The GCL Pirates open up their season on Monday. Their current roster will be added to during the season as the Pirates sign more players from the 2018 draft. Right now there are six key players to watch, with chances for more from the current group and the possible additions.
As I write this on Saturday morning, we know that the Pirates will being signing their 36th overall and 51st overall picks, Gunnar Hoglund and Braxton Ashcraft. Both prep players agreed to deals with the Pirates and were just waiting to come to PNC Park to take their physicals and make the deals official.
We also know from past experiences that those two will be headed to the GCL, and their time-frame to get into games will depend on how long they have been out of action. If you use 42nd overall pick Steven Jennings from last year as an example, since Shane Baz signed right away and was in the GCL earlier, it took Jennings 13 days to get into a game. When he first pitched, he was limited to two innings. That should be similar to what happens with Hoglund and Ashcraft. Jennings ended up making ten starts and threw 26.1 innings.
The Pirates have other prep players they will sign before the July 6th deadline and you can expect them all to go to the GCL. The position players will get into game action sooner than the pitchers.
As for the players who were already down at Pirate City, there are some players of note to watch.
Ji-Hwan Bae, the 18-year-old shortstop from South Korea, was the highest bonus international player for the Pirates during the 2017-18 signing period. He had a police issue to take care of in mid-May back in South Korea, but he was gone for just a few days, and as of right now, he’s been back for four weeks and playing every day in Extended Spring Training. Assuming that he doesn’t need to return to South Korea again, then he will be the top position player to watch on the team. Bae is a four-tool player, lacking only power.
Jean Eusebio was the top signing for the Pirates during the 2016-17 signing period and he showed off tools during his first season in the DSL last year. Still just 17 years old, he’s a lefty bat with plus speed, strong defense in center field and an above average arm. He’s a very patient hitter at the plate, sometimes to a fault while he waits for the right pitch. That leads to a lot of walks and strikeouts. He’s a line drive hitter, who should develop some power as he gets older. He’s probably not going to put up huge numbers this year, but there is a lot of overall potential in his game.
Catcher Samuel Inoa was one of the best hitters last year in the DSL and one of the top targets for the Pirates during the 2015-16 international signing class. He also showed a huge advancement in his defense last year. The problem was that he had three injuries last year and he’s missed some time this year due to appendicitis and the subsequent surgery. He might not be available at the beginning of the season, but should be the regular catcher once he returns to full strength.
Francisco Acuna was the starting shortstop last year in the DSL and the last two seasons for his winter ball club in Colombia, where he was facing advanced competition at 18 years old. He might only see part-time at his regular position with Ji-Hwan Bae sure to get time at shortstop. Acuna is a patient hitter, who lacks power due to his small frame. He’s a very smart player, with plus speed and solid defense.
Jacob Webb, a 2017 prep draft pick who needed minor elbow surgery last year, will return to the GCL this year. He’s a big kid, who was showing some potential last year before the injury.
The GCL Pirates will also have some of the best DSL pitchers from last year in Luis Arrieta, Santiago Florez, Noe Toribio and Pablo Santana. All three have potential to be prospects down the line, with Florez standing out due his big 6’5″ frame, as well as the fact he just turned 18 years old. Toribio throws low-90s, holding his velocity well late in games.
One other DSL pitcher of note who didn’t pitch well at all last year is Randy Jimenez. His reports this year have been great, showing better control (it was really bad before) and great movement on his low-90s sinker and cutter. You might see some poor results from him this year, but he’s made a huge leap since last year and he’s young enough (turns 20 next week) to continue to advance.
Wilmer Contreras also pitched well this spring. The 6’4″, right-hander is 20 years old and needed three years in the DSL before coming over to the U.S., but people who saw him last year and this year said he’s been better. Kleiner Machado showed a nice three-pitch mix, with his curveball standing out as his best offering. There could be much more with him if he threw his fastball for strikes instead of trying to get batters to chase out of the zone.
There will also be interest in Hai-Cheng Gong, a 19-year-old pitcher from China, who will be making his pro debut. He was signed just over a year ago and has pitched in both the Fall Instructional League and Extended Spring Training already, so he has had a little while to get used to the U.S. before his first pro game. When we saw him, he was sitting high 80s with a nice breaking ball.
The outfield currently has Eusebio, along with Larry Alcime, who signed in 2015 for $350,000 out of the Bahamas. Plus Carlos Garcia, another six figure bonus from 2015, and both John Lantigua and Emison Soto. Lantigua is a very fast player with great athleticism, who swings hard for the fences. His season last year was interrupted three times by a hamstring issue, so he never really got going. Soto is the brother of Elias Diaz, and he has worked extremely hard to get to where he is right now. He’s a easy player for fans to root for as an underdog who signed for a $10,000 bonus.
So you have better prospects to watch now like Ashcraft, Hoglund, Bae, Eusebio, Acuna and Inoa, then a lot of other players with potential. Plus the Pirates will be sending more prep players there from the 2018 draft class once they sign, so they will add to the potential this young group brings to the table. It’s not up to par with the outstanding group they had last year, but it should be an interesting team to follow all season.