The Pirates added an additional rookie level team in Bristol before the 2014 season, essentially replacing their second DSL team (which went away that year) and moving the extra team up a few levels. Bristol falls between the GCL and Morgantown on the talent scale. The average age is about half a year older in the Appalachian League than the GCL, so there’s not a huge difference between the two levels. They’re both classified as rookie levels, while Morgantown is short-season A-ball.
The Pirates have used this team as a middle ground the last few years. And for the most part, it hasn’t featured a lot of talent. They usually send the following types of players to the level:
**The lower ranked college players from the most recent draft.
**JuCo players from the most recent draft.
**The lower ranked high school players from the previous draft.
**Certain players who are in their second year in the US, graduating from the GCL.
There are some exceptions. Last year saw Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, and Gage Hinsz sent to Bristol, with Morgantown featuring more of the college arms who went on to make up the Bradenton and West Virginia rotations this year. But that was the exception. Most of the players on the teams the last two years have fallen outside of our top 50. The best player in 2014 was Pablo Reyes, who barely makes our top 50 rankings. And outside of those three prep pitchers, the best players on last year’s Bristol teams also fell at the end of the top 50.
It’s the same situation this year. Bristol gets one top prospect in Adrian Valerio, who was held back from full season ball, and was held back from Morgantown by Stephen Alemais. This situation shows the benefits of Bristol. The Pirates can give Valerio everyday shortstop time without an aggressive promotion to A-ball, and without denying shortstop time to another strong defender like Alemais.
As shown with Keller, Hinsz, and Supak, they have also changed their approach with prep pitchers. Previously, those guys would go straight to Morgantown. Now it’s rare for a prep guy to go to Morgantown in his first full season (although that still doesn’t prevent them from West Virginia in their second pro season, as seen with Keller).
As a result of being the “middle ground”, Bristol has very few top prospects. They’ve got one guy who contends for our top 30 list, two more who could contend for the back-end of the top 50, and two or three more who might have an outside shot at the top 50. The rest of the guys are lottery tickets with a low chance of making the majors. Here are the top ten prospects at the level, with reports on each player.
2016 Bristol Pirates Top 10 Prospects
1. Adrian Valerio, SS – The Pirates love defense at shortstop, and Valerio has some of the best in the system. He’s an extremely smooth defender, with plenty of arm strength for shortstop, and great hands. He’d easily be the best defender in the system if it wasn’t for Gift Ngoepe. Long-term, he might be the best guy once he irons out some inconsistencies with his play.
The defense makes him a prospect to watch, but the offense makes him the easy pick for the top prospect in Bristol. He’s got a line drive swing, with the ability to make solid contact and drive the ball to the gaps. He also has a lot of speed, with the ability to get extra bases. His approach at the plate is good, with his walk rate a bit low, but higher than most players out of the Dominican Republic. He’s got the offensive tools to be more than an all-defense guy, but those tools are far more raw than his defense at the moment. He’ll get regular time at shortstop in Bristol, and could move up to West Virginia next year to be the starting shortstop in full-season ball. Behind Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, he’s the next best shortstop prospect in the system.
2. Michael De La Cruz, OF – Two years ago at this time, there were very high expectations from Michael de la Cruz. He was coming off a season in which he was one of the youngest and best players in the DSL. Then he got to the States and a lot went wrong. He missed time with a bad skin rash. He then missed time with an ankle injury, then re-injured it shortly after returning, missing a few more games. He was also dealing with homesickness, something most people don’t consider for a 17-year-old in a foreign county (with a different language) for six months straight.
Over the winter 2014-15, de la Cruz ended up losing about ten pounds off his already small frame, so that wasn’t a good start to his season. He ended up having a solid year in the pitcher-friendly league. He has the speed/range/arm to play a strong center field. At the plate, he’s a line drive hitter, who has occasional pop, which is more like doubles power. De la Cruz also has the ability to steal a lot of bases, he just needs to get on base more often, like he was back in the DSL in 2013 when he had a .436 OBP. – John Dreker
3. Ike Schlabach, LHP – Schlabach is a 19-year-old 6′ 5″ lefty, who the Pirates signed to an over-slot deal ($150,000 in the 19th round) last year. He’s the top starter to watch on this team, though he’s still in the early stages of his development. Schlabach was sitting 89-90 this spring with the fastball, mixing in a nice slider with good results, commanding both pitches well. He’s a tall pitcher from the left side with an unconventional delivery, which leads to some uncomfortable at-bats from hitters. He should be able to add velocity in the future as he continues to fill out, which gives him a strong upside. He threw six different pitches in high school, but the Pirates like young pitchers to concentrate on fastball command and developing their changeup. That doesn’t always lead to the best results, as hitters are seeing an abundance of fastballs, but the development of the pitcher is more important than the results at this level. – John Dreker
4. Blake Cederlind, RHP – Cederlind has a good fastball, sitting 92-95 MPH and touching 97. He does have control problems, which is why a guy with his velocity can drop to the fifth round. His velocity really improved in the last two years, originally sitting at 90 MPH. So there’s hope that he could continue his rapid improvement going forward and add some command with the new velocity.
Cederlind doesn’t have a good secondary pitch, with his curveball being a work in progress, and a feel for a changeup. He saved some slot money for the Pirates, while giving them a high velocity arm. He should get plenty of innings in the Bristol rotation to develop, although he’s got a long ways to go to be considered a starting prospect. He has one of the best arms at the level, which gets him the high ranking.
5. Brent Gibbs, C – Gibbs is a strong defensive catcher, with a very good arm and great receiving skills. He’s projected to stick at catcher for the long-term, which isn’t always a guarantee for a guy entering pro ball from any level. He’s a bit older for a JuCo player, turning 22 at the end of the year. He also doesn’t have much experience, spending one of his years in college as a red-shirt at Indiana. So there are a lot of raw skills in play here, with the defense looking promising.
The offense was good this year, with a .396/.497/.590 line, although this came in a hitter friendly environment, and against younger competition. The bat is questionable going forward, with scouts questioning whether he can make consistent contact going forward. He does have good plate patience. If the offense can catch up to the defense, Gibbs will give the Pirates another catching prospect to watch in the lower levels.
6. Raul Siri, 2B – Siri had a terrific rookie season in the DSL in 2014, tying the league record with 25 doubles. He’s small, but he showed some pop in his bat, along with a good eye at the plate, above average speed and strong defense at second base. He got off to an incredible start in the GCL last year, then after ten games, looked like a completely different player. He received a late promotion to Bristol and got in eight games at the level last year.
Siri turns 22 in October and he’s one of the smaller players in the system, so there will be doubts about his upside. If he returns to the player they saw in the DSL and the first ten days of the GCL, then he should hit for average, mix in some extra-base hits, steal 15-20 bases, and give Bristol a strong glove at second base. – John Dreker
7. John Pomeroy, RHP – Pomeroy is an interesting prospect, just because he’s almost a blank slate. He only pitched 14.1 innings in three years in relief at Oregon State, with a 14:14 K/BB ratio. He can sit 91-94 MPH and touch 96 in shorter outings, with a good downhill plane. He also has a big frame at 6′ 5″, 210 pounds. He pairs the fastball with a slider, which is still developing and has been below-average.
The reason for the lack of innings is the total lack of control seen by Pomeroy, who struggles repeating his mechanics. If the Pirates can get him fixed, they’ve got a high upside arm who could be a relief pitching option, or a starting option if he can learn to maintain his velocity over longer outings. They obviously like him, as they gave him $100,000 as a 13th round pick, which is the maximum you can give a guy after the 10th round without it counting against your bonus pool.
8. Yoel Gonzalez, C – Gonzalez has always been one of the youngest players in the league because he had to wait until his 16th birthday on August 1, 2012 to sign his contract. Most July 2nd signings are already 16 or older on July 2nd and can sign that day. Gonzalez got $350,000 due to his strong defense and a line drive approach at the plate, which was called raw at the time.
The defense has been good and he has a strong arm, but his career .190/.265/.251 slash line in three seasons shows that the offense still needs a lot of work. The Pirates moved him quickly to the GCL, then he repeated the level last year and the results were worse in the second season. He should split the catching duties fairly evenly with Brent Gibbs. – John Dreker
9. Julio De La Cruz, 3B – Some of the best reports from Extended Spring Training were about de la Cruz’s offense. He’s repeating the same level, though he also has first round draft pick Will Craig in his way at third base for Morgantown. De la Cruz signed for $700,000 in 2012 and he’s rarely shown glimpses of why the Pirates thought so highly of him. His defense at third base is below average, and he’s not fast, so all of his value will come from the bat. He’s a .225 career hitter in three seasons, and he doesn’t draw many walks, or hit for power yet. This could be the season we see him reach his potential if his spring carries over, or it could just be another season in which we wonder where the Pirates went wrong with him. – John Dreker
10. Garrett Brown, OF – Brown is another raw college player, due to taking two years off to play football. He’s very athletic, playing running back, wide receiver, kick returner, and quarterback in his time playing football. On the baseball diamond, he has plus-plus speed, but is very raw, due to only having 40 combined at-bats before the 2016 season. He did show promise in 2016, with a .321/.370/.435 line in 262 at-bats, along with four homers and 34 steals in 42 attempts.
The Pirates have taken some all-speed guys in the past, and none of them have worked out above A-ball. Brown seems like he could be different, since he’s not a small player who gets by only on speed. He’s very athletic, and showed promise in his first full season. His age (22 years old already) brings questions about how much his other tools will develop, but his athleticism at least gives him a chance, and his speed makes him an interesting guy to follow. As a 23rd round pick, he’s a big lottery ticket.
Other Notable Prospects
It was a bit of a struggle getting a top ten list for this team, so there aren’t many guys who could be considered prospects beyond the group above. Victor Fernandez has been a speedy guy in the past, but has lost some of his speed the last two years, which takes away his big appeal. Nicholas Economos was drafted last year in the 21st round, and received a lot of innings in the GCL. He came in with reports that he could hit 93 MPH, but was mostly in the upper-80s. He should still get some innings here, but the fact that he’s in Bristol a year after being drafted out of college isn’t a good sign. Jhoan Herrera has a lot of power potential, and will be playing first base, but needs to hit a lot to justify prospect status, since his size doesn’t allow for another position, and his power has been on the raw side so far.