Out of the three Pirates short-season affiliates, the GCL team easily has the most upside. A big reason for this is due to the approach in the 2016 draft, where the Pirates drafted four prep pitchers in the top 11 rounds. Two of those pitchers have signed, and will be pitching out of the rotation. The other two are expected to join them eventually, assuming they sign, which I think is a safe assumption. That gives the Pirates a good core of young starters at the level, and that’s without even getting into the guys coming up from the DSL.
Along with the prep pitchers, the Pirates feature some toolsy hitting prospects, led by Yondry Contreras, who was signed for $400,000 in 2014, but struggled in his pro debut last year. He has since improved his game, and could be a guy to watch this year. Edison Lantigua is another outfielder to watch, returning to the GCL for a second year in a row after injuries may have hurt his performance last year. There’s also Melvin Jimenez, an athletic middle infielder, and Victor Ngoepe, the brother of Gift Ngoepe, to make things interesting. Add to this a few hard throwers coming up from the DSL, and this team has a lot of young talent.
With the other affiliates, we got past the top five picks and were ranking guys who didn’t project as much more than lower level organizational depth. That wasn’t the case here. We didn’t include Max Kranick and Nick Lodolo in our top ten (although we did include where they would be if they signed), and even then, we didn’t have a difficult time coming up with ten names for this list. The GCL team will be fun to watch this year, especially if/when the remaining prep pitchers sign. For now, here are the top prospects at the level, and reports on each player.
2016 GCL Pirates Top 10 Prospects
1. Braeden Ogle, LHP – Ogle has plenty of velocity, not only for his age, but for a left-handed pitcher. He sits 91-93 MPH and touches as high as 96. He’s got a tall, projectable frame at 6′ 5″, 190 pounds, which could allow him to see an increase in that velocity in the future, possibly sitting in the mid-90s. He also throws a hard curveball and a changeup, with the curveball needing to be more consistent. The biggest issue is that he has command problems, often sitting flat and up in the zone from over-throwing his pitches. He’s a project at this point, just like every other 2016 prep pitcher the Pirates selected. However, a left-hander with his current velocity and room to grow, plus the makings of a good breaking pitch, is a good combination for future success. The Pirates will need to clean up his delivery, specifically getting him to the point where he can throw with velocity without over-throwing and getting wild. They’ve had success with this in the past, which is a good sign for Ogle.
(Un-signed) Max Kranick, RHP – Kranick was taken last out of the prep pitchers who are expected to sign, and he’s currently one of two left un-signed. He sits in the low-90s with his fastball, touching 95. He’s projected to have good control after ironing out his delivery. He doesn’t have a good secondary pitch, but shows promise with his changeup, and has the potential for his curveball to be average to above average. Just like the other prep pitchers, the appeal here is the velocity, and the hope that everything else can develop to be just as good. Kranick has a head start in the velocity department, and the future control and off-speed stuff looks promising, giving him an edge over the other two on this list.
(Un-signed) Nick Lodolo, LHP – Lodolo is a huge lefty, at 6′ 6″, 180 pounds, and has plenty of projection in his frame. He usually sits in the upper 80s, but can hit 92, and there were reports that he was ticking up with his stuff toward the end of the year. He does a good job of commanding the pitch and keeping the ball down, getting a lot of ground balls. His curveball gets mixed reviews, with the chance that it could be a plus offering in the future. There are some concerns that his arm slot is too low to add velocity. He’s seen as the most difficult guy to sign from this group, but has already begun negotiations with the Pirates.
2. Travis MacGregor, RHP – MacGregor saw an increase in his velocity throughout the season, going from the upper 80s, to sitting 90-92 MPH and touching 94 by the end of the year. His rating in the national rankings was lower than the other three pitchers, although that could have been impacted by when he was seen by those outlets. He’s got a changeup and curveball, which could both become average pitches in the future. The big factor here is how much he’s improved in such a short amount of time, and how much he could continue to improve going forward. The Pirates got plenty of looks at him, and liked the improvements he made throughout the year. If that trend continues, he’ll be another prep arm to watch.
3. Yondry Contreras, OF – I got a chance to see Contreras in the DSL last year, and the results weren’t good. He was a free swinger, leading to a 36.4% strikeout rate and poor offensive numbers. The reports we’ve received since then have been much better. He wasn’t invited to the Fall Instructional League — usually a sign that a player will remain in the DSL another year — but came to Spring Training after improving his game, and continued the improvements in extended Spring Training. He’s got the chance to be a good hitter who will have plate patience issues, due to his tendency to swing at a lot of pitches. He has strong defense, with good range in center field and one of the strongest arms in the lower levels. The total package is similar to where Starling Marte was coming out of the DSL, although Marte’s rise to an impact MLB player was more the exception than the rule. Contreras will need to continue the improvements he’s seen with his offensive game to get close to Marte’s level.
4. Edison Lantigua, OF – This will be the second year in the GCL for Lantigua, who didn’t have the best results last time around, posting a .207/.250/.306 line in 121 at-bats. He does have good contact skills, with a line drive stroke and the ability to get on base. He’s got the range to play center field, but fits better in a corner spot, and won’t be playing much center field with Contreras at the same level. He also has a strong arm, which could put him in line for right field. One thing to note is that he had a few minor injuries last year, including a thumb injury, which might have impacted his numbers. He finished stronger in August, posting a .717 OPS, and the reports on him since then have been good. We’ll get a chance this year to see how much those injuries might have impacted his performance. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that was the case, as the hitting tools are definitely there.
5. Brian Sousa, RHP – Sousa had the chance to be the best prospect out of the DSL last year for the Pirates, but two different shoulder injuries limited him to five starts. He wasn’t even invited to the Fall Instructional League last year due to health, but came back this season and looks like the prospect the Pirates saw early last year. The 6′ 3″, 18-year-old righty from Panama throws low-90s on a nice downward plane, with an advanced feel for pitching. Despite his age, he has already put in two seasons of winter ball in Panama playing against much older competition and he held his own each time. Sousa had a huge ground ball rate last year during his limited time, posting a 3.44 GO/AO ratio. That rate is usually higher for pitchers in the DSL than at the higher levels, but that’s still extremely impressive. – John Dreker
6. Melvin Jimenez, SS – Jimenez is a 20-year-old, switch-hitting infielder, who was named the team MVP last year for the DSL Pirates. He has excellent plate patience and the ability to hit line drives all around the field. Jimenez is an above average runner as well. He is small, so power won’t be part of his game, but he doesn’t try to hit homers. Basically, he knows his limitations and doesn’t try to do too much. In the field, he had an incredible season at shortstop, committing two errors in 35 games. That’s from a player on the rough DSL fields, surrounded by DSL players on defense. For perspective, Adrian Valerio (see Bristol preview) made 19 errors in 59 games in the DSL and he’s a plus-plus defender. I’m not comparing Jimenez to Valerio, but I will say that he could be an above average shortstop, who also saw his share of time at second base and third base. – John Dreker
7. Miguel Hernandez, RHP – Among the starters for the DSL Pirates last year, Hernandez had the best fastball, sitting 93-94 MPH. He’s a 20-year-old, 6′ 5″, righty with a slider and a changeup for his off-speed pitchers. As a rookie last year, he had strong results, keeping runs off the board and getting a lot of ground balls. His big issue last year was that he didn’t attack hitters and tried to get fancy with two strikes. He could blow two fastballs by a hitter to get him 0-2, then try to get the hitter to chase a couple sliders out of the zone. If he learns to trust his stuff more and attack hitters, then he could take off. Hernandez also has room to fill out, so we could see an uptick in velocity. He will be a regular in the rotation this season and someone to watch. He didn’t have a strong finish to spring, showing a lack of control in his last start, but that’s unusual for him. – John Dreker
8. Mikell Granberry, C – Granberry will be catching and playing first base this season. His defense behind the plate last year went through a really bad spell when his pitchers were doing a poor job of holding on runners early in the season. That led to Granberry rushing throws and getting his mechanics behind the plate out of whack as the stolen bases piled up. He spent some time at first base to give him a mental break and that experience has made him more versatile. He’s faster and more athletic than your normal catcher. This spring he has shown improvements defensively at both positions. His bat is solid, but obviously works better as a catcher than a first baseman. He went through a tough spell at the plate adjusting to the pitching in the U.S., but has been hitting well the last couple weeks. – John Dreker
9. Domingo Robles, LHP – He almost didn’t make our list because the reports last year were that he was sitting 87-88 MPH in each start. We have a thing about soft-tossing lefties with good control, as they tend to have a lot more success at the lower levels than right-handed pitchers who also sit in the low-80s and throw strikes. Robles has kicked it up a notch this spring, now sitting 89-90 MPH and he has touched 92 MPH in the past. He throws on a downward plane, attacks hitters by pounding the strike zone, and he has a changeup and a curveball that both have potential to be average or better. Robles just turned 18 at the end of April, and his 6′ 2″ frame has room to fill out, so he could add more velocity as he gets older. – John Dreker
10. Julian Villamar, RHP – A real sleeper prospect as a reliever, Villamar throws hard and mixes that mid-90s fastball with a plus curve, giving him a strong two-pitch mix. His issue has always been his control and he showed some improvements with that last year compared to his first season in the DSL. The reports from this spring are that he looks even better this year. If he can maintain those improvements, or continue to get better, then he could be someone who moves quickly through the system. Last year he pitched a lot in extended relief outings, getting up to four innings once and three innings on four occasions. As long as he’s throwing strikes, I’d expect more of the same this year. – John Dreker
Other Notable Prospects
The Pirates signed prep right-hander Nathan Trevillian in the 22nd round last year, and signed him for $100,000. He hasn’t pitched yet, and won’t pitch this year, due to having Tommy John surgery in December. Chris Plitt is another 2015 pick who showed some promise last year, with an easy delivery and a steep downhill fastball, plus plenty of room to add velocity. However, he’s dealing with a UCL sprain, and might not pitch this year. Victor Ngoepe is the younger brother of Gift Ngoepe, and like his older brother, also shows off some impressive skills at shortstop. Gift is a shorter player with a thicker build, while Victor is taller and very skinny. It will be interesting to see how the younger Ngoepe develops, and whether his defensive skills at shortstop can carry him as far as his older brother. If we’re going on name value, Mister Luciano is the top prospect at the level.