Every week we have live reports from all over the system, while I provide additional views of the minors via MiLB.tv, which included Indianapolis, Altoona and West Virginia this week. We also had live coverage from Indianapolis and West Virginia in the past week. All of these reports are combined, and used each week to highlight the top performers during that time span. This week is top heavy with hitters because there weren’t many strong pitching performances. Here are the top guys this week, and the rundown on their performances:
Josh Bell – Bell was our Player of the Month in April after putting up a .931 OPS. He then slumped (by his standards) down to an .807 OPS in May, with 25 strikeouts in 99 at-bats. If the early part of June is any indication, he could be back on track with the bat. Bell has a .972 OPS this month, and he has struck out just five times in 51 at-bats. He has a 1.010 OPS against left-handed pitching, showing a terrific improvement over his career stats, which heavily favor the left side. Batting lefty hasn’t been an issue though, with an .820 OPS this season. Bell probably isn’t far from being Major League ready, they just might not have a spot for him right now. His defense, while much improved this season, still needs work. So the extra time spent in the minors allows him to improve defensively while he waits for his turn.
Edwin Espinal – When he was signed as a 17-year-old in 2011 for $150,000, the report we got was that the ball sounds different coming off his bat than anyone else. He was also nicknamed “Tank” and had a plus-plus arm at third base, but likely wouldn’t remain there. Espinal has advanced each year through the system despite never putting up big stats at any level. He’s now 22 in Double-A and may finally be showing why he was so highly thought of when he was signed. He is hitting .441 in his last ten games and has been starting at first base regularly, pushing Jose Osuna to the outfield. Espinal leads Altoona with a .317 average and his .797 OPS would have him 16th in the Eastern League if he had just a few more plate appearances to qualify for the league leaders. The next part of his game he needs to add is the power, and he had four extra-base hits this past week, so that’s a good sign. We could finally be seeing him breakout, and despite being around since 2011, he’s still young for his level.
Adam Frazier – Frazier has been doing a terrific job of getting on base all season and he now leads the International League with a .338 average. He has also become a better defensive outfielder recently, taking better routes and using his speed to track down balls in the gap. He has 14 doubles and three triples, which is a bit misleading because he doesn’t hit for any power. He picks up extra-base hits by using the whole field and hustling out of the box. It will be interesting to see how/when/if the Pirates use him this season. There are flaws to his game, one of which he can work on. Frazier doesn’t have a strong outfield arm and that will lead to players taking extra bases against him once the reports get around. He has played shortstop in the past, but he is more suited for second base due to the range and arm. He also needs to utilize his speed better once he gets on base. He has the speed to steal 30 bases a season without being caught 15+ times doing it, but he doesn’t get good reads off pitchers, often leaving too early, which results in pick-offs, or too late which ends up with him being thrown out by ten feet.
Willy Garcia – Garcia has looked better at the plate recently, hitting .417 over a ten-game hit streak. He’s hitting a lot of doubles, but the home runs have been noticeably absent this season. He hit his first homer on April 26th and he’s still waiting for his second one. That’s coming from a player who has hit at least 15 homers each of the last four seasons. Garcia had a stretch like this last year with Altoona, where he was hitting for average, cutting down on the strikeouts and not hitting for power. When he started hitting homers last year, the strikeouts went up and the average went down. If he can ever combine those two skills, he will be a legit Major League player. He’s a decent right fielder with a cannon for an arm, so there is value there as well.
Christian Kelley – Kelley is hitting for a 1.068 OPS in June, with four doubles so far. That might not sound like a lot, but he only had six career doubles prior to this month and no triples or homers. The bat has developed slower than the Pirates would like to see from last year’s 11th round pick. Even with the recent hot streak, he has a .584 OPS in 99 career games. He has improved behind the plate over last year, cutting down on the passed balls (14 down to four) while throwing out more runners this season. At 22 years old (23 in September) he will need to start to hit more to be a legit prospect, but his June has at least been a small step in the right direction.
Jordan Luplow – Luplow had a tough month of April, which could be partially blamed on off-season surgery to his non-throwing shoulder. Recovery was 4-6 months and that caused him to miss the first few days of the season. He posted a .579 OPS in April, then stepped things up a little in May to a .711 OPS. Luplow has really got off to a great start in June, posting a 1.035 OPS in eight games this month. That gives him a .709 OPS on the season, which is above where he was with West Virginia last year at the end of June. He then went on a tear in both July and August, giving him strong final numbers. Last year, the issue seemed to be about getting comfortable learning third base, while the slow start this year could be from losing a lot of off-season training due to surgery.
Austin Meadows – Meadows has been a machine lately, and by lately I mean the last month. From May 13 until June 12, he has a 1.255 OPS, collecting 24 extra-base hits. He has a 21-game hitting streak as well, matching the Altoona franchise record. Not only is the hitting and power there, he’s played strong defense in center field and stolen eight bases this season. Only a below average arm keeps him from being a five-tool players, but the other four tools all look like plus tools at this time. Due to the current Pittsburgh outfield, there isn’t a rush to move him through the system, and it’s important to remember that he turned 21 during this season.
Gift Ngoepe – Ngoepe had a few nice games early in the week, drawing some walks and then hitting a home run on Thursday. He then went 0-for-7 with three strikeouts over the weekend. The scouting report hasn’t changed with Ngoepe this season. He is still a plus defender at shortstop, who has decent speed, but doesn’t provide any value at the plate. He’s fifth in the International League with 69 strikeouts, yet he ranks 66th in at-bats. It will be interesting to see if he comes up in September as a bench piece who sees time as a defensive replacement and a pinch-runner.
Jose Osuna – Jose Osuna got a lot of prospect watchers excited with a strong showing against AA/AAA players in the Venezuelan Winter League this off-season, then had a nice start to his season with an .805 OPS in April. Osuna then cooled off through May and just a few days ago, he hit his first home run in over a month. He was moved to the outfield recently despite showing strong defense at first base this season. If he can get back on track with the hitting, the position versatility will get him to the next level sooner rather than later. As a corner player, he needs to put up better than a .740 OPS in 56 games, which is what we have seen so far this season.
Tito Polo – Polo is having the breakout season that we predicted for him last year. Bradenton has a crowded outfield right now, but he may force the Pirates to move him up and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen soon. Polo has a .310/.375/.567 slash line this year, with 11 homers and 17 stolen bases. He is first in the South Atlantic League in slugging and homers, second in OPS and fifth in stolen bases. Perhaps the best sign from last week is that he struck out once in 20 plate appearances. Polo has been called a potential five-tool center fielder since his early days in the DSL and now he’s starting to show what he can do on the field.
Harold Ramirez – Ramirez got off to an incredible start this season, before a recent 2-for-29 slump had him at a .268 average. In his last three games, he picked up eight hits. Just like Meadows, it is important to remember that he is young for the level, and Ramirez has more to work on than Meadows. His base running has led to him going 3-for-8 in steals and making some mistakes on the bases. With his speed, those numbers should be much better. He has also taken some horrible routes in the outfield, getting poor jumps as well. He plays center field occasionally, but I can’t see that being a future position for him. Ramirez has a better than average arm, though he can be erratic with his throws. He is 21 and has never played more than 80 games in a season, so experience is as much as factor with his issues than anything else. The important thing is that the tools are there, and that includes a plus bat that should allow him to hit for average and gap power at the highest level. He probably won’t hit a lot of homers, but he does hit the ball hard and won’t strike out often.
Jerrick Suiter – Suiter got off to a horrible start this season, but he was still in the lineup almost everyday and that decision is beginning to pay off. After a .487 OPS in April, he had a .750 OPS in May, which is well above average in the pitching-friendly Florida State League. That has been followed by an .835 OPS so far this month. Suiter is big at 6’4″, 230 pounds, but power isn’t part of his game. He’s at his best when he’s using the whole field and drawing walks, leading to a high on base percentage. His defense has been solid at first base this season, and he’s already played more games there this season than he did during his first two years.
Cody Dickson – As you will see with the list this week, there are a few pitchers who have had a lot of success recently despite control issues and high pitch counts limiting their outings. Dickson pitched 12 innings this week and allowed one earned run. In his last seven starts combined, he has allowed a total of five earned runs, which includes two shutout performances and five one run games. The problem is that even with all that recent success, he has gone six innings or more just twice in those seven games. Dickson is a lefty with above average stuff, who doesn’t trust his stuff enough sometimes to attack hitters. While the Pirates teach pitchers to pitch to contact, he looks like he tries to pitch around contact. That has led to 42 walks this season in 62 innings, yet he still has a 3.34 ERA. He is learning that hitters are more disciplined at the upper levels and he will need to attack them more.
Frank Duncan – Duncan had the most impressive pitching performance last week and it wasn’t really close. That was partially due to a poor week all around the system for pitching, but also due to what led up to his game. He was supposed to start for Altoona on Friday, but he ended up getting promoted to Indianapolis on Thursday and pitching on short rest. He then went out and allowed one run over five innings, needing just 65 pitches to get through his start. Duncan has opened some eyes this season with his time in Indianapolis as a fill-in. He started this season in Extended Spring Training due to an oblique injury. He then joined Altoona in the bullpen, and now he has 3.08 ERA in five starts with Indianapolis. Duncan also has some of the best command in the system and a high ground ball rate, plus he has struck out 47 batters in 53 innings.
Tyler Eppler – Due to two really bad outings at the end of May, Eppler has a 4.14 ERA this season. You could say those games skew his stats, since his ERA is 2.82 in his other ten starts, but from watching him I’d say that it was more of a correction to his stats. He was getting a lot of help from his defense in the three games leading up to those poor outings. The stat line looked good in all three games, but they didn’t match the performance. Eppler has bounced back in his first two starts this month, limiting base runners and going deep into games like he was doing in the early part of the season. Eppler sits 92-94 with the fastball and gets some good downward action on the pitch. He also has a slurve that looks like a strong pitch at times, getting occasional swing and misses, as well as some weak contact.
Yeudy Garcia – Garcia is having success despite control issues just like Dickson, though his issue isn’t about trying to pitch around contact. Garcia has 60 strikeouts in 52 innings this season. He also has a 2.77 ERA this year, which went down after allowing one earned run over 5.2 innings on Saturday. As we have noted a few times, Garcia should be working on his fastball command more often, but he has gone heavy with sliders in many of his starts. It’s an average pitch, which isn’t good enough for the amount of times he uses per outing. The fastball doesn’t have the velocity he had last year, but it’s still good enough sitting in the 91-94 range,even touching 96 at times recently. If he’s commanding that pitch better, then he will have more success with the slider and his changeup. Due to high pitch counts, he’s averaging less than five innings per start.
Tyler Glasnow – Glasnow has shown recently why he is the top prospect in the system and why he hasn’t made a start for the Pirates yet despite the Super 2 deadline passing. During his game on Saturday, he struck out five batters in a row and it was as good as you will see from anyone. He was sitting 94-96, throwing down in the zone, while breaking off plus curveballs. If someone gave you a video tape of that same game and cut out those five batters, you probably wouldn’t think he was the top prospect in the system. He went from dominating to erratic with his control all in that second inning. That led to him being removed after 4.2 innings due to his pitch count, despite not allowing a run. Glasnow hasn’t been using his changeup enough recently, after a run of games where he was forced to go to it often. That could be because his fastball command has been poor recently and they want him concentrating on getting that back to where it was (preferably better) earlier in the season. He still gives you glimpses of why he has ace potential, sometimes more than glimpses in certain games than others, but he still isn’t where you would like him to be before he reaches the majors. The important thing to remember is that he is still 22 years old and hasn’t pitched a full season in Triple-A yet.
Bret Helton – Helton won’t wow you with his stuff, but he has been effective lately, allowing four runs over his last 23.2 innings, covering four starts. He’s holding batters to a .231 average this season. In 57.2 innings, he has issued 24 walks and hit seven batters, so that has helped lead to some poor outings. Like the other pitchers above, he sometimes has problems going after hitters, which led to a 5.29 season ERA prior to his recent run. Unlike those others pitchers though, he doesn’t have the above average stuff, so he will need to cut down the walks and hit batters to have success at the higher levels as a starter.
Logan Sendelbach – In his last start in May, Sendelbach struck out seven batters, setting a career high. In two starts since then, he has matched that total in each game. The problem is that none of those three starts would rank among his top five starts this season. He was having more success early in the year pitching to contact, working his fastball down in the zone for quick outs. Sendelbach has been working on fastball command all season, while occasionally mixing in a slider as an out pitch. He doesn’t throw hard and doesn’t have any plus pitches, so he’s going to need to command the strike zone to have success as a starter at the upper levels.