We spend a lot of time covering the lower levels in person, getting multiple looks at players from the day they enter the system, to the point when they break out. In the cases of Keller and Wood, we were watching them and seeing the potential live in the GCL. In Keller’s case, we had two live views in the GCL, as Wilbur Miller and myself both got a chance to see his potential, and it was clear at the time that he was more than just a normal projectable prep pitcher, and better than a second round pick. In Eric Wood’s case, every time I was asked why the Pirates kept giving him playing time, I thought back to one of Wilbur’s reports in 2012 from the GCL, when opposing scouts were raving about his power potential and hitting ability (with the Pirates also liking that, and waiting for it to finally develop).
In a few years, we’ll be looking back to the reports from the lower levels this year. But why wait? Here is a list of ten prospects in the lower levels who could be breakout candidates next year. I’m splitting the group up into five players who could be in the full-season A-ball levels, and five players who will likely be in the short-season levels.
Stephen Alemais – He’s got some of the best defense at shortstop in the system. His offense hasn’t matched the defense, although some of that could be due to a shoulder injury. If he starts hitting, even if it’s just singles and doubles, then he could emerge as a very promising shortstop prospect with a better shot than most at sticking at the position.
Luis Escobar – The Pirates have had some promising starters come through the lower levels in recent years, and Escobar is just another one of them. He was hitting 97 MPH with his fastball this year, although he needs better command and improved secondary stuff. He’s still young, at age 20, and turning 21 next May. He should be the top pitcher to watch in West Virginia.
Adrian Valerio – He’s similar to Alemais in tools and upside, except Valerio is a bit more inconsistent, and tends to not have complete control over his tools on the field or at the plate. The thing about breakout players is that they tend to be like Valerio, showing the tools, but lacking consistency until it all finally comes together. I think he’s got a better chance than most of that happening, if not next year, then in the future.
Cam Vieaux – Vieaux doesn’t have a big upside, but could have a Brandon Waddell type season next year. I don’t expect him to make the jump to Altoona by May 2017, but I do expect he will make the jump to Bradenton to start the 2017 season, and could end up in Altoona for the second half of the season. His upside would be more a back of the rotation starter or a reliever, but he’s polished enough that he could move quickly through the lower levels, and jump on the radar as future MLB help sooner than most guys in short-season.
Victor Fernandez – He had a nice season in Bristol, posting an .832 OPS in 169 at-bats. Fernandez has some speed and can be a bit of a playmaker at times. He’s not a complete five tool guy, but he has some tools to work with, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get the push to West Virginia next year. Just like Vieaux, I don’t think there’s a huge breakout potential here. I do think he could emerge as a top 50 prospect by the end of next year.
Braeden Ogle – The prep lefty from the 2016 draft has shown the best stuff so far from his draft group, sitting consistently in the 93-96 MPH range. He lacks control, and doesn’t hold his velocity. He also needs to show continued improvements with his new slider. The thing about Ogle and the other prep pitchers is that they might not break out in 2017. Mitch Keller didn’t break out until his second full season, and that was early. That would mean 2018 is more likely for a breakout season for Ogle and the rest of the prep pitchers.
Max Kranick – He doesn’t have as consistent velocity as Ogle does, but that could come in the future as he grows into his projectable frame. What Kranick does have is better command of his stuff, and a good downward angle on his fastball. He’s developing an out pitch, and needs work there. He and Ogle lead the prep pitching class, with Travis MacGregor and Austin Shields joining the group, but just a bit more raw in their own ways.
Yondry Contreras – Contreras has some alarming signs, with a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate. He hasn’t hit for much power, but does make solid contact. If he can ever put it all together, he’s a very toolsy guy with the range and arm strength to play center field, and the ability to hit for power and add some speed. I have a feeling strikeouts and walks will always be somewhat of a problem, but Contreras can work his way to being a prospect even with those issues.
Edison Lantigua – He’s had some decent numbers in his pro career, but his playing time has been somewhat shortened by injuries. He’s another toolsy outfielder who actually does a good job of drawing walks and getting on base, while posting a decent strikeout rate. He’s got some power potential and the ability for speed. Lantigua doesn’t have any tools that really stand out as potentially plus, but does enough things well or potentially well that he’s a good all-around outfield prospect.
Jeremias Portorreal – This is my early sleeper pick for the 2017 season, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he does in Spring Training next year, and where he ends up (I wouldn’t be surprised with West Virginia). He made an adjustment to drop his hands down in the DSL in mid-July. Since that adjustment, he hit for a .303/.415/.455 line with a 15.3% walk rate and a 12.7% strikeout rate. His at-bats in the GCL looked good after being promoted, and I could see this new approach being the spark needed to unlock his offensive potential, with the ability to hit for average, power, and have great control of the strike zone, while adding some speed from a tall, skinny frame.
**The World Baseball Classic qualifiers begin tomorrow. Here is a preview from John Dreker on the Pirates prospects that will be playing.
The final World Baseball Classic qualifier begins on Thursday, with teams representing Great Britain, Israel, Pakistan and Brazil all vying for the last spot in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The Pittsburgh Pirates have two players in the qualifiers. Relief pitcher Jared Lakind will be on Israel, while infielder Kyle Simmons will play for Great Britain. At 7:00 PM, these two teams will play against each. While their opponents haven’t been decided yet, Israel will play at noon on Friday and Great Britain will play at 7:00 PM on Friday night. The remaining schedule for Saturday and Sunday will be decided based on the results over the next two days. You can follow along with the action here. We will also post any Pirates related updates here.
Lakind pitched for Altoona this season, where he had a 2.59 ERA in 66 innings over 47 appearances. He had 62 strikeouts, a 1.18 WHIP and a .216 BAA. The Pirates fast-tracked him to Altoona this season, skipping him over Bradenton. The 24-year-old lefty was drafted in the 23rd round in 2010, signing for a $400,000 bonus, and he spent his first three seasons as a first baseman before switching to the mound in 2013. He is eligible for minor league free agency after the Major League playoffs end, so the Pirates will need to re-sign him or add him to the 40-man roster to keep him around. Lakind was hitting 94 MPH late in the season and has some deception to his delivery, which made him very tough on left-handed batters.
Simmons was one of two players signed out of the Bahamas last July. He is a 19-year-old middle infielder, who was one of the rare July 2nd international signings who actually played pro ball the same year he signed. Most players signed on July 2nd (or later), sign for the following season. Simmons can play shortstop, but he played 40 of his 42 games this season in the Dominican Summer League at second base. He hit .160/.402/.170, walking twice as many times as he got on base via hit (30 to 15). He also struck out 42 times in 94 at-bats, so more than half of his plate appearances ended with a strikeout or walk. If he does play, which he should get into at least one game, it will give you a rare chance to see a DSL player before he makes the jump to the United States.