Bradenton was the team to watch in the minors at the start of the 2017 season. They had six of the top ten prospects in the system on their Opening Day roster, three in the starting rotation and three in the infield. As you will see in the recaps below, things didn’t go exactly as planned. Four of those top six players missed time with injuries and two of them saw their stock drop. Fortunately for the Marauders, they had some other prospects take a step forward. Half of the top ten prospects below ended their season in Altoona, as well as some players who just missed the top ten. It was a solid overall season for prospects progress. Here is our end of the year rundown of the best prospects at the level.
TOP 10 BRADENTON MARAUDERS PROSPECTS
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 140 at-bats, 40 innings pitched, or 20 relief appearances. That left off Stephen Alemais and Jacob Brentz, as well as Geoff Hartlieb, who made the West Virginia top 10 list. Just like the lower levels, these players are still graded mostly based on projection than actual results, although this is the level where you want to start seeing those results, especially for college drafted players.
1. Mitch Keller, RHP – Keller didn’t have the easiest time this year with Bradenton, but by the middle of the season, he established himself as the top prospect in the system. He was coming off a breakout year with West Virginia, one that ended with him throwing eight shutout innings in the playoffs for the Marauders. He had some issues early this season, though he was focusing on throwing his changeup and some of the early damage was off of that pitch. By the end of the season, Keller had a new changeup grip and was seeing strong results with the pitch. That’s important that he adds that pitch to his fastball, which touched 100 MPH this season, and his plus curveball, giving him a third look against the better hitters he will see at the upper levels.
Keller missed a month this season with a back injury, and also left three of his starts early for three different reasons. He was still able to put together a 3.03 ERA over 116 innings, with a 1.00 WHIP, 116 strikeouts and a .202 BAA. He then made two strong starts in the playoffs for Altoona. His time in Bradenton got him named as the top pitching prospect in the Florida State League by Baseball America. Keller is on his way to becoming a top of the rotation pitcher for the Pirates. He will open next season with Altoona and a mid-season promotion to Indianapolis is very likely if the results continue. In fact, there is a possibility he could finish the year in Pittsburgh. The first step though, will be continuing to learn how to pitch to upper level hitters and working on his changeup. Keller is currently in the Arizona Fall League working on his pitches and adding to his innings total, making up for some lost innings during the season.
2. Cole Tucker, SS – Tucker also qualified for the Altoona list, so we will look at his time with Bradenton only in this recap. Tucker finished the 2016 season with Bradenton and had some issues on offense as one of the youngest players in the league. He returned to the level this year and showed immediate improvements, including the ability to make a difference on the bases. One of the first changes we saw from Tucker this year was his willingness to run. He played just 68 games for the Marauders, but he led the league with 36 stolen bases. That was after going 6-for-13 in steals last year. The other sign of improvement was some added pop in his bat, which led to 25 extra-base hits in his limited time. Finally, the defense was better all around (spoiler alert: he looked even better with Altoona). Those all-around improvements led to him establishing himself as the fourth best prospect in the system when we did our mid-season update. He didn’t do anything on the field after that mid-July update to hurt his stock, in fact, he may have improved it. There will be questions about his durability though after two hand injuries this season. That’s added to his thumb surgery in 2014 and labrum surgery at the end of 2015. Even with the missed time, he is still developing nicely into a player who looks like he could be a starting shortstop in the majors within two years if he continues this pace.
3. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B – Hayes didn’t put up to big offensive numbers everyone was hoping for, but this was far from a disappointing season. As one of the youngest players in a pitcher-friendly league, you have to factor in his age when looking at his offensive stats. You also have to take into account the fact that he didn’t have a healthy off-season due to his back and rib injuries from the end of 2016. Hayes came into 2017 noticeably skinnier, partially due to his off-season workout program, but also from his inability to hit the weights to add muscle to his frame after the injury. He put up a .278/.345/.363 slash line, which is actually above average for the league. He also stole 27 bases in 32 attempts, showing better speed than in the past. Where he really made his presence felt was on defense, where he won the Rawlings Gold Glove, which is given out to one player per position over all of minor league baseball. Hayes set the FSL record for fielding percentage at third base and was credited with having the best infield arm in the league. He’s healthy this off-season and should advance to a more hitter-friendly league, where we could see some signs of power. That would round out his game and solidify him as a top 100 prospect in the game.
4. Taylor Hearn, LHP – Hearn had an ill-timed oblique injury in early July. He was working on a new slider grip at the time and things were just starting to come together. In his final two starts, he had 19 strikeouts and one walk in 10.2 innings. Hearn had some trouble throughout the season with control. His walk total was a little high prior to his final two games, but he also had trouble leaving his fastball up, which led to eight homers and some costly extra-base hits late in outings when he started to tire. It looked like he was about to break out, but the oblique injury cost him nearly two months. He came back for one GCL outing and is now working out of the bullpen in the AFL, where he can add to his 89.1 innings from the regular season. Hearn is a big lefty, with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a wipeout slider. He also has a strong changeup, which he considers his best pitch. If he regains that new slider after his layoff, to go along with a strong fastball/change combo, then you could be looking at a dominating starter. Due to some command issues and the uncertainty right now with his breaking ball, there is still a chance he ends up as a power reliever. He has the frame to be a workhorse starter, he just needs to stay healthy and continue to gain experience on the mound, sharpening up his arsenal.
5. Will Craig, 1B – Craig has a solid approach at the plate, which led to him finishing eighth in the FSL in hits, third in walks and first in hit-by-pitches. To put it simply, he was on base a lot. He also finished sixth in the league with 26 doubles. If you watch Craig often, his approach is geared towards trying to get on base, much like a good speedy lead-off hitter would do. Saying all of that, the problem is that he is at a high offense position and has below average speed, so it doesn’t help much by getting on first base often. He doesn’t change his approach in big RBI situations either, settling on keeping the line moving, rather than getting aggressive at the plate, which is a problem when you’re hitting in the middle of the order. I think that’s something you will see change next year, as that’s not what you want from your first round pick at first base. The more hitter-friendly Altoona park should help his power numbers, but not if he’s just looking to take a lot of pitches and put the ball in play. Craig often hit the ball hard, but rarely was it long fly balls, meaning he wasn’t losing a lot of homers due to the parks/Florida air. Besides the strong on base approach, he also quickly adapted to first base, looking solid at the position shortly after the season started.
6. Dario Agrazal, RHP – Agrazal had a slight breakout last year when he started throwing much harder than before, although it didn’t always lead to the best results. We saw him sitting 94-95 MPH last year, hitting 96. He added another tick to that fastball this season and then started picking up strikeouts, which was the key ingredient missing from him being ranked higher as a prospect. Agrazal has filled the strike zone during his career, but he was always a pitch-to-contact pitcher, who got a lot of ground balls. He continued to get those grounders this year, while striking out 43 batters in his last 43.2 innings with Bradenton. Those improvements led to him being promoted to Altoona in mid-June. Unfortunately for Agrazal, he suffered a right pectoral strain in his first start with the Curve and didn’t pitch again the rest of the season. Before that injury, he had made all of his starts dating back to the 2013 season in the DSL, so at this point there aren’t injury concerns. He’s a pitcher with strong command of three pitches, a sinker that hits 97 MPH and gets grounders and strikeouts, plus he has been a reliable workhorse starter. He should be a key member of the Altoona rotation in 2018.
7. Gage Hinsz, RHP – This was a lost season for Hinsz, and now he’s a pitcher who finished the season in early August due to a shoulder injury, so there are concerns going into 2018. Hinsz started the season with three poor starts, then put together back-to-back strong games, appearing to get on track. He didn’t make his next start and we heard about some minor shoulder soreness, which wasn’t supposed to be bad. When he returned, it certainly seemed like something was still wrong, allowing 21 runs over his next 18.2 innings. Hinsz eventually got on track again, putting together a string of nine outings in which he posted a 3.18 ERA, while showing solid velocity and throwing strikes. On July 26th, he got roughed up and then missed the next three weeks. That was followed by him coming back for one more game, one in which he was sitting 91-92 MPH and was pulled after just 33 pitches. It was announced that he had a scapular stress fracture, which is a rare baseball injury and doesn’t always end up well. When he’s on, Hinsz sits 94-96 MPH, with a plus curve at times and a solid changeup. We will have to wait until Spring Training 2018 to see if that’s the player who shows up.
8. Logan Hill, LF – Hill began last year with Bradenton and struggled with strikeouts, which got him demoted to West Virginia. He returned to Bradenton this year and was a different hitter. He still had his share of strikeouts, though he cut down on them and was making more solid contact. Hill has tremendous raw power, some of the best in the system. Along with cutting down on strikeouts and being more patient at the plate, he started getting good use out of that power. Hill hit 16 homers in just 71 games for Bradenton. That’s a home run total that’s very good for a full season in the FSL. He ran into a little power slump with Altoona, adding just two more in 22 games, before a broken hand ended his season in late July. Hill is making up for lost at-bats in the AFL and hit two homers in Saturday’s game. The strikeouts will be something to watch going forward, but they are at an acceptable level for a power hitter. The 24-year-old corner outfielder needs his bat to carry him to the majors, because his defense is average at best and he doesn’t run well.
9. Mitchell Tolman, 2B – Tolman got off to a slow start this season, both on offense and defense. He rebounded nicely in both areas during the second half and earned a late season promotion to Altoona, where he hit at the top of the order during the playoffs. A late season injury to Cole Tucker cleared a roster spot in the AFL for Tolman, who is seeing time at both third base and second base. That versatility will be key for him going forward. His ceiling would be as an average everyday second baseman, but the more likely result would be him ending up as a utility player, who may start playing other positions as he advances in the system. Tolman needs to work on being slightly more aggressive at the plate. His approach leads to a strong walk total and his strikeout rate isn’t bad, but he has a tendency to let good pitches go by him early in the count. Upper level pitchers will take better advantage of that flaw than the A-ball pitchers he has faced these last two season. Tolman is a solid all-around player, showing a nice glove, smart base running, some pop in his bat and the ability to get on base.
10. Pedro Vasquez, RHP – Vasquez was a pleasant surprise for the Pirates this season. The 6’4″ righty, who turned 22 years old after the season ended, was acquired in the Arquimedes Caminero trade last year. He made eight starts in Low-A last year, so until we found out early in Spring Training, there were some questions as to whether he would start for West Virginia or Bradenton this season. It turns out that his placement with the Marauders was the right level for him. Until a couple of late season starts that went awry, he was leading the FSL in ERA and WHIP. Vasquez was well over his previous innings total from last year, plus a full season in the FSL can be brutal for starting pitchers, so the poor finish shouldn’t worry anyone. He was still flashing solid stuff, which included a low-90s fastball, that showed a slight uptick in velocity this season. Vasquez did a great job of throwing strikes, flashing a nice changeup and a curveball that showed improvements during the year. He should move up to Altoona and remain in the starting rotation for now.
Other Notable Players: Catcher Christian Kelley just missed the top ten list. He hit well during the first half of the season, then saw his stats drop as catching full-time in the brutal Florida weather caught up to him. His defense was solid as usual, but the bat will need to stay strong all season for him to continue his progress. Lefty reliever Jacob Brentz received a promotion to Altoona one appearance before he was eligible for this list. He made some noise early, consistently hitting 99-100 MPH, but control issues began to hurt him in Altoona when he was facing more experienced hitters. Stephen Alemais added 153 points to his OPS when he jumped from West Virginia to Bradenton. Combined with his strong defense, he reestablished himself as a prospect after the poor offense in Low-A and a hand injury caused his stock to fall early this season. Jordan George was old for the level, but he hit for average and showed power for the first time, which got him promoted to Altoona. Outfielders Ty Moore and Kevin Krause each put up solid offensive stats, with Krause showing some pop in his bat. Casey Hughston still had his major issues with strikeouts, but he showed off four tools, with plus speed, plus defense in center field and glimpses of his raw power. Daniel Zamora is a lefty reliever with solid command of a wipeout slider and a 89-90 MPH fastball, which he uses to record a lot of ground ball outs. Bret Helton’s stuff played up in relief this season, although he had success as a starter. He could develop into a future middle reliever.