The Arizona Fall League begins a 32-game schedule on Tuesday afternoon and the Pittsburgh Pirates have sent seven players to the league, where they will be members of the Surprise Saguaros. The group of prospects going to the league took a hit when Austin Meadows, Trevor Williams and Dovydas Neverauskas were all dropped from the team after being on the initial roster submitted by the Pirates. Compared to previous seasons, this would be considered a weak group of prospects, but there are still some interesting players to watch.
We start the preview at third base. The Pirates are sending both Eric Wood and Connor Joe to the league. They were the starting third basemen for Altoona and Bradenton respectively. Wood is listed as an outfielder on the Surprise roster and we noted that he was playing outfield during the Fall Instructional League.
There are two reasons for Wood to get some time in the outfield. One would be that the Pirates like players to have versatility and he’s only played third base as a pro. The other would be the difference in defense between the two players. Wood played terrific defense all season, being named the top defensive third baseman in the Eastern League, while showing improvements in all areas. Joe is not a strong defensive third baseman, having moved to the position this season for the first time since high school. He could use the extra time as the position, so he will likely see the bulk of the playing time there.
Offensively, both players had solid seasons. Joe started off slow, then finished strong. His .743 OPS was well above league average, and he got there by improving his OPS each month, going from .582 in April up to .850 in August. He will need to continue to show improvements as he moves up the system because his age works against his prospect status at this point. While he didn’t play after signing in 2014 and missed the start of 2015, Joe is already 24 years old. For reference, he is three months older than Wood, who has spent the last two seasons in Double-A. The at-bats against upper level pitchers this fall will help Joe get acclimated to the better pitcher he will see in Altoona. He will also get to work with Kevin Riggs, who is the hitting coach for Surprise, after holding the same position with Altoona this season.
Wood had a breakout season at the plate in 2016. He hit 16 homers, which is one more than he had in his first four seasons combined. He also cut his strikeouts down, while improving his walk rate. Add in the giant leap he took on the defensive side and he really moved himself up the Pirates’ prospect list. He should get regular playing time in Indianapolis next season, and with the move to the outfield in the AFL, we could see him splitting his time between both positions to help his chances of reaching the majors.
Catcher Jin-De Jhang could use the work behind the plate in the AFL after spending most of the season serving as the backup for Reese McGuire. Including the playoffs, Jhang started a total of 54 games behind the plate this season. Between the Instructional League and the AFL, he will be able to make up for some lost time, and his defense could use the work. Jhang has hit for a decent average during his minor league career, though it comes with a very low walk total and very little power. He is difficult to strike out, so the ability to make consistent contact is there, he just doesn’t drive the ball well. His main focus this fall will likely be working on his defense, while just getting in some extra game time.
The Pirates are sending four pitchers to the AFL. Reliever Edgar Santana is the top prospect in this group. He throws a mid-90’s fastball that touches 97 MPH, mixing it with a slider that is a plus pitch at times, while controlling both pitches well. Santana can pick up his share of strikeouts, but he is also great at getting quick outs on the ground, posting a 2.08 GO/AO ratio this season. He has made a huge jump since debuting in the DSL in 2014. In 2015, he skipped two levels and then finished at West Virginia after starting at Morgantown. In 2016, he started in Bradenton and was in Indianapolis by the beginning of August. He could be an option for the Pirates sometime during the 2017 season and getting work in the AFL will give him more experience against upper level hitters.
Alex McRae will get a chance to try to build off a solid regular season finish at Altoona. His season ended on a sour note, with six runs on 12 hits during a playoff start, but he had a 2.47 ERA in 62 innings after the All-Star break. McRae put in 161.1 innings including playoffs, so we might not see him as a starter in the AFL. The Pirates in the past have had starters like Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, Cody Dickson and Adrian Sampson pitch in relief to work on a specific pitch. We will find out soon if that’s the same case with McRae.
Montana DuRapau had a terrific season in 2015, pitching over three levels, ending up with Altoona in the playoffs. In 2016, he spent the entire season right where he finished the previous year. The problem was that he didn’t have the same command he had the previous year, and for most of the season, he velocity was down. His results were okay for the most part, but the scouting report was down. In a slightly smaller field, his stats likely would have been much worse. DuRapau had a lot of warning track outs throughout 2016, which you can really see in his 2.30 home ERA, versus a 6.00 road ERA. He needs to regain some of that 2015 magic, showing better velocity, while getting the ball down in the zone.
Tanner Anderson was one of the late additions to the roster after the top three prospects were dropped. He had a solid season split between Bradenton and West Virginia, ending it with five shutout innings in the FSL finals. Anderson commands a low-90’s fastball that hit 94 MPH late in the season. He pitches to contact and gets a ton of grounders, posting a 3.39 GO/AO ratio in 88 innings this season. He had one of the most impressive performances this season back in mid-May, throwing five shutout innings on 37 pitches, with 32 going for strikes. He put in a lot of innings for a reliever, so it will be interesting to see if they possibly move him to a starting role next year. Between the regular season, playoffs, instructional ball and the AFL, he will be well over 100 innings this year.
We will have daily game recaps throughout the season, as well as live coverage during the first week of November. That live coverage will include the Fall-Stars game, which will be held in Surprise. Also of note is that Surprise Stadium has been one of two parks in the past to have PITCHf/x. So we should have a better idea of how the pitchers are faring, rather than just looking at a small sample size of results.