Pitching was expected to be the strength from the upper levels of the farm system in 2016 for the Pirates. Sure, they had top hitting prospects like Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, Adam Frazier, and Max Moroff in Triple-A, but the pitching was expected to make the biggest impact from Indianapolis, due to the potential openings on the team.
That played out to an extent. There was no way the farm system was going to make up for the complete breakdown of the Pirates’ rotation this year, but it did produce three of the top five pitchers in Pittsburgh this year. Jameson Taillon ranked third on the team with a 1.7 fWAR, falling behind Gerrit Cole and Ivan Nova. Chad Kuhl was tied with Mark Melancon for fifth with an 0.9 fWAR, with Juan Nicasio finishing ahead of both of them, and behind Taillon.
The Pirates will hope that Taillon and Kuhl will repeat and improve upon their performances in 2017, while also hoping that guys like Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, and Trevor Williams step up to provide an additional boost to the MLB pitching staff. The five Indianapolis starters made up an excellent prospect rotation this year, and could help the Pirates in the majors for the next 6-7 years.
I called this group “The Next Wave” in the 2016 Prospect Guide, but what about the next “Next Wave”?
Just as pitching is the strength in the upper levels, it has also become the strength in the lower levels. The Pirates saw that happen in a big way in 2016, with the emergence of a few pitching prospects in West Virginia and Morgantown.
The biggest story in the farm system this year was Mitch Keller’s breakout. He went from a high upside pitching prospect with questions about his minor injury in 2015, and more importantly, questions about his command. He fixed that in 2016, saw his velocity increase, and in my view is now the top prospect in the system.
While Keller’s breakout led to him improving a lot of things in his game, and putting him in position to move quickly through the system, there were some other improved pitchers who are adding to the next round of prospects. Gage Hinsz saw a lot of similar improvements as Keller, with some better command, and a velocity increase that had him consistently hitting 95 MPH with his fastball. Luis Escobar has some command problems still, but saw his velocity increase in Morgantown to the low-to-mid 90s range, touching 97. Even if they didn’t have Keller, who is on a different level than these two, having Hinsz and Escobar alone in the lower levels would be promising.
This doesn’t include other rotation options like Yeudy Garcia, JT Brubaker, or new hard throwing lefty Taylor Hearn, who is working on some mechanical adjustments this off-season to help fix his command issues on his mid-to-upper 90s fastball.
Below the A-ball level, the Pirates got another boost with the 2016 draft. They went heavy on the prep pitchers, signing four guys to big bonus deals, including two over-slot pitchers after the tenth round. We covered them today in the GCL top 10, with three of the prep pitchers taking up the top three spots in the rankings.
Braeden Ogle, taken in the 4th round, looks like he has the best stuff right now, with a fastball that sits 94-96 MPH early in games, and a chance to build on his frame to allow him to sit near that level deeper into outings in the future. He’s got some command issues to work through, but has shown improvements with his slider, turning it into an out pitch, and is comfortable with the changeup. A lefty who can touch 94-96 at a young age, with the ability to throw a changeup and a slider that can get outs is a special pitcher to watch.
Max Kranick, taken in the 11th round and given an over-slot deal, was the second best pitcher on the list. However, you could easily make the argument that he should be first. He doesn’t have the stuff that Ogle has right now, but has much better command of his fastball with some good downward angle, along with the ability to throw a changeup, and an improving curveball. There’s a good chance that Kranick could develop into a better prospect than Ogle in the next few years.
Travis MacGregor falls behind those two, with a lot of his value being due to his tall, projectable frame, and comfort with the changeup, due to his fastball/changeup approach up until learning a curveball in high school. Austin Shields rounds out the group, with a lot less experience pitching than the others, which leads to him being a lot more raw. He does flash the ability to hit mid-90s, which makes him an interesting project. Then there’s the international guys from the GCL like Miguel Hernandez, Brian Sousa, and Domingo Robles.
The big appeal with the GCL pitchers is that there are so many high upside guys to follow, that it increases the chances of one of them breaking out. This is the same formula that led to Keller, Hinsz, and Escobar breaking out. It’s the same formula that led to Tyler Glasnow being a breakout prospect.
Pitching is definitely the strength of the lower levels. There are some hitting prospects, but it doesn’t match the pitching. Part of this is because the 2014 and 2016 drafts were so heavy on prep pitchers for the top bonuses, and because a lot of the success stories from the international ranks these days are with the pitchers. Part of this is also because the Pirates are more aggressive with their young hitters than they are with young pitchers. The top prep hitting prospects go to West Virginia in their first full seasons, while the pitchers go to Bristol, and arrive in West Virginia in their second or third full seasons.
But you also see more pitching talent in the lower levels because the appeal here is upside. A lot of the hitting prospects drafted the last few years have been lower risk and lower reward type guys. They have a good shot of reaching the upper levels and making the majors, but they might top out as average starters at best, with a more likely scenario being a bench role for a lot of those hitters. Meanwhile, the pitchers are riskier, and a lot of them probably won’t make it beyond A-ball. The guys who do could make it as relievers, with no guarantee of a starting rotation. But if one guy emerges as a top of the rotation starter (and Keller has the inside track right now, while also being a full lap ahead of everyone else), then the upside approach was worth it.
So if you’re projecting out the future rotation, and wondering what happens when guys like Gerrit Cole leave in the future, then it’s best to look lower in the system, and see that the future replacements for Cole and others are starting their pro careers, with some starting to emerge as top prospects, and Keller already looking like the future replacement.
**Big Upside Prep Pitchers Highlight the 2016 GCL Pirates Top 10. The GCL top 10, with reports on all of the young starters.
**AFL: Connor Joe Homers, as Surprise Ends in an Extra Innings Tie. Joe was hitting the ball hard all year in Bradenton, and it started showing up in the stats in the second half. That carried over to the playoffs, then to instructs, and now to the AFL.
**Pirates Re-Sign Lefty Reliever Jared Lakind. Good move, as he showed some potential out of the bullpen, and you can never have too many lefty relief options.
**Winter Leagues: Mexican League Highlighted by Luis Heredia and Carlos Munoz. John Dreker’s report on the Mexican League players for the Pirates, plus the latest results.