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
Stephen Alemais, 2B/SS, Altoona – Alemais earns our Player of the Week honors by picking up ten hits and three walks last week. He has reached base safely in 16 of his last 17 games, which the lone exception being a game in which he picked up an RBI on a sacrifice fly and got to bat just three times. When that streak started, he had a .205/.250/.248 slash line. That has gone up to .271/.319/.355 through play on Sunday. Alemais is still getting used to play second base full-time, so there have been some misplays here and there. When Cole Tucker isn’t at shortstop, Alemais has been able to slide over to his normal position, where he has handled all 35 chances without a miscue.
Roldolfo Castro, 2B, West Virginia – This was not a good week for offense overall and Castro was one of three players on this list who would have normally not even been considered. That being said, the poor week in the system gives us a chance to look at a young prospect in his first year of full-season ball. Castro, who just turned 19, is hitting .226/.259/.362 in 47 games. His aggressive approach at the plate has led to just nine walks and 49 strikeouts. A move from the GCL to Low-A was quite the push for the young switch-hitter, who has mostly played second base so far this season. If his stats don’t pick up in the second half, he will likely repeat this level, although there’s nothing wrong with that coming from someone who will still be a teenager on Opening Day in 2019.
Oneil Cruz, SS, West Virginia – Cruz has really heated up with the bat recently. He was named as our Player of the Month in May for the Power, as he put up an OPS 100 points higher than the next best on the team. Due to two rain outs, the Power played just five games this past week and Cruz had hits in all five games. On Sunday he collected his fifth triple of the season and his two doubles on Saturday gave him nine two-baggers on the year, to go along with seven homers. He has cut down on his strikeouts recently, although it should be noted that he hasn’t homered in 11 games either. The Pirates are sticking with him at shortstop for now, and while the early results haven’t been pretty, it’s better than what we saw from him last year at third base.
Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Altoona – Hayes has caught fire at the plate recently. He had a four-hit game on Friday, which included three doubles. On Sunday he had a walk and two hits, including his 15th double of the season. He’s now hitting .275/.333/.420 through 52 games. If you go back a month to May 7th, he was hitting .230/.282/.290 at the time. Since that time he has been driving the ball better and racking up extra-base hits. Hayes now has his numbers at a level you want to see from someone who is one of the youngest players in the Eastern League. He’s also started to run more, stealing five bases in six attempts last month. That hitting and running is besides the fact that he continues to show Gold Glove potential at third base, where he has a .974 fielding percentage. That’s the same number he put up last year in Bradenton when he set the league record for fielding percentage and won the minor league Gold Glove for all third baseman in pro ball.
Logan Hill, OF, Altoona – Hill has had an all-or-nothing season this year. He’s showing off that power than led to 18 homers last year, but that’s about all he is doing. Hill belted two homers last week and he’s got some of the best raw power in the entire system. The problem is that those nine homers come with a .197 average in 49 games, with just ten walks and 64 strikeouts. Part of his success last year came from cutting down on his strikeouts. He still struck out too much, but it was a nice cut from the previous season. He had 94 strikeouts last year, just 30 more than this season in more than twice as many plate appearances. Without that better plate patience and pitch recognition we saw last year, he’s going to have a hard time advancing in the system, especially since speed and defense aren’t strong parts of his game.
Kevin Kramer, INF, Indianapolis – Kramer had a decent week at the plate, though it almost all came in two games. He had a walk and two hits on both Monday and Saturday. Each game included a home run, with the Saturday blast being his sixth of the season. On the year he’s hitting .253/.321/.405 in 50 games. Kramer recently added third base to his resume, after splitting the early part of the season equally between shortstop and second base. He’s been mostly back at second base recently, since both Max Moroff and Jose Osuna returned to Triple-A and got time at the hot corner. Kevin Newman has been seeing the majority of the time at shortstop recently. That position versatility will help get Kramer to the majors once the bat looks ready. He needs to cut down on his strikeouts before that happens.
Calvin Mitchell, OF, West Virginia – Mitchell was our Player of the Month in April, then put together a solid month of May. That was followed by a home run on June 1st, which was his seventh of the season. Baseball America recently took notice of his hitting and ranked him among their top 100 prospects, essentially putting him as the third best prospect in the Pirate system. We wouldn’t have him ranked that high yet, but he is working his way up there. Mitchell has a .319/.377/.534 slash line in 50 games, which has him ranked sixth in his league in OPS. If he can keep up a similar pace during the entire season, then he will definitely be among the elite prospects in the system.
Pablo Reyes, Util, Indianapolis – Reyes didn’t have a big week, but he played just well enough in a down week to make one of the last three spots. The Pirates have an interesting decision to make with Reyes this winter (see Eric Wood below as well). He reaches minor league free agency at the end of the season. They will have to decide if he’s worthy of a 40-man roster spot first, and if not, will they be able to (or want to) bring him back on a minor league deal. They are allowing him to showcase his skills at the highest level of the minors, while moving him all around the field to show his versatility. Reyes is playing every day and hitting .302/.331/.397 with Indianapolis. He also has eight steals this year in ten attempts.
Jacob Stallings, C, Indianapolis – Stallings was a regular in The 21 in April, then saw his bat cool down in May. That was until this last week, although his best game came two days into June when he collected three hits. Through 37 games, he’s hitting .298/.336/.383 with 12 doubles to his credit. His report remains the same as it did back in April when we last talked about him. Stallings is the third string catcher for the Pirates, who could probably be the backup right now for a few teams due to his above average defense. If he doesn’t get a chance before the rosters expand, then we will likely see him called up on September 1st.
Cole Tucker, SS, Altoona – Tucker was the third player in the group that only made the list because of the down week. Just the fact that he made it though is a great sign because he has really struggled for most of this season. Tucker had two hits and Monday, added three more on Wednesday, then another three on Sunday, when he also drew a walk and stole two bases. That gave Tucker a season slash line of .233/.300/.307 through 48 games, with seven stolen bases in 13 attempts. While not a great stat line, it’s much better than the .195 average and .548 OPS he had back on May 19th. Tucker has made a lot of highlight plays on defense this season and his .957 fielding percentage is just above his career total.
Eric Wood, Util., Indianapolis – This is a big season for Wood, who reaches minor league free agency at the end of the year if he isn’t added to the 40-man roster. He homered for the sixth time this season on Sunday and picked up a total of seven hits during the week. The Pirates are giving him plenty of chances to earn that roster spot by putting him in the lineup almost every day, while rotating him between third base, first base and right field to add versatility. He’s hitting .244/.316/.456 this year and he ranks fourth in the league in doubles. He’s been fairly consistent this year after getting off to a rough beginning last year in his first run through Triple-A.
Cody Bolton, RHP, West Virginia – Two starts into his first shot at full-season ball, the 19-year-old Bolton is making it look like the Pirates were holding him back. He was in The 21 last week for his debut of five shutout innings with eight strikeouts, while allowing just two hits and a walk. That’s quite a debut, but he may have been even better the second time. In his lone start this past week, Bolton tossed six shutout innings on three hits and a walk, with four strikeouts and a 7:2 GO/AO ratio. Through two starts he has an 0.64 WHIP and a .135 BAA, with 12 strikeouts in 11 shutout frames. Bolton is dominating with his low-to-mid 90s fastball and an above average slider, with a changeup that is a work in process. He’s throwing a lot of strikes, getting his share of swing-and-misses as well as soft contact.
Austin Coley, RHP, Altoona – Coley was pitching with Indianapolis this season until recently being demoted to Altoona. He made his first start with the Curve last week and allowed two runs over six innings. He was scheduled to start again on Saturday, but he was a late scratch and then got placed on the disabled list. Coley’s first run through Triple-A definitely didn’t go as planned. When he’s on his game, he throws a lot of strikes with a low-90s sinker that gets some swing-and-misses, along with his share of ground balls. He has always profiled as a possible middle reliever in the majors and that still seems true, but he needs to revert back to the 2017 pitcher we saw at Altoona whenever he comes back from the DL.
Tyler Eppler, RHP, Indianapolis – Eppler made two starts this past week and both of them were solid outings. On Tuesday he gave up two runs over 5.2 innings and struck out seven batters. On Sunday, he allowed two earned runs over six innings. He has been a strong starter this season for Indianapolis and could be lining himself up as a depth starting option if the need should arise. Eppler has a 3.12 ERA, which includes one dud of an outing in which he gave up seven earned runs. In 57.2 innings, he has a 57:16 SO/BB ratio. He’s always had above average control, but that’s a nice improvement in his strikeout rate, plus he is getting more ground balls than before. Eppler had a shaky first run through the International League last year, but he’s having a much better year in 2018.
Clay Holmes, RHP, Indianapolis – Because this week had a lot of rain outs and some lesser performances from starters, I changed up the rules a little here. Holmes had a rough start early in the week, which was bad enough that it would normally knock him off. His second start of the week on Saturday was too good not to mention here. Holmes went seven shutout innings on six hits, with no walks, eight strikeouts and an 11:1 GO/AO ratio. He threw 66 of 98 pitches for strikes. As far as Triple-A starts go, this was his best outing. In fact, this was the first time he went seven shutout innings in his career. Last May, he threw seven innings with no walks and eight strikeouts, but that game included two runs allowed. As far as steps in the right direction, this is a huge one. Holmes hasn’t been throwing enough strikes this year, yet he’s still getting a lot of strikeouts and his usual share of ground balls. When he throws strikes, he is extremely effective and this last start was an example of how good he could be when he’s on his game.
Mitch Keller, RHP, Altoona – Two weeks ago, Keller was our Player of the Week and was also named the Eastern League Pitcher of the Week. In his lone start the following week, he had a bad start, allowing six runs on nine hits and a walk in six innings. It was a season high for runs allowed and tied a season high for hits. Keller was able to bounce back from that game in his lone start this week, allowing two runs over 6.1 innings, with no walks and six strikeouts. He had a 1.69 GO/AO ratio on the season coming into that game and improved on it with a 7:3 GO/AO on Thursday. Keller has had some bumps this season, but the stuff is still there and nothing appears to be wrong. He has a 3.60 ERA through 60 innings, with 55 strikeouts. His control has been much better recently after start the season with eight straight games of at least two walks. He has issued just one walk in his last two starts combined.
Sean Keselica, LHP, Altoona – Keselica is an odd case. Last year he was showing strong velocity and command, dominating hitters in the Eastern League, especially lefties. That made him look like a possible middle relief option in the majors, who at worst would be a lefty-on-lefty guy. He didn’t finish strong and early this year he was being carried for a little bit as an extra player, the 26th man who stays with the team and waits for an opening. Since returning, he has thrown 8.2 shutout innings. It will be interesting to see if he’s still considered the extra pitcher when Cam Vieaux, who was promoted to Altoona yesterday, joins the Curve. With the way he looked for awhile last year, plus his recent success, he appears to still have a shot at that lefty reliever role.
Max Kranick, RHP, West Virginia – Kranick made his second start for the Power after beginning the season in Extended Spring Training, where he was working on a new slider and limiting his innings so he could go to the end of the season without being shut down. Kranick opened with five shutout innings, then came back in his lone start last week and went a career high 5.1 innings, giving up two runs on six hits and two walks, with five strikeouts. He is still working on the slider and the early results in games had been solid. Kranick is mostly a fastball-curve combo pitcher and he controls both pitches well, with the fastball touching 96 MPH in this last start, which is a new personal high for him. He throws his slider, which sits 81-82 MPH, and his changeup (83-86 MPH) about 5-7 times a game. He had a feel for the changeup coming out of high school and as the slider continues to improve, it will give him a nice four-pitch mix.
Bo Schultz, RHP, Indianapolis – Schultz is 32 years old and has pitched in the majors for parts of three seasons, so he’s not considered a prospect. He could end up helping the Pirates sometime this year though. Schultz missed all of 2017 with Tommy John surgery and has been working his way back since Opening Day. He began the year with Bradenton, before moving up after eight straight dominating appearances. This past week he had three appearances and threw a total of four no-hit innings. On the season, he is holding batters to a .161 average, with nearly a strikeout per innings and a 1.75 GO/AO ratio. If he continues this pace, he could be a bullpen option for the Pirates during the second half.
Pedro Vasquez, RHP, Altoona – This has not been a good season so far for the 22-year-old Vasquez. It started off with a Spring Training illness, which caused him to be held back so he could build up his innings in Extended Spring Training. He joined Altoona during the first week of May and since then has alternated between good/bad outings. Early last week he had his best game, giving up one run over seven innings. He came back on Sunday and allowed three earned runs over five innings, while running up his pitch count. Sunday’s start was hurt by the defense behind him, but he also wasn’t throwing a lot of strikes. Vasquez began to really improve last year before tiring down the stretch in his first full season of starts. His velocity was in the 93-94 MPH range and his off-speed pitches were crisper. The further he gets away from the spring illness, the strong he should get in his outings.
Eduardo Vera, RHP, Altoona – We have been calling for Vera to be promoted to Altoona for the last few weeks and it finally happened. Not only was he pitching well for Bradenton, but Vera is closing in on minor league free agency, so the Pirates will need to make a roster decision with him at the end of the season. The best way to do that is by seeing how he can handle upper level hitters and he will now get just over three months to do just that. Vera made a terrific first impression with Altoona, allowing one earned run on five hits and no walks in seven innings. He had three strikeouts and threw a career high 99 pitches. It was the ninth time in a row that he has gone at least six innings. Between both stops, Vera has a 2.77 ERA in 65 innings, with an 0.97 WHIP and a .226 BAA. He controls the strike zone well and has a fastball with a lot of sink to it, which occasionally will run in on right-handed hitters. That control, plus movement and decent low-to-mid 90s velocity, allows him to pitch to contact while limiting the damage.