It’s difficult to gather a prospect group as talented as the group that will start the year in Bradenton. The Marauders are headlined by Mitch Keller, who is the top pitching prospect in the system, but it doesn’t stop there. They have six of the top ten prospects in the system heading into the year (or six of eight, if you remove Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow), and three of the five first round picks between 2014 and 2016 (with the other two starting in Altoona). They also have two more top young pitchers in Gage Hinsz and Taylor Hearn just behind Keller.
From a national standpoint, Keller is the only guy in the group who rates as a consensus top 100 prospect, but the other five could step up this year into those rankings. That would help replace some of the top talent that will be graduating from Indianapolis, with Josh Bell already losing prospect eligibility this year, and Tyler Glasnow not far behind him.
On the hitting side, the Florida State League is one of the most pitcher friendly leagues in baseball. That tends to keep the offensive numbers down, making it difficult to evaluate players by their numbers. This will make the live reports more important for this level, with the numbers being more of a focus when players move up to Altoona.
Here are the top ten prospects at the level, based on our rankings in the 2017 Prospect Guide.
1. Mitch Keller, RHP – This time last year, Keller looked like one of the more promising pitching prospects in the lower levels. He was primed for a breakout season, but I don’t think anyone expected him to improve as much as he did in such a quick way. He went from a promising young pitching prospect to the best pitching prospect in the system, and that includes Tyler Glasnow. Keller has the mid-90s velocity that Glasnow and Jameson Taillon had when they were coming through A-ball. He’s got the plus breaking pitch to get a lot of strikeouts. The difference is that he has better fastball command than Glasnow did at the time, and better movement than Taillon had at the time. He’s also more advanced than either of them were with the changeup at this stage.
Keller is ahead of where Glasnow and Taillon were at this stage in their development. If you wanted to compare his progression and expectations to another Pirates pitching prospect, I’d go with Gerrit Cole. When Cole was in High-A, he had some things to work on, but you knew he had top of the rotation upside one day, and it wouldn’t be long until he was in the majors. I could see Keller making it to Altoona in the second half of this season, with a chance to reach the majors in the second half of 2018. His work this year will involve adjusting to a higher level of hitters, and learning when to throw his pitches, while also continuing to improve the changeup and the extension fastball for his approach against lefties.
2. Cole Tucker, SS – Tucker returned from labrum surgery last year and got a push to Bradenton at mid-season. He showed some promise at the plate, but it was only in short bursts. He would hit a hard line drive, then follow that with four weak grounders that didn’t make it out of the infield. He added a load to his swing over the offseason, along with a bit of a leg kick, aiming to generate more power from his tall, skinny frame. Offensively, he has the upside to hit for average and add more power than Kevin Newman, although he is much more raw at the plate.
The defense took a big step forward for Tucker last year. He returned with the same arm strength he had before his labrum surgery, and by the end of the year he looked much more smooth and fluid at the position, taking efficient routes and looking very comfortable. If his offense develops, I could see Tucker being the better shortstop prospect in the future and eventually pushing Newman over to second base, primarily due to the comfort he has shown at the shortstop position in the last year. This year will be a big test for him on both sides of the ball, especially in the second half, as he is expected to be promoted to Altoona shortly after Newman moves up to Indianapolis.
3. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B – The Pirates are giving Hayes a bit of an aggressive push. He missed half of the 2016 season with a cracked rib. Before the injury, he had about two months in West Virginia where his offense looked great, and declined in the final month. It’s hard to say whether that decline was due to the injury, or opposing pitchers adjusting to him. Defensively, Hayes can easily handle a higher level, as he is the best defensive third baseman in the system. The big question with his game is how much he will hit, and how much power he will add.
Hayes did drop some weight this offseason. He was never in a bad spot with his weight, but looks very slim now. Part of that is due to the rib injury, and he probably has some weight to add back to his frame. He has room to add some muscle, which might bring some power going forward, and he should still be able to stick at third base with the bigger frame. For now, he’s a guy who does well hitting line drives to the gaps, putting up a good average and OBP, with some extra base power. We’ll see how the bat translates to the higher level this year, and get a better answer on how much the rib injury impacted his hitting.
4. Will Craig, 1B – Hayes moving up means that the Pirates are moving their 2016 first rounder over to first base. Craig can play third base, but doesn’t project to stick there for the long-term. At best, he would be able to stick there for a few years in the majors, but that all depends on his conditioning. Hayes is clearly the better defender, and Craig has experience at first base and can handle that position, so this switch makes sense for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he moves up to Altoona in the second half and gets some work at third base again, splitting with Connor Joe and Wyatt Mathisen.
At the plate, Craig has a similar approach to Kevin Newman, only with more power. He’s a pure hitter who makes solid contact, controls the strike zone, and can hit a few over the fence. He started off slow last year in Morgantown, only to hit the cover off the ball in his final month. That is similar to what Newman did in his debut, and he followed up with some outstanding hitting in Bradenton. I could see the same thing from Craig, forcing a promotion to Altoona by June.
5. Taylor Hearn, LHP – The Pirates added Hearn in the Mark Melancon trade last year. Felipe Rivero is going to make that trade look good at the MLB level for several years, but Hearn could make it look like a steal. He’s a tall lefty with an electric fastball that sits 94-97 and touches as high as 100 MPH. His problem comes with his control, which the Pirates are working to fix with some small adjustments to his delivery. So far he hasn’t seen immediate results, but will have the entire season in the rotation to work on his issues. This will actually be his first full season in pro ball, after missing time with a broken foot last year, so we’ll get a chance to see what a full season can do for his development.
Hearn already made some good strides last year, adding a new slider that turned into a strikeout pitch. The pitch became so good, so quick that a lot of the reports around the time of the trade assumed he had the slider for a long time and needed to develop a changeup. The truth is that he has thrown a changeup since he was 8 years old, but shelved the pitch in order to improve the slider. That worked out, and we should get a chance to see all three offerings in 2017. The Pirates could make Hearn a reliever and speed him up to the majors, where he’d have an upside similar to Rivero. However, it makes sense to try him as a starter and see if he can stick in that role, since he has top of the rotation stuff.
6. Gage Hinsz, RHP – The breakout from Keller last year hid the fact that Hinsz had his own type of breakout season. He started the 2016 season late due to a car accident at the end of Spring Training, but returned to Extended Spring Training impressing scouts with a fastball that was now consistently hitting 95 MPH and a curveball that was looking like a plus pitch at times. He also showed improvements with his command, basically making the same improvements that Keller made, just on a smaller scale.
There is still room for Hinsz to improve. He has been a step behind Keller at each stage in their development, and keeps improving his game to remain a step behind Keller. If he can take that next step — the one Keller took last year — then the Pirates will have two very promising right-handed pitchers coming up through the lower levels.
7. Mitchell Tolman, 2B – The rest of the infield is made up of first round talent from previous years, but that doesn’t mean you should sleep on Tolman. There is definitely a drop off in talent once you get to this point in the list, but Tolman still is in a similar talent tier to the starters in Altoona and Indianapolis, ranking as a top 50 prospect who has a shot at the top 30 by the end of the year. Tolman is a good pure hitter who can add some power, not just with extra bases, but with some home run power.
The Pirates originally drafted Tolman as a third baseman, but moved him to second immediately where his bat plays better. He has taken to the position well, and will probably eventually get some time at third as he moves up, just for versatility purposes. For now, he is locked in at second base, rounding out a very talented infield and hoping to emerge to be a future MLB option, with his upside likely being a utility infielder.
8. Christian Kelley, C – The Pirates traded a few catching prospects in the last year, and while that was going on, they had Kelley emerging as a strong defender and a legit prospect. They promoted him to Bradenton by the end of the year, then gave him some time in MLB Spring Training this year. Kelley’s highlight is his defense, with a strong arm, solid receiving skills, and great work with his pitching staff. But he could be more than just a typical strong defender.
Kelley has some power potential with his bat, and has shown flashes of his ability to hit. He could end up as a backup catcher in the majors one day, with a chance to add some power off the bench, while not hitting for a high average. But he’s also a bit raw, and there’s a chance he could shoot higher than that, with a shot at becoming a starter. That’s a long shot right now, but Kelley will get plenty of time to develop his game and show what kind of prospect he can become, especially with last year’s trades of Taylor Gushue and Reese McGuire clearing his path.
9. Jake Brentz, LHP – The Pirates added Brentz last year in the Arquimedes Caminero trade. He’s a hard throwing lefty who came in to the system hitting 96-97 MPH, but bumped that up to 97-100 MPH this spring. He doesn’t have good control, which may be due to the fact that this is only his fourth season as a full time pitcher. The Pirates are moving him to the bullpen, where he will get work in multiple innings. Typically a low level reliever doesn’t qualify as a prospect, since low level relievers rarely make the majors. This is a rare case, since you can’t really ignore a lefty with the velocity that Brentz has. If he can add some control, the Pirates could have yet another lefty relief prospect who sits upper 90s and can hit triple digits.
10. Pedro Vasquez, RHP – The other half of the Caminero trade, Vasquez will be in the starting rotation. He doesn’t have the electric stuff that Brentz has, with a sinking fastball that usually sits 89-94. Vasquez hasn’t put up a lot of strikeouts in the past, but was getting some good swings and misses this spring at times with his curveball. He also throws a changeup, and has good control of all his pitches. Right now he’s more of a wild card, and his debut in the system in Bradenton will give a better indication of his upside. He seems like he will be a future reliever, with the chance to be a depth starter. If he does emerge as a possible starting option, he will have better luck in another system, as he’s currently behind a lot of starting options with the Pirates.
Other Notable Players – Casey Hughston is the biggest remaining name based on his draft history and his over-slot signing bonus in 2015. However, he has shown a huge hole in his swing on breaking pitches on the outer half of the plate. He’s got solid tools for speed and defense, along with a lot of raw power, but won’t become a prospect until he fixes the hole in his swing. Logan Hill will get another shot at Bradenton, showing some potential with his ability to hit for average and add some power. He didn’t fare well last year, but rebounded after his demotion to West Virginia. Kevin Krause is another interesting hitting prospect, rounding out the outfield and showing better power potential in the past than most players in the system.
On the pitching side, Dario Agrazal has seen a velocity increase in recent years, sitting low-90s and hitting 94-95 MPH consistently with his sinking fastball. He doesn’t have an out pitch, and profiles more as a reliever in the future who will rely on the sinker, but he’ll pitch in the rotation for now. The strong rotation options will push Bret Helton and Logan Sendelbach to the bullpen, although both former starters have middle relief upside at best. Seth McGarry will be a reliever to watch, especially if he can return to the mid-90s velocity from college that made him a top ten round pick a few years ago.