The Indianapolis preview yesterday showed that the Pittsburgh Pirates have a lot of top prospects and depth options at the top of their farm system. One level lower, the Pirates will have five of their top ten prospects start the season at Altoona. The entire starting rotation and all four infielders, plus two outfielders, are among our top 30 prospects. Basically, it doesn’t get much better than this for prospect watching, although both Indianapolis and West Virginia will be loaded teams as well.
Mitch Keller will be the big name to watch because he’s the top prospect in the system and he has already put in some time in Double-A, plus he pitched well in the Arizona Fall League. That could mean he won’t be with Altoona too long this season, but there are plenty of players to watch on a daily basis when he leaves.
Altoona is a level where we see solid hitting prospects really breakout, as they leave the pitcher-friendly Florida State League for the more neutral Eastern League. In particular, the entire infield of Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cole Tucker, Stephen Alemais and Will Craig all have a chance to take their game to the next level. For Hayes and Tucker, that would mean consensus top 100 prospects, while Alemais and Craig could move into the top 10 for the Pirates.
To prepare for the 2018 Altoona Curve season, here are our top ten prospects at the level, and what you should expect from each player. The rankings come from our 2018 Prospect Guide, which you can get for just $19.99 in eBook form. We also have a very limited amount of paperback books remaining, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Now, here are the rankings:
1. Mitch Keller, RHP – Keller made six starts for Altoona last year during the regular season and then looked terrific in two playoff starts. He then starred in the Arizona Fall League, where he got more chances to pitch against upper level competition. It’s possible that his stay in Altoona isn’t long this year due to that experience. It’s also possible that he ends up in Pittsburgh by the end of the season. That jump hasn’t been ruled out by the Pirates and they gave him a slightly late start to Spring Training, opening up the possibility of him pitching into October. Before we get that far ahead with him, he will need to continue to show improved results with his changeup, which has a different grip that is still relatively new.
2. Cole Tucker, SS – Tucker had a semi-breakout season last year in that we saw him hit for some power for the first time, while really showing what he could do as a lead-off hitter. He also took a step forward with his defense. He finished last year at Altoona and adjusted quickly to the level after a few rough games. His issue last year and in the past has been injuries and he missed time twice last season with hand injuries. So a full healthy season would be a good sign for his progress, while just continuing to become a better all-around player. He should move up to Indianapolis at some point this season, but that movement will likely depend on what’s going on ahead of him in Triple-A with Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer in the middle of the infield.
3. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B – This could be the season where we really see the full potential of Hayes. He has shown the ability to get on base, while flashing some of the best defense in the system and he ranks among the top defenders at third base in all of the minors. Hayes also added the ability to steal bases to his resume last year. We haven’t seen much in the power category from him, but two things could help that change this season. Hayes had a healthy off-season this past winter after being slowed by back/rib injuries the previous off-season. He’s also getting out of the Florida State League and into a better park for hitters. He already looks like someone who could be with the Pirates by 2019, but the added power would make him a more valuable player.
4. Taylor Hearn, LHP – Hearn was pitching well for Bradenton last July when an oblique injury basically ended his season. He returned to make one brief appearance in the GCL to finish his regular season, then it was on to fall ball, first in the instructional league, then in the Arizona Fall League. Right now there are some concerns with him due to lower velocity this spring, along with the occasional control issues that have held him back in the past. Hearn’s velocity will be something to watch as the season progresses, along with continued work on his new slider. It would be hard for him to have success in Double-A as a starter if he took a step back in his progress, and it would be even harder to continue to project him as a possible starter in the majors. Plenty of players have shown an increase in velocity once the season starts, so it’s best to see where he’s at before getting too down on him.
5. Bryan Reynolds, OF – There will be a lot of eyes on Reynolds as the key returning piece in the Andrew McCutchen trade. The first look at him this spring didn’t go so well, as he went 1-for-21, with one single and an 0:7 BB/SO ratio. That’s coming from someone who has no experience over High-A ball, so it shouldn’t cause any worries at this point. The Pirates will hope to see some added power from the 23-year-old, who has hit for average during both of his seasons as a pro, while hitting a total of 16 homers. If he doesn’t step up the power game, then you would like to see some slight improvements in both his walk and strikeout rates.
6. Dario Agrazal, RHP – Agrazal got promoted to Altoona during the middle of last season, but made just one start due to a pectoral injury. He was added to the 40-man roster during the off-season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Agrazal had always been a quality pitcher, who pitched to contact, kept the ball down and threw strikes. He took a step forward in 2016 by showing improved velocity, and even added a tick to that fastball in 2017. It led to an improved strikeout rate during his last five weeks with Bradenton. If he’s able to return to that same form this year, then we could see him establish himself as a future Major League starter.
7. JT Brubaker, RHP – Brubaker returns to Altoona as a starter after establishing himself as one of the hardest throwers in the system last year. He was sitting 97-98, hitting 99 MPH in shorter stints in the Arizona Fall League. That was after he was hitting 97 MPH late in his one postseason start. The return isn’t surprising due to his inconsistent results in 2017, but he has plus velocity, throws strikes and has a nice three-pitch mix, so this could be a big year for him if he finally puts everything together. The Altoona rotation is strong this season and it will be interesting to see who among the group is the first to be promoted once something opens up at Indianapolis.
8. Will Craig, 1B – This will be a very interesting season for the 2016 first round pick. Craig made some small changes to his swing with the hopes of adding more power in 2018. He also got into noticeably better shape during the off-season. Craig should naturally add more power just by moving away from the Florida State League. The swing adjustment looked to be working well this spring, but he will need the approach of a power hitter to really reach his peak. He does a great job of getting on base, but a slow first baseman with power isn’t going to reach his full potential with the plate approach of a small, speedy lead-off hitter. The hope is that the change in his swing also leads to him being more aggressive at the plate.
9. Stephen Alemais, 2B/SS – Alemais did the opposite of what most hitters are doing now. He moved away from the launch angle approach to become more of an on base hitter. That switch in the middle of last year while he was rehabbing a hand injury led to much better results at Bradenton than he was having a level lower in West Virginia. Despite having only 101 at-bats in High-A, he makes the move up to Altoona this season. He will mostly be playing second base with Tucker seeing the majority of the starts at shortstop. Alemais will get some shortstop time on off-days for Tucker, but if Tucker gets promoted to Indianapolis, then you should see Alemais shift back to shortstop. He’s the best shortstop in the system defensively, but until he can establish himself as a starter with the bat, he will need to have some position versatility.
10. Jason Martin, OF – Martin was the fourth piece in the Gerrit Cole trade, but he’s still a player with potential to be a starting outfielder in the majors. He spent most of 2017 in Double-A, with solid results for someone who turned 22 years old after the season. He returns to the level this year with a chance to move up to Indianapolis mid-season if he repeats those results. Martin has a big difference still between his floor and ceiling, with some seeing him as a corner outfielder who will see limited big league time, while others think he could end up as a starting center fielder if everything clicks. We will get a better idea of his potential this season with Altoona.
Just Missed (In No Particular Order): Brandon Waddell was good enough to make our top 30 prospects, but this team is so deep that he isn’t among the top ten Altoona prospects. He’s going to be in the starting rotation again and hopes for an injury-free season. Jake Brentz, Yeudy Garcia and Geoff Hartlieb have all shown potential to be solid relievers, with Brentz and Hartlieb both hitting 100 MPH last year. Corner outfielder Logan Hill showed some terrific power last year and got some nice praise this spring, so we could see a big season from him. Jerrick Suiter had a strong season last year for Altoona, but returned due to a crowded situation in Indianapolis. He played some third base last fall and this spring.
Catchers Jin-De Jhang and Christian Kelley will split the duties behind the plate. Jhang will join the team late for a second year in a row. Last year it was an oblique injury and this time it’s an elbow issue. Kelley has established himself as a solid defensive player. Pablo Reyes should see time as a utility player around the infield and possibly in the outfield again. Starting pitcher Pedro Vasquez is a little behind schedule due to illness, but will join Altoona once he’s able to get stretched out. Mitchell Tolman was suspended for 50 games by minor league baseball, but he should return to Altoona once he is eligible to play.