If the Pirates are going to return to being contenders in the next few years, they will need help from the prospects in the upper levels of their minor league system. Fortunately, they have a few prospects who can step in over the next year or two, after starting off the 2018 season in the upper levels.

When designing the cover for the 2018 Prospect Guide, I originally considered having Mitch Keller as the sole person on the front. Keller was on the front of last year’s Prospect Guide, but is the top prospect in the system, so it wouldn’t be out of place to have him on the front again. Then the Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole trades happened, and it made more sense to have that group of upper level prospects on the front.

So Keller was joined by Austin Meadows, Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, and Ke’Bryan Hayes. All five players are in the top seven in our recent system rankings, and all are in our top three tiers. They will also largely determine the future direction of the team. Here is a look at the cover, with thoughts to follow:

The Pirates need Keller to step up and be a top of the rotation guy, joining Jameson Taillon to give the Pirates a solid one-two punch. They need one of Tucker or Newman to replace Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and hopefully find an average or better option for the position. They need Meadows to stay healthy and reach his upside to join Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco in the outfield. And they need Hayes to either provide insurance if Colin Moran doesn’t work out, or to become a better option than Moran.

They have an impact prospect in Keller, but need one or more of the position players to emerge as either an above-average guy or an impact guy to help boost the current MLB team. Meadows has that upside, but has been held back by injuries. Hayes or Tucker would be the next best bets, with Newman having a lower upside and a higher floor than the other players.

Meadows and Newman should arrive in 2018. Hayes and Tucker could arrive at some point in 2019. And Keller could arrive as early as the second half of 2018, or sometime in 2019, depending on how aggressive the Pirates are with him in the upper levels.

If the Pirates are going to contend in 2019 or 2020, then these five players will be important pieces from within that could help lead to a contender. So it only seemed fitting that all five should be on display on this year’s cover.

The 2018 Prospect Guide is available as an eBook. You can currently purchase the book for just $19.99 and get our top 50 prospects. The eBook will be updated right before Spring Training with the full book, including reports on every player in the system. We also have a limited number of paperback copies of the book available for those of you who want an actual book. Those will be shipped out around the start of Spring Training.

With the Pirates currently in a rebuild, there is no better site to follow right now than Pirates Prospects, and there is no better product to have than the 2018 Prospect Guide, which gives you information on every prospect in the system, keeping you informed on which players could play a role in the future of the franchise.