I normally make two trips per year to West Virginia. The first one comes early in the season, and amounts to regular coverage. The second trip comes later in the year, serving as a bonus trip just because of the ease and proximity to other short-season teams. Players in the lowest levels of the minors can develop quickly. I see most of the Bristol and Morgantown players in extended Spring Training, but to get the same early season look, I have to go to West Virginia twice.
That’s not a bad thing, as Charleston is easily my favorite minor league city. The stories are easy, because so many players are working on adjustments to their game. The crowd is easily the best, with some of the most creative hecklers I’ve ever seen, and some of the nicest people I look forward to seeing every year. And the food and craft beer scene is surprisingly good in the downtown Charleston area.
So it kind of sucked this year that I was only making one trip to West Virginia. The reason? The team didn’t really warrant more than one trip.
We had regular coverage throughout the year from Abigail Miskowiec, so the team was covered. But early in the season, the entire point of a trip would be coming up to see Luis Escobar, and that was about it. I saw Escobar in Spring Training, along with interesting guys like Eduardo Vera, Oddy Nunez, and Hunter Owen. Adrian Valerio was not on the team until mid-May, and I expected Stephen Alemais to be coming to me in Bradenton (which was delayed due to his injury).
There was no Mitch Keller this year. There was no top pick like Ke’Bryan Hayes. And there wasn’t even a group like that famous 2012 West Virginia roster that had Gregory Polanco, Jose Osuna, Alen Hanson, Willy Garcia, and Elias Diaz to start the year.
Well, there wasn’t a group like that yet.
Spending the last few days covering West Virginia led me to the thinking that this team might have a group just as exciting as that 2012 group. I was anticipating that group during Spring Training 2012. It took until August for this year’s West Virginia team to warrant the same anticipation. But if this was the start of the season, rather than the start of August, I’d be writing an article similar to that 2012 article that pointed out those strong international prospects.
So why not just do it now?
The International Prospects Starting to Emerge
Just like that 2012 group, the Pirates have a lot of international prospects starting to emerge. The 2012 group was a group of hitting prospects, while this group is split pretty even between hitters and pitchers.
I will note that one of these guys (Oneil Cruz) wasn’t signed by the Pirates, but was recently acquired for Tony Watson. The point of this article isn’t to go down that rabbit hole of whether the Pirates have been good signing and developing international prospects, or whether they can draft. This article is entirely about what I’ve seen at the level in the last week, and looking at what they have right now in the system.
A week or two ago, this article might have been different. The Pirates had just acquired Oneil Cruz. Yoel Gonzalez wasn’t getting a lot of playing time behind the plate. Adrian Valerio was coming off a recent injury, and less than a month removed from being hit in the face with a ball on a throw down to second.
I’d say it was fortunate timing to get here at this point, and that’s probably the case with Valerio and Gonzalez. But I planned to be here in early August specifically to see any new prospects the Pirates may have added at the trade deadline. That worked out last year when I got my first look at Taylor Hearn, and it worked out this year with Cruz.
I only got to see Cruz for one game, but most of what I’m doing at this level is looking at the tools, and what a player is working on. In a case with a guy like Cruz, who is only 18 years old, I’m mostly looking beyond the numbers, even if the one game I saw led to him going 3-for-4 with a homer.
Cruz is a huge guy with long arms and easy power. He was hitting bombs during batting practice, and the reports I got from him this week were high praise. He was described as having Major League power, and West Virginia manager Wyatt Toregas said he may even have Pedro Alvarez type power, where the ball just comes off his bat different than any other player. The home run I saw was off a lefty, and Cruz didn’t really get all of it, but still made it look effortless. He also looked very composed for an 18-year-old in Low-A.
It’s hard to pin down an upside with any low-level player, much less a guy I’ve seen for one game. But I’m excited by the potential with Cruz, just based off the look at his tools and his build during that one game.
Then there’s Valerio, who I had as the top hitting prospect at the level heading into this trip. I saw him this time last year in Bristol, and while he showed potential on both sides of the ball, he was inconsistent. He made a few mental errors in the field, and when he would hit a home run at the plate, he’d follow it up with a long slump, brought on by trying too hard to hit home runs.
I saw a much more mature version this year. He wasn’t taking plays off in the field, allowing his smooth glove and his range to shine through. He hit a few home runs while I saw him, but he didn’t try to be a home run hitter after that, instead focusing on making contact. He’s had a few injuries this year, including getting hit in the face with a ball. Without those, we might already be talking about him as this year’s breakout prospect.
Finally, Yoel Gonzalez is a guy I’ve seen a lot of in recent years, as he’s been stuck in Bradenton and then Bristol for the past three seasons. The defense behind the plate is fine, but the offense never really clicked for him. That appears to be working in a small sample size, and the hitting I saw from him this past week stood out as much improved over the hitting I’ve seen from him in the past. He could be stepping up and taking advantage of the current opportunity he has in West Virginia, finally becoming a legit catching prospect. We’ll see if he can finish the season with continued hitting, but what I saw this week was definitely a pleasant surprise.
The big pitcher who stood out at the start of the season was Luis Escobar. He’s got the stuff to rival guys like Gage Hinsz, Taylor Hearn, and is a notch below Mitch Keller in terms of pure stuff. The thing that has held him back in the past is poor control. He’s been working on a few mechanical adjustments in the last year, with the most recent adjustment coming after the Future’s Game. I’m going to save the complete breakdown of that for an article this week.
What I saw from Escobar this week was a guy who was much improved with dominant stuff, and not as many control issues. He still had some lapses with his mechanics, with two walks in his final inning of work, but looked much better than when I’ve seen him in the past. He’s got a fastball that sits mid-90s, and a quality curveball and changeup, which could both be above-average pitches or better. He’s now starting to make the transition from a thrower with good stuff to a pitcher who can actually control his stuff.
Behind Escobar, there are two pitchers who really made a jump in the rankings this year. Right-handed Eduardo Vera and left-hander Oddy Nunez looked like future organizational depth last year, likely to top out as relievers in the lower levels. They both saw a velocity increase this year, and saw improvements to their overall stuff during Spring Training. That has only increased throughout the season.
Vera has hit 97 MPH this year, and Nunez has hit 94, although I didn’t see those velocities this week. That’s not a surprise, as it’s late in the season, and both have pitched more innings this year than they have in the last few years combined.
What I did see from both players was a completely different approach. They previously relied more on their off-speed stuff, as the fastball wasn’t that dominant. I saw Nunez throwing mostly fastballs on Friday night, and saw Vera working off the fastball to set up his secondary stuff on Sunday afternoon. Both have made the transition to power pitchers with their stuff, and now they’re adopting the power pitching mentality.
Again, it’s hard to say what kind of upside guys can have at this level, especially when you have situations like this where non-prospects suddenly see a change that turns them into prospects. I’d say Escobar has the best chance of being a starter in the future, but the other two are live arms that need to be watched going forward.
Adding Depth to the Lower Levels
I’ve written a lot about how the Pirates have plenty of high upside prospects in the lower levels. I see this all the time with the GCL club, which is full of prep players from the 2017 draft, along with a few international players making the jump to the US. The Bristol squad has a lot of pitching talent from the 2016 and 2017 drafts. Morgantown is kind of light this year, due to the lack of college players in the 2017 draft. But then you get to West Virginia, and you have another group of young players who are all trending in the right direction.
If the Pirates are going to rebuild their farm system after graduating so many players, then they will need these positive trends in the lower levels to continue.