Every Monday during the minor league season, we take a look at the top performers in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system, giving scouting reports on the top ten pitchers and top ten hitters from the previous week. The column was originally called Top Performers until last year when we changed it to The Twenty. The number 21 obviously has a lot of significance for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans, so we expanded this article to include one extra player.
Each Monday, we will highlight one Player of the Week, who will be followed by ten pitchers and ten batters who excelled during the previous week. This isn’t a top prospect list, so any player in the system can make the list if he has a strong week. Our scouting reports are based on first-hand views throughout the system, where we have coverage for all four full-season affiliates. We also get extra views via MiLB.tv, giving us a look at the entire farm system throughout the season.
Player of the Week
Arden Pabst, C, Bradenton – Pabst had hits in all five games he has played while splitting time with 2017 fourth round pick Jason Delay. Pabst put up a .474/.524/.579 slash line, while striking out once in 21 plate appearances. It’s a very nice start to the season for someone who struggled at the plate in each of his first two seasons. Pabst put up a .574 OPS with Morgantown in 2016 and a .646 OPS with West Virginia last year. That’s despite coming from a major college program, where he started for three years. He is known for his defense and that’s what will likely carry him in pro ball, possibly to the majors one day. If he can add offense to his game, then he’s more likely to reach that peak.
Christopher Bostick, Util., Indianapolis – Bostick started off strong last year for Indianapolis and it got him a brief trial with the Pirates early in the season, followed by a longer look in September. He has started off strong again this year, hitting .348/.400/.565 in six games, with one double and two triples. He has played four games in center field and two in left field so far this season, but he can still play second base and third base if needed. A crowded Indianapolis infield has forced him into the outfield full-time so far this season. He’s in a tough spot right now as he likely isn’t the first option up in Pittsburgh if something opens up in the outfield or infield. As the season goes along, players like Kevin Newman, Austin Meadows and Kevin Kramer could pass him as well, so Bostick will need to continue to stand out on offense and show his versatility if he’s going to get a chance before September.
Will Craig, 1B, Altoona – We have talked about the adjustments that Craig has made to his swing and mentality at the plate in order to add more power. We have also mentioned how he got into better shape this off-season, shedding 15 pounds in order to stay strong through the entire season. So far that has all paid off in the power department. Despite a .214 average, he has a .343 OBP and a .571 slugging percentage, hitting three homers. Perhaps the most impressive display was hit shot to straight away center field that hit off the wall over 400 feet away and resulted in an inside-the-park homer, with Craig circling the bases in 16 seconds. For reference, 14 seconds is considered plus-plus speed. The power and speed due to better conditioning are things we didn’t see last year from Craig, so the early signs are very positive.
Bligh Madris, RF, Bradenton – Madris has played all 11 games for the Marauders so far, hitting .359/.395/.538 in 39 at-bats, with one double and two homers. He was drafted in the ninth round last year and had a strong season for Morgantown, which earned him a jump over West Virginia to High-A ball in his first full season. Madris is strictly a corner outfielder and speed isn’t part of his game, so he’s going to need the bat to carry him through the system. At this point, he is doing everything you could ask from him. He recently moved into our top 50 prospects after Kyle Crick and Dovydas Neverauskas both lost their prospect status. If Madris keeps up the hitting through July when we do our re-ranking, he will make a strong move up that list. The FSL is a pitcher-friendly league and so far, he is making it look easy.
Mason Martin, 1B, West Virginia – Martin was an easy choice for this list despite a .231 batting average and 14 strikeouts in 30 at-bat. That’s because he had three doubles, three homers and drew seven walks. In fact, only one of his hits was a single. The other six went for extra bases. His 1.012 OPS is sixth best in the South Atlantic League, as is his .633 slugging percentage. Martin is strictly playing first base this season and was working hard on his defense all throughout Spring Training. He will have plenty of time to get acclimated to the position, because he is expected to spend all of 2018 in West Virginia, regardless of results. That’s the usual progression the Pirates use with players his age.
Calvin Mitchell, OF, West Virginia – Mitchell has reached base in nine of his first ten games. In fact, in the one game he didn’t reach base safely, he still contributed with a sacrifice fly. Mitchell is hitting .278/.357/.583 so far, with one double, two triples and two homers. He just turned 19 last month and he’s making the jump from the GCL to full-season ball, so this season will be a nice test for him. He’s a corner outfielder, with limited speed, so the bat is going to be the carrying tool. Mitchell has a solid approach at the plate and has shown easy power, so the hope is that he is one and done at this level, moving up to Bradenton next year if he shows signs of not being over-matched during the season.
Jose Osuna, 3B/OF, Indianapolis – Osuna has started off strong at the plate, which should be a surprise to no one. In seven games, he has hit .333/.433/.583, with three doubles, one homer and five walks. He will likely see his share of time in Pittsburgh this season, but until that happens, he has a chance to get more experience at third base. He played there in winter ball with some mediocre results, which isn’t necessarily bad considering his prior experience at the hot corner. So far this season, Osuna has played six games at third base and committed one error in 18 chances. He also played one game in the outfield and has yet to play first base.
Hunter Owen, 3B, Bradenton – Owen had some big games over the weekend which got him on this list and he was strongly considered for the Player of the Week spot. After going hitless for three straight games, he picked up eight hits in his last 15 at-bats. He didn’t just hit for average in his first ten games, he also picked up three doubles, two triples and a home run. He posted a .351/.429/.622 slash line. Owen has been playing third base full-time after he received some outfield time in the last two years. He also caught this spring and could see some time behind the plate during the season. He has a bat that could get him to the majors someday, though we really won’t know what he is capable of until he gets regular time in Double-A, because he has been old for every level he has been at since being drafted in 2016. The defense is what could ultimately hold him back, but not if he keeps hitting FSL pitching like he has to start this season.
Alfredo Reyes, IF/OF, Bradenton – Reyes re-signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent this off-season. He’s back at Bradenton, held back by his weak bat. The 24-year-old had a .584 OPS last season, which is in line with his career average OPS. This year he is hitting .360/.407/.520 through seven games. He’s an interesting player to give time to this year. He’s on a team devoid of top hitting prospects. He also has above average speed, strong defense at shortstop and a cannon for an arm, which is a weapon in the outfield. If he could improve the hitting to go along with his other three plus tools, then you might be talking about a versatile AAAA/bench player in the majors someday. He’s still young enough to be a late bloomer, but the slim odds of that happening aren’t getting any higher. He needs to take full advantage of this playing time and hope the offense finally clicks.
Jacob Stallings, C, Indianapolis – Stallings has put on a show at the plate so far this season, hitting .400/.440/.600 in six games, while getting the majority of the catching time ahead of Ryan Lavarnway. At this point, Stallings is just waiting for a spot to open up in Pittsburgh. Defensively, he is Major League ready and he has experience catching most of the pitchers with the Pirates. Offensively, he should hit enough that he won’t hurt your team. You would hope that Stallings isn’t needed in Pittsburgh until rosters expand on September 1st, but he will be ready to go in case something happens to either Francisco Cervelli or Elias Diaz.
Cole Tucker, SS, Altoona – We ranked Tucker third overall in our 2018 Prospect Guide due to the tools he displayed last year, along with the late success he had with the jump to Double-A. A hand injury in the playoffs cost Tucker some quality playing time, including the playoffs, Fall Instructional League and Arizona Fall League. He got an invite to Major League Spring Training this year and proved there were no lasting effects from the injury. Now he’s proving that he deserved that high ranking in the system. Tucker is hitting .367/.457/.533 through eight games and playing solid defense at shortstop. The only thing we haven’t seen yet is the running game that led to 47 steals last year, but it’s still early in the season. Tucker will be at Altoona this year until a spot opens up in the Indianapolis infield, possibly waiting until Kevin Newman gets called up to the majors.
Dario Agrazal, RHP, Altoona – Agrazal led an Altoona rotation that had a strong start to their season. The “worst” of the rotation was JT Brubaker and he still had two solid starts that would have normally got him a spot on this list. Agrazal and three other Curve starters made this list. He got here by throwing six no-hit innings in his debut. That was followed by two runs over five innings in his second start. He held batters to a .167 BAA and recorded a 1.45 GO/AO ratio. There were flaws to his week, with just four strikeouts and four walks (plus two hit batters) from someone who has some of the best command in the system. It’s important to remember that he missed the second half of last year with a pectoral injury, so he already exceeded expectations for his early season starts.
Tyler Eppler, RHP, Indianapolis – Eppler has made two starts so far this season and both of them were strong. He started with 5.2 shutout innings in his debut, striking out ten batters. He returned with four shutout innings in an outing that was shortened due to an hour long rain delay. The ten strikeouts for Eppler set a new career high, topping the eight he put up last year. One of his biggest issues in the past has been a lack of a true strikeout pitch, so he has been working on his off-speed pitches to try to come up with something better. It’s something to watch going forward, as an increase in strikeouts would give him a chance to make it to Pittsburgh quicker.
Luis Escobar, RHP, Bradenton – Escobar had a very interesting start to his season. He began with one run and three hits over five innings in his debut. He followed that up with six shutout innings on four hits in his second outing. The interest part was how he got those great results. Escobar has been a flyball pitcher, who piles up strikeouts (most in the system last year) and has had his share of control issues. In his two starts so far this season, he has no walks, seven strikeouts and a 1.67 GO/AO ratio in 11 innings. I don’t expect him to become a totally different pitcher over one winter, so don’t be surprised if all of those numbers shift closer to his past results. If he can pick up the strikeout total while maintaining better control and/or more groundballs, then his prospect stock will rise to a top 100 prospect in the game.
Taylor Hearn, LHP, Altoona – Hearn has made just one start so far this season, but his Double-A debut was a very positive outing. We had some worries during Spring Training due to lower velocity, but he was a tick higher in Altoona and he gave up just one hit and one unearned run in five innings. Hearn did walk three batters to go along with four strikeouts, but this was his Double-A debut and five innings without an earned run is a nice way to start your upper level experience. Hearn has some work to do with his new slider and you would like to see his fastball velocity return by the time the weather starts to warm up
Mitch Keller, RHP, Altoona – Keller has only made one start so far due to a rain out on Sunday, but it was a very positive outing from the top prospect in the system. He faced a lineup filled with lefties and used his changeup often with success. In six shutout innings, he allowed two hits and two walks, while striking out eight batters. There isn’t much to say about Keller that you haven’t already heard here. He just needs to keep doing what he has been doing at Altoona since he was called up last August, while avoiding the minor injuries that plagued him last year. That should lead to him getting promoted to Indianapolis sometime during the first half of this season. Then the Pirates will see where they are, and how he’s performing in Triple-A, before deciding whether or not he makes his big league debut this year.
Nick Kingham, RHP, Indianapolis – Kingham has started off strong with five shutout innings in his debut and one run over six innings in his second start. The first outing included ten strikeouts, but he did walk three batters and hit another, while running up his pitch count early. The second outing was much more efficient, getting through six frames on 80 pitches, thanks in part to no walks. Kingham will likely be the first man up if the Pirates need a starter at this point, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make his Major League debut out of the bullpen at some point. The Pirates were able to get a fourth minor league option with him this winter due to his time missed from Tommy John surgery. That gave him extra time to develop this year, but he’s going to need to stick on the roster next year, so they should be looking to get him plenty of big league time, especially if he continues to pitch well.
Richard Rodriguez, RHP, Indianapolis – Rodriguez was a quiet signing this off-season as a minor league free agent, but he’s already been promoted to Pittsburgh after a quick start. Our winter coverage featured Rodriguez for most of the off-season and he really impressed by putting together a long streak with no earned runs, lasting nearly two full months. In his brief time with Indianapolis, he dominated, allowing one hit over five shutout innings, while striking out nine batters. Rodriguez didn’t pitch during the series against the Marlins and he probably won’t be up for good at this point, but he does provide the Pirates with a depth option who has a lot of Triple-A success, along with some big league experience.
Bo Schultz, RHP, Bradenton – Schultz is 32 years old and used up all of his prospect status in the majors in 2015, then put in more time in the big leagues in 2016. So he isn’t your typical pitcher in High-A ball. He’s returning from Tommy John surgery and is still in the early stages, but his results have been strong so far. In 5.2 shutout innings over four appearances, he has allowed two hits and a walk, with four strikeouts. Two of his outings have been for more than an inning. He’s going to eventually make it up to Triple-A, where we will get a better idea of whether he could help out the Pirates later this season.
Brandon Waddell, LHP, Altoona – Waddell was in strong consideration for the Player of the Week spot with his performance over two starts for Altoona. In his opening outing, Waddell allowed one run over 5.2 innings, while striking out seven batters. He followed that up with six shutout innings and six more strikeouts. He held batters to a .143 average in the first two games and recorded a strong 2.29 GO/AO ratio. Last year was a lost season for Waddell, who twice missed time with forearm injuries, which limited him to 78 innings. He was able to make up for some lost time in the Arizona Fall League, where he put in strong results. This is his third season in Altoona and there is some strong competition in the rotation for the first opening in the Indianapolis rotation. At some point I expect Waddell to end up in Indianapolis this year.
Blake Weiman, LHP, West Virginia – Weiman was the eighth round pick of the Pirates in 2017. He was drafted out of a major college and saw plenty of action for Morgantown last year, so it seemed possible that he could skip up to Bradenton this season. He will likely end up there at some point this season, especially if he keeps up this hot start. In three appearances, he has thrown 6.2 shutout innings, with six hits, no walks and seven strikeouts. He went three innings in his last outing, which was his longest outing as a pro. Weiman has a solid two-pitch mix that he commands well, which could get him through the system quickly, although at this point his upside appears to be as a middle reliever.