BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates aren’t exactly rebuilding this year in the true sense of the word. It’s easy to call what they’re doing a “rebuild”, but a better description might be a “retooling” of their roster. They traded away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, but the rest of their roster from last year remains the same.
Most of that roster is young, with the chance to improve. That is due to a large amount of prospects who have arrived in the majors the last two years. The team still has depth in the upper levels, and there are more prospects who can arrive in Pittsburgh in 2018.
As part of our series of season previews, here is a breakdown of all of the prospects that I think could arrive in Pittsburgh this year. There will be more prospects who arrive than the guys on this list. My main focus here was looking at the guys who could be more than just a “cup of coffee” guy, while also highlighting the guys who could be more than bench players.
The Big Guys
The biggest impact the Pirates could get this year would come from their top two prospects: Mitch Keller and Austin Meadows.
Keller will begin the year with Altoona, although I don’t expect him there for long. The Pirates have been aggressive with his promotion throughout the minors, and while they typically leave starting pitchers in Altoona for the equivalent of a full season, they will likely move faster with Keller. That’s especially true if he starts the 2018 season as dominant as he finished the 2017 season. He’s looked good so far in Spring Training, and I’d expect good things from him at the start of the year.
He could move up to Indianapolis early in the season, and have enough time there to adjust and be ready for the majors for the final stretch of the season. If the Pirates do find themselves competitive, I think it would be more likely that Keller arrives this year, similar to what Gerrit Cole did in 2013. As I wrote earlier in the spring, he wants to arrive in Pittsburgh this year, and they don’t seem to be shutting that idea down.
As for Meadows, he should have arrived by now, but injuries derailed his progress. Now the Pirates have Corey Dickerson under control for the next two seasons, which means Meadows will need to work his way into the lineup, rather than the previous plan where it looked like he was going to step into the job right when Andrew McCutchen left.
Meadows still shows a lot of skill and talent, with the potential to be an impact player in the majors. His problem has been a history of injuries, which escalated in 2017 and prevented him from developing in Indianapolis. If he can stay healthy, he could get a chance to develop at the top level of the minors, and force his way into the majors this year. It’s also likely that the Pirates will see an injury to their outfield at some point, which means Meadows needs to stay healthy and develop his game to the point where he would be an option in that event.
The Pirates have some strong rotation depth this year, and they don’t really start tapping into the minor league depth until they get eight starters deep. Their top depth options will be pitching in the bullpen in Pittsburgh this year, with Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault ready to step up and make a start if the Pirates need a guy early in the year.
The number eight option at the start of the year appears to be Nick Kingham. If Glasnow or Brault have to enter the rotation for a long stretch, it’s possible that Kingham could get the call to replace them in their long-relief roles in the bullpen in Pittsburgh, as Clint Hurdle has talked about that role being a possibility for Kingham.
Clay Holmes has some good stuff, showing mid-90s velocity, and the ability to touch higher, while also showing improvements with the cutter he added in the last few years. Holmes has the frame and the stuff to give him number three starter upside in the majors one day, with a more conservative future having him as a strong back of the rotation option. He should be ready this year, with the hope that his jump to the majors doesn’t involve a lot of adjusting to get to his starter upside.
Don’t sleep on Alex McRae, who could be a pretty interesting depth option. McRae doesn’t have the most exciting stuff, but does feature a good fastball that has sink and gets a lot of ground balls. I think it’s more likely that he ends up a reliever in Pittsburgh, and that would be his more likely role this year. I could see him making a start in the case of an emergency.
By the time you get to Kingham and Holmes, you’re eight starters deep, and then you’ve got Keller as a possibility for the rotation at some point in the second half. Most of the pitchers in Indianapolis will only be options as relievers.
There are a lot of relief options in Triple-A, and the reality is that the guys who perform well are going to be the guys who get the opportunities. The two notable guys right now are Tyler Eppler and Casey Sadler.
Eppler has been getting hit hard this spring, and has had issues with that in the past. His fastball can be too hittable by leaving it in the zone too often, and his cutter was flattening out last year, essentially giving him another hittable fastball. He could get some starts in Indianapolis, but I think his future is a reliever in the majors. He could do well there if he fixes the cutter issues.
Sadler showed off some impressive velocity last year, and already has good movement and sink on his fastball. He also has a decent slider to pair with the pitch, and could be an interesting option out of the bullpen if that velocity from last year carries over to the 2018 season.
The Pirates will likely see one of their Triple-A catchers making the jump to the majors this year, due to Francisco Cervelli’s injury history. Jacob Stallings is currently the number three option, and if Cervelli goes down, the Pirates would rely on a combo of Diaz and Stallings to provide strong defense, while having some questions at the plate.
Ryan Lavarnway is another interesting option, especially if he can return to being the quality of player he was a few years ago. That mostly depends on his offense rebounding. If it doesn’t, he would still be a good number four option due to his defense.
Finally, if there’s an emergency situation, then 2017 hero John Bormann could arrive. He wouldn’t provide any offensive value, but has MLB-ready defense that would carry the Pirates in a backup role in the event they suffer multiple injuries.
There are a lot of position players in Triple-A who are projected to be bench players, if they make it to the majors at all. The guys I want to focus on here are the guys who could have a shot at getting a few starts in Pittsburgh.
The biggest strength in the upper levels would be at the middle infield spots. The Pirates have Max Moroff and Kevin Kramer at second base, with Moroff able to play third and both able to play shortstop in a pinch. Kevin Newman is at shortstop, and has been getting work in at second base.
If Josh Harrison goes down with an injury, or gets traded at some point this year, then I think Moroff will be first on the depth charts to take over. I see Kevin Kramer as the better long-term starting option at second, and that statement might even be true if you include Newman. However, Moroff is ready to come up early in the season, while Kramer will need time in Triple-A to develop.
Newman has a good shot at arriving this year, possibly taking the same path that Jordy Mercer took when he arrived. Mercer arrived as a bench player, learning under Clint Barmes. I could see the same thing happening with Newman arriving to learn under Mercer, and eventually taking over the starting role. Long-term, I see Cole Tucker as the starting shortstop. However, Tucker will start the year in Altoona, and probably won’t arrive in Pittsburgh until 2019, due to all of the middle infield options in Triple-A this year.
Outside of the middle infield, the Pirates have some depth in the outfield. Jordan Luplow would be the top option at the start of the year if the Pirates need a starter replacement, although he could have some competition at the MLB level with Adam Frazier. Things could also get crowded as far as outfield depth if Meadows does step up.
Jose Osuna is in a tough spot. He’s the third best option at best on the depth chart at third base and first base, and isn’t really an option at PNC Park in left field, due to his defense. He could be an interesting bat off the bench, or a guy who can step up in a bench role in the majors if someone like David Freese, Josh Bell, or Colin Moran goes down. He did enough this spring to earn a bench spot, and could still return early in the season when the Pirates get back to 12 pitchers and 13 position players. Until then, he’ll provide the team with a good bench depth option out of Triple-A.