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
Calvin Mitchell, OF, West Virginia – Mitchell gets our second Player of the Week honors after tearing the cover off of the ball last week. He went 14-for-30 at the plate, with three doubles, a triple, a homer and he drove in nine runs. Through 17 games, he is hitting .364/.419/.652, ranking in the top five in all three categories in the South Atlantic League. Mitchell showed a nice bat with easy power last year, which got overshadowed by some of his teammates who made the Gulf Coast League not look like a pitcher-friendly league. During the early part of this season, the lefty-hitting 19-year-old outfielder has looked like the top prospect from that 2017 GCL team. If he can keep it up, then he might be the best hitter from this group in the future. For now though, it’s just a great sign to see him getting off to a hot start after the aggressive push to full-season ball.
Christopher Bostick, Util., Indianapolis – In last week’s The 21, I mentioned that there didn’t seem to be a spot for Bostick without numerous openings in Pittsburgh. The solution for him would be to play well enough that he’s the number one option and he did just that. Bostick was one of the top performers on offense this past week, going 7-for-18 at the plate, with two doubles and a triple. Through 12 games this season, he has a .366/.409/.585 slash line, while splitting his time in the field between left field and center field. With his versatility on defense and solid hitting at Indianapolis dating back to the beginning of last year, we could see Bostick in Pittsburgh at some point before September call-ups.
Oneil Cruz, SS, West Virginia – Oneil Cruz has been off to a slow start this season. He has a low average (.218), a lot of strikeouts (25 in 55 at-bats) and he has committed eight errors at shortstop. Despite all of that, he still has an .839 OPS so far, thanks in part to four home runs. Cruz saw a nice bump to his average over the last five days, picking up two hits on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. During that Friday game, he homered, walked and drove in three runs. He’s basically at the same point he was last year when the Pirates got him, except now they are using him full-time at shortstop instead of third base. It’s an experiment that is unlikely to work due to his size, which is only going to be more of an issue in the future, as the 6’6″, 19-year-old continues to fill out. As the four homers suggest, his huge raw power is still easily the most intriguing tool.
Tyler Gaffney, OF, Bradenton – Gaffney took off for five seasons to pursue football and when too many injuries piled up on him, he decided to come back to play baseball. So far the results have been positive, as he has reached base safely in all 12 games. Gaffney is hitting .302/.400/.488 in 50 plate appearances. He just hit his first professional home run on Saturday and he has stolen three bases. Gaffney has also impressed with the amount of contact he is making, striking out just nine times so far. It’s too early to make any type of predictions of his baseball future, so just sit back and enjoy the story for now.
Jason Martin, OF, Altoona – Martin missed the first few games of the season with a minor foot injury and took a couple of games to really get into the swing of things. He is really starting to put it together now. In his last five games, Martin has picked up seven hits and six walks. That includes his first home run of the season on Saturday. Through 11 games, he has a .325/.413/.600 slash line. So far he has been splitting his outfield time between left field and center field evenly. If he’s able to handle center field full-time, then along with his bat, that makes him a valuable player. He has shown speed in the past, though he’s never been a successful base stealer and he’s 0-for-2 in that department this season. If he can do a better job in that area, then it just adds more value to his game.
Mason Martin, 1B, West Virginia – Martin didn’t have a great week, but got the last spot on the list thanks to teammate Calvin Mitchell moving up to the Player of the Week spot. Martin went 7-for-28 with three doubles and he drove in five runs. His overall line on the season is very good, especially when you factor in that he’s one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League. Martin is hitting .241/.353/.500 through 17 games, which ranks him 20th in the league in OPS. Just like teammate Oneil Cruz, the strikeouts are an issue early with 23 in 58 at-bats, but Martin is showing power at a young age in full-season ball and has not looked over-matched. He isn’t a free swinger, so a slightly more aggressive approach with pitches in the strike zone could help. For now, it’s not a big issue, just something to keep in mind.
Wyatt Mathisen, INF, Altoona – Mathisen didn’t play much during the first ten days of the season, so he wasn’t even in consideration for last week’s article. I actually stretched just a little to get him on the list this week, as he fell two plate appearances short of our usual minimum. His week was strong enough that he deserved the spot, going 5-for-10 with a double, triple, four walks and three hit-by-pitches. He is in a loaded infield with prospects, but should see more time now with Pablo Reyes being promoted to Indianapolis. Mathisen has made starts at third base, second base and first base so far, while reaching base safely in all eight games this season.
Austin Meadows, OF, Indianapolis – Meadows played five games this past week and had one hit in all of them, plus added two walks throughout the week. Two of his hits were doubles to give him four doubles in 11 games. He has a .293/.356/.390 slash line in 45 plate appearances this season. Meadows has played six games in center field and five in left field so far. He played 20 in right field last year, but has not been over there yet this year. The hitting, fielding and base running are all there this season, so the big issue is just him staying healthy. Assuming that happens, we will see him in Pittsburgh sometime after early June. It’s too early to guess exactly when he would come up or how they would handle playing time for him.
Jose Osuna, 3B/OF, Indianapolis – Osuna has been hitting well and getting in his playing time at third base. He has hits in all 12 games he has played this year, which has his slash line at .341/.417/.561 through 48 plate appearances. As a side note, Osuna finished his winter season on a 17-game hit streak, setting his team’s record. On the defensive side, he has made one error in 23 chances at third base, where he has played 11 of his 12 games. It appears that the Pirates are going to give him most of his time at the hot corner while he’s in the minors, but his most likely role in the majors this season will be as a bench bat because he’s blocked at all of his positions.
Deon Stafford, C, West Virginia – Coming into the season, there were some questions about which of the catchers that the Pirates took in the 2017 draft would go to Bradenton and which one would go to West Virginia. It was an interesting decision because Jason Delay is the advanced defensive catcher, but Stafford had the better bat. I assumed Delay would go to West Virginia to work with all of the young pitchers, but I knew also that Stafford would need plenty of time behind the plate to improve his overall defense. Delay is struggling mightily at the plate in Bradenton, but after a solid last week, Stafford is now hitting .341/.417/.512 in 11 games. He has five multi-hit games in his last six contests and he’s picked up six extra-base hits on the season.
Adrian Valerio, SS, Bradenton – Valerio rebounded from a slow start by picking up two hits in three straight games. He added another two-hit game on Thursday, which included his second home run of the season. On Saturday, he added his third homer. He also stole three bases in the past week, showing a nice combo of speed and power from someone who is known for his above average defense at shortstop. Valerio has committed one error in 73 chances this season. I wouldn’t expect big offensive numbers from him in the Florida State League this year. It’s a pitcher-friendly league where home runs go to die in the summer months. Valerio has been known at times to swing for the fences, which shouldn’t be his game, so the summer could go two ways. It may help his game if he realizes he won’t hit many homers in Bradenton and he uses the line drive approach to the middle of the field. Or he could start swinging harder when those fly balls are dying on the track and for him that usually leads to prolonged slumps. That was something he avoided last year for the first time.
Dario Agrazal, RHP, Altoona – Agrazal is a repeat top performer from last week when he made the list due to six no-hit innings in his season debut, followed by two runs over five innings. In his only start from last week, Agrazal threw seven shutout innings, allowing four hits, one walk and he struck out three batters. His prospect status is an interesting case. He started showing better overall stuff in West Virginia in 2016, but the results were there. He started getting those desired results in 2017 at Bradenton, including a huge increase in his strikeout numbers. The ability to miss bats is what had him jump in our rankings. Now he’s in Altoona and getting great results by pitching to contact, with just seven strikeouts in 18 innings, and doing it after he missed half of last season with an injury. So you definitely like the early results, but an increase in his strikeouts would really help.
JT Brubaker, RHP, Altoona – Last week, Brubaker was the only Altoona starting pitcher to not make The 21. It wasn’t that he had a bad start to the season, it was that there were so many top notch performances early. This week he left little doubt that he belonged on the list with one run over six innings, while picking up eight strikeouts. Brubaker didn’t have the best overall numbers last year, but he did show better stuff, including a fastball that topped out at 99 MPH. That was up from a previous high of 94 MPH in the lower levels. He made a great playoff start for Altoona, then pitched well in the Arizona Fall League out of the bullpen. His off-speed pitches look sharp early this season, which has led to 21 strikeouts in 16 innings. If he continues this early season run, he could be in the Indianapolis rotation before mid-season.
Nick Kingham, RHP, Indianapolis – Kingham is another repeat from last week’s The 21. He is off to an excellent start to his season after four outings and it looks like he could soon be ready to step in if the Pirates need his services. His one and only issue so far seems to be a few high pitch count innings, which has limited his outings. On Sunday, he went 5.2 innings and ran into some trouble late as his pitch count passed the 90 mark. It was still a solid outing with one earned run on six hits, though he walked three batters for the second time this season. Earlier in the week, Kingham went six innings while surrendering two runs on five hits and a walk. Command has been his strong point when his game is on, so you would probably like to see a little bit better consistency before he debuts in the majors. Continuing to start at Indianapolis gives him a chance to step right into the rotation if a spot opens up, but otherwise we will probably see him debut in relief at any time this season.
Travis MacGregor, RHP, West Virginia – MacGregor had one of the best starts during the first ten days of the minor league season with 12 strikeouts over 5.1 innings, but he didn’t make last week’s The 21 due to the fact he had one of the worst outings as well. In his second start, MacGregor left after one inning due to throwing 38 pitches. He wasn’t charged with an earned runs, but he was hit hard after an error early in the inning. He bounced back in his third start, earning top performer recognition with six shutout innings, giving up three hits, two walks and picking up six strikeouts. MacGregor showed better overall pitching this spring, including improvements to his fastball velocity and off-speed pitches. That has led to 20 strikeouts in 12.1 innings. He just needs to be more consistent, limiting the bad outings, then we could see his prospect stock really take a leap forward.
Braeden Ogle, LHP, West Virginia – Ogle had a rough debut due to poor control. He lasted just three innings, giving up three runs while walking four batters. You can give him some slack with that start because he had his start pushed back two days in a row due to rain. Ogle made two starts this past week and both of them had strong results. On Monday, he allowed one run on six hits and two walks over six innings. On Saturday, he again gave up one run on six hits in six innings. This start did include three walks, but he also struck out eight batters. Better control could help put the 20-year-old lefty among the top ten prospects in the system because he has the ability to miss bats with a fastball that touches 98 MPH and improving off-speed pitches.
Evan Piechota, RHP, West Virginia – There is clearly one name that stands out on this pitching list, but in the land of the current/recent top 50 prospects, the non-drafted free agent stood tall. Piechota had to fill in on short notice this week when Sergio Cubilete took a line drive to the face in the first inning and was knocked out of game. Rarely do you see a reliever excel in a role like that, but Piechota faced the minimum of 18 batters in his six innings of work, striking out seven hitters. He had pitched in long relief four days earlier and made a spot start five days before that. In 14 innings this season, he has a 1.29 ERA and 17 strikeouts. Piechota has success because of some deception in his delivery, excellent control and he’s a smart pitcher. He does not have the stuff of anyone else on this list, which is what will hold him back if he makes it to the upper levels, but he’s a valuable arm to have around in situations just like the one that came up last week.
Domingo Robles, LHP, West Virginia – Robles had a very tough season debut, partially due to poor defense behind him, but he also allowed five earned runs on nine hits in 3.2 innings. His second start was much better,with three runs over 5.2 innings. His only start last week is what you want to see from the 19-year-old southpaw. Robles gave up one run on two hits and no walks over six innings, while picking up nine strikeouts. The only run came on a home run and the only other hit was a weakly struck infield hit to second base. Robles showed a terrific curveball in that last start, which he was using early in the count to get strikes and late in the count as a swing-and-miss pitch. He has walked just one batter this season. He has the makings of a nice three-pitch mix, along with the control to help him be successful as a starter.
Ike Schlabach, LHP, West Virginia – Schlabach was scheduled to pitch in long relief for West Virginia this season, but he has already made two starts. The first came after a doubleheader forced a spot start to be necessary, while his start this past week was because Sergio Cubilete got hit in the face with a liner and is now out of action. Schlabach took advantage of the second chance to start on Sunday by throwing five shutout innings on one hit and three walks, with five strikeouts and a 4:2 GO/AO ratio. He also threw a scoreless inning earlier in the week, which helped get him on the list. The Pirates hoped that the 21-year-old lefty could add a tick or two to his low-90s velocity by adjusting his delivery last year in the Fall Instructional League. They surprisingly moved him out of the rotation this spring, but between spot starts and long relief, he should see plenty of mound time this season.
Eduardo Vera, RHP, Bradenton – Vera had a strong outing early last week, then finished with a quality outing on Sunday. During his first start, Vera allowed one run over six innings on just two hits. He gave up three runs on Sunday, but went seven innings for the first time, and at one point in the game he retired 13 in a row. He walked three batters in his first two starts and didn’t walk a batter in 13 innings last week. The one downside so far this season is 15 strikeouts in 24 innings. Vera showed improved velocity last year, sitting in the mid-90s, while controlling all three of his pitches well. We saw the ability to miss bats last year, he just needs to do it more consistently.
Cam Vieaux, LHP, Bradenton – Vieaux had an impressive outing on Saturday, which was cut short due to a rain delay in the fifth inning. He threw five shutout innings on three hits and a walk, with five strikeouts. In his first two starts combined, he had a 6.30 ERA in ten innings, with 13 hits and three walks. The 24-year-old Vieaux struggled in the jump to High-A last year after putting up impressive stats with West Virginia during the first half of the season. One of the nice things about his start to the season this year is 15 strikeouts in 15 innings. He had a very low strikeout rate last year at both levels. He got away with it in Low-A, but the more advanced hitters made him pay. Since he’s not an extreme ground ball pitcher, he’s really going to need those strikeouts as he advances up the system.