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
Juan Pie, OF, DSL Pirates – Until the Pirates signed South Korean shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae in early March, Pie was the highest bonus ($500,000) they handed out in the 2017-18 international signing class. Pie was known for his bat as an amateur and it needs to be his carrying tool through the minors because he’s lacking in speed and defense. While the season just began for the 17-year-old left-handed hitter, he’s off to a terrific start. Through six games, Pie is hitting .435/.480/.870 in 25 plate appearances. He already has a double, three triples and a home run. He was already the top player to watch for the two DSL clubs, but we could see him firmly establish himself as the top DSL prospect for the Pirates if this hitting continues.
Christopher Bostick, OF, Indianapolis – Bostick has been a regular in The 21 all season and at this point, I’m not sure what else the Pirates want to see from him before he gets a shot with the club. He might just have to keep playing in Indianapolis until the rosters expand in September. Bostick has a seven-game hit streak going, with homers in two of those games and two three-hit performances. He now has a .322/.375/.502 slash line in 53 games. He leads the International League in average and ranks sixth in OPS. Due to all of the infield options at Indianapolis this year, Bostick has split his time between left field and center field, though he should be able to fill in at second base and third base, plus he’s serviceable short-term as a shortstop.
Oneil Cruz, SS, West Virginia – Cruz had nine hits this past week, including his eighth home run of the season. Recently he has been cutting down on his strikeouts and improving his average/OBP. He also has more extra-base hits this year in 56 games, than he did last year in 105 games. If he can continue with the improved power and cut down somewhat on his high strikeout total, then the Pirates could be seeing the start of a breakout with his bat. The defense is a different issue. Cruz committed his 22nd error at shortstop on Sunday, which is actually an improvement on how he played last year, though obviously way too many errors before the mid-season All-Star break. If the bat continues to improve, then they will find a spot somewhere for Cruz, who is still just 19 years old.
Jommer Hernandez, C, DSL Pirates – Hernandez was one of the top targets of the Pittsburgh Pirates when the 2017-18 international signing period started, receiving a $250,000 bonus on July 2nd. He is one of seven catchers the Pirates have in the DSL this year and he’s likely to see the most time among that group. He turned 17 in late October and stands in at 5’11”, 181 pounds. So far, he is hitting .389/.450/.556 in 20 plate appearances, with a double and a triple. He’s going to be one of the top players to follow for the DSL Pirates this season and if he handles the league well the first time through, then we should see him in the Fall Instructional League in Bradenton this September.
Jung Ho Kang, SS/3B, Bradenton – Kang had a big week, which didn’t include the home run he hit over the previous weekend. In his return to pro ball, albeit three levels lower than before, he had a four-hit game on Monday, which included a homer. Then after two walks on Tuesday, he homered again on Wednesday. After an off-day, he had three more hits and a walk over the weekend. In seven games for Bradenton, he hit .417/.531/.875 in 32 plate appearances. Kang split his time between shortstop and third base, handling all 24 chances in the field. He should move up to Indianapolis now to complete his rehab work and eventually rejoin the Pirates if all goes well.
Kevin Kramer, INF, Indianapolis – Kramer had hits in all five games he played this week, including homers on Wednesday and Friday. Through 55 games this season, he has a .265/.328/.436 slash line, with ten doubles, one triple and eight homers. Earlier this year, Kramer was splitting his time between second base and shortstop and it was a fairly even split. He hasn’t played shortstop since May 19th though, now splitting his time between third base and second base. Taking him off of shortstop right now wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of his time there because the reports were solid and he’s played there a lot in the past. It looks more like the Pirates want to get Kevin Newman and Max Moroff time there. Adding third base seems to be the key here, and once the bat is ready for Pittsburgh, they will have added options.
Jason Martin, OF, Altoona – Martin was our Player of the Month for May and now he’s going for the June title with a solid first full week. Martin has a seven-game hit streak active, including two hits in each of his last four games. He hit his eighth home run of the season on Friday. Through 52 games this season, he has a .330/.388/.548 slash line. He ranks third in the Eastern League in average, eighth in OBP, fifth in slugging and sixth in OPS. He now has 546 plate appearances in Double-A and he’s dominating at the level. While he could use more time in center field and also needs work on his base running, Martin appears more than ready to move up to Indianapolis.
Calvin Mitchell, OF, West Virginia – Mitchell was one of two West Virginia Power players named to the South Atlantic League All-Star game this past week (see below). He then went on to pick up ten base hits and two walks throughout the week. He doubled on Tuesday and Wednesday, giving him 16 doubles this season and 26 total extra-base hits. Through 57 games, he has a .330/.387/.530 slash line. He ranks second in the SAL in average, sixth in on base, fifth in slugging and third in OPS. The Pirates don’t promote young players like Mitchell to Bradenton during their first full season in pro ball. That’s the usual path they take because they already challenged them with the jump from the GCL to Low-A, so they don’t get even more aggressive. The few exceptions in the past were just at the very end of the season, and when it appeared that Bradenton would make the playoffs and the Power wouldn’t make the postseason.
Max Moroff, INF, Indianapolis – Moroff got off to a very slow start after his return to Indianapolis last month. He picked things up this past week by homering on Thursday night, hitting a grand slam on Friday night, then picking up two hits on Saturday. He also drew four walks throughout the week. He just needs at-bats at this point because he wasn’t getting them in Pittsburgh. He is just three weeks short of a full year of service time in the big leagues and has just 159 at-bats. The Pirates have him playing all around the infield (not first base) in Indianapolis and they want him to get some outfield time. At this point, he needs as much versatility as possible to get playing time next time he’s in Pittsburgh.
Deon Stafford, C, West Virginia – Along with Calvin Mitchell, Stafford was named to the South Atlantic League All-Star team last week. He then went on to catch five games throughout the week and collected two hits in each game. On Wednesday he hit his fifth home run of the season and on Tuesday and Thursday he collected doubles. Stafford is now hitting .293/.346/.473 through 44 games. The only downside to his offense is the 47:11 SO/BB ratio. That could use some improvements, but he makes enough solid contact to get by at this point. He works well with pitchers on defense, but will need more time back there to one day be serviceable in the big leagues. The good thing is that the Pirates have catchers with big league potential at all three levels ahead of him, so they can be patient to get him work behind the plate.
Lucas Tancas, 1B/OF, Bradenton – Tancas was having a tough time with the jump to High-A ball before this past week. After being drafted in the 26th round last year and playing with Morgantown, he has been with Bradenton this entire season. Prior to this last week, he was hitting .226/.299/.266 through 36 games, seeing limited playing time. Tancas then homered on Tuesday, homered on Thursday and did it again on Sunday. While he’s still not putting up the numbers you want to see from a 24-year-old in High-A ball, including a poor BB/SO ratio, he’s starting to show something (adding 86 points to his OPS last week) and possibly this upcoming week will lead to more.
JT Brubaker, RHP, Indianapolis – Brubaker pitched outstanding in Altoona earlier this year to earn himself a promotion to Indianapolis. It was actually a bit surprising he wasn’t with Indianapolis to begin with, after finishing strong in Altoona last year, then impressing in the Arizona Fall League. Things have been a little shaky since he got to Indianapolis, but his lone start last week is a good place to turn things around. Brubaker tossed six shutout innings on Thursday afternoon. He really hasn’t allowed a lot of runs in Triple-A, but his walks are way up and his strikeouts are down. Expect him to continue to get starts in the Indianapolis rotation all season and then this off-season he will be Rule 5 eligible. Unless things completely fall apart, then expect him to be added to the roster. A starting pitcher who can hit 99 MPH and has Triple-A experience would be snatched up immediately for the $100,000 price tag.
Tyler Eppler, RHP, Indianapolis – Ever since he allowed seven runs over 4.1 innings on May 19th, Eppler has been a much better pitcher. He had a 2.27 ERA going into that game and he’s allowed just four earned runs over his last four starts combined. He pitched once this last week, and while he didn’t dominate the appearance, he did the important part of keeping runs off the board. Eppler went on Saturday night, tossing 5.2 shutout innings. It was a bit of magic on his part, as he gave up ten base runners, had just two strikeouts and a 4:8 GO/AO ratio. Those numbers on most nights won’t equal a shutout performance. Eppler now has a 2.84 season ERA, which is even more impressive when you look at it without that one poor game (1.98 in 59 innings). Before this last game he was getting his share of strikeouts and grounders, both well above his career averages. At this point, he wouldn’t be a fifth starter in the majors, but he would be a suitable depth option if they need it.
Taylor Hearn, LHP, Altoona – Hearn has been one of the best pitchers in the system recently, at least at keeping runs off the board. Before his start on Thursday, he had allowed six earned runs over his previous five games. That’s actually less impressive than it sounds because he was running up his pitch count in most of those games and didn’t last long. That all changed on Thursday when he made it six earned runs in six games. He went seven shutout innings on four hits, two walks and nine strikeouts. He was also hitting 98 MPH, which is up from the lower numbers we saw early in the year. Hearn had lowered his ERA over two full runs in the past month and he has 61 strikeouts in 57 innings. While a lot of people thought he should move to the bullpen where he could move faster to the majors, the Pirates have done the right thing so far by continuing to throw him out there as a starter until he fails at that role. After seeing what he’s done these last six games, it’s a safe bet that he will continue to start for the near future.
Clay Holmes, RHP, Indianapolis – Holmes makes it on The 21 for the second week in a row. He was dominating when he pitched back on June 2nd, going seven shutout innings, with six hits, no walks and eight strikeouts. In his start this past week, Holmes wasn’t far off of that outing, allowing one run on six hits and two walks in six innings, striking out seven batters. These starts are a great sign for him because he was having major control issues with 21 walks total in his six May starts. In each of these last two games, he threw nearly the same percentage of strikes, was missing bats and getting his share of grounders when the ball was put in play. He has 58 strikeouts in 54 innings this year, with posting a 1.79 GO/AO ratio. If he can have control similar to what we saw these last two starts, then we are talking about a Major League starter with his ability to miss bats and induce weak contact.
Mitch Keller, RHP, Altoona – After his start on Wednesday, it’s beginning to feel like Mitch Keller could move up to Triple-A at any point. Since I’m writing this report on Thursday night, that may have happened already and I just forgot to add an update. Even if it hasn’t, Keller has pitched recently like the top prospect in the system after mixing in some poor outings this season. He tossed six shutout innings last week, striking out a season high eight batters. It was just two weeks prior that he was our Player of the Week for two strong outings. Keller now has a 3.27 ERA through 11 starts, with a .226 BAA, a 1.21 WHIP, a 1.65 GO/AO ratio and 63 strikeouts in 65 innings. While those aren’t dominating numbers like what JT Brubaker and Brandon Waddell put up before they were promoted, they are strong performances from the pitcher with the best fastball/curve combo in the system. The Pirates wanted him working on his changeup a lot this year after it showed a lot of improvements last season. There’s no reason that work can’t continue at the next level.
Adam Oller, RHP, Bradenton – Oller has been only pitching in relief this season and with rain outs interfering with the schedule all year, he has seen very little work. He got a chance to impress on Wednesday night in a spot start and he took full advantage. He went five shutout innings, with two hits, two walks and three strikeouts, throwing just 61 pitches. It will be interesting to see if they continue to let Oller get starts. Last year he missed time during Extended Spring Training with a shoulder injury and slowly worked his way up to a starting role in Morgantown, then dominated there. He began this year in West Virginia, but was the first pitcher to move up when Bradenton had an opening. Now he proved he could handle the jump in competition, so that should lead to an expanded role for the 23-year-old, who is averaging a strikeout per inning, while holding batters to a .180 average this season.
Ike Schlabach, LHP, West Virginia – Schlabach got a spot start during a doubleheader on Tuesday and made the most of his opportunity. He tossed five shutout innings and struck out eight batters, which was two more strikeouts than his previous career high. On the season, Schlabach now has a 2.72 ERA in 39.2 innings, with 36 strikeouts, a .250 BAA and a 1.29 WHIP. He’s allowing more fly balls than usual, but he has given up just one earned run. He was used strictly as a starter in the past, but this season he’s made eight relief appearances and five starts, doing equally well in each role. With this strong performance, the 21-year-old Schlabach should get another chance to start in the near future.
Eduardo Vera, RHP, Altoona – Vera impressed at Bradenton to earn himself a promotion to Altoona and now he’s showing that he was ready for the jump in competition. After allowing one run over seven innings in his Double-A debut, Vera came back this last week and gave up two runs over seven innings. He was scheduled to make a second start on Sunday, but that game was rained out. In 11 games between both levels, he has a 2.75 ERA in 72 innings, with a .226 BAA, an 0.98 WHIP and a 38:11 SO/BB ratio. Those numbers are all strong except the strikeout rate, though he did pick up five strikeouts in his last start, which was his most since his start Opening Day. Vera has been a workhorse so far, going at least six innings in each of his last ten starts. He “only” went five innings on Opening Day, but that was due more to a limited pitch count at the time.
Cam Vieaux, LHP, Altoona – Vieaux was putting up decent stats at Bradenton this year when he got the call to Altoona after ten starts. There were two things that really stood out about the way he finished his time in High-A. He hasn’t been known as a strikeout pitcher in his pro career, but Vieaux had nine strikeouts and eight strikeouts in his last two starts. He’s always been a pitcher who mixed his pitches well, but would never light up the radar gun, barely cracking 90 MPH some nights last year. In that last start for Bradenton, he was hitting 93-94 MPH consistently. Vieaux started for Altoona on Friday night and dominated, allowing one run on three hits, with no walks and seven strikeouts in seven innings. If he can keep up these strikeout totals then he becomes very interesting. As a pitch to contact pitcher, who threw in the 88-91 MPH range and got a lot of fly balls, that’s not a recipe for success at the higher levels. He’s still a fly ball pitcher, but he’s missing a lot more bats recently and throwing harder.
Gavin Wallace, RHP, West Virginia – Wallace has had a very tough time lately and it’s not due to his pitching. It’s been his inability to get on the mound. Due to rain outs and a day off, he recently went eight days between starts. When he did get on the mound, he tossed three shutout innings before rain halted play and eventually ended his night. He finally had a dry mound to work on this past Thursday and put up impressive numbers for someone with three innings over the previous 15 days. Wallace allowed one run (solo homer) over eight innings, on five hits and no walks. He struck out a season high seven batters, posted a 12:4 GO/AO ratio and threw 74 of 99 pitches for strikes. On the season, he has a 3.20 ERA in 50.2 innings, with an 0.97 WHIP, a .217 BAA and a 1.60 GO/AO ratio. He has walked just eight batters all season. Those are great numbers, though he has given up eight homers already, while picking up just 29 strikeouts, so you would like to see improvements in those areas.
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.