Every year it seems like West Virginia has the big breakout prospect in the system. Guys like Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Tyler Glasnow, and even smaller breakout stories like JaCoby Jones, Dilson Herrera, and Yeudy Garcia have all come from West Virginia. That was no different in 2016. They had the biggest breakout prospect once again, with right-handed pitcher Mitch Keller making some huge strides, and emerging as a potential top of the rotation option. The West Virginia prospect list was very top-heavy, with other impact prospects like Taylor Hearn, Gage Hinsz, and Ke’Bryan Hayes joining Keller at the top of this list. There’s a good chance that this West Virginia list will have more top 20 prospects next year than any other list in the system, with Keller battling it out for the top spot for the Pirates. Here are the reports on the top prospects at the level, starting off by breaking down Keller’s big breakout.
TOP 10 WEST VIRGINIA POWER PROSPECTS
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 140 at-bats, 40 innings pitched, or 20 relief appearances. We made an exception with Taylor Hearn, who only had 22.2 innings with the team, but 45.1 innings at the level this year when you include his innings before the trade that brought him over. This has typically been the level over the last few years where the biggest breakouts have come from, and that happened again this year. However, just like the lower levels, these players are still graded mostly based on projection than actual results.
1. Mitch Keller, RHP – There was no better story in the farm system this year than the breakout of Mitch Keller. One might say that he improved his command and his velocity bigly, leading to the better numbers. He made a small mechanical adjustment last off-season, keeping his front arm firm and above his waist during his delivery, rather than allowing it to loop down in the past. This went a long way to improving his command, taking him from 16 walks last year in 19.2 innings in Bristol, to 19 walks in 130.1 innings this year between West Virginia and Bradenton. His velocity has been ticking up since he was drafted, and took a big jump this year, finishing the season sitting 94-97 and touching as high as 99 MPH. What makes the fastball even better is that he can command the pitch well, moving it all over the zone and dominating most of the year just with his fastball in the first few innings. His curveball has some sharp tilt, and while there are some command issues that make it inconsistent at times, he’s got the ability to generate a lot of strikeouts with the pitch. He also worked to improve the changeup this year, and while that pitch lags behind the other two offerings, he got to a point where he was comfortable throwing it throughout his outings. Keller has emerged arguably as the top prospect in the system, even with Tyler Glasnow in the mix. He’s got top of the rotation potential, and could move through the system quickly, with a shot at the majors as early as mid-season 2018.
2. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B – Hayes had a strong start to the year, hitting for an .826 OPS in April after an aggressive push to West Virginia in his first full pro season. He showed off his strong defense at third base, ranking as the best defensive third base prospect in the system. The hope was that the offense was finally starting to show through, but that went away when he started to struggle during the month of May. He continued to struggle until going on the disabled list in early July with a back injury. It’s hard to say whether it was the back injury that impacted Hayes, or the league adjusting to him. If it’s the latter, then the back injury didn’t give him a chance to adjust back. He later dealt with a cracked rib, which prevented him from returning this season, or during instructs. With Will Craig in the system and expected to go to Bradenton, and Hayes seeing his season ended early, I’d expect to see Hayes returning to West Virginia in 2017. If he hits well, then he could move up by mid-season, with Craig moving to Altoona, similar to what happened in 2016 with Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker. Hayes has some good offensive tools, with a good approach at the plate and gap power that could turn into home run power as he fills out. He just needs a chance to show that in the games, and he didn’t get much of a chance to do that this year.
3. Taylor Hearn, LHP – Hearn was acquired in the Mark Melancon trade in late August, and ended up pitching 22.2 innings for West Virginia. He missed part of the year in the Nationals’ system with a foot injury, and it’s possible the Pirates wouldn’t have gotten him without that injury, as it prevented him from showing what he could do as a starter at the level. He’s got an electric fastball, sitting 96-97 MPH consistently, and touching as high as 99. He’s working on commanding the pitch, and has seen some good results limiting his throwing program to 120 feet, which keeps his mechanics more consistent. He also added a brief mechanical change during instructs, aimed at incorporating his legs more for power, rather than relying on the upper body and the arm as much. He’s comfortable enough with the changeup that he put it aside and focused on developing his slider this year, which looked like an out pitch with a lot of depth by the end of the year. Hearn is the most electric arm the Pirates have in the lower levels, and if he can continue fixing his command with the small adjustments he’s made so far, then he’ll be a starting pitching prospect to watch, easily capable of being more than a back of the rotation starter. At the least, he doesn’t look like he will need a lot of work to become a late inning, hard throwing lefty like Felipe Rivero, who came over in the same trade.
4. Gage Hinsz, RHP – Hinsz has been a step behind Keller throughout their development, and that continued this year. While Keller saw improvements with his velocity and command, Hinsz saw the same improvements, just on a smaller scale. He went from walking 23 batters in 38 innings last year in Bristol to walking 25 in 93.1 innings. He still had some lapses in his control at times, with the fastball not always effective. He did see a velocity increase, sitting 92-95 MPH with good movement on the fastball. This puts him a step behind Keller in the velocity department, but ahead of where Keller was heading into the season. His curveball has also turned into a strikeout pitch, and while that didn’t always show up in games, there is plus potential there. He might not end up a top of the rotation guy like Keller projects, but Hinsz has a lot of the same tools. Right now he’d have to improve his command and increase the velocity to match Keller, and there’s no ruling out that this could happen as he continues to move up in the system.
5. JT Brubaker, RHP – Brubaker put up some impressive numbers with West Virginia, earning him a mid-season promotion to Bradenton. He struggled at the start of the season, then improved his control in his final few starts at the level, while also dominating to the tune of 27 strikeouts and just four walks in 17 innings over his final three starts. Once he arrived in Bradenton, he continued to struggle, but settled down and was dominant by the end of the year, just in time to be the hero of the playoffs, winning both clinching games for Bradenton. Brubaker features a 90-93 MPH fastball and has the chance to add velocity to his tall, skinny frame. He doesn’t really need the extra velocity when he’s locating his fastball well, which allows him to set up his slider, which has strikeout ability. Brubaker has a shot at being a back of the rotation starter in the majors, with a good fastball when he commands it, a lot of comfort with the changeup, and his slider completing the three pitch mix.
6. Mitchell Tolman, 2B – Tolman has shown a great ability to get on base, with some good patience at the plate. This year he walked 71 times, compared to 68 strikeouts, and had a .370 OBP. He’s got a bit of power for a middle infielder, mostly in the form of gap power, although it didn’t show up consistently in the stats this year. He was drafted as a third baseman, but spent all season this year at second base, making a similar move that the Pirates made with Dan Gamache and Erich Weiss, who were also college third basemen quickly moved to second. His bat plays better at second base, but he doesn’t look like a starter in the long-term. His value would be similar to those other two players, with the chance to be a utility infielder one day, and a good chance to reach the upper levels due to his plate patience.
7. Christian Kelley, C – Kelley was drafted in the 11th round of the 2015 draft, and the Pirates gave him a $100,000 bonus, which is the maximum a pick after the 10th round can receive without being counted toward the bonus pool. It was no surprise then that he got the bulk of the catching duties in West Virginia this year, eventually getting promoted to Bradenton at the end of the year to start taking time from Taylor Gushue. Kelley didn’t have the best offense, with a low average and not a lot of power, but did a good job of getting on base. The highlight was his defense, with Kelley improving his game calling, and throwing out 36% of runners in West Virginia, followed by 38% in his short time in Bradenton. With Gushue traded, expect the Pirates to give Kelley the bulk of the catching duties in Bradenton next year. He’s got strong defense, and enough offense to get him to the upper levels, with a chance to be a backup catcher one day.
8. Tanner Anderson, RHP – Anderson started the year as a reliever for West Virginia, eventually moving up to Bradenton by the end of the season, where he emerged as a top relief option in their championship run. He combined for a 3.58 ERA in 88 innings between the two levels, along with a 50:22 K/BB ratio. His performance this year earned him a trip to the Arizona Fall League, where he has been working as a starting pitcher. Anderson has some good velocity, sitting 92-93 most nights, and hitting 94 and 95 this year. He’s got some good sink to his fastball, which he relies on most of the time, and some good deception with his delivery. He doesn’t have a good strikeout pitch at the moment, benefitting from deception and the angle and movement on his fastball. However, the Pirates are giving him a good push, which makes sense, as he could be a good reliever in the long-term if he adds a strikeout pitch to pair with the fastball.
9. Logan Sendelbach, RHP – Sendelbach had a rough debut in Bristol last year, leaving his fastball up in the zone often and getting hit pretty hard to the tune of a 5.23 ERA in 43 innings. He did a better job of keeping his sinker down this year, and had better results, with a 3.75 ERA in 139.1 innings. His velocity isn’t overpowering, at 88-92 MPH, but the late movement on the pitch adds some deception. He worked this year to add a changeup, switching to a new grip, and hoping to use the pitch to get more strikeouts. He was getting a lot of swings and misses on the pitch by the end of the season, and the changeup late in the year looked improved over what I saw from him early in the season. He doesn’t have much margin for error with his stuff, and if one pitch is off, his entire game could be off. However, he’s got two good pitches to work with, along with a low-80s slider that gives hitters another look, giving Sendelbach a shot at being a relief prospect in the future.
10. Logan Hill, OF – Hill entered the season with a lot of promise, getting a push to Bradenton after putting up impressive numbers and showing some good hitting tools in Morgantown last year. He struggled in Bradenton, striking out 27.8% of the time and hitting for a low average with a drop in power. The crowded Bradenton roster led to him getting a decrease in playing time, and eventually he got demoted to West Virginia. After some initial struggles, he started hitting again, showing some similar results as his pro debut. From July to the end of the season, he had a .907 OPS with a .249 ISO and dropped his strikeout rate to 21.1%. None of this means anything if he can’t put up these results at the higher levels, but these numbers will get him another shot at Bradenton next year. His power potential is intriguing if he can keep the strikeouts down and learn to hit above Low-A.
Other Notable Players: Casey Hughston has a lot of tools, with a big frame, some surprising speed for his size, and a lot of raw power potential. However, he struggles on pitches on the outer half of the plate, leading to a 34.9% strikeout rate. That actually improved from earlier in the year, but Low-A pitchers were still attacking him on the outside, exploiting his weakness. He’s going to have even more problems in the upper levels with this issue, since more advanced pitchers will have better command and hit that outer half easier. If he can somehow fix this problem, he’d soar up the prospect list. However, very few players at his stage fix such a big problem. Dario Agrazal showed a velocity increase with his sinker, touching 95 MPH this year, along with a hard curve and a changeup. He struggled in the first half, with a 5.20 ERA in 13 starts, but had much better results in the second half with a 3.45 ERA in 14 starts, along with a much higher ground ball rate. He had good control throughout the season, with better results at the end of the year. He doesn’t have a good strikeout pitch, but when he’s keeping the ball down, he can get ground balls better than anyone else on the team. Carlos Munoz and Danny Arribas split most of the time at first base this year. Munoz has a good ability to get on base and some power potential, but his conditioning raises questions about how far he can make it in pro ball. Arribas is more athletic, can also get on base and hit for some power, and has a lot of versatility, which should get him to at least Double-A. Between the two, Arribas is the better prospect, although both have fringe prospect status at best.