The Bradenton Marauders won the 2016 Florida State League championship, and most of the players from that team are now making the jump to Altoona. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that group repeat at the higher level. Altoona doesn’t have the prospect depth that Indianapolis has, or the higher upside guys that Bradenton has. They do have a lot of good players, and a few breakout candidates.
Altoona has seen a few breakouts in recent years, with the most successful guy being Adam Frazier in 2015. They could see the same thing from a few of their hitters this year, with the top candidates being Kevin Kramer and Connor Joe. Those two join some other talented hitters, led by 2015 first round pick Kevin Newman.
The biggest boost to the team might come in the second half, as Bradenton has several prospects who could get promoted by the middle of the year. That would include top pitching prospect Mitch Keller, along with recent first round picks Will Craig and Cole Tucker. The promotions could also include Taylor Hearn and Gage Hinsz on the pitching side by the end of the season. Altoona is starting the year with some promising prospects and a few big breakout candidates. They could end the year with the best team in the system.
Here are the top ten prospects at the level, based on our rankings in the 2017 Prospect Guide.
1. Kevin Newman, SS – Newman is the shortstop of the future in Pittsburgh, and doesn’t project to be in Altoona for long. He made the jump to Double-A last year at mid-season, hitting for a .288/.361/.378 line in 268 plate appearances. The average and OBP were solid, but he’s working on adding some more power to his game. He won’t be a home run hitter, and isn’t aiming for that, but has narrowed his stance a bit in the last year to hit more line drives for extra bases.
A lot of the focus for Newman in the last year has been on his defense. Heading into the 2016 season his defense at short was questionable as to whether he could stick at the position. There isn’t much of a question now, as Newman showed enough last year to give hope he could be a starter. He’s still working on his routes on ground balls and his fielding efficiency, which will hold him back in Altoona a bit longer than his bat would need. He should move up to Indianapolis by mid-season, and could have a shot in Pittsburgh by the end of the year, with an opportunity to take over as the starter in 2018.
2. Yeudy Garcia, RHP – Garcia was the breakout prospect of the year in 2015, but didn’t match that performance in 2016. Statistically, he didn’t have a bad year, with a 2.76 ERA and an 8.98 K/9 in his move up to Bradenton. Behind those numbers, he didn’t look like the same pitcher. He was throwing 93-96 MPH easily in 2015, and had better command of his pitches. His velocity dropped in 2016 and he struggled with command for most of the year, leading to a lot of 20+ pitch innings and early exits in his starts.
Garcia had minor shoulder surgery at the end of the year to clean up some things that were causing him pain throughout the season. That could be the cause for the reduced velocity and the command issues. However, those crept up again in Spring Training this year, and he was sitting 90-93 most of the time. He’s got the stuff to be a top prospect in the system, but there’s also concern he could move the other direction in the rankings if we see more of what happened in 2016. His jump to Altoona will be a big test to see where he will move going forward.
3. Kevin Kramer, 2B – Last year at this time I had Kramer as a breakout candidate for the 2016 season. He was crushing doubles almost every day in Spring Training, and looked like a guy who could hit enough to be a legit second base prospect. He went to Bradenton and the hard contact continued all year, but that didn’t translate over to the stat line. Kramer continues to hit the ball hard, once again impressing during Spring Training this year, and once again looking like a breakout candidate.
Kramer isn’t just relying on escaping the Florida State League for the Eastern League. He is also working on his swing path, aiming to keep the barrel in the zone for a longer period of time. He has adjusted well to second base after being mostly a shortstop through college. If the power can translate to the field, then Kramer won’t have anything holding him back from a future as a starting second baseman. He’s not going to be an impact player at the position, but could provide at least average production, with a fallback of being a utility infielder with his previous work at shortstop and some work at third base.
4. Brandon Waddell, LHP – Waddell was quickly promoted to Altoona last year after dominating the Florida State League the first few weeks of the season. He will return to the level this year in part because he’s blocked in Indianapolis, but also because he didn’t carry over the same results to the higher level. Waddell definitely received a challenge after his promotion, and didn’t show the same control he had in the lower levels. That’s a problem, since a lot of his game is based on mixing speeds and commanding his stuff.
Waddell throws two fastballs, with a sinker that sits in the upper 80s, and a four seam that can get up to 93 MPH. The sinker is the more effective pitch, but Waddell needs the four seam in order to remain a starter, since that is a weapon against right-handers. He has a curveball, slider, and a changeup, but none of the pitches grade as much better than average. Fortunately, they don’t grade lower than average. He can get some swings and misses, but needs his command to be on. The 2017 season will give Waddell a second shot at Altoona, and he will need to get his control back on track to put himself in the crowded starting pitching prospect mix. His upside with the Pirates would be a depth starter or a lefty reliever, but he has the chance to be a back of the rotation guy in another organization.
5. JT Brubaker, RHP – Brubaker was the hero of the Bradenton Marauders’ championship run last year, pitching a gem for the clinching games in both the first round and the championship series. He started the year in West Virginia, and after improving his fastball command, made the jump to Bradenton. His performance was inconsistent, but he settled down by the end of the year and showed the improve command at just the right time. He features a fastball that sits in the low-90s, but his tall, skinny frame has room for some muscle, and he could add some velocity in the future if he fills out.
The Pirates gave him a push to Altoona this year, although he will probably spend the whole year at the level, rather than a mid-season promotion like last year. There are too many talented pitching prospects ahead of him, and guys like Waddell and Alex McRae who are returning to Altoona would get the priority. Brubaker could emerge as a back of the rotation starter, with his curveball and changeup giving him a nice mix of three pitches that are at least average. That probably won’t happen with the Pirates, as his upside with this team would be a depth starter or a reliever.
6. Connor Joe, 1B – Kramer wasn’t the only hitter in Bradenton who hit the ball hard all year without the stats to show for it. Joe was doing the same thing, really increasing that trend in the final months of the season. He’s got some of the best raw power on this team, which is part of what made him a first round compensation pick in 2014. The power hasn’t shown up consistently in the stats, but this could be the year that changes, especially after fully recovering from his back injury in 2014-15 and escaping the Florida State League.
Joe was drafted as an outfielder, then moved to first base when he was recovering from the back injury. He moved to third base last year, which was the plan for him when he got healthy, but will be moving back to first this year, with Wyatt Mathisen getting time at third. Joe hadn’t played third since high school, so he was understandably raw at the position. He showed some good agility, but didn’t have the first step quickness needed for the position. He has looked better at first base, but that position will require the power to finally show up in his game. He’s another breakout candidate for this team, falling right behind Kramer.
7. Jin-De Jhang, C – The Pirates traded a few catching prospects in the last year, which had the side effect of clearing up playing time in the lower levels. This also created the first good opportunity for Jhang to get a shot as a starting catcher, as he’s been stuck behind Reese McGuire the last few years. However, his opportunity won’t happen until May, as he was held back on the DL to start the year with an oblique injury. Jhang is the best pure hitting catcher the Pirates have, and has the frame to hit for some power. The question is whether that frame can keep him behind the plate.
To his credit, Jhang has done a good job of maintaining his weight, and he’s surprisingly quick for his size. He’s also agile behind the plate, and can definitely handle the catching duties. Despite being from Taiwan, he has learned English well enough to communicate and have a good relationship with his pitchers. He also does a great job framing pitches and has a plus arm. All of the skills are there for him to reach the majors behind the plate, and we’ll get a chance this year to see how good he could eventually be now that his development won’t be blocked.
8. Jordan Luplow, LF – Luplow has shown a trend the last two years where he starts slow, then starts tearing up the league in the second half. This could be due to a slower adjustment period to each level, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if it happens again this year as he moves up to Altoona. He’s got some power potential, with the ability to hit a lot of doubles and some over the fence. The Pirates have tried him at third base, but that experiment ended last year when he moved back to the outfield.
Luplow is another breakout candidate, similar to Kramer and Joe. However, he needs much more offensive production in the future to have a shot at being a starter. His defense in left field won’t be a liability, but most of his value will come from the bat. His upside would be a fourth outfielder, or an average starter on a weaker team. That means his chances of playing for the Pirates as more than a depth option are slim going forward. One thing in his favor is that they’ve traded a lot of outfield prospects in recent years, giving him an open path to continue moving up as an outfielder.
9. Jared Lakind, LHRP – Lakind was originally drafted as a first baseman, but made the switch to being a pitcher after his hitting career stalled in the low levels. He eventually turned into a prospect, sitting in the low 90s and touching 94 with his fastball, while adding some deception with his delivery. He also throws a slider that is very tough on lefties, and which can generate some strikeouts. The Pirates re-signed Lakind this past offseason right after he became eligible for free agency. He will return to Altoona this year, but should eventually move up to Indianapolis, and could have a shot at the majors in September if he repeats the season he had in 2016. His upside would be a middle reliever in the majors who would be very tough on lefties.
10. Elvis Escobar, CF – Escobar hasn’t put up the best numbers in pro ball, but the tools are definitely there. Scouts I’ve talked with have loved his game, and have been predicting that he will reach the majors, even if it’s only a fourth outfield or a depth role. He’s a strong defender in center field with speed, range, and a good arm. He also has the ability to make contact and hit for line drives, with his speed helping him to get some extra bases. Escobar is getting to the point where he will need to start showing his tools in the stat line in order to keep moving up and have a shot at the majors.
Other Notable Prospects – Alex McRae got off to a rough start in Bradenton last year, then improved quickly enough to get a mid-season promotion to Altoona. He didn’t have the best overall numbers in Altoona, but was one of the best pitchers down the stretch. If he can carry that over to the 2017 season, he could have a shot at moving up to Indianapolis. His upside would be a middle reliever working heavily off his two-seam fastball. Tanner Anderson has emerged as another pitcher to watch, featuring a Bronson Arroyo style high leg kick delivery and a fastball that gets up to 93-94 MPH. He started as a relief pitcher last year in West Virginia, but eventually got up to pitching extended innings in Bradenton, and is making the jump to the rotation this year. He works almost exclusively off his fastball, with a lot of deception from his delivery. His slider can generate some swings and misses, and he will need that in order to work out as a starter. His upside would be a middle reliever.
Wyatt Mathisen lost a lot of weight over the offseason, coming into camp in great shape. He has dealt with injuries in the past, including a shoulder injury last year which kept him out for part of the season. He has also shown improved defense at third base, enough that the Pirates made him the primary starter in Altoona. Mathisen has a good ability to hit for contact, but needs to show more power to continue moving up. That might not happen with the smaller frame, so he will need to really increase his hitting while relying on his defense to provide a lot of value. Edwin Espinal will be the DH, but could also get time at first and third. He’s got a big frame and a lot of raw power, along with good contact skills. His problem is consistency. He will get a chance to focus primarily on his hitting this year, which he will need, since he projects as a 1B/DH in the future.