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
Mitch Keller, RHP, Altoona – Keller made one start during the week before last week and it was a very bad outing, with four runs on nine hits and three walks in 4.1 innings, while striking out just one batter. He needed a bounce back start on Tuesday and got just that when he allowed one run over seven innings, while striking out seven batters. He made another start on Sunday, looking to finish the week strong. In yesterday’s game he went 6.2 innings, giving up two runs on five hits and two walks, while picking up another seven strikeouts. Between the two games, Keller had a 15:4 GO/AO ratio. All of that earned him player of the week honors. There have been a few hiccups so far this year and Keller hasn’t displayed the best control, but nothing looks different with his arsenal. He’s getting nearly a strikeout per inning, he’s not giving up a lot of hits and he’s getting a lot of ground ball outs. It’s difficult to say whether or not he will be MLB ready by late in the year if the Pirates are in a pennant chase, but a few more starts in a row like his two from last week and that will look a lot more like it’s possible.
Christopher Bostick, Util, Indianapolis – Bostick had a strong week and has basically been very good all season. After Indianapolis was off on Monday, he had two hits on Tuesday, two more on Thursday, another two on Friday, two again on Saturday and just to mix things up, he picked up three hits on Sunday. He drove in at least one run in all five of those game, giving him eight RBIs total for the week. Through 35 games this season, he has a .333/.385/.523 slash line. Bostick ranks four in the International League in hits, third in doubles, second in triples, eighth in RBIs, second in average, fifth in slugging and fourth in OPS. He’s been playing a lot of outfield, but he can still play three infield spots, with shortstop only being an emergency spot. He’s earned a spot with the Pirates between this season and all he did last year, but he has to wait for something to open up for him to be promoted.
Will Craig, 1B, Altoona – Craig drove in a total of seven runs, and that was just from Saturday and Sunday. He actually picked up a total of 13 RBIs for the week, collecting at least one in all six games he played. Craig launched his fourth homer of the season on Monday. He then added his fifth on Tuesday and topped off the week with his sixth on Sunday, tying his total from all of last season in Bradenton. The added power was guaranteed just with the move from the pitcher-friendly Florida State League to Altoona, but he also changed his swing and his approach to help add more power and it seems to be paying off. While he isn’t getting on base as often as last year, Craig is 15th in the Eastern League in slugging, adding nearly 100 point to last year’s total.
Oneil Cruz, SS, West Virginia – Cruz was a long shot to make the top performer list headed into Sunday’s action, but then he hit two long shots to get him on the list. Cruz now has seven home runs on the season in 141st at-bat, after hitting ten all of last year in 397 at-bats. Cruz ranks fifth in the South Atlantic League in homers, seventh in slugging and his .878 OPS ranks tenth in the league, just three points behind seventh place. We are seeing the raw power begin to translate into game power. He’s also doing a better job of getting on base. At 19 years old this entire season, he is one of the most exciting bats in the system. His play at shortstop has been below average, but the important part is his bat and if that continues to progress, then they will find a place for him to play.
Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Altoona – Hayes had a solid week at the plate, picking up seven hits and three walks, while connecting on his first home run of the season. On Sunday, he hit his eighth double. It’s been a somewhat disappointing season so far at the plate, but it’s important to remember that he’s one of the youngest players in the Eastern League. He’s also on of the best defenders at any position and the Curve have witnessed that so far with just two errors in 38 games. His .974 fielding percentage last year was a record in the Florida State League and he has a .978 mark so far this season. Hayes has a .245/.306/.350 slash line this year, so perhaps this success over the last week will help him improve on those numbers.
Jordan Luplow, OF, Indianapolis – Luplow had a horrible month of April and started hitting as soon as the calendar changed to May. He was our Player of the Week earlier this month and after collecting six hits, including his fourth and fifth homers of the season, Luplow now has a .333/.421/.712 slash line in 18 May games. His slugging percentage alone is 201 points higher than his April OPS. He’s in the same situation as Christopher Bostick at this point, except Luplow has just the two corner outfield spots as possible positions to fill. That limits his opportunities, such as when Starling Marte went down and Austin Meadows got the call instead because he can play center field. You should expect Luplow to get MLB time at some point this season, but it just might be the worst case scenario for him, waiting until September to get that call.
Jason Martin, OF, Altoona – Martin has been the best hitter in the system so far this year. The Pirates even noted to the local media that they were pleased with his defense in center field so far. That was something that scouts were split on coming into this year. It now appears that center field could be a position for him in the future, which would increase his prospect value. Martin is getting his notice at the plate though, where he currently has an 11-game hit streak. He began this last week with his third straight three-hit game. That day included his fifth home run of the year. He picked up two more hits on Thursday, three more on Friday and finished his week off by driving in two runs in Sunday’s victory. He has a .364/.417/.612 slash line through 34 games.
Kevin Newman, SS/2B, Indianapolis – Newman was our Player of the Week last week and makes a return trip to the top performers with a solid week at the plate. It wasn’t close to his past week when he homered for the first time and also added four doubles. This week was all about hitting for average, which has improved him to a .320 average on the season. Newman went 10-for-27, collecting ten singles and just one walk. If he’s going to be successful in the majors, it’s going to be as a high average hitter because he doesn’t hit for much power and draws very few walks. He stole two bases in the past week, which is another area where he can add value. We basically saw his peak this week, a solid middle infielder who gets on base and utilizes his speed. That can be a valuable top of the order hitter if it carries over to the majors, but it’s important to remember that just 12 days ago he had a .586 OPS on the season, so we need to see more.
Jared Oliva, CF, Bradenton – Oliva had his second straight big week, this time hitting .389/.476/.667 in 21 plate appearances, with two doubles, a home run and two walks. Through his first 26 games this season, he had a .213/.311/.337 slash line, but he now has his average up to .266, to go along with an .807 OPS. He has played all 36 of his games this season in center field, where his plus speed gives him excellent range. He’s made just one error in 89 games as a pro, although he also has just one assist. Oliva also uses that plus speed to his advantage on the bases, going 9-for-11 in steals so far this season. He was 15-for-19 last year in that department. The current two-week streak of hitting is great to see from someone who was considered raw at the plate. If you have a strong defender in center, who can steal bases, plus he gets on base often, then he has a chance to be a solid overall player.
Alfredo Reyes, Util, Bradenton – We try to stick with a minimum of 20 plate appearances for this article, but two rain outs for Bradenton this week meant that only two of their players. Reyes was close enough with 19 PAs and he put up a .357/.500/.357 slash line, so we let him slide. The 24-year-old Reyes is having his best season at the plate so far, hitting .297/.395/.378 in 33 games, while going 10-for-11 in steals. He’s been playing second base, third base and some shortstop this year, after playing often in the outfield last year. Reyes has two plus tools in his speed and his arm, which is more like a plus-plus tool. So far the offensive part of his game has made him a very valuable player. We will see if he gets a chance sometime this year to play at Altoona. He’s a free agent at the end of the season.
Adrian Valerio, SS, Bradenton – Valerio got the last spot on the hitters chart and not just because it goes alphabetical. He had a solid week, though nothing spectacular. Some rain outs limited the amount of players who qualified for this list, or in the case of Alfredo Reyes above, were close enough to let slide. Valerio went 6-for-19 at the plate with one walk and his first triple of the season. He’s currently having a better May than April, with a .742 OPS compared to a .586 mark during his first month. Valerio provides strong defense at shortstop, which is his main calling card. He has above average speed, which he is turning into a tool so far this year, going 8-for-9 in steals. You would like to see more walks from him, but that has never been part of his game, so while he bats at the top of the order now, he will likely be a bottom of the order hitter in the future.
Luis Escobar, RHP, Bradenton – Escobar has been wildly inconsistent this year and unable to carry over his high strikeout numbers from Low-A last year when he led the league and all Pirates throughout the minors in strikeouts. He didn’t have any trouble on Thursday night though when he allowed one run on three hits and three walks in seven innings. The only run scored on a solo homer when he was over 90 pitches already and wrapping up his night. Escobar has the same stuff that got him highly ranked in the system coming into this year, but the problem is that he’s facing better hitters with that same stuff and they are making him pay more often for his mistakes. Escobar is throwing more strikes this year and getting slightly more ground outs, but his lower strikeout rate and mediocre results, don’t have his prospect status rising. He needs more games like he had Thursday night and fewer like this three times this year he failed to go five innings.
Taylor Hearn, LHP, Altoona – Hearn has had a roller coaster season so far. In his first two starts combined, he allowed just one run over 11 innings. He followed that up with three poor starts in a row, in which he allowed a total of 16 earned runs in 15.1 innings. He made our top performers list last week after allowing one run on one hit in five innings. In was a nice bounce back from those tough outings. As you can tell by the fact that he made The 21 again this week, Hearn built off of that last start. He went five shutout innings, allowing four hits and two walks, while striking out five batters. He had a high pitch count and allowed a lot of fly balls, but we are talking about shutout ball from someone who was one start removed from allowing a run per inning over three outings. Hearn is still showing the inconsistencies that make his future questionable. He has four starts that make him look like he has a chance to stick in a big league rotation and three starts that scream power bullpen arm. What is certain is that he has time to develop, so there shouldn’t be any rush to rule out starting at this point.
Clay Holmes, RHP, Indianapolis – When Holmes got sent down to Indianapolis after spending two weeks with the Pirates, he needed to get his pitch count back up. He was a fresh arm when they called him up to replace Joe Musgrove, but he ended up making just one appearance. After a relief outing for his Triple-A debut this year, Holmes put together back-to-back shutout performances. That was followed by three straight poor outings, mostly due to control issues. In his lone start this past week, Holmes returned to his earlier self, tossing six shutout innings on two hits and two walks, with seven strikeouts. He obviously needs more outings like this last one before he becomes an option for the Pirates, but Holmes has a really nice strikeout rate so far this year, along with his usual high ground ball rate, so this start might get him on the right track back to Pittsburgh.
Jesus Liranzo, RHP, Altoona – Liranzo made his debut with Altoona on April 16th and now five weeks later, he still hasn’t allowed a run. In 12 innings over nine appearances, he has an 0.86 WHIP, a .167 BAA and he’s averaging 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s been successful so far thanks to controlling a fastball that gets up to 101 MPH and a slider that is 20 MPH slower. He also has a changeup that sits between both of those pitches in velocity. While he has had some success in the past, it’s still too early at this point to assume his control issues in the past are behind him. If he is a much better pitcher than before, then you are talking about someone who is already on the 40-man roster and could be an option as a power arm late in the season in Pittsburgh.
James Marvel, RHP, Bradenton – Marvel had his longest outing of the season back on May 4th when he allowed one run over seven innings. It was also one of his best outings, ranking right behind six shutout frames in his second start. He didn’t come back strong after that seven inning outing, allowing five runs on ten hits in his start five days later. In his lone start last week, Marvel put up a start to rival his top two games this year. He retired the first 11 batters en route to six innings with one run on five hits and no walks. He picked up four strikeouts and a ton of ground ball outs. When he’s on his game, that’s the type of pitcher you get. He won’t miss a lot of bats, but he throws hard (93-94 MPH) with sink and throws strikes, which allows him to get soft contact on the ground and go deep into games. Marvel still profiles as a middle reliever at this point, but the slight increase in velocity this season is a positive sign.
Alex McRae, RHP, Indianapolis – McRae didn’t have a good start to his week, getting knocked out early in his first start. He made the top performers list because his Sunday start was one of the best in the system last week. In seven innings, he allowed one run on five hits and a walk, while striking out eight batters and posting a 6:1 GO/AO ratio. McRae had quite a split prior to this game, posting all of his best outings at home, while sporting an ERA over 9.00 in five road appearances. This is his best Triple-A start so far and his strikeout total is just one behind his career high set in his first start last season. McRae still profiles as a middle reliever because he doesn’t miss many bats and doesn’t have any plus offerings, but the Pirates are giving him a chance to remain in the rotation for now. That could change when players like Brandon Waddell and Mitch Keller are promoted from Altoona.
Oddy Nunez, LHP, Bradenton – Nunez sneaks onto this list thanks to the help of some poor choices at the back-end of the pitching list and Mitch Keller adding an 11th pitcher by winning the Player of the Week. Nunez didn’t have the worst outing on paper when you see just one earned run (four total runs) over six innings. He didn’t walk anyone and was getting his share of ground ball outs. The problem was that he was hit hard and was lucky to escape with just one earned run on eight hits. The other problem wasn’t performance based, it was what he is working with this year. Nunez jumped up prospect charts last year when he added three MPH to his fastball. At 6’8″ with deception and movement on his sinker, it was an extremely effective pitch at 90-92 MPH. This year we have seen 86-90 MPH and he’s lacking the control that got him a lot of weak ground ball outs. At his current velocity/control, he’s not a prospect, but he’s young, with a huge frame, so we could see it come back over the summer.
Domingo Robles, LHP, West Virginia – While highly ranked prospects Taylor Hearn, Clay Holmes and Luis Escobar were all putting together strong outings on Thursday night, a slightly lower ranked prospect put up the best outing of the night. Robles went seven innings on five hits, with no earned runs or walks, while striking out six batters. He got his share of ground outs as well, which helps put it up there as his best outing as a pro. Robles has always had excellent control, but this outing last week came right after he tied his career high with four walks in the previous week. Before Thursday night, his ground out rate was much lower than his previous totals, so not only was it a nice bounce back with the control, he also got back to keep the ball on the ground. Robles isn’t just a ground ball pitcher this year. He’s also getting his share of strikeouts, with 36 over 40 innings. His curveball has been extremely effective in any situation this season, which helps account for the higher strikeout rate.
Cam Vieaux, LHP, Bradenton – Vieaux got a little revenge against the team that roughed him up in his previous outings. Facing Palm Beach six days after they knocked him out of the game in the fifth inning, the 24-year-old southpaw ended up allowing just one run over seven innings. The 4.1 innings on May 12th was his shortest outing of the season, while the seven innings represents his longest game. Coincidentally, he allowed six hits and two walks in both games. Vieaux has a 3.89 ERA in 44 innings this season. He has 35 strikeouts and a 1.30 WHIP, which are both slight improvements on the numbers he put up in 13 starts with Bradenton last year. He also has a slightly higher home run rate and a lower ground ball rate, which cancels out those improvements when looking at the bigger picture. As an older pitcher in the league, he’s going to need to be a little more dominating over High-A hitters to improve his prospect status.
Brandon Waddell, LHP, Altoona – Waddell started this week off in unfamiliar territory when he pitched in relief of Nick Kingham. It didn’t go so well. While he allowed just two runs over three innings, he really ran his pitch count up high in his limited work. Waddell was back in his familiar starting role on Saturday night and he put up six shutout innings while tying his career high with eight strikeouts. That gave him a 1.66 ERA through 48.2 innings, with 41 strikeouts this season. He has a WHIP under 1.00, a BAA under .200 and he’s getting his share of ground ball outs. As I mentioned every time recently when he made this article, he looks like he is ready for the next step. He has much more Double-A experience than your average starter, and he also had a stint last fall in the Arizona Fall League. There isn’t anything else left to prove at this level.