The West Virginia Black Bears (referred to from here on out as Morgantown, to avoid confusion with the West Virginia Power) began their 2016 season last night. This year’s team features the top college draft picks from the 2016 draft, along with the top players coming up from the short-season leagues last year.
The two highlights this year are first round pick Will Craig, who is easily the top prospect at the level, and right-handed pitcher Luis Escobar, who has the highest upside of any pitcher in short-season ball, possibly even including the prep pitchers who were just drafted.
Beyond Craig and Escobar, there is a big drop off in talent. Those two easily make our top 50, with Craig easily ending up in the top 30 rankings, and Escobar easily fitting into the top 50. The rest of the team is composed of guys who will be battling for a spot in the back half of the top 50 with good performances this year.
That’s not to say that there’s no potential here for good prospects. It’s just that these guys are all so new to pro ball, and all of their value right now is based on limited performance and untapped potential. Some of these players will move higher in the rankings with good performances. Last year’s team started with Brandon Waddell and Edgar Santana (both currently in Altoona) and Dovydas Neverauskas (currently in Indianapolis).
We tend to put more focus at this level on the tools, rather than the stats. A lot of these players haven’t played in pro ball yet, and haven’t played this late into a season. So it’s really hard to judge someone based on their numbers in this league (Example: Kevin Newman had a .620 OPS at the level last year, compared to a .922 OPS in Bradenton this year). The tools give a better idea of where players could go in the future, and most of the players here are at an age where the tools could rapidly develop in just a few months.
Don’t expect regular playing time from a lot of the guys at this level. Since a lot of them are playing deeper than they ever have in a season, the Pirates won’t have them playing daily as they would in a full season league. This is the expected lineup and rotation, but other players could factor into this mix.
C – Arden Pabst (Kevin Krause will get time here, along with RF and DH)
1B – Albert Baur (Will split time with fellow 2015 pick Jordan George, with the other getting time at DH)
2B – Trae Arbet (Expect 2016 picks Hunter Owen and Kevin Mahala to get middle infield time)
SS – Stephen Alemais (Might get more playing time than most)
3B – Will Craig (Should get more playing time than most)
LF – Ty Moore (Matt Diorio will factor into the corner spots)
CF – Sandy Santos
RF – Clark Eagan
DH – Jordan George (Krause, Baur, and others will get time here)
SP – Stephan Meyer, James Marvel, Luis Escobar, Cam Vieaux, Dylan Prohoroff (Other rotation candidates, or guys who will get innings are Bill Roth, Neil Kozikowski, Matt Anderson, and a few other 2016 draft picks)
Here is a rundown of our top ten prospects at the level, with a big disclaimer that there is a big drop off after number two, and another drop off after number three. All three of our rankings (John Dreker, Wilbur Miller, and myself) had different grades for prospects 4-10, and there were four other players beyond that who got at least one top 10 vote (with some getting ranked as high as 5-7). So it’s safe to say that if we’re doing tiers, Craig would be the first tier, Escobar the second, Alemais the third, and everyone else listed below would be in tier 4, ranking in the top 75-100 prospects in the system, with a shot to crack the top 50 by the end of the year.
2016 West Virginia Black Bears Top 10 Prospects
1. Will Craig, 3B – The Pirates took Craig in the first round with the 22nd overall pick. He’s a big guy for third base, at 6′ 3″, 235 pounds. Because of that size, he doesn’t project to stick at the position in the long-term, instead projecting as a future first baseman or a designated hitter. For now, Craig says he will rely on his baseball IQ and his arm strength (he was a pitcher in college who could hit 94 MPH) at the position. He has excellent strike zone control, with low strikeouts and high walk totals. He also makes strong contact.
There’s no need to move Craig from third base this year, since there is no competition in Morgantown. He could move up to West Virginia by the end of the year, at which point the positioning would become interesting, with Ke’Bryan Hayes also at third base, and projected to stick at the position long-term. Aside from third base, a big question is whether Craig’s power will carry over to pro ball and wooden bats. If it doesn’t, he could still have a future as a high average/high OBP first baseman. If it does, then the Pirates added an impact bat here. We might not get the answer to that question in Morgantown, since the NYPL is a pitcher friendly league, and Craig is one of many players playing deeper into the year than he ever has before. Either way, he will be the hitter to watch this year.
2. Luis Escobar, RHP – I thought Escobar was going to be our big sleeper this year. We ranked him 48th overall in our pre-season rankings, which is a spot where we add the guys who don’t have their skills refined enough to be ranked higher, but have the upside needed to move much higher in the rankings in the future. Then, Keith Law rated him 12th overall in the system, and it felt weird calling him a sleeper at that point. Escobar still is a sleeper, and that #12 ranking only makes sense if he puts everything together.
He’s not the tallest pitcher in the system, at 6′ 1″, 155 pounds. However, he has an electric fastball that sits 91-93 MPH and hits 95 consistently. He also has a curveball that has plus potential if he can get consistent with his release point, and the feel for a changeup. The stuff is excellent, and only projects to get better for a guy who just turned 20 a few weeks ago. The big issue is that he lacks command, looking extremely wild at times. This comes from his delivery having a lot of moving parts, making it hard to repeat. He has more upside than any pitcher on the team, and it will be interesting to see how the command issues look, and whether they improve over his brief time in Morgantown last year, which saw a 14.3% walk rate in two starts.
3. Stephen Alemais, SS – Early in the college season, it looked like Alemais cold be a first round pick. He was one of the best defensive infielders in the 2016 draft class out of college, and projects to stick at shortstop for the long-term. However, his bat didn’t develop as expected, and he dropped to the Pirates in the third round. The pick is interesting, as he could have a lot more value than a third rounder if his bat improves in pro ball. It’s also interesting because the Pirates have no shortage of shortstop prospects, with Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker ahead of him.
Alemais does have good command of the strike zone, with low strikeouts and a lot of walks. He also has a lot of speed, with 46 stolen bases in his last two years in college. He hit for average and got on base, but had no power. The biggest question in pro ball is whether he can continue hitting for average as a singles hitter. Newman is a guy who is valuable for his ability to hit for average and get on base, along with his speed. The difference between Newman and Alemais is that Newman can drive the ball to the gaps and projects to get a lot of doubles in the future. Once again, we might not get the answers to Alemais’ bat this year, since the NYPL is a very pitcher friendly league.
4. Cam Vieaux, LHP – I wouldn’t project anyone to be the next Brandon Waddell in the sense of moving up quickly through the system like Waddell did in the last year. The 2015 draft pick made it to Double-A less than a year after he was drafted, even though he doesn’t have the best fastball velocity, and doesn’t have great secondary stuff. I don’t think Cam Vieaux can move as quickly as Waddell, but he does have similar stuff and a similar ability to find success without the best stuff.
Vieaux throws his fastball in the 88-93 MPH range, although most reports had him closer to the lower end of that range, touching 93. He has average secondary stuff, with a solid changeup, a slider, and a curve. Like Waddell, he commands his stuff well, and does a good job of mixing up his pitches to make up for his lack of swing-and-miss stuff. This exact same profile worked for Waddell. It also has worked for Steven Brault. So the Pirates clearly value this profile in a left-hander. But it’s not always a recipe for success, and there’s no guarantee Vieaux will be the next Brault or Waddell.
5. Bill Roth, RHP – I’ve been high on Roth in the past, and my ranking of him usually pushes him higher up on lists like this. He has seen his velocity increase over the years, to the point where he’s consistently sitting 93-96 MPH. The downside has been that he has lacked control, with some high walk totals. That hasn’t improved this year. Roth was promoted to West Virginia a few weeks ago, but posted a 10.6 BB/9 in relief, and has since been moved back down. He should pitch out of the bullpen in Morgantown, but will get a lot of innings, and might factor into the rotation at times.
The big appeal here is obviously the fastball velocity, although Roth also has a big breaking curveball and a circle change that improved last year. If he could get command of his fastball, he’d be right up there with Escobar. A key difference between Roth and Escobar is that Roth is a year older, and his command is worse, making it less likely that he breaks out as a top prospect any time soon. We’ll see how his stuff improves this year, but he’s already not off to the best start with his time in West Virginia.
6. James Marvel, RHP – The Pirates drafted Marvel last year in the 36th round, and gave him an above-slot $150,000 bonus to get him to sign as a junior out of Duke. That was significant, as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, and might have had a chance to improve his value this year to go in the top ten rounds as a senior (at which point he probably wouldn’t receive a big bonus, due to having no leverage). The Pirates got aggressive and gave him top ten round money, while working him back from his surgery.
He will be pitching out of the Morgantown rotation this year, making his debut tonight (Saturday). I’ve seen him a few times this year, only once in an Extended Spring Training game and a few other times in bullpens, live batting practice, and a sim game. The biggest thing that stands out is that hitters drive the ball into the ground against Marvel. He’s a tall, skinny pitcher who might have some projection in his frame, but right now he mostly sits around 89 with his two-seam fastball. That pitch is very effective, getting a lot of easy ground ball outs. He becomes an interesting project to watch, in part because of how aggressive the Pirates went after him, but also because he fits the type of pitcher they go after, that usually has success and moves up the ranks in the system.
7. Sandy Santos, CF – Everyone who sees Santos play raves about his tools and then talks about his inconsistencies. Listed at 6′ 3″, 185 pounds, the 22-year-old is very athletic, with power and speed. He can cover a lot of ground in center field and he has a strong arm. He can hit for power and drive balls into the gaps for extra-base hits. He has the speed to steal bases and take extra bases on hits. The problem is that he doesn’t always have the discipline at the plate to wait for the right pitch, or the ability to lay off pitches out of the zone. He’s prone to mistakes in the field and on the bases.
Santos played last year with Bristol, where he hit .257/.338/.466, with 22 extra-base hits and seven stolen bases in 48 games. He also struck out 55 times in 191 at-bats and had some contact issues during his two seasons in the DSL. On Opening Day this year, he found himself in the lead-off spot and he put up three hits, a walk, and stole a base. He should get a chance to play everyday and then we will see where the tools can lead him. Santos could be the third best prospect on this team by the time this season ends, or he could end up letting the inconsistencies at the plate get the better of him, and finish outside the top ten. He’s the ultimate sleeper prospect on this team among position players. – John Dreker
8. Kevin Krause, C/RF – After being drafted in the ninth round in 2014, Krause put up some impressive numbers for Jamestown at the plate, with a lot of power. That led to us rating him as the 36th best prospect in the system. He was headed to West Virginia to start 2015, but an elbow injury eventually led to Tommy John surgery when rest didn’t resolve the issue. He finally made it back this season and while the offense got some strong reviews down in Extended Spring Training, it comes with the caveat that he turned 23 back in November.
The Pirates said that Krause will see some time behind the plate this year, though he will also split his time between right field and DH. He would have more value as a catcher with a power bat, but his defense wasn’t a strong point before the injury, so now it’s more of a matter of finding spots to get his bat in the lineup. The Pirates like strong defensive catchers and 12th round pick Arden Pabst will see the majority of the time behind the dish for Morgantown. Krause was hitting for power and making a lot of hard contact down in Spring Training. The bat will have to carry him and if he hits well this year, it’s possible he skips West Virginia next year due to his age, getting him back on the prospect track. – John Dreker
9. Dylan Prohoroff, RHP – The Pirates drafted Prohoroff out of Cal State Fullerton in the eighth round this year and signed him to a $160,000 bonus. He’s a 6′ 3″, right-hander, who turned 21 back late November. He served as the team’s closer this year after throwing 108.1 innings last year. He wasn’t among Baseball America’s top 500 prospects, but he still has things going for him that make him an appealing draft pick. In a relief role, he can get his fastball up to 97 MPH, and as a starter he can sit low-90s, mixing it with a slider that has potential. Prohoroff didn’t walk many batters this year, but command can still be an issue.
His stats as a sophomore starter were solid, so the Pirates may want to get him stretched out to see if they can get more than a reliever out of him. The fact that he threw 82 fewer innings this year in college means that the arm should be fresh and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get him stretched out just for the extra work. His two-pitch mix, with occasional command issues and some extra effort in his delivery, suggests he would probably be better suited for relief. Prohoroff could probably move quickly through the system as a reliever, but the upside would be limited. – John Dreker
10. Clark Eagan, RF – The 21-year-old Eagan was drafted in the ninth round out of Arkansas last week. He started in right field on Opening Day for Morgantown and had an 0-for-4 night. The Pirates quickly signed the 6′ 1″, 195 left-handed hitter, giving him a $160,000 bonus, which was just below slot value. As a junior this year, he hit .298/.370/.444 with 22 walks and 37 steals. Eagan started all 55 games for Arkansas and finished fourth on the team in OPS. He spent most of his college time in center field this season, also seeing time at first base and third base.
Eagan’s stats were rather consistent during his three seasons of college ball, with nothing really standing out. He isn’t a power hitter, doesn’t draw a lot of walks or steal bases, and his defense will have him at a corner outfield spot in the pros. When he was picked, he had the feel of Ryan Nagle, a late round pick from last year, who is putting up underwhelming stats this season for West Virginia. The comparison to Nagle became slightly better when Eagan ended up signing for the exact same bonus amount. He doesn’t have high upside, but he should be a solid player in the minors who at least makes it to the upper levels and then we will see how his game progresses from there. – John Dreker
Other Notable Prospects
Neil Kozikowski has been a starter in the past, working in the rookie levels the last two and a half years. He was an over-slot signing in 2013, but hasn’t progressed well. He hasn’t added much velocity, and has a bit of a drop and drive delivery, which causes his fastball to sit up in the zone. He will be a reliever, but should get plenty of innings. The Pirates gave Stephan Meyer a lot of innings in Extended Spring Training. He had great results in the lower levels last year, but doesn’t have the best stuff. He gets a lot of movement on his fastball, and has a tall, projectable frame, with a lot of easy outs. He will be pitching out of the rotation this year. Trae Arbet had a great season at the plate in Bristol last year, with a .320/.384/.503 line in 147 at-bats. It was his second season at the level, which adds a disclaimer to the numbers. He’s a second baseman, but his defense has struggled, and he might lose some time to Kevin Mahala and Hunter Owen, who were infielders drafted in the middle-to-late rounds this year out of college. Adrian Grullon once looked like a prospect to watch, with a 90-93 MPH fastball and a nice low-80s slurve that was an out pitch at the age of 20. He then missed the last two years with Tommy John surgery, and has now moved to the bullpen. He’s a very tall pitcher, at 6′ 7″, 220 pounds, but he’s lost some appeal now that he’s in his age 23 season. He moved to the bullpen, where we will see how he returns, and whether his stuff plays up in shorter outings.
10th round right-hander Matt Anderson and 13th round right-hander John Pomeroy could both get innings out of the bullpen. Anderson was a college senior who can hit 94 MPH and gets a lot of swings and misses due to deception. Pomeroy is an interesting project who throws mid-90s, but has poor control. He’s interesting because he only pitched 14.1 innings in three years at Oregon State, making him a very raw arm with a lot of upside. Matt Diorio should factor into the outfield mix, showing a lot of similar qualities as Eagan. He’s coming off a year where he missed 23 games with a hand injury that might have impacted his hitting at UCF.