When we did our mid-season update of our top 50 prospects after the draft signing period ended, just one player from Morgantown made that list. The Pittsburgh Pirates sent their top four draft picks, plus two of their better over-slot signings, to the GCL team. The top young pitching prospects from the 2016 draft were sent to Bristol, while some of the better lower level prospects skipped over Morgantown and went right to West Virginia. As you will see in the list below, the Pirates got some strong performances from the players they sent to Morgantown, especially from 2017 draft picks, who make up 70% of our top ten prospects. Here is our end of the year rundown of the best prospects at the level.
TOP 10 MORGANTOWN PROSPECTS
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 70 at-bats, 20 innings pitched, or 10 relief appearances. No one of note missed the list due to those cutoffs. Most of the list is based on upside, rather than the results this year. The upside can be a bit easier to predict than the GCL and Bristol ratings, but it’s still a difficult projection.
1. Tristan Gray, 2B/SS – Through the first few weeks of the Morgantown season, Gray looked like a superstar in the making. He was consistently making hard contact with a sweet left-handed swing, smoking line drives around the ballpark, which led to a 1.104 OPS through 15 games. It was even more impressive than that number indicates, as he had a lot of loud outs and crushed foul balls. The numbers fell off in his final 38 games, with a .716 OPS the rest of the way, but it was still a strong season from a 13th round draft pick. Gray was playing second base full-time during the start of the season, then saw more time at shortstop later in the year. If he could stick at shortstop, that would improve his value, but the bat looks like it could play up anywhere. He’s 6′ 3″ with plenty of room to fill out, though the power is there already and he doesn’t strike out often, so adding muscle to his frame isn’t a necessity.
2. Deon Stafford, C – Stafford was described as a raw catcher with a solid bat when he was drafted in the fifth round this year. While he isn’t a Gold Glove caliber catcher, he was much better than the reports indicated. Stafford had a strong season at the plate, hitting for a .280 average and showing some pop in his bat. Like many of his teammates, the strikeout total was a little too high, but it wasn’t anything alarming. Behind the plate, his biggest issue was with throwing out runners. He showed off a strong arm, but it wasn’t always accurate. He moved well behind the plate, doing a terrific job of blocking pitches in the dirt and he took charge in the field. The Pirates will have an interesting choice next year with catcher placements at the lower levels. Fourth round pick Jason Delay is an above average defensive catcher with a bat that lacks the upside of Stafford’s bat. They could choose to keep Delay at West Virginia to work with a young pitching staff, which might move Stafford up to Bradenton.
3. Bligh Madris, RF – The Pirates took Madris in the ninth round as an under the radar pick from a small school. He was considered somewhat raw due to the fact he missed all of 2016 with an injury, and in 2017, some of his time was spent on the mound. When he got to Morgantown, he immediately showed off skills at the plate. Madris was the everyday right fielder for the Black Bears and that appears to be his position going forward, as he doesn’t have the range for center field. Speed isn’t part of his game on the bases either, but it’s the bat that will carry him. Madris finished with a .270/.344/.429 slash line, with 13 doubles, four triples and five homers. The 21-year-old left-handed batter put up a better OBP against southpaws, while hitting for more power against righties. He’s one of three outfielders (see below) on this team who could possibly skip over West Virginia and head to Bradenton to ease a crowded outfield situation next year. Madris seems like the most likely to skip a level, as he has the best plate approach of the group and put up the best numbers.
4. Ike Schlabach, LHP – At 20 years old, with a 6′ 5″, 190 pound frame, Schlabach still has a lot of projection. He had a tough season last year at Bristol, posting a 5.22 ERA, with a high WHIP and a very low strikeout rate. Schlabach relied on deception in his delivery before, which included a leg kick that had him bringing his knee up into his chest. He got rid of that this season, going with an easier delivery to repeat and it led to much better results. He posted a 2.83 ERA, with a .207 BAA and a 1.07 WHIP. While he could still stand to improve his strikeout rate, Schlabach improved it significantly this season, while also cutting down slightly on his walks. The one trend this season that wasn’t a positive was a large difference in his GO/AO ratio. He went from being one of the better ground ball pitchers last year, to average this season. The young southpaw should get a spot in the West Virginia rotation next year.
5. Dylan Busby, 3B – While this list is full of players who exceeded expectations, Busby was the lone player who disappointed. He was in our top 50 during the mid-season update, which was based mostly on his draft spot. This year’s third round pick was considered to be a power bat, who had some strikeout issues. The strikeouts were there during his pro debut, but the power wasn’t. Busby hit just .188/.266/.256 in 41 games, with his lone homer coming in the final game of the season. He has a long swing, with a lot of swing-and-miss to his game. On the bright side, he ran well for a third baseman, and looked solid defensively after a tough first week of action. There is some legit raw power there, but he will need to cut down on his swing and improve his approach at the plate to tap into that power.
6. Jared Oliva, OF – Oliva was the seventh round pick of the Pirates this year out of the University of Arizona. At 6′ 3″, 187 pounds, he looks like he could still fill out some. Oliva showed impressive speed, which is his best tool right now. He stole 15 bases in 19 attempts and used that speed to beat out numerous infield hits. It also showed up in his range in the outfield, where he played all three spots, with most of the time coming in center field. He had ten doubles and seven triples, showing gap to gap power and using that speed to take extra bases. Oliva’s strikeout rate was too high and his walk rate was too low for a player who relies on speed as his main tool. While he did hit his share of line drives, there was also a lot of weak contact, so right now he is more of a projection player due to his offensive flaws, rather than a prospect. He should end up at West Virginia next year, although that outfield could be very crowded and force the Pirates to move some of these players up to Bradenton.
7. Gavin Wallace, RHP – Wallace is the younger brother of West Virginia Power pitcher Mike Wallace. The two were teammates at Fairfield University and both were late round picks of the Pirates. That’s about where the comparisons stop. Gavin Wallace has a fastball that can get into the mid-90s and works off of the pitch, mixing in an effective slider as his out pitch. His older brother relies heavily on off-speed pitches and rarely touches 90 MPH. The younger Wallace is the better prospect and it showed in his results with Morgantown. He had a 2.65 ERA in 68 innings, holding batters to a .229 average while walking just five batters all season. Wallace didn’t hit a batter or allow a home run all season. He also had a 1.56 GO/AO ratio, doing an excellent job of pitching to contact. Wallace’s strikeout total was low, but he picked it up later in the season, striking out 12 batters in his final 12 innings. He could end up with either West Virginia or Bradenton next season and should remain in the rotation for the time being.
8. Scooter Hightower, RHP – Hightower had a very impressive season, posting a 1.94 ERA in 88 innings, with 80 strikeouts and an 0.98 WHIP. The 6′ 6″ right-hander walked just nine batters all season. Hightower’s year started off with an oblique injury at the end of Spring Training. That held him back from a possible spot in West Virginia and limited his work during Extended Spring Training. While recovering from his injury, he switched from a curve to a slider to give him a fastball look with his breaking ball. Hightower doesn’t throw hard, getting by due to his above average command of three pitches and a strong changeup that got terrific results. His upside is limited due to his high-80s fastball velocity, his age (turns 24 on Sunday) and the fact that he is a fly ball pitcher, but his command and changeup effectiveness should carry him to the upper levels of the system. He’s a possibility to skip to Bradenton next season.
9. Chris Sharpe, OF – Sharpe was an over-slot signing in the 14th round as a draft eligible sophomore. He showed some athleticism and terrific raw power in college this year, although he also missed some time with an injury. Sharpe played left field for Morgantown, though he occasionally saw time in center field as well. He hit .234/.330/.354 in 39 games, with 19 walks and 49 strikeouts. He was much better in August than July, posting an .815 OPS in the second half, after a .554 mark over his first 19 games. The power occasionally showed up, but the strikeouts were also an issue. Just like with Madris and Oliva, Sharpe looks like a player who should be at West Virginia next year, but a crowded outfield will likely force 1-2 of them up to Bradenton.
10. Joel Cesar, RHP – Cesar was signed out of the Dominican in 2015 at 19 years old. At 5′ 11″, 190 pounds, he is small for a pitcher. He pitched just two games last year in the DSL before going down with an arm injury. He was able to pitch in the Fall Instructional League last year, then pitched well enough during Extended Spring Training this season, that he skipped over two levels and went right to Morgantown. Cesar throws hard, hitting mid-to-high 90s consistently. He mixes that with a slider that looks like a plus pitch at times and he also has the makings of a changeup. Cesar is very tough to hit, but he also has the occasional control issues, which leads to big innings. He has thrown just 33.2 innings, so there is an inexperience factor, but he has the stuff that could lead to him moving quickly through the system if he can improve his control.
Other Notable Players: Shortstop Brett Pope was the most impressive defensive player on the team, looking like a plus defender at a key spot. The 22nd round pick was severely lacking on the offensive side, though he did show a nice approach with a solid BB/SO rate, and he stole eight bases in limited playing time. Adam Oller just missed the top ten list, but he showed real potential by adding to his velocity and switching from a curve to a slider. He was somewhat limited due to a Spring Training shoulder injury, though he put up the best overall stats on the pitching staff. Cuban pitcher Yoandy Fernandez was signed during Spring Training and the Pirates eased him into pro ball. He’s 29 already, but he had 53 strikeouts in 36.2 innings and he’s going to Mexico this winter, where he will be used as a starting pitcher. That should lead to him being moved quicker next season. Matt Seelinger, the 28th round pick this year, had one poor outing, otherwise completely dominated out of the bullpen.