like a team that had future MLB talent at every position. That included the rotation, although a few of the starters at the beginning of the year were left in extended Spring Training. Cody Dickson and Steven Brault were the only two big prospects who opened the year in the rotation, joined by Frank Duncan, Felipe Gonzalez, and eventually Jayson Aquino.
Dickson has struggled with his command at times, but has decent numbers on the season. Brault was fantastic in his time in Bradenton, with his best offering being a sinker that arrives at the knees, and has late cutting action. He has since moved up to Altoona, where he continues to have success.
The big story here lies with the three pitchers who didn’t make the Opening Day rotation. Clay Holmes missed the first three months of the season as he returned from Tommy John surgery. His first outing of the year came last week, and saw him pitch five shutout innings, while sitting in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball. Holmes was a top prospect before his injury, and has looked good in his return from surgery. His progress will be a big thing to follow in the second half.
Tyler Eppler was taken in the sixth round last year out of college, and was given the same push to Bradenton in his first full season that Adrian Sampson and Chad Kuhl received the last two years. Eppler had some elbow issues in Spring Training, and another setback in April. That delayed his Marauders debut until mid-June. He struggled in his first three outings, but has since done well, with a 1.69 ERA in 16 innings, and an 11:5 K/BB ratio over his last three starts.
The biggest disappointment in the rotation has been Luis Heredia. He is the biggest international signing in team history, and looked like he had all of the upside in the world when he was signed in 2010. Since then he has struggled with conditioning issues, several failed mechanical adjustments, and he has had issues finding an out pitch. All of those have been issues this year.
Heredia once again had conditioning issues this year, although not as bad as the issues that held him out in 2013 when he came into camp weighing 280 pounds. He was in much better shape this year, but was held out for the first month and a half of the season. During this time, he reverted to his old overhand delivery, moving away from the three-quarters arm slot that the Pirates had him trying out last year, in an attempt to be a power pitcher. The overhand arm slot had command issues in the past, and he’s dealt with those again this year.
The overhand slot allows Heredia to move back to his 12-to-6 curveball, while moving away from the slurve he had been learning the last two seasons. He can put the curve in the dirt and throw it for strikes at times, but it’s an average offering that doesn’t generate a lot of strikeouts. Heredia does a good job of working down in the zone with his fastball, mixing to both sides of the plate, but still has some mechanical issues to overcome. One of those is a hook in the back of his delivery, where he turns his wrist and elbow, thus adding a bit more torque and more room for error with his command.
The Pirates have been working on removing that, and there were encouraging signs for a bit in June, as he walked just five batters in 28 innings, along with a 3.54 ERA that was inflated by seven runs in 4.2 innings during one outing. However, Heredia has struggled in July, walking six in 10.2 innings, with 12 earned runs in those two starts.
He’s still very young for the level, and is the youngest member of the pitching staff, but he isn’t showing the promise he had several years ago. At this point he looks like your normal projectable pitcher, with the odds of him becoming a top of the rotation guy being extremely low, and no guarantee that he even reaches the majors.
Most relievers in A-ball don’t end up being actual prospects who make the majors. However, there have been two standouts so far in Bradenton this year. The first was Clario Perez, who put up a 1.79 ERA in 50.1 innings with Bradenton, along with a 45:12 K/BB ratio. Perez has always had a low-to-mid 90s fastball, but has lacked a strikeout pitch. He fixed that this year, striking out six more batters than his 2014 totals, despite 18 fewer innings. He has since moved up to Altoona, where he continues pitching well.
Perez moving up opened the door for Montana DuRapau to get promoted from West Virginia. DuRapau was excellent at the level, posting a 1.40 ERA in 19.1 innings, with a 19:1 K/BB ratio. He has been even better since his promotion, posting an 0.59 ERA in 30.1 innings, with a 24:3 K/BB ratio. DuRapau works in the 90-93 MPH range, and commands all four of his pitches well. His best secondary offering has been his cutter, which has led to a lot of success this year. He gets a lot of quick outs, with a 54% ground ball rate. He will be a guy to watch going forward with his low-90s fastball and cutter combo, combined with the strong command and ground ball tendencies.