The Morgantown Black Bears started their season last night featuring a rehabbing Mitch Keller on the mound, and a rehabbing Michael Suchy in the lineup. With the current look of that team, those guys might be the only guys from Morgantown this year who will ever reach Altoona or higher.
That’s a bit of an extreme exaggeration. There are some sleepers on this team, and there are players on the way from the 2017 draft. But it’s hard to ignore the massive hole in talent currently on the Morgantown roster. It’s to the point where we had to change our approach to the season previews just to accommodate the lack of talent on this team.
Typically we do a top ten prospect list for every level at the start of the year, discussing the ten best prospects who will be at the level, along with a few bonus prospects who fell outside of the top ten. Most teams have one player in the top 10-20, a few others in the top 50, a few who could contend for the back-half of the top 50, and then some lottery tickets or notable players who we list in the “Other” section. The current Morgantown roster is made up of a lot of guys who would be in that “Other” section if they were on any other team in this system.
It was impossible to do a top ten for this team right now, because the team doesn’t really have ten prospects. It’s a team made up of guys who were once promising, but have struggled in the low levels, or guys who are just organizational fillers, and too old for the level. There might be some good performances this year, and there could be a few lottery ticket types who finally put things together. But that’s not something we’re willing to bank on at the start of the season.
Rather than writing up a top ten list with ten guys who would be outside of our top 50 prospects, we decided to take a look at why the 2017 team is so weak in talent, and what players could be prospects from this group. The lack of talent can be explained due to three major factors.
1. The 2017 Draft Went Heavy on the Prep Players
The Pirates drafted high school players with their first four picks in the 2017 draft. They took pitchers Shane Baz and Steve Jennings in the first two rounds, then drafted outfielders Cal Mitchell and Conner Uselton with their other two second round picks.
In order to help pay for the prep players — also including sixth rounder Cody Bolton and a few potential picks outside of the top ten rounds — the Pirates drafted players who are easier to sign in the top ten rounds. In terms of overall talent, they had a good draft. In terms of college talent who could help in Morgantown this year, the draft was pretty weak. That’s not really a focus of the draft, so it’s not a big problem. But it does lead to a weaker class this year.
There are some college players who will help boost this squad once they arrive. I’ll get into those guys a little later.
2. Prep Players Don’t Go to Morgantown
There was a time when it was automatic that the Pirates would send their prep pitchers to the New York-Penn League affiliate the year after they were drafted. This would have meant that the promising 2016 prep pitching class would have gone to Morgantown, making this team look much different, and very strong. Since the addition of Bristol to the system, the Pirates have been sending those prep pitchers to Bristol, and then usually skipping them over to the West Virginia Power the next year.
That’s not true in every case. Some of the pitchers who are more raw and more projectable still go to Morgantown in their second full season. That’s true of Ike Schlabach, who was drafted in 2015, given a slightly over-slot deal to sign in the 19th round, and is one of the more interesting prospects on this team. Schlabach is a lefty with a funky delivery that adds deception, but also leads to some control problems. He’s got a tall, projectable frame, giving him some promise as he continues to fill out. He’s in his second full season as a pro, but is more raw and more of a project than prep pitchers like Mitch Keller and Gage Hinsz who have skipped over Morgantown. Schlabach doesn’t come close to their upsides, but is one of the few guys on this team who is actually a fringe-prospect, and who could have a breakout campaign. Because he’s raw and a project, he ends up here.
The prep hitters also rarely go to Morgantown. Most of the advanced guys get skipped right over to West Virginia for their first full season. And the Pirates haven’t really taken any prep hitters in recent drafts who would be the equivalent to Schlabach.
The same situation could be said for the international players. The guys who show promise and who are a bit advanced go to West Virginia from the GCL, or go there after going to Bristol. We saw that with Adrian Valerio, who skipped over Morgantown. The team this year is filled with international hitters, but most of them are big bonus guys who haven’t developed as expected, but are still too young to give up on and release.
The international pitching prospects take a similar approach to the US prospects, going to Bristol, then skipping over to West Virginia the next year if they’re advanced. Morgantown did have Luis Escobar last year, as he was a bit slower to develop his game. However, Escobar was sort of in no-man’s land, where he was too advanced for Bristol, but not quite ready yet for full-season A-ball in West Virginia. Most of the talented pitchers from last year’s GCL team are going to Bristol.
3. The International Hitters Haven’t Worked Out
Morgantown’s talent can best be summed up by the most recent draft. If it’s a strong college draft — which we saw to an extent last year with the selection of Will Craig, and which we saw in a big way in 2015 with the additions of Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer — then the team will be a strong group. If the Pirates go with a lot of high school players, then Morgantown will have a down year.
It’s best to view Morgantown, Bristol, and the GCL as a group of talent, rather than individual teams. The team makeups tell the story of how the Pirates have added talent in the last 1-2 drafts, rather than telling anything alarming about an individual team showing a shortage in talent in the system.
But it’s impossible to ignore the group of international hitters on this current roster, which represents an alarming issue for the Pirates in the lower levels. They went years getting their pitching talent from the draft, due to a heavy focus of drafting prep pitchers. They supplemented that by adding a lot of hitting talent through the international side.
They’re still focusing a lot of resources on pitching in the draft, and while they’ve added hitters (Kevin Newman, Will Craig, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cole Tucker, Connor Joe, and Kevin Kramer were all taken in the first two rounds from 2014-2016), they still need to supplement that from the international side.
Their success has reversed on that international side. They once added a lot of hitting talent and very little pitching talent. Now the best results are pitchers, and the hitters have been disappointing. Some of the best players from Morgantown in recent years have been guys like Luis Escobar, Edgar Santana, and Dario Agrazal.
Meanwhile, the current Morgantown roster is loaded with a lot of international position players who received big bonuses or showed potential, but haven’t lived up to the hype yet. Michael De La Cruz received $700,000, and while he’s still one of the youngest players on the roster — third behind Schlabach and Yoel Gonzalez — he hasn’t shown what made him such a big signing for the Pirates. Maybe that all comes together this year, but there’s a reason he’s in Morgantown and not Charleston at this point.
Yoel Gonzalez, who signed for $350,000, hasn’t hit at all, and his defense only carries him so far behind the plate. He’s the second youngest player on the team, but he’s here because he’s delivered no offense so far.
Julio De La Cruz, who received $700,000, has shown some raw power, but hasn’t carried it over to games, repeating at Bristol last year. He also struggles defensively, looking more like a first baseman or a DH, which means his power is even more necessary going forward.
Raul Siri and Sandy Santos have shown potential in the past, but Siri didn’t hit well in Bristol last year after inconsistent results in the GCL the year before. Santos went to West Virginia this year, only to struggle and get demoted to Morgantown, where he’s repeating the same level from 2016.
The common trend here is that the Pirates have some young international talent, and a lot of these guys have a few legit tools to work with. But they haven’t advanced as quickly as guys in the past, and there are doubts about whether they will show those tools in games at all going forward. This really isn’t a Morgantown problem. The players are in Morgantown because they’ve been slow to develop, but that doesn’t drag this team down. Instead, it’s more a problem with West Virginia. That roster is also weak this year, and would be stronger if a few of these players had developed quicker and lived up to expectations. Just like the GCL/Bristol/Morgantown can tell the story of the last few drafts, looking at the bigger picture with Morgantown and West Virginia can tell the story of the international developments.
Some Help is on the Way
You might wonder where the talent is going to be this year in Morgantown. There will be some prospects to watch, and most of them will come from the draft. The most promising guy to watch is Dylan Busby, a third baseman from Florida State who was taken in the third round and who has some raw power potential. He might easily be the best prospect at the level this year, and could be the only guy who ends up in the top 50 at the end of the season.
Jared Oliva, taken in the seventh round, is also promising, showing some power potential and some strong defensive skills. Bligh Madris also shows some power potential, with questions about how his bat can translate over from Division II ball. Left-handed pitcher Blake Weiman and right-handed pitcher Beau Sulser both profile more as relievers in the future, but could pitch out of the rotation to get innings. Then there are the catchers — Jason Delay and Deon Stafford — who both show their own opposing skills. Delay is strong defensively, but weak with the bat. Stafford is strong offensively, but weak on defense. They could split these guys up, sending one of them to Bristol to get playing time for both, and still allow playing time for Gonzalez.
There could also be help from the middle and later round picks. Tristan Gray, Chris Sharpe, Gavin Wallace, Shea Murray, and the group of shortstops taken in rounds 21-24 (Robbie Glendinning, Brett Pope, Ben Bengtson, Nick Valaika) could all be interesting, and could get plenty of time on this roster.
But out of the entire 2017 college draft class, Busby is probably the only one who will make the top 50, with a few others like Oliva, Madris, Delay, Stafford, and maybe some of the post-10th rounders falling outside of the top 50 as interesting guys to follow.
The Sleepers on the Current Roster
By John Dreker
As mentioned above, this roster is devoid of current talent, but we could see a couple players develop this season. Besides the aforementioned Ike Schlabach, pitchers Joel Cesar and Sergio Cubilete are both players to watch.
Cesar is a 21-year-old reliever, who is small for a pitcher, listed as 5′ 11″, 191 pounds. He’s also the hardest thrower on this team. He has reportedly hit 100 MPH in the past. That isn’t something we have seen yet from him, but in the DSL last year, he was consistently hitting 96-97 MPH. We also saw those same results in the Fall Instructional League last year and Extended Spring Training this year. He is still somewhat raw as a pitcher, relying heavily on his fastball, which he needs to control better, but a hard-throwing reliever like Cesar could move through the system quickly if he puts it all together. His slider can look like a plus pitch at times, but just like his fastball, he will have control issues. He throws a changeup as well, though as a reliever, he doesn’t go to the pitch often.
Cubilete is the hardest throwing starter on this team. That’s assuming he starts, which he was doing in Extended Spring Training. He sits low 90s with his fastball, topping out at 95 MPH. He pitched in the DSL last year as well, skipping two levels to get to Morgantown. He had some command issues, but he was also tough to hit. Unlike Cesar, Cubilete has two solid off-speed pitches, going with a changeup that has nice separation from his fastball, and a curve that sits 79-82 MPH. He also has a nice 6′ 4″ frame, which has filled out some since he signed. He’s listed at 185, but that was his signing weight.
Schlabach showed glimpses of success in Bristol, but didn’t have consistency. He was getting grounders at a high rate, but the strikeout total was low. His delivery adds some deception, which can make his 88-90 MPH fastball look harder at times if the batter isn’t picking it up. He’s also just 20 years old. Schlabach has a big 6′ 5″ frame, so if he could add some velocity from the left side with his funky delivery, that would really help his prospect status.
During Extended Spring Training, Julio de la Cruz was one of the best hitters down at Pirate City. He’s been slow to develop, which is the case with Michael de la Cruz and Yoel Gonzalez. We have also heard before that Julio de la Cruz was hitting well in the games that don’t show up in the stat sheets, so it’s hard to get excited about him until you see it carry over into real games. Yoel Gonzalez had a strong spring as well on offense. If he could ever get going with the bat, he becomes a legit prospect because he’s strong behind the plate. It seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s still just 20 years old. Michael de la Cruz will always have that one huge season in the DSL back in 2013 to look back on.
Finally, Yoandy Fernandez is on Morgantown. He was born in Cuba, then came to the U.S. a few years ago and actually went through the amateur draft. He also briefly played independent ball, so when he signed back in April, he wasn’t considered an international signing. The reports from down in Extended Spring Training were strong, as he controls five pitches, including a low-90s sinker that gets a lot of great results. I’m surprised he is at this level, but he should be able to put up solid numbers and then progress further in the system next year. That already started last night when he struck out seven batters in three innings during his pro debut.