The GCL Pirates were loaded with talent this year, featuring a lot of the top picks from the Pirates’ 2017 draft class, along with a few top international signings from the last few years. That combination led to a team loaded with upside, and a few breakout performances from that group give the Pirates a lot of promise in the future. Here is our end of the year rundown of the best prospects at the level.
Top 10 GCL Pirates Prospects
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 70 at-bats, 20 innings pitched, or 10 relief appearances. The biggest name who missed the list was 2017 second rounder Conner Uselton, who went down in his second game with a hamstring tear. Most of the list is based on upside, rather than the results this year. These players are so far away that even their upside is hard to peg.
1. Shane Baz, RHP – Baz didn’t have the best surface numbers, with a 3.80 ERA in 23.2 innings, along with a 19:14 K/BB ratio. Most of the damage came in three starts when he left early due to control problems. In those three outings, he gave up eight earned runs in 4.2 innings, with six walks and five strikeouts. We were in attendance during all of those starts, and saw a trend. Baz would put the first runner of the game on base, forcing him to pitch from the stretch. His velocity dropped to the 90-93 MPH range, and his control was poor, leading to a snowball effect. When he’s pitching from the windup, he’s sitting in the mid-90s, and is very effective, although there are a few control issues to iron out. Baz recognized this issue after the season when I talked with him about his first experience in pro ball, noting that he will have to focus on pitching from the stretch, and making that just as consistent as pitching from the windup. It’s not a big surprise that he has this issue. With his stuff — a mid 90s fastball and two breaking pitches that can get outs — he probably didn’t have much experience pitching from the stretch in high school. He showed his talent in the other seven starts, with all of those reports being similar, with his stuff showing why he was a first round pick. The Pirates will have some work to do with Baz, but he’s got the stuff to be a top of the rotation option in the majors one day.
2. Lolo Sanchez, CF – The GCL team was loaded with top draft picks out of the prep ranks, but the player who made the biggest impression at the level this year was Sanchez. The Pirates signed Sanchez for $450,000 in 2015, making him their top signing of the 2015-16 international class. He didn’t have good numbers in his debut in the DSL, but changed that this year, hitting for a .284/.359/.417 line in 234 plate appearances. The key to the change was that Sanchez dropped his hand position, and added a bit of a load to his swing. This allowed him to make stronger contact, and allowed him to add some power. He’s a small center fielder who doesn’t look like he would hit for a lot of power in the future, although he might not need it. Sanchez has strong defense in center field, and projects to stick at the position. He also has speed on the bases, hits for average, and gets on base with strong plate patience. His upside is your prototypical leadoff hitting center fielder, and any power he can add is just a bonus. If the power carries over to full season ball, Sanchez could be viewed as a future impact player, and one of the top prospects in the system. He should make the jump to West Virginia in 2018.
3. Calvin Mitchell, OF – Mitchell didn’t have the best numbers in his GCL debut, although he did show a lot of potential. He only hit for a .245 average, but had a .351 OBP and displayed some easy power with a smooth, effortless swing. He did have some strikeout issues, running into problems recognizing breaking pitches that he didn’t see often in high school. He wasn’t totally overmatched though, seeing a lot of walks in the process. Mitchell was drafted in the second round as an outfielder, and should be able to stick in one of the corner spots, especially with his power potential. He could have a shot at West Virginia next year, which will be a big test for his ability to hit the breaking stuff, as he works to cut down the strikeouts and put his hitting skills on display.
4. Mason Martin, 1B – Martin was the big story in the GCL this year, putting on a power display with a GCL Pirates franchise record 11 home runs, and one of the best OPS in league history. He hit for a .307/.457/.630 line in 166 plate appearances, and showed off the best raw power on the team. Martin did show a trend where he looked a bit too selective, waiting for a pitch to crush and letting a few hittable pitches go by for strikes. This led to a lot of 3-2 counts where he would either get a big hit when a fastball was thrown, or where he would strikeout when an off-speed pitch was thrown. This approach could hurt him in the upper levels, leading to a drop in average, while still seeing power and OBP. The power would decline the higher up he went. Fortunately, this issue is something that can be fixed, and will be something Martin should focus on going forward. He was drafted as an outfielder, but played first base most of the season, and profiles better at that position, especially with better defenders moving up with him at the same levels. Expect him to go to West Virginia next year.
5. Cody Bolton, RHP – Bolton was drafted in the sixth round, and despite reports that he would be impossible to sign, he signed fairly quickly to an over-slot deal. He showed some promise this year, sitting 91-93, and touching 94 MPH with his fastball. Bolton’s velocity comes from a tall, projectable frame and an easy delivery, which gives him the chance to add some velocity as he gets older and fills out. He already saw a velocity increase in the last year, changing his mechanics up to add some power by driving more off his back leg. Bolton pairs a slider with the fastball, and is very comfortable with the pitch, throwing it since Little League. The pitch shows strikeout potential, although it can be inconsistent at times, with him spiking it in the dirt. He has also been working on adding a changeup, which is a new pitch for him that he hasn’t been comfortable with in the past. Bolton should go to Bristol next year, adding to a growing list of interesting arms in the lower levels.
6. Rodolfo Castro, SS – Castro split his time this year between second, third, and shortstop, playing slightly more games at shortstop than the other two positions. His defense is good, although it might not be strong enough to stick at shortstop as a starting option in the long-term. His most likely position would be second base, and the good thing is that he looks to have the bat to stick at the position. Castro was seen as a defense first guy when he was signed in 2015, but has shown a lot of offense the last two years, including an .823 OPS and six homers in the GCL this year. It was easy for him to get overshadowed on a team with Mason Martin and Lolo Sanchez, but his offensive production shouldn’t be ignored. The downside is that he had a high strikeout rate for the second year in a row, which will be an issue to watch going forward. He could be a sleeper to watch in West Virginia next year, and should get more opportunities at shortstop, until the point when he absolutely has to move to second base.
7. Steven Jennings, RHP – The Pirates took Jennings out of high school with their second round pick. His placement as the seventh best prospect on this list is more about the quality of the group than a sign that he struggled. Jennings is more like Cody Bolton than he is like Shane Baz, with a lot of his value being more about projectability. The fact that Bolton is higher on our list is again more a credit to Bolton than an indication on Jennings. The second rounder throws in the 88-92 MPH range with good control, and has the feel for a slider, curveball, and changeup. His slider is the better breaking pitch, and the pitch he uses for outs, while the curveball is something he shows early in counts for strikes. He has thrown the changeup since he first started pitching, and the offering looked very effective when he used it. Jennings has a projectable frame and the ability to add velocity as he fills out. He has already hit higher than 92 MPH, which is a good sign. The pitch also has a bit of movement, along with the good command. My guess is that he goes to Bristol next year, following the same path as other second round pitchers like Mitch Keller and Travis MacGregor.
8. Jeremias Portorreal, OF – Portorreal made an important change to his swing in 2016, lowering his hands and shortening his long, loopy swing in order to finally hit for average and power. The switch worked, and he has been able to show off the power from his tall, skinny frame, with the chance to add more as he fills out. The change to his swing wasn’t a cure-all though, as he still has some alarming strikeout issues. While he hit for a .263/.343/.426 line with five homers this year, he also struck out in 59 of 213 plate appearances. Portorreal is a bit older than everyone else on the team, although not an extreme amount. He will need to go to West Virginia next year to continue his progression as a prospect, and that will be a real test for his strikeout issues, as this doesn’t seem to be as easy as the issues surrounding guys like Cal Mitchell or Mason Martin.
9. Austin Shields, RHP – Shields entered the year with some horrible control problems, but saw a few mechanical adjustments during Spring Training fix that. He then got injured at the end of Extended Spring Training, and upon his return, saw everything fall apart. The changes he made didn’t stick around after the injury, and his poor control returned, with 33 walks in 40.2 innings. The poor control is due in large part to a lack of pitching experience for Shields. It was encouraging that he made such quick strides, and the hope is that he can get back on the right track heading into 2018. He has the ability to hit the low-to-mid 90s, and has a big frame capable of eating a lot of innings. He doesn’t have much in the way of secondary stuff, due to the lack of experience, but was showing some positive signs with his slider this year after fixing his control during Spring Training. He’s a project, and needs to get back on the right track with his mechanical changes in order to have a shot at being a prospect.
10. Samuel Reyes, RHP – Reyes is the younger brother of infield prospect Pablo Reyes. He worked out of the bullpen this year, showing a lot of velocity and good control. Lower level relievers don’t usually become relief pitching prospects, although Reyes might be an exception, with a fastball that hits 96 MPH, and the ability to throw four other pitches. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pirates try him out in a starter role in one of the short-season leagues next year to get him more innings. If they don’t go that route, he could move on a faster track as a reliever, possibly making it to West Virginia at the start of the year.
Other Notable Players: Conner Uselton was drafted in the second round and played two games before tearing his hamstring. He’s got some power potential from a big frame, but profiles as a corner outfielder, and will probably be an offense-first guy. He didn’t qualify for the list above. Roger Santana is a lefty who used to be a soft-tosser, but has added some velocity in the last year. He didn’t have the best results this year in the GCL rotation, but might become an interesting guy to follow if he moves to the bullpen in the future. Jacob Webb didn’t qualify for the list, only throwing seven innings. He’s a big project, even more so than Shields, but shows some potential with a tall, projectable frame, and the ability to hit 92 with his two-seamer. Yeudry Manzanillo and Leandro Pina are two young pitchers with projectable frames, who each put up mixed results this season, but offer plenty of upside.