Last year the Pirates had a wave of prospects in the upper levels, making their way to the majors throughout the 2016 season. A year later, three members of the 2016 Indianapolis rotation are now in the Pittsburgh rotation — Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow — while a few other players who started the year in Triple-A find themselves starting off in Pittsburgh a year later, such as Adam Frazier and Trevor Williams.
This year’s group looks very similar. We already wrote about how the Bradenton group is one of the strongest in the system, and that has to do with having so many of the top ten prospects on their team. Indianapolis might be the strongest group overall due to their amazing depth. Our top ten list below leaves off a lot of players who fell just outside the top 30 in our rankings, including one or two guys who will move in to the top 30 as players lose prospect eligibility.
The 2017 Indianapolis group can help in many ways. There are some players who can provide immediate depth, such as Steven Brault in the rotation, or Elias Diaz and Max Moroff on the position player side. There are other players who are more impact guys that could arrive in the second half, similar to what we saw from Jameson Taillon last year. The highlight of the impact group this year would be Austin Meadows. Nick Kingham is another guy who could get a spot in the majors in the second half. The rest of the impact would be seen from hard throwing relievers in the bullpen, led by Edgar Santana.
Here are the top ten prospects at the level, based on our rankings in the 2017 Prospect Guide.
1. Austin Meadows, CF – Not only is Meadows the top prospect for Indianapolis, he’s also the top prospect in the system. Out of all of the guys on this list, he could provide the most value for the Pirates this season, though that will matter mostly on when he gets to the majors. Meadows tore up Altoona last year with a .976 OPS in 45 games and received a promotion to Indianapolis in July. He had some trouble adjusting to the more experienced pitching as one of the youngest players in Triple-A. Meadows hit just .214 in 37 games, though it came with an impressive .460 slugging percentage. He impressed during an extended look this spring, posting a .979 OPS in 22 games.
Meadows has two obstacles this season keeping him from Pittsburgh early in the season. He missed time with three separate injuries last year, and while his eye injury was a freak accident, the hamstring injury was a problem that crept up in the past. Meadows has dedicated himself to staying healthy this season, carrying a jug of water with him to stay hydrated, and taking up yoga in the off-season to help with his conditioning. He is one of the best hitters in all of minor league baseball. Add in that he can steal bases and play plus defense in center field, and he should be ready for the majors within a couple months, as long as he stays on the field. The Pirates have one of the best outfields in baseball though, so he will need an injury or a trade to open up a spot before September.
2. Nick Kingham, RHP – Kingham looked like he would be taking the same path as Jameson Taillon did last year to reach the majors. After getting in some innings during his Tommy John return last season, the plan was to limit his innings slightly by starting him off slower, pushing him back a day or two occasionally and likely skipping a couple starts during the year. Those plans changed when Kingham injured his ankle during minor league Spring Training two weeks ago. While it appears to be a minor league injury, he will need to build back up to start, which will take at least a full month to do. While it’s an early season setback, and will likely delay his Major League debut, it did take care of limiting his workload during the season.
Kingham’s pitching during Spring Training looked closer to the old stuff we saw before the injury than it did to last year when he was just building up innings. He was hitting 95 MPH and flashing the strong changeup and solid curveball combo that has kept him high on our prospect list throughout the years despite missing most of the last two seasons. When he’s on, he commands all three pitches well and he has the frame to be a workhorse starter. Once he does get back on the mound in Indianapolis, then he would likely need at least ten starts before he’s ready to be a Major League option. He has the highest upside of the Indianapolis pitching staff, so if we do see the old Kingham return, then he will eventually be the top option to move up if a spot opens up in Pittsburgh.
3. Steven Brault, LHP – With Trevor Williams making the Pittsburgh Pirates as a bullpen arm, Brault will most likely be the first pitcher the Pirates call upon if they need someone to make a start early in the season. He doesn’t quite have the upside of Kingham, but he does have Major League experience as a starter and he was having a lot of success at Indianapolis last year before a hamstring injury slowed him down. Brault battled for the fifth starter spot with the Pirates this spring and put up solid results, but lost out to the higher upside of Tyler Glasnow.
Brault has the upside of a back-end starter and he could probably fill that role now on some teams. He has excellent command of his fastball, which has shown a slight uptick in velocity going back to late last season. He has a decent changeup, but doesn’t have the best breaking ball, which keeps him from being more than a back-end starter. Brault gets some swing and misses due to his command and some deception in his delivery, but he doesn’t have a true strikeout pitch. He’s an athletic player, who can help himself with strong defense and a better bat than your average pitcher. Brault could see more Major League time than anyone else on this prospect list, though that depends more on the early season health of the Pirates starting rotation, rather than just his performance in Indianapolis.
4. Clay Holmes, RHP – The Pirates added Holmes to the 40-man roster this off-season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. They did it because of his high upside, and he flashed some of that upside during Spring Training when he was consistently hitting 95-96 MPH with movement on his pitches. Holmes is still a work in progress, so it’s possible he doesn’t even make it to Pittsburgh this season. He was working on adding a cutter late last year in Altoona, which will give him a better strikeout pitch. He already throws a heavy sinker, which produces a high ground ball rate, plenty of weak contact and a lot of broken bats. The cutter, mixed with his curveball, should give him the ability to miss more bats. His changeup looked good at times last year, though he also tried different grips on the pitch late in the season.
Besides working on the cutter and finding the right changeup, Holmes also needs to improve his control. If he’s able to throw strikes more consistently, then he has the upside of a mid-rotation starter and the big frame to put in 200 innings a year. If the control doesn’t improve, then he could end up as a power reliever in the back of the bullpen. Since he doesn’t have any Triple-A experience and the Pirates want to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter, then I wouldn’t expect relief work to be an option anytime soon, unless it’s just to give his some September time in Pittsburgh.
5. Elias Diaz, C – With Francisco Cervelli being injury prone over his career and Chris Stewart missing time last year and this spring, Diaz could end up seeing plenty of time in Pittsburgh. Until a spot opens up though, he will be the starting catcher for Indianapolis. Diaz showed some strong defense and the ability to control the running game this spring and throughout his minor league career, which is his ticket to the majors. How his bat ends up developing will dictate if he’s a backup his entire career, or he can develop into a solid regular with Gold Glove ability.
Diaz had a tough season last year, injuring his elbow during spring, which eventually required minor surgery. Later in the year, a cut on his leg turned into an infection and ended his season early. Then in the off-season, he injured his oblique while playing in Venezuela. That all came from a player who never went on the disabled list during his first seven seasons of pro ball, so injury risk shouldn’t be a concern at this point and he looked healthy during spring. Diaz won’t hit for power, but he has the ability to hit for average, with the occasional extra-base hit. When combined with his defense, that makes him a solid third-string catcher this year, who should move into the backup role in 2018.
6. Edgar Santana, RHRP – At the start of last season, Santana was in the bullpen for Bradenton. He began the previous season in Extended Spring Training after pitching briefly in the DSL as a rookie in 2014. Now his quick climb through the system has him on the verge of making his Major League debut and that could come early in the season. Santana breezed through the Arizona Fall League last year with 14.1 shutout innings and then came into Spring Training and had just one bad outing among his six appearances. He put up a 5.06 ERA and 1.75 WHIP in 16 innings at Indianapolis late last year, though most of that damage came in one very poor outing.
Santana throws a fastball that hits high-90s and a devastating slider that he uses as a strikeout pitch. He was also working on a changeup during the AFL to give him a third pitch. He gets a lot of strikeouts and he has a high ground ball rate, which leads to quick innings. Santana looks like he could be ready for the majors early in the season. He will probably begin in middle relief and someone who can give you multiple innings, while also having the ability to get out of a tight spot. He upside is as a closer, though he will probably slowly progress to that role with Daniel Hudson likely to take it over once Tony Watson is gone, and Felipe Rivero being a possible option after Hudson.
7. Dovydas Neverauskas, RHRP – The first bullpen option out of Indianapolis this year is probably going to be A.J. Schugel. He would be followed by Edgar Santana, who should quickly emerge as the best option with a little more Triple-A experience. After Santana, Neverauskas provides the highest upside and he has more Triple-A experience. Neverauskas was likely destined to make his Major League debut last September, but a bar fight in late August took away any chance of that happening. He had a similar meteoric climb through the minors as Santana last year. After failing for years as a starter who could touch 95 MPH with poor control, Neverauskas moved to the bullpen in 2015 and got a late promotion to Bradenton. In Spring Training last year, he was sitting 95-96 MPH with better control, which was a sign of things to come.
Neverauskas went to Altoona last year and he added to that velocity, eventually hitting 99 MPH. He was effective as a hard-throwing reliever, who had two versions of a slider. One was harder and had a late cutting action towards right-handed hitters, while a slower one broke down and in towards lefties. That led to almost a strikeout per inning, to go along with a 1.56 GO/AO ratio. His numbers slipped some with the jump to Triple-A, though he was doing a decent job of keeping runs off the board. Neverauskas was added to the 40-man roster in the off-season, keeping him from reaching minor league free agency. He has the upside of a back-end reliever, though just like Santana, he will probably begin his Major League career in middle relief sometime this summer. Neverauskas will be the first player from Lithuania to reach the majors.
8. Tyler Eppler, RHP – Eppler makes the jump to the Indianapolis rotation this year after putting up a solid season with Altoona, where he led the entire Pirate organization in innings pitched. Eppler has outstanding control of a fastball that sat 92-96 MPH last year, showing a slight uptick in velocity later in the season. He combined that with a solid changeup and a breaking ball that needed work to become an out pitch. The Pirates had him working on a slider/cutter combo that they named a “slutter”, which is meant to give him a strikeout pitch and a different look from his fastball.
Eppler has a big frame like many of the young starters for the Pirates. He showed the ability to handle a lot of innings in 2016, staying strong through the playoffs in Altoona. He is a fly ball pitcher who occasionally got hit around last year. Part of his problem is that he threw too many strikes, which doesn’t sound like it should be an issue. That ability to pound the strike zone with his fastball led to batters jumping on the pitch early in counts, knowing that he was going to always be around the zone. His new pitch will get batters away from sitting fastball early and that should lead to results that better match his stuff. Eppler doesn’t have the upside of Clay Holmes, but his command of his pitches could lead to him being an option for Pittsburgh before Holmes.
9. Barrett Barnes, LF – Barnes is scheduled to make the jump from Altoona to Indianapolis, though his arrival will be slightly delayed while he makes his way back from a spring training hamstring injury. He should begin his rehab later this week and hopes to make his season debut within a few weeks. Unfortunately for Barnes, this takes something away from his big breakout during the second half of last year. He was injury prone up until last year and hamstrings have been a big issue for him in the past.
Barnes went on a tear during the second half last year, winning our Player of the Month award in both July and August, the first back-to-back winner. He hit for average and power, ending the season with an .853 OPS. That wasn’t enough to get him a spot on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, but it did earn him his first Major League Spring Training invite. Barnes had a tough time in the spring before the injury and the lost time won’t help. He already lost a step with his speed before this year, which took away some of his upside, so the last thing you want to see is another leg injury. He was once a potential center fielder, but now he’s a left fielder with a below average arm. The bat will have to return like it did last year to carry him to the majors. If he does make it to Pittsburgh this season, it will probably be in September.
10. Max Moroff, 2B – Moroff got a very brief taste of the majors last year, pinch-hitting twice before returning to the minors. The 23-year-old infielder never really got going last year at Indianapolis due to a change in his hitting approach. Moroff had a very successful season in 2015 with Altoona. He was more aggressive early in the count and that led to a higher average, with a little bit of pop in his bat. With Indianapolis, he reverted back to what we saw in previous seasons, as he would be too patient at the plate. That led to a ton of walks, but also more strikeouts and he put himself in a lot of pitcher counts. Moroff showed more of the same during Spring Training this year, so that could be a bad sign for things to come.
Moroff has shown recently that he can be a better hitter and he did it over the entire season. If he can go back to that 2015 approach, then he will get a chance to put in more than just a few at-bats in Pittsburgh like last year. He has decent speed and he’s a smart base runner. He’s also a solid defender at second base, who can also fill in at third base and shortstop. The Pirates plan on getting him more work at shortstop this season, but second base appears to be his primary position. Moroff could be a valuable utility player for the Pirates by next year, and if we see the 2015 version at the plate, then his defense and speed could make him a solid regular at second base down the line.
Other Notable Prospects: Indianapolis nearly has as many notable prospects as top ten prospects, and they could see more mid-season when players come from Altoona. Pat Light is a hard-throwing reliever with some Major League experience. He can touch 100 MPH with his fastball and combines that with a splitter that gets strikeouts and ground balls. He needs to work on his control to reach his upside. In his return from Tommy John surgery, Angel Sanchez has shown command of a fastball that has sat 96-97 MPH in relief. He will be limited this year, but could end up in Pittsburgh by mid-season if he continues to impress. Casey Sadler should join the Indianapolis bullpen by early May and gives the Pirates another option for the second half of the season. He is also returning from Tommy John surgery and will be limited this year.
Jose Osuna and Eric Wood give the Pirates two power bats at Indianapolis. Wood broke out during last season in Altoona, hitting for power, cutting down on his strikeouts, increasing his walks and improving his defense. The Pirates had him playing some outfield and first base, but he will see the majority of his time at third base. Osuna had terrific spring for the Pirates and was one of the last cuts. He could use the time at Indianapolis, where he will mostly be at first base, occasionally playing the corner outfield spots. He displayed more plate patience over the winter in Venezuela and during spring than we have seen in the past. A continuation of that could go a long way towards him reaching his upside in the majors.
Chris Bostick and Erich Weiss give the Pirates two infield options, who should move around this year at Indianapolis to add versatility. Bostick’s primary position will be outfield this year, while Weiss will get most of his time at second base when Max Moroff is playing elsewhere. Bostick could be an option at some point during the season due to his versatility, while Weiss looks to have a tough time reaching the majors this year due to all of the infielders ahead of him and already on the 40-man roster.
Gift Ngoepe made our top 50 when Josh Bell lost his prospect status on Opening Day. He had a great spring at the plate this year. If those improvements can carry over, then you’ll see Ngoepe in the majors at some point, where his Gold Glove quality defense would make him a nice bench piece. Jacob Stallings will be the backup catcher and the fourth option for the Pirates behind the plate. That led to a couple stints in Pittsburgh last year. His defense makes him a serviceable backup option, but the bat limits him to that role.