After some recent big performances in the minors, I wanted to take a look at five players who are surprising in the system this year.

For this list, I avoided guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes who were top prospects who are seeing the results that were expected to make them top prospects. Instead, I looked at performances from some guys who would be somewhat of a surprise if you suggested prior to the season that they would be doing what they are currently doing.

I left out 2018 draft picks from this list. I might do an article on them later in the year, but for now there isn’t really a large enough sample size to draw an opinion. The same goes for the short-season players.

Let’s take a look, and feel free to discuss in the comments below.

Will Craig – Prior to the season, Craig’s big weakness was a lack of power from his first base only frame. That has changed this year, with the Altoona first baseman hitting 16 homers already in 367 plate appearances. By comparison, Craig hit eight homers in 816 plate appearances the previous two seasons. The downside here is that Craig is striking out more, walking less, and isn’t hitting for average. The power is helping to keep his OPS just under .800, but he’s going to need to improve at least the walks, and hopefully the average, in order to become a complete hitter.

Oneil Cruz – The Pirates acquired Cruz around this time last year as the main return for Tony Watson. He was a highly projectable infielder who the Dodgers moved quickly to low-A ball, but who struggled in his initial run through the level. He’s not struggling this year in his return, hitting for a .289/.346/.484 line with 11 homers in 373 plate appearances. His strikeouts have also taken a drop to 23.6%, down from an alarming 30% range last year. Cruz is only 19 years old, and very young for his current level, so to see this kind of rapid improvement is very encouraging.

Taylor Hearn – I was concerned heading into the season that Hearn would struggle with his walks and velocity, based on some of the things I saw last year, and some of those things that carried over to Spring Training. But he’s rebounded well, putting up a 3.23 ERA in 92 innings, along with a 96:35 K/BB ratio. The walks could still improve, but they’re down from where he was in Bradenton and the Arizona Fall League. His new slider is leading to strikeouts, and he’s getting results in his first run through Altoona, which is promising for his path to the majors.

Travis MacGregor – MacGregor was taken by the Pirates in the second round of the 2016 draft, and was a highly projectable guy at the time, rating third in that class behind fourth rounder Braeden Ogle and 11th rounder Max Kranick. This year he has stepped up as one of the best from that class, posting a 3.09 ERA and a dominant 63:13 K/BB ratio in 46.2 innings in West Virginia. He went down with a minor injury, but returned this month, and outside of last night he has pitched well in his return. The results come with a big increase in strikeouts from his fastball, an improvement in control, and added velocity. He’s working on a new breaking pitch, and if that can be an out pitch for him, he could be in store for these strong performances as he moves up.

Jason Martin – The biggest surprise in the system this year has been Jason Martin. He came from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade, adding a lot of power to the system. He had power with the Astros in Double-A last year, but improved this year with a better average and OBP, thanks to fewer strikeouts and more walks. My concern about him prior to the season was that he’d only be a power hitter, without the average and the walks. He still needs to show that he can do the same in Triple-A, and so far he only has 75 plate appearances at the level, so he’s still adjusting, but he’s got a chance to be a starter in the majors if this performance continues.

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates won 6-2 over the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday night. Ivan Nova will get the start today, coming off of his last outing on July 14th when he allowed one run over 4.2 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Reds will counter with right-hander Matt Harvey, who has a 4.63 ERA in 91.1 innings, with 69 strikeouts and a 1.28 WHIP. He faced the Pirates back on June 15th and allowed three runs over five innings. He also faced them on May 22nd and gave up one run over six innings.

The minor league schedule includes multiple doubleheaders due to rain yesterday. Indianapolis only has one game, but Mitch Keller will be on the mound. His last two outings were with Bradenton and in the Futures Game, so he has not started for Indianapolis since July 5th. Altoona has two games, with Taylor Hearn getting the start in game one for Altoona, his second since getting the opening nod in the Eastern League All-Star game. No starter has been named for the second game. Bristol’s Steven Jennings has allowed three runs over five innings in each of his last two starts.

West Virginia starter Domingo Robles allowed five earned runs in his last start. It was the first time since May that he gave up more than two earned runs in an outing. Morgantown was rained out yesterday and they will play a doubleheader today. Sixth round pick Michael Flynn threw four shutout innings on one hit and no walks in his last start. He will get the game one start and no one has been announced for the second game. Bradenton, the GCL Pirates and both DSL Pirates all have off today.

MLB: Pittsburgh (50-49) @ Reds (43-55) 1:10 PM
Probable starter: Ivan Nova (4.38 ERA, 79:17 SO/BB, 102.2 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (51-46) @ Charlotte (47-52) 12:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Mitch Keller (13.50 ERA, 13:6 SO/BB, 8.2 IP)

AA: Altoona (51-44) @ Reading (45-52) 3:00 PM DH (season preview)
Probable starter: Taylor Hearn (3.23 ERA, 96:35 SO/BB, 92.0 IP) and TBD

High-A: Bradenton (46-49) @ Tampa (49-50) 6:30 PM 7/23 (season preview)
Probable starter: Dario Agrazal (0.00 ERA, 0:0 SO/BB, 0.0 IP)

Low-A: West Virginia (50-44) @ Lexington (51-45) 2:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Domingo Robles (3.38 ERA, 79:21 SO/BB, 96.0 IP)

Short-Season A: Morgantown (13-21) @ Williamsport (12-21) 5:05 PM DH (season preview)
Probable starter: Michael Flynn (7.71 ERA, 11:3 SO/BB, 11.2 IP) and TBD

Rookie: Bristol (13-16) vs Kingsport (15-13) 6:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Steven Jennings (5.06 ERA, 21:14 SO/BB, 26.2 IP)

GCL: Pirates (11-14) vs Phillies West 12:00 PM 7/23 (season preview)

DSL: Pirates1 (20-22) vs Cubs1 10:30 AM 7/23 (season preview)

DSL: Pirates2 (15-25) vs Tigers2 10:30 AM 7/23 DH(season preview)

HIGHLIGHTS

From Altoona on Friday night, back-to-back homers by Bryan Reynolds and Will Craig. They show Craig’s entire at-bat and you see he nearly hits a homer on the first pitch, before crushing the third pitch.

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

7/21: Christopher Bostick activated from Indianapolis disabled list. Alfredo Reyes assigned to Altoona.

7/20: Sean Rodriguez activated from disabled list. Tanner Anderson optioned to Indianapolis.

7/19: Pirates release Johan De Jesus and Adonis Pichardo.

7/19: Chris Sharpe placed on West Virginia DL. Robbie Glendinning promoted from Morgantown.

7/16: Nick Burdi assigned to Bradenton on rehab.

7/16: Eric Wood placed on disabled list. Alfredo Reyes promoted to Indianapolis.

7/16: Pedro Vasquez placed on disabled list. Luis Escobar promoted to Altoona.

7/16: Jake Brentz activated from Bradenton disabled list.

7/16: Christopher Bostick assigned to GCL on rehab.

7/15: Pirates sign Alexander Mojica

7/15: Austin Meadows optioned to Indianapolis. Pirates recall Tanner Anderson

7/15: Clay Holmes optioned to Indianapolis

7/14: Austin Coley activated from Altoona disabled list.

7/14: Bo Schultz placed on Indianapolis disabled list. Jackson Williams activated from DL.

7/14: Pirates place Francisco Cervelli on DL. Recall Jacob Stallings and Clay Holmes.

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

Six former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, plus two trades of note. We start with the best player born on this date and you can find a full bio for him here. George Gibson was a catcher for the Pirates from 1905 until 1916 and held the team’s record for games caught until Jason Kendall passed him nearly 100 years after Gibson played his first game. He was a key member of the 1909 club, catching 150 games that season, which is almost unheard now under much easier conditions for a catcher. When he first came up to the majors, he was strictly a defensive specialist with a cannon for an arm, but he turned himself into a respectable hitter. Gibson also managed the Pirates after his playing career was over, finishing with a 401-330 record.

Other players born on this date include pitcher Ryan Vogelsong, who played for the Pirates in 2001 and 2003-06, then became a Pirate again last year. Also infielder Denny Gonzalez (1984-85, 87-88),  and first baseman R.C. Stevens, who was a member of the 1960 World Series champs.

Sheldon LeJeune played center field for the 1915 Pirates and he may have had the best arm in team history. Back in 1910, he broke the world record for longest throw in the air at 426 feet. He was a great minor league player, but his success never carried over to the majors. Finally, Jack Glasscock played for the 1893-94 Pirates and he is an under-appreciated star from that era, one who hit .290 career, with over 2,000 hits and played a terrific all-around game.

As for the two trades made on July 22nd, we have the 1988 deal that sent outfielder Darnell Coles to the Mariners for outfielder Glenn Wilson. We also have the 2009 deal that saw Adam LaRoche go to the Red Sox for shortstop Argenis Diaz and pitcher Hunter Strickland. You can read more about these deals and the bios of the five players mentioned above, in the link at the top of this section.

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