This past week was the first full week of the minor league season, and gives us our first week of full results for the Top Performers feature. A week isn’t much of a sample size for any player, as it usually amounts to one good start from a pitcher, or a few good games from a position player. We use this feature to highlight certain prospects, and use their good performances as an excuse to discuss their upside in greater detail.
One thing you might notice here is that we’ve got a lot of the same names from last week. This will happen throughout the year, and it’s obviously a good thing. Showing up in this article one week isn’t notable, due to the sample size issues. Showing up in this article every week, or at least most weeks, is what you want to see, especially from top prospects.
So far, there have been several top prospects who have made the list the first two weeks, including those two important pitchers in the Triple-A rotation, who could likely be up by the middle of the 2016 season.
Here is our rundown of the top performers this week, with notes and observations from our live coverage in Indianapolis, Altoona, Bradenton, and West Virginia.
Alen Hanson – Hanson has been a slow starter, so his .381/.409/.571 slash line through five games is a great sign. He’s making solid contact, but the success might be just due to the small sample size and a lot of luck with his BABIP. He has one walk and ten strikeouts in 21 at-bats, so while the slash line is great, that strikeout total is very bad. Hanson had shown off his speed this season with two triples and two steals. He has also shown off some impressive work in the field. Indianapolis is using a shift for right-handed batters where three fielders are on the left side of second base. Hanson has made some tough plays to his right, which were basically plays made from the shortstop position. So he is showing off the speed and defense, while hitting the ball well early on. If he can cut down on the strikeouts, and maybe draw a few more walks, then we are talking about someone who is Major League ready. – John Dreker
Ke’Bryan Hayes – Hayes hit .304/.333/.522 this week and impressed with his gap power, hitting five doubles. He had just six extra-base hits in 56 games last year, so the fact that he almost matched that total in one week while playing as a 19-year-old in the SAL is quite impressive. He has walked only once this year, but it’s still early and he has a good approach at the plate, so they should come as the season goes along. The important part is that he’s showing power at a young age while striking out six times in 35 at-bats, so he’s hitting the ball well without changing his approach. As advertised, the defense has been solid early on. – JD
Kevin Newman – Newman definitely embraces the Pirates’ philosophy of using the middle and opposite fields, with most of his hits this week going to center or right field. He’s a guy who just hits. I got a chance to see him this weekend over three games, and he reached base safely eight times in 13 plate appearances. Only one of his hits went for extra bases, although a lot of them were hard hit balls that went right to fielders. With his speed, he should get a lot of extra base hits this season. I’ve talked with scouts who noticed that Newman has more power in his swing when he shortens his stance, but he goes with a wider stance in games, leading to more consistent contact, while sacrificing power. Defensively, he’s got some work to do, especially when working on his first step quickness. He did make one error this week, although that came as a result of trying to make a throw before he had the ball in his glove. He does look like a guy who could stick at shortstop, and the overall package could end up as a starting shortstop in the majors. – Tim Williams
Gift Ngoepe – The Pirates were able to retain Pedro Florimon this week, strengthening their depth at shortstop. Previously, it looked like Ngoepe would be the guy who would be called up if Jordy Mercer went down. Now, he has competition. Ngoepe had an .839 OPS this week, thanks to two big games where he combined to go 5-for-8 with three doubles. In his other five games this season, he has gone without a hit. Ngoepe will never be an offensive threat, but the hope is that he can hit enough to get his defense to the majors. With Florimon back in the mix, the bat becomes even more important for Ngoepe this season if he wants to reach Pittsburgh. – TW
Tito Polo – Polo batted .348/.400/.435 this week and he has a nine-game hit streak to start the season. His stats this year are terrific already and he actually lost a homer and a stolen base, so they could be better. The non-homer hit off the foul pole and was called foul, while the stolen base just wasn’t recorded by the official scorer after Polo doubled, then scored two pitches later on a single. In between he stole third, yet didn’t get credit, as there is no record of him going to third before the single. Polo has six extra-base hits and has struck out just six times in 37 at-bats. He has also picked up three outfield assists while spending most of his time in center field. He’s basically showing off that five-tool potential early this season, checking off each category. – JD
Pablo Reyes – It’s going to be difficult for some prospects to get playing time in Bradenton this year. Reyes is a guy who we had just inside our top 50 in the pre-season, and he was out the first few games of the year, simply due to all the strong middle infield prospects ahead of him. He’s getting time at second, short, and center field, along with the DH spot. And when he’s playing, he’s making the most of his time. This week, he posted a 1.061 OPS in 20 plate appearances, with a double and a home run. He might have the most power potential of any middle infielder in the system. He’s been inconsistent in the past, often trying to play too much into that power game. More consistency this year could keep getting him playing time, although with Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer in the middle infield, he might need to find more of that time in the outfield. – TW
Jason Rogers – Rogers isn’t a prospect. He has too much service time, and even if he didn’t, he’d be too old to consider. That doesn’t even consider that he’s expected to put up an .857 OPS in Triple-A, which he did last week, after doing so well in the majors last year. I’m mentioning him here because with Michael Morse gone, the Pirates will need another bat off the bench soon. They’re currently carrying one extra reliever, and when they switch back, Rogers appears to be the guy who will get the call to the majors. David Freese will soon take over as the right-hander in the first base platoon, and Rogers will be stuck as the number two option there, and at least the number three option at third base. So he will have trouble finding playing time, but should be a nice bat off the bench. – TW
Erich Weiss – Weiss doesn’t have a lot of home run power, with just seven homers in his two full seasons in pro ball. He does hit for a lot of extra base hits, showing good gap power, and a good ability to make contact. This past week, he connected with two doubles and two triples for Altoona. His average is lower than usual in the early part of the season, but he’s still getting on base, and showing some good power numbers in the form of extra bases. He’s not a guy who will overwhelm you, but is a guy who fits the average/OBP mold the Pirates like, and could find a spot in the majors as a utility infielder in the future. – TW
JT Brubaker – Brubaker makes this list for the second week in a row. This time around, he made two starts, combining to give up three runs in 11 innings, with a 12:2 K/BB ratio. The first start was excellent, with six shutout innings, one hit allowed, two walks, and six strikeouts. The second outing wasn’t as good, with three runs on eight hits in five innings, although he still struck out six and didn’t walk anyone. Brubaker is one of the top pitchers in West Virginia, sitting 90-93 MPH and touching 94, along with an advanced changeup and a promising out pitch. If he continues pitching this way, he could move up to Bradenton by mid-season. – TW
Tyler Eppler – Eppler’s first start of the year was praised a few times by Altoona manager Joey Cora for being one of the only outings where the starter had good control numbers. He followed that up with an even better start this week, going six innings, and allowing one run on two hits, with no walks and six strikeouts. The Pirates have given Eppler an aggressive push, moving him up to Altoona in his second full season, even after missing some time last year. He’s got a big frame, and a fastball that can touch 96, usually sitting 90-94. The key for his development this year will be his new slurve turning into a strikeout pitch. So far, that has produced good results. He’s also doing a great job at generating ground balls, improving on his average numbers from last year. – TW
Tyler Glasnow – Glasnow made his second start last week and had terrific results, allowing one run over five innings, with no walks and nine strikeouts. From the second inning, until two outs in the fifth, he was dominating with a fastball that sat 94-96 and a devastating curve that he was throwing for strikes. Batters were helpless against both pitches. This outing was far from perfect though, as his pitch count was high and he wasn’t using his changeup. Those are two issues that he dealt with last year in Triple-A, when he was getting strong results as well. His command was excellent in this game after the first inning, which he needed 24 pitches to get through. Batters had no chance against the curve, as it buckled some knees and got some weak swings by hitters who were fooled. Glasnow had good body language in this game, even with runners on base. That’s important to note, because he’s had a tendency to get flustered easily, walking around the mound and taking time between pitches. He isn’t far from Major League ready pitching the way he did this week. He will need to use his changeup more often, even if he ends up getting some poor results at first. It’s better to work on the pitch in Triple-A and take some lumps, as opposed to getting to the majors and finding out that you can rarely get by with just two pitches. – JD
Clay Holmes – In his first game, Holmes allowed six runs and had trouble with his curve. The curve wasn’t working early in his second game, but once he started throwing it for strikes, he had all three pitches working, leading to a strong six inning outing on 79 pitches. Holmes was sitting 92-94 with his fastball and throwing it for strikes consistently down in the zone. His curve and change were also getting strong results in the second half of the outing and he mixed the pitches well, limiting Richmond to one run on five hits and one walk, with five strikeouts. There wasn’t much hard contact from the opposing hitter, as he kept the ball down well, leading to an 11:0 GO/AO ratio. Holmes has the upside of a middle of the rotation MLB starter, who should be able to handle 200 innings a season. It’s his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, plus he moved up a level, so there will probably be some bumps in the road like his first start. The three-pitch mix is there for future success and this year will be about building up his innings and working on consistency so we see more outings like his second start. – JD
Mitch Keller – Keller pitched twice this week and threw ten shutout innings. He gave up five hits, walked none and struck out 13 batters. As good as those numbers sound, he may have pitched better than they indicate. Of those five hits he allowed, three were from bunts and one was just a grounder that found a hole in the infield. On Monday, he was unhittable, as Greenville hitters couldn’t even put the bat on the ball, leading to seven straight strikeouts at one point and ten in the contest. On Saturday, Lexington hitters were making weak contact for easy outs, as he breezed through five innings just shy of 50 pitches. Keller is on a limit of five innings or 75 pitches this season, whichever comes first. He has been hitting 96 MPH consistently, a tick up from last year, and has looked strong at the end of each outing. It’s still very early, but we could be seeing a breakout season from a 20-year-old with big upside. – JD
Edgar Santana – I got an extended look at Santana on Sunday, seeing him over four shutout innings in Bradenton. He had a 94-96 MPH fastball that was down in the zone, getting ahead of hitters and leading to a lot of ground balls. His slider was also an effective pitch, generating a few swings and misses. He mostly relied on easy contact and ground ball outs in this outing, and was extremely efficient, with just 40 pitches. He’s thrown 109 pitches in 11 shutout innings this year, so that 10 pitch per inning average has been pretty consistent. After the game, I spoke with an NL scout who really liked his stuff, and wondered why he wasn’t starting. The Pirates plan on keeping him in a long-relief role now, and his fastball/slider combo could allow him to move quickly, making it to Double-A at some point this season. – TW
Jameson Taillon – When a player takes the mound in a regular season game for the first time in two years, you don’t expect him to look better than before. That’s what happened with Taillon in his debut. He allowed one run over six innings, with no walks and five strikeouts. Since he last pitched a regular season game, Taillon made some adjustments in his mechanics and got into better shape. He came out throwing strikes, with good downward action on his fastball, which was sitting 92-94 MPH all game. He was also very effective with his curve, using it as an out pitch. He didn’t run into any trouble until the sixth inning, and even then he limited the damage. Of his 85 pitches, 58 went for strikes. There were no sign of any nerves and he looked focused the entire game, working quickly throughout. It’s only one start, but it was very encouraging to see him pitch like someone who looks Major League ready at this point. – JD
Brandon Waddell – I haven’t had a chance to see Waddell yet during the season, although that will change tonight. So far, he’s off to a great start, combining for 11 shutout innings over two starts. His start last week saw him throwing six shutout innings, with a walk and three hits, and three strikeouts. Waddell isn’t a big strikeout guy, mostly relying on deception and command of his five pitches. He’s an advanced pitcher, which is why the Pirates gave him a push to Bradenton in his first full season. If this performance continues, and if the aggressive movement they showed with Tyler Eppler last year continues, then Waddell could end up in Altoona by the end of the 2016 season. – TW