I mentioned yesterday morning that the Pittsburgh Pirates had a strong group of pitchers going in the minors. Mitch Keller, Brandon Waddell and Oddy Nunez didn’t have the best season debuts. In fact, Keller allowed five earned runs over 2.1 innings, after not allowing more than four earned runs in a single game last year. Tyler Eppler pitched brilliantly in his Triple-A debut, throwing five shutout innings. So it was a bad day for the group, especially with the top pitching prospect in the system getting hit around, but there was a silver lining.
Today’s group of starting pitchers gives yesterday’s quartet a run for their money. You have Clay Holmes making his Triple-A debut today, after making a strong impression on the Pirates (specifically Ray Searage) in Spring Training. Then you have JT Brubaker making his Altoona debut after splitting last year between West Virginia and Bradenton. Taylor Hearn, who is the highest rated prospect going today, makes his Bradenton debut. He’s followed by Luis Escobar, who has the potential to vault into the top five for Pirates prospects by the end of the season. Their rankings in our 2017 Prospect Guide were:
I’ll point out that the top three guys on that list have moved up one spot due to Josh Bell losing his prospect status on Opening Day. Brubaker has actually moved up two spots, because he was just behind Lisalverto Bonilla, who the Pirates designated for assignment (and lost) after acquiring Pat Light.
I pointed out in the Indianapolis preview that Holmes had huge upside, but needed some work refining his control and secondary pitches. The Pirates just added him to the 40-man roster this year and he’s already in Triple-A, so there is no reason to think they will rush him with so much time on his side. Holmes impressed in Spring Training though, throwing a 95 MPH cutter with a ton of movement and hitting 96 MPH with his fastball. I expect some bumps in Triple-A this year, but he is a fun pitcher to watch when he is on his game.
Brubaker gets lost a little here because he doesn’t have the big velocity or the high upside. You’re talking about a back-end starter, but there’s a good chance he reaches that potential. I saw him pitch numerous times last year and his biggest issues seemed to be elevating the ball at times, and pitch selection. He had a tendency to stick with what was working too long. For example, he would get batters to chase on his slider outside the zone a few times in a row, then stick with the pitch as his primary pitch well after they stopped chasing. The same thing would happen with his fastball and eventually guys would sit on the pitch. Brubaker pitched well when we saw him this spring and I think his experience will help him out this season. Also having a veteran glove-first catcher in Zane Chavez should help him out with the pitch selection issue.
Hearn is the biggest upside pitcher going today and the hardest thrower, as someone who has touched 100 MPH. He will be the one to watch…assuming Bradenton has their video feed up today, because it wasn’t working for their home opener yesterday. Hearn will be working on his fastball command, controlling his slider and using his changeup more this season. The big focus is commanding the fastball, so you may see some uneven outings with more advanced hitters feeding off the fastball-heavy approach. Then again, they might not be ready for 96+ MPH fastballs from a tall lefty, so expect the strikeouts to pile up this season.
Luis Escobar is the prospect you can be least sure about going into the year. I could see him ending up as the #5 prospect in the system, or he could be below his current ranking in next year’s Prospect Guide. He definitely has the stuff to be #5 with a fastball that touches 97 MPH, a curveball that has the makings of a plus pitch and a changeup he can use for strikeouts. The problems are the high-effort delivery from a somewhat small frame (for a pitcher) and the lack of command on those pitches. He got a lot of chases on curves well out of the zone for strikeouts last year, so more advanced hitters will force him to throw more strikes, or at least get closer to the zone. That might not happen in Low-A, but he did go less than five innings in half of his starts last year due to control issues.
For Escobar to really drop in the rankings, he would have to be moved to a relief role and the farm system would have to remain strong for depth. That relief role is a possibility for the future, but he would have to be bad this year for that to happen. Safe bet for his 2018 ranking would be slightly ahead of where he is now.
It’s just one start for everyone and all of them are at new levels this year. I’ll be watching Hearn if the Bradenton video feed is working today, or go to Holmes as my backup plan.
** I wanted to mention that we will be covering fewer minor league games this year. Not because we want to be lazy, it’s because the International League has gone from 144 games down to 142 this season, while the Eastern League went from 142 down to 140. The International League will go down to 140 in 2018. I doubt anyone would have noticed or cared, except maybe Brian Peloza and Sean McCool, who each lost one home game to cover.
PIRATES GAME GRAPH
Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates won 6-4 over the Braves on Saturday night. The Pirates go for the sweep today, as Gerrit Cole makes his second start of the season after allowing five runs over five innings on Opening Day against Boston. The minor league starters were covered up top. All of the games today have early afternoon start times.
MLB: Pittsburgh (2-2) vs Braves (1-4) 1:35 PM
Probable starter: Gerrit Cole (9.00 ERA, 1:2 BB/SO, 5.0 IP)
AAA: Indianapolis (2-1) vs Toledo (1-2) 1:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Clay Holmes (NR)
AA: Altoona (2-1) @ Harrisburg (1-2) 1:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: JT Brubaker (NR)
High-A: Bradenton (3-0) vs Charlotte (0-3) 1:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Taylor Hearn (NR)
Low-A: West Virginia (0-3) vs Rome (3-0) 2:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Luis Escobar (NR)
I didn’t plan to use Max Moroff as the highlight two nights in a row, but I doubt he planned to homer three nights in a row. It would be irresponsible of me to break the streak.
4/7: Junior Lopez suspended 25 games
4/4: Pirates sign pitcher Yoandy Fernandez
4/4: Pirates release Francis Rodriguez, Adrian Grullon, Robbie Coursel and Nestor Oronel
3/29: Pirates release Jason Creasy and Justin Topa
3/29: Pirates release Jared Hughes
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
On this date in 1930, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes to the Boston Braves for pitcher Percy Jones and cash. This trade didn’t work out well for the Pirates, who failed to get a single win out of Jones, while Grimes won 33 games over the next two seasons. Grimes would end up coming back to the Pirates to finish his career in 1934.
The only former player born on this date, pitcher Claude Passeau, is one that got away from the Pirates. After using him for one game in 1935 (his MLB debut), the Pirates traded him to the Phillies. Passeau ended up winning 162 games in his career. The Pirates got catcher Al Todd in return for Passeau and he had three strong seasons in Pittsburgh, but they also threw in catcher Earl Grace, who was a capable backup for two seasons. They won the catcher part of the deal, but lost out big with the pitcher.
The first time the Pirates ever played on April 9th might surprise you, considering how many years they were around prior to that season. In the early years of baseball, the season began much later, with games opening up in early May at one point. It wasn’t until 1959, that the Pirates opened a season before April 11th. That year, they opened up on the road at Crosley Field, dropping a 4-1 decision to the Reds. You can see the boxscore here. Roberto Clemente drove in the only run for the Pirates.
Also on this date in 2001, the Pirates opened up PNC Park on a somber note, as Willie Stargell passed away that same day. The Pirates lost 8-2 to the Reds in front of 36,954 fans.