BRADENTON, Fl. – Clint Hurdle said yesterday that this is the most prospect-laden camp he’s seen since he’s been here. Today, Neal Huntington agreed with that sentiment.
“Certainly since Clint has been here,” Huntington said. “This is the most near-ready group that we’ve had since Clint has been here, both on the mound and position player group. You go back to the McCutchen/Walker [group], that was a fun group as well. As you think about what they can become, this group is in that mix.”
The minor league players in camp have stood out for their strong performances so far, displaying a lot of offense in the second half, and even performing well in the times when they’re going up against MLB guys in the first half.
“They’ve played like they’ve belonged,” Huntington said. “They’ve shown up with consistent quality at-bat after consistent quality at-bat. They’ve not been intimidated by big leaguers. They’ve not been intimidated by the speed of the game. They’ve gone out and done very well so far.”
One thing that has allowed the prospects to get so much playing time this year has been their versatility, which I also wrote about yesterday in the same article.
“You look around the field, and that’s why we haven’t had to bring a lot of minor league guys over to back up Major League guys, because we have so many guys who can play multiple positions,” Huntington said. “It’s a sign of a Major League team that’s becoming better, because it’s harder to break in, in front of Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, or Jung-ho Kang. So for a guy to make his way on to a Major League team, it’s easier for him to make his way on to a Major League team if he can start in a role and earn the something bigger, whether he takes a job or a job becomes available to him because of a move. We want guys that are athletic, but we want baseball players. And we look for the combination there.”
Huntington spent a lot of time discussing prospects in today’s media session. Here were the other notable players and topics.
Max Moroff/Adam Frazier
Max Moroff and Adam Frazier are two guys who are getting a lot of playing time early in camp, thanks in part to their versatility. Moroff can play second, shortstop, and third base, while Frazier has played both middle infield spots and all three outfield spots. Huntington feels that it’s a nice benefit to get them so much time against big league and upper level guys.
“To see those guys step in against guys throwing 98, with secondary pitches to go with it, and have them take nice, calm, composed, poised at-bats, and not try to swing harder because the pitcher is throwing harder,” Huntington said. “They get some confidence that they can play at this level with continued growth and development, and maybe the presentation of opportunity, they’re ready to go.”
Huntington used those two as examples of what the team looks for when they target versatile players, noting that it’s easier for former shortstops to move to different positions, but ultimately, it comes down to the offense.
“We want guys who can hit,” Huntington said. “And that’s what’s been fun about this camp — maybe not for you guys [media] because we’re playing three and a half hour games — but what’s been fun about this camp is the number of quality at-bats our guys are taking, and the discipline and the plan that they’re showing as they go to home plate. The ability to work the count, hit their pitch when they get it, and use the whole field. Those things go hand in hand… We’ve got a lot of guys — Josh Bell and Moroff, or Frazier, or Diaz, or Jake Goebbert — we’ve got a handful of guys who are doing a nice job this spring. And some of our younger guys that I didn’t mention are also doing a nice job.”
Steven Brault was a huge success story last year, coming to the Pirates in the Travis Snider deal almost a year ago, and breaking out to the point where he looks like a MLB depth option in 2016 and a future rotation member just one year later. Huntington discussed what they liked about Brault at the time.
“We were intrigued by a guy that was a two-way player in college, that was left-handed, that had some feel,” Huntington said. “That had the makings of commanding a fastball with average velocity, and at times he’s shown a little bit better than that.”
The athleticism that Brault has, being a former two-way player, is very real. I watched him shagging fly balls in the AFL, and he looked like a natural center fielder with the ground he covered and the routes he ran. He also had some success at the plate in Altoona last year in a limited time.
When Brault was coming over in the deal, he didn’t sound appealing due to the lack of velocity. Typically, a lefty with average velocity would put up strong numbers in the lower levels, then struggle as he moved up. That didn’t turn out to be the case here. Part of that is due to his movement and command, but part is due to the development he has had in the last year.
“He’s developed a changeup since he’s been with us, which is a crucial pitch for a left-handed starter,” Huntington said. “He’s got some angle and deception, and left-handers don’t really seem to get a good look at him, yet right-handers, when he elevates that fastball with intent late in the count, he gets some good swings and misses there. He can put the ball on the ground, and he’s an absolute competitor, and he’s fearless.”
You can read my story on Brault’s changeup here, which he never really threw before last year, since it was a bad pitch, per his words. Overall, Brault lived up to the Pirates’ expectations, and then exceeded them.
“There’s a lot of things that we discovered about him after the fact that we liked going into [the trade],” Huntington said. “We like the athleticism, we like left-handed, we like the two pitches that we had seen at that point in time and thought there was some upside. He’s come in here and done everything we could have hoped, and then some.”
Trevor Williams might fit the same profile as Brault this year. He’s a right-handed pitcher who was throwing 89-93 MPH in his last start in Atlanta, and usually sits in that range, while touching 95 in shorter outings. The velocity isn’t up there with a Jameson Taillon or a Tyler Glasnow, but Williams gets a ton of movement on his fastball, making it extremely difficult. He also has a difficult delivery and arm action for hitters, allowing him to hide the ball longer, as I wrote about during the AFL.
Williams is part of the group of starting prospects who will pitch in Indianapolis at some point this year, although he might not be a guarantee to start at the level.
“He fits right in with that group,” Huntington said. “Now the challenge, we start talking about our guys that move from Double-A to Triple-A, it’s no longer about you graduated. You graduated from A-ball to Double-A. Now it’s a big part about opportunity, and who is in front of you, and does the GM block you because he put somebody in Triple-A ahead of you as Major League depth. We may have some guys that get blocked a little bit out of the gates this year, because we want seven starters.”
Huntington noted that there could be a scenario where they carry all seven starters in the majors, or six in the majors and one in Triple-A, or five and two. You’d have to think that Williams would be a top candidate to start in Altoona — along with Brault — if any of the starting depth gets moved down to Indianapolis. But he’ll eventually make it to Triple-A, and then the majors.
“We think he’s got a very good chance to be a good starter at the Major League level,” Huntington said. “It’s a good pitch arsenal, and a very intelligent, hard-working guy.”
**Huntington was asked about Yeudy Garcia and Max Moroff possibly being a sign of the depth in the system, due to the fact that they were Pitcher and Player of the Year, despite not being ranked that high in most outlets.
“I don’t know that we do a lot of hyping of our guys in our system. We were thrilled with what Yeudy and Max did a year ago, and obviously Max was a guy that we gave a significant signing bonus to out of the draft. Yeudy was a guy that did some very good things, and took an opportunity and excelled with it. I’m sure we probably could have gotten them pushed up in most rankings if we had been aggressive with where we wanted them ranked. But we actually like the external opinions of our system, without us influencing the process at all. We like both of those guys, and we think both of those guys have strong Major League futures.”
**I asked Huntington if they’ve got more tough roster decisions in the lower levels of the minors this year compared to previous years, following up on my article from last night:
“We do think we have some more difficult decisions, and the foundation of those decisions will still be ‘is that player ready?’ Is that player ready to go from A-ball to Double-A? Is that player ready to go from Double-A to Triple-A? From Triple-A to the big leagues? Or from short-season to High-A if it’s an advanced college player? That still is the foundation. And when we have any hesitation whatsoever, we want to be conservative. It’s always much easier to move a guy up if he has a great month, than it is to move a guy down if he struggled because you were aggressive with the placements. That will still come into play. We will still be intelligently conservative, if that makes any sense whatsoever, with our placement with our guys. Because we want them to get off to good starts, we want them to be comfortable. We want them to gain confidence. And again, it’s always better to move a guy up than it is to move a guy down.”