Over the last few years, the Pirates have been drafting a lot of the same types of hitting prospects. They are guys who hit for average, get on base, don’t strike out, hit for gap power, but not a lot of home run power, and have a chance to play a premium position on defense. The downside to these players is that they don’t have the highest upsides, although that should be expected, since most of the players in this group were college players, drafted in the middle rounds, where you’re not getting a lot of upside. The players who were drafted earlier tend to have an advantage — more power potential, a better shot at sticking at a premium defensive position, or just better hitting skills — which is why you’ll find most of them at the top of this prospect list. At this point, the Bradenton group looks like it could have a few guys with a shot at starting in the majors, although none of them project to be more than an average starter, or maybe a slightly above average starter at this point.
TOP 10 BRADENTON MARAUDERS PROSPECTS
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 140 at-bats, 40 innings pitched, or 20 relief appearances. We didn’t include players who are no longer in the system, which left Stephen Tarpley, Tito Polo, and Taylor Gushue off the list. Just like the lower levels, these players are still graded mostly based on projection than actual results, although this is the level where you want to start seeing those results, especially for college drafted players.
1. Kevin Newman, SS – Newman entered the year with questions about whether he’d eventually be a utility infielder or a starter. The opinions were pretty split after his pro debut last year, although they seem a bit one-sided this year, after a great performance in his first full season. He made it look easy with the bat in Bradenton, hitting for a .366/.428/.494 line in 164 plate appearances, before a June promotion to Altoona. He could have been promoted earlier, based on his offense, but the Pirates had him working on an earlier setup time and routes for his defense at shortstop. He also worked on a small adjustment to narrow his batting stance, trying to get some additional power. He’s not going to be a power hitter, or a guy who tries to hit for power, instead excelling at making contact and getting on base. He makes it look easy when he makes contact, looking like he’s placing the ball where the fielders aren’t standing. He’s got outstanding plate patience, with a 9% walk rate and a 6.3% strikeout rate in Bradenton, and a 9.7% walk rate and 9% strikeout rate in Altoona after the promotion. The strong offensive showing, and the improved results on the defensive side of his game have Newman looking like a top 50 prospect in baseball, and a future starting shortstop in the majors.
2. Cole Tucker, SS – Tucker is more raw than Newman, which is understandable, as he is about three years younger than the 2015 first round pick. He only had a .238/.312/.301 line in 269 at-bats in Bradenton this year, after a promotion in June from West Virginia. He’d make hard contact from time to time and show his potential, but would follow that up with a lot of weak hit ground balls. The Pirates worked on some small adjustments with Tucker in the off-season, adding more of a load to his swing and tapping into his bigger frame. He’s 6′ 4″, compared to Newman’s 6′ 1″ frame, which gives him more power potential. He’s got some good raw contact skills, and a good approach at the plate, with a 9.5% walk rate in Bradenton, and a 20.4% strikeout rate. He could end up being a better offensive option than Newman. His defense has come along, looking a lot smoother on the field this year, with the arm strength needed to play short, and no issues from his labrum surgery at the end of last year. Tucker has a lot more to work on with his game, but is young enough that this should be expected.
3. Yeudy Garcia, RHP – Garcia was the big breakout pitcher in the system in 2015, but didn’t look the same in 2016. He had command issues throughout the year, while also seeing his velocity dip down from the 93-97 MPH range he was in most of the 2015 season. Those two things could be explained by the fact that he was dealing with shoulder soreness all season. At times he was also relying too much on his slider, which isn’t a good enough pitch to use as often as he was using it, making it less effective, with no fastball to bail him out. He worked on getting comfortable with the changeup, and threw the pitch more often in the second half, leading to better results. His stuff is still good enough that he got away with a lot of mistakes and a bad approach this year, although he can’t rely on that as he moves up. If the shoulder was leading to his problems, then he should see improvements next year, assuming the shoulder issues are behind him.
4. Kevin Kramer, 2B – In previous years, the Pirates have had players in Bradenton who showed off good hitting ability, looking good in person, but without the stats to back up their talents. This happened a few years ago to Adam Frazier, who looked good at the plate in Bradenton, struggled in the stat line, and then “broke out” once he jumped to Altoona. Kevin Kramer could see a similar progression, as he made solid contact from Spring Training through the playoffs, and looked good in person. He didn’t have the best stats, with a .277/.352/.378 line, with his power potential not shining through consistently in the stat line. He did show excellent plate patience, with a 9.4% walk rate and a 12.3% strikeout rate. Kramer was drafted as a shortstop, but moved to second base due to playing on the same team each year as Kevin Newman. He showed a lot of improvements at second this year, especially making the double play turn. He’s got power potential that hasn’t shown up in the stats on a consistent basis, and if that eventually shows up, he could become a starting second baseman in the majors, or at the least a utility infielder who can play second, third, and short in a pinch.
5. Connor Joe, 3B – All season long, Joe was hitting the ball hard. That didn’t translate to the stat line at the beginning of the year, but it slowly started to translate over and he saw his results improve each month. His monthly OPS, going from April to August, was: .582, .688, .780, .806, and .850. He ended up walking more than he struck out in August, although the strikeout rates weren’t bad the rest of the year, and the walk rates were good. His power production increased in the second half, with a .160 ISO in the final two months. The Pirates sent him to the AFL, and so far he’s carried that power production over against upper level pitchers. They experimented with him at third base this year, and the results weren’t the best, which is understandable since he hasn’t played there since high school. He is athletic, but lacks good first step quickness for the position. He is getting time in the outfield this off-season, and projects better there in the long-term, with the hitting abilities needed to make it as a starter one day at a corner spot. The Pirates could give him more time at third base, since that would be a valuable position for his bat, but he wouldn’t have a good shot at making it as a third baseman in this system, with better defensive options above and below him.
6. Jordan Luplow, LF – Luplow moved to third base in 2015, but the experiment only lasted one year, as the Pirates switched him back to the outfield this year, starting their experiment with Connor Joe. Luplow projects better as an outfielder, and while he won’t have a lot of defensive value due to a lack of range in the future, he can stick at the corners. His offense is what drives his value, and it’s been the same story in each of the last two years. The overall season numbers don’t look great, but Luplow has started slow at each level and taken off after he gets adjusted. This year he had a .254/.363/.421 line on the year, with a 14.1% walk rate and an 18.4% strikeout rate. However, in the second half he had a .281/.402/.509 line, and actually had more walks than strikeouts at 15.8% to 14.4%. You’d like to see him play well all year, but the positive trend as he gets adjusted to the level is good to see. As long as he continues this as he moves up through the levels, he will have a shot at reaching the majors due to his bat.
7. JT Brubaker, RHP – After an impressive finish to his time in West Virginia, Brubaker moved to Bradenton, where he struggled at the start of the year. He improved his control toward the end of the year, which is similar to his progression in West Virginia, and looked dominated at the end of the season, just in time for the playoffs. Brubaker was the hero of the post season for Bradenton, winning the clinching games in both playoff series, pitching gems in each game. He features a 90-93 MPH fastball, and could still add some velocity with his tall, skinny frame. He doesn’t need the extra velocity when he locates the fastball well, which sets up his slider as a strikeout pitch. He’s also very comfortable throwing the changeup. When the command is on, Brubaker looks like a guy who could be a back of the rotation starter in the majors one day, with a frame that could allow him to eat some innings.
8. Wyatt Mathisen, 3B – Mathisen returned to Bradenton this year, after being blocked in Altoona by Eric Wood, and being held back at the start of the year with shoulder soreness. He returned around mid-season, and continued to show good plate patience, with good strikeout and walk numbers. He also saw a slight increase in power, with a .113 ISO that was the best mark of his career. Mathisen hit for a .296/.354/.409 line in just 129 plate appearances, with the shortened season due in part to the shoulder and in part to playing behind Connor Joe. He displays better defense at third base than Joe, but doesn’t have the same power potential or offensive upside. It will be interesting to see how the Pirates handle their playing time going forward, since Joe has been getting work in the outfield this off-season, and they both are expected to move to Altoona in 2017.
9. Elvis Escobar, CF – From a tools perspective, Escobar has always looked intriguing. From a stats perspective, he’s always left you wanting more, although when you watch him live, and see some of his best stretches, you wonder why he’s not putting up stronger numbers. He saw an increase last year in his power production in West Virginia, and carried that over to this year, with a .118 ISO in Bradenton. He didn’t see much of a drop off in his promotion to Altoona in the second half, with a .107 ISO. His strikeout rates have been under control, but he hasn’t walked much in the past. That improved to 5.4% this year in Bradenton, from 4.3% and 3.3% the last two years in West Virginia. It jumped again to 7.9% in Altoona. The highlight of Escobar’s game is his defense, with the arm strength and range to play center field, and his ability to play all three outfield spots giving him value as a future bench player. If he ever breaks out, he could be an average starter in the majors, but his likely upside would be a fourth outfielder.
10. Alex McRae, RHP – McRae put up some strong numbers in Bradenton, especially after the month of April. His first month of the year wasn’t bad from a results standpoint, but he was mostly pitching to contact and wasn’t that dominant, with just 9 strikeouts and 11 walks in 25 innings. He changed that during the month of May, upping his total to 21 strikeouts and just 3 walks in 36 innings. That led to a promotion in early June to Altoona, where he had a rough start, but looked like one of the best pitchers on the staff in his final two months. McRae primarily works off a sinking fastball that tops out at 94 MPH, along with a slider that improved by the end of the year. His most likely role in the future looks to be a middle reliever, with the ability to work off his two-seamer and slider combo. The Pirates sent him to the AFL this off-season, where he’s been getting work as a two inning reliever, possibly setting him up for a transition in 2017.
Other Notable Players: Pablo Reyes would probably have gotten a lot of playing time at shortstop on a team without so many big shortstop prospects. He’s not a guy who projects to stick at that position long-term, due to his inconsistent play in the field, but has the range and tools, and looks flashy at times. He moved around this year, looking the best at second base, but struggling a lot when he moved to center field. He’s got some power potential, which makes him valuable as a middle infielder, although sometimes he tries to hit for too much power, throwing him off his game. He still does well in making contact, with a 13.2% strikeout rate and a 10.4% walk rate. In a weaker system, he’d be getting more playing time, but was kind of blocked by all of the middle infield prospects around him on this team. Tanner Anderson really stepped up in Bradenton, seeing his velocity consistently in the 92-93 MPH range, touching 94 and 95 at times. He’s got a lot of sink to his fastball, and relies on the pitch a lot, adding some deception with his delivery. He needs to develop a better out pitch to become a solid reliever in the future. The Pirates appear to be giving him more of a look, making him a starter in the AFL, which will give him more innings to work on his other pitches.