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
Sherten Apostel, 3B, Bristol – Apostel was struggling both at the plate and in the field prior to this week. He still had some issues in the field, but the bat came alive this past week. He went 7-for-17 with three homers, a double and four walks. Apostel is now hitting .262/.402/.465 in 28 games, adding 136 points to his OPS since Tuesday. The 19-year-old from Curacao put up big numbers last year in his second season in the DSL. He was hitting the ball harder than anyone in Extended Spring Training for the Pirates this year. So it’s nice to see that success carry over to Bristol, which is a slightly advanced placement during his first season in the U.S. The fielding is a bit of a concern at this point because he worked hard to improve his play at third base last year. He has 13 errors already for an .859 fielding percentage and reports from Pirate City this spring said that he was having trouble all year. He’s got a cannon for an arm and showed last year he could play the position, so the potential for him to stick at third base should still be there.
Shendrik Apostel, 1B, DSL Pirates – Apostel is the younger brother of Sherten Apostel, but he’s the bigger of the two siblings. He’s listed at 6’5″, 245 pounds and there’s not much bad weight on there. He’s just a huge, strong, 18-year-old kid. That combo of size and his early Spring Training results this year, led to him being pitched around before he played his first pro game. Apostel was crushing the ball during Spring Training until word got out, and then he began to see fewer fastballs and strikes. He hasn’t been hitting for average so far this season, but he picked it up recently after missing some time due to a hit-by-pitch that caught him in the ear. He had seven hits this past week, including two homers. He now has five home runs and seven doubles on the season in 27 games. For a power hitter, he doesn’t have a big strikeout total. It will be interesting to see if the Pirates move him up to the U.S. this fall. He’s probably the best combo of raw power and ability to make contact in the DSL for the Pirates. Another first baseman named Ronaldo Paulino also has huge raw power, but he has a lot of swing-and-miss to his game.
Will Craig, 1B, Altoona – Last week I said that Craig’s strikeouts and low average were a concern, but if he kept hitting like he did over the previous seven days, no one would care. He took that to heart it appears, hitting three doubles, two homers and striking out nine times. For comparison sake, he came into this past week with a .245/.316/.453 slash line and now he has a .250/.321/.471 line. So there really isn’t much to say about him different from last week. If he keeps putting up big numbers (40 extra-base hits) then no one will mind the strikeouts. On a side note, unless he goes into a big slump, he will surpass 100 RBIs (he has 84), which is something that doesn’t happen too often on the minor league side for the Pirates. They play shorter schedules with fewer off-days in the schedule, so no one is out there every single day.
Oneil Cruz, SS, West Virginia – Cruz was not having a good July until turning things around this past week. In fact, even with a big week, he still has a .653 OPS for the month. Last week he had eight hits, including four doubles and his 12th homer. It was his first home run since July 7th. Cruz’s OPS topped out at .906 this season after he completed a strong month of June will a big final day. He’s down to an .842 season OPS, which is still high enough for fifth best in the South Atlantic League and best on West Virginia by 39 points over Calvin Mitchell. The 31 errors and .913 fielding percentage means defense is still a big issue, especially since he’s 19 years old and will continue to fill out, but his value is in the bat and that’s been a great sign this season.
Jack Herman, OF, GCL Pirates – The Pirates took the 18-year-old Herman in the 30th round this year and they were able to sway him from attending college at Maryland. It wasn’t so much the bonus, or the fact that college will be paid for if he doesn’t make it in the pros. Herman only received $50,000 to sign, which is an unusually low number for a prep player. He had injuries in high school and that weighed heavy in his decision to go pro now instead of waiting to see what happens in college. So far it has looked like a smart decision. Herman had seven hits, two walks and a hit-by-pitched this past week. In 18 games, he has a .339/.449/.548 slash line. He’s a handful of plate appearance short of qualifying for league leaders, but that OPS would rank him sixth in the league and the OBP would be fourth best. Despite the early success, he’s probably destined for Bristol next year, as opposed to getting the aggressive push to West Virginia.
Jommer Hernandez, C, DSL Pirates – The Pirates seem to add one decent bonus catcher almost every international signing period and as a group they aren’t working out. Yoel Gonzalez was cut this year, Gabriel Brito has only made it to Bristol and his results are mediocre at best. Samuel Inoa had a huge season on offense and defense last year, but injuries limited his playing time both last year and this year. He hasn’t even been catching since May due to a concussion. Next on that list was Hernandez, who signed for $250,000 last year on July 2nd. Now 17 years old, his offense has been poor for most of the season, while his defense has been solid, including a 48% caught stealing rate.Hernandez picked it up on offense this past week, collecting hits in all five games he played, giving him an eight-game hit streak. That now has him up to a .250 average, with 11 walks, three doubles and a triple in 30 games. If he finishes up solid at the plate, that should be enough to get him to the U.S. for the Fall Instructional League this year.
Ryan Lavarnway, C, Indianapolis – Lavarnway has had a chance recently to get in more games than he would have under normal circumstances. With Jacob Stalling spending time in the majors, Lavarnway assumed the role as the third catcher until Francisco Cervelli returned. He has made the most of his extra playing time, going 7-for-19 with two homers this week and he’s hitting .278/.378/.491 on the season. With Stallings back in Indianapolis, that will cut into the time for Lavarnway, but he will still maintain that veteran depth role, giving the Pirates someone with 140 games of parts of six seasons as their fourth option behind the plate.
Luke Mangieri, 1B, Morgantown – The Pirates drafted the lefty hitting Mangieri in the 25th round this year out of Bradley and he’s has been seeing regular playing since the start of the New York-Penn League season. This past week he collected eight hits, walked three times and slugged his second home run as a pro. Early in the season, he was splitting first base with Jhoan Herrera, but Mangieri has been the regular starter there for the last few weeks and Herrera got promoted to West Virginia. Mangieri has shown a nice combo of power and speed in the pitcher-friendly NYPL. He has eight doubles, two homers and he’s 7-for-8 in stolen bases. He’s also getting on base at a high rate and he was named as the top defensive first baseman in his college conference. So far, he looks like a solid late round pick. He’s 21 years old, with good size at 6’3″, 215 pounds and obvious athleticism.
Jason Martin, OF, Indianapolis – Martin put up huge numbers with Altoona this year to earn himself a promotion to Indianapolis and he’s doing well so far with his adjustment to Triple-A. After hitting .325/.392/.522 in 68 games with the Curve, Martin is hitting .297/.340/.440 for the Indians. He has been in center field most of the time this season, seeing 83 games in the middle of the outfield and 11 games in left field (five with Indianapolis). Martin shows excellent speed in the outfield and looks like he can handle center, but he could still use more time out there to work on his reads. He also needs to work on his running game, because someone with his speed should not be 8-for-17 in steals. I would say it’s unlikely we see him this season in Pittsburgh, but he does need to be added to the 40-man roster this winter, so they could decide to do that early to give him a taste of the big leagues.
Hunter Owen, 3B, Bradenton – Owen went 6-for-18 with two doubles and a home run last week. He actually hit a second home run, but Bradenton had their game on Saturday suspended in the fourth inning, before it was canceled when they were unable to finish it on Sunday. The Marauders scored ten runs in that game, so most of their hitters lost positive stats that day, including Adrian Valerio, who missed out on making this article due to losing a homer. Owen is now hitting .255/.310/.456 with 13 homers in 82 games, which are terrific numbers for the FSL, at least in the slugging department. He had a strong month of June (.971) OPS and in July he’s at an .800 OPS in 20 games. All of his value comes from the bat and he’s closing in on his 25th birthday, so it’s important for him to finish strong over these final five weeks.
Cole Tucker, SS, Altoona – Tucker is becoming a regular here since a very rough patch early in the season. He had just five hits this past week, but it included his 17th double and his fourth homer. He also walked four times and stole two bases. He’s now at a .260/.326/.355 slash line in 99 games and after starting the season going 0-for-5 in steals, he has gone 28-for-33 in stolen bases. Add up the improved hitting (.848 OPS in July), the added value on the bases and the above average defense, and he’s really turned his season around. Back on May 19th, he had a .195 average and a .548 OPS., so he’s really shown a big improvement in the 64 games since then. He could move up late in the season to Indianapolis, but only if the Pirates move up (or move in a trade) Kevin Newman to open up the shortstop spot.
Dario Agrazal, RHP, Bradenton – This one comes with an asterisk. Agrazal returned last week from a right shoulder strain he suffered on May 24th. He went three innings in his first start on Monday, allowing one hit, with no walks and two strikeouts. On Saturday, he went three more innings, allowing two hits and a walk, while striking out two batters. Here’s the asterisk part. As you hopefully already read in the Hunter Owen recap, Saturday’s Bradenton game was suspended due to rain, then they were unable to finish it on Sunday. It was the last meeting between the two teams, so all of the stats were wiped away. Agrazal was scheduled to go longer in that outing and it will count as far as him rebuilding his pitch count progress, but he only gets credit for the three innings on Monday. I included him here anyway because he pitched well in both games and it gives you an update on a top 30 prospect in the system.
JT Brubaker, RHP, Indianapolis – Brubaker had his best outing in Triple-A on Wednesday. He went seven innings, allowing one run on four hits and one walk, with four strikeouts. He was efficient with his pitches and had a high ground ball rate, which has been consistent since he got to Indianapolis. He was throwing a cutter often in this start, something he didn’t have last year. Now through 15 starts, he has a 3.74 ERA in 79.1 innings, with 62 strikeouts and a 1.79 GO/AO ratio. That strikeout rate is down from his Altoona numbers, but he is showing progress as he continues to get acclimated to Triple-A. Brubaker has a 1.51 in Triple-A (it was 1.06 in Altoona), but he has lowered that to 1.27 in the month of July. The big reason is that he is throwing more strikes. He was at his best in Altoona when he attacked hitters and trusted his stuff. Earlier in his career, he would tend to shy away from pitches once they got hit, so you would see him rely heavily on breaking pitches out of the zone if he gave up some hits off fastballs. Now he’s better at pitch sequencing, although it also helps that he added about 5 MPH to his velocity last year.
Luis Escobar, RHP, Altoona – Escobar didn’t have the best results on Sunday, though one run over four innings looks good on paper. He was removed early due to his pitch count. He gave up four hits and three walks, yet he worked around those runners to give up just one run. He also pitched on Tuesday and allowed two runs over six innings. The Pirates made a surprise move to call up Escobar to Double-A, despite some struggles for the 22-year-old in Bradenton. James Marvel was pitching much better at the time and you usually don’t like to rush top prospects. Escobar has pitched solid for Altoona so far, posting a 3.38 ERA in 16 innings with a .193 BAA. The problem area is the 8:8 SO/BB ratio. That’s too high for walks and too low for strikeouts, especially from the organizations leader in strikeouts last season. He should still probably be in High-A at this point, but it’s not going to hurt him getting added experience at the level he will be at in 2019.
Santiago Florez, RHP, GCL Pirates – Florez made two starts this past week and had solid results in both games. On Monday, he gave up two runs over five innings, while racking up seven strikeouts, which is his career high. On Saturday, he put in another six innings and the only run he allowed was unearned. Florez is a 6’5″, 222 pound, right-handed pitcher from Colombia, who turned 18 back in May, making him slightly younger than most of the high school picks made by the Pirates this year. He made The 21 earlier this month when he threw six no-hit innings in a start. Florez has really filled out nicely since joining the Pirates as lanky kid. He’s a sinkerball pitcher, who works in the low-90s and has added some stamina thanks to improved strength. He’s a tough pitcher to square up when he’s on his game, but control has been a big issue for him as a pro, though he’s throwing more strikes this year. He’s a name to remember for the future.
Francisco Hodge, LHP, DSL Pirates – Hodge had two excellent performances this past week. On Monday, he gave up one run on one hit in four innings of work. On Saturday, he threw five shutout innings, while giving up just three hits. So far, the 18-year-old southpaw has thrown either shutout ball or allowed one run, in seven of his nine pro starts. He gave up two runs once and his worst outing was four runs on six hits over four innings. That one poor outing was also the only time he gave up more than four hits in a game. Hodge was signed back in December as one of the first international signings after Junior Vizcaino took over as the Director of International Scouting for Rene Gayo. He was already on the radar of the Pirates though, spending time at their Dominican academy in August. Hodge has a nice frame at 6’3″, 209 pounds, and he already has a strong lower half. Now here’s the disclaimer we have pushed for years: Lefties can get by in the lower levels with just control and not much else. Hodge is the prime example, as he was sitting 85-86 MPH during his last start, but he throws a lot of strikes. The good part for now is that he has a nice frame and he’s young, so there could be more velocity.
Clay Holmes, RHP, Indianapolis – Holmes appeared to have a letdown in his first start back at Indianapolis. He threw six shutout innings and collected his first big league win on July 14th. Six days later he was pitching on the road for Indianapolis and got hit around. He put in seven innings, so that part wasn’t bad, but he allowed five runs on ten hits. Holmes settled back in to his current role in the Triple-A rotation on Thursday night by throwing seven shutout innings on four hits and a walk. He struck out five batters and picked up his usual high amount of ground ball outs. He looked more like the pitcher who was named as our Pitcher of the Month for June. Holmes now has a 3.36 ERA, 85 strikeouts and a 2.25 GO/AO ratio in 80.1 innings with Indianapolis. He’s going to remain at Indianapolis until September serving as rotation depth, unless an opportunity comes up before that point.
Alex Manasa, RHP, Morgantown – Manasa had a strong outing on Thursday night by throwing a lot of strikes. In six innings, he threw a total of 16 balls. He let his defense do the work and most of the contact he got was on the ground. Manasa finished with one unearned run on five hits, with no walks and one strikeout. It was a nice sign from him because he had issued multiple walks in each of his last six starts, including three games in a row with three free passes. Manasa doesn’t throw hard, doesn’t have any great secondary pitches and he doesn’t have a swing-and-miss pitch. He has just 20 strikeouts in 43.1 innings, so he has to rely a lot on keeping the ball down and on the ground. The important thing to remember is that he is still just 20 years old and he’s somewhat new to pitching, plus he has a projectable 6’4″ frame, so there could be more on the way and the Pirates like him enough to keep him in the rotation at this point to get added experience.
Domingo Robles, LHP, West Virginia – Robles had a very impressive start on Wednesday night, which was made better considering the circumstances. Going ten days between outings, he went seven innings, allowing one run on five hits and one walk, with four strikeouts. Robles wasn’t injured or anything, he was just a victim of the weather, having his start pushed back from Saturday until Wednesday, one rain out at a time. The last three days he was pushed back were days he was getting ready to start, before finally going on Wednesday. Robles is having a fine season in Low-A at 20 years old (he was 19 for the first three weeks). He has a 3.23 ERA in 103 innings, with an 83:22 SO/BB ratio, His ground ball rate is down a lot to last year, but he’s been much more effective this year thanks to his three-pitch mix, which includes an improved curveball that he throws for strikes and it’s a swing-and-miss pitch. He controls his low-90s fastball well and his changeup has some solid results.
Eduardo Vera, RHP, Altoona – Vera has been in The 21 a lot, possibly more than any other pitcher this season. That’s because he’s had very few poor starts and he’s been consistently solid, though not dominating at any point. An example of that would be his work with Altoona. He’s made 11 starts so far in Double-A. Two of them saw him give up one run. Another six were games in which he allowed two runs. Then there was one game with three runs over seven innings and that was followed by his only two outings all year (20 starts total) in which he was really bad, giving up 13 runs over 8.2 innings. He’s giving you the results you want from your starter, but he’s also topped out at five strikeouts (three times) in a game this season and that’s not what you want to see from a fly ball pitcher. He started twice this past week, giving up one run over five innings, then allowing two runs over 5.2 innings. He’s been focusing on getting all of his pitches down, which has helped him improve his ground ball rate recently. He’s going to need to see more strikeouts though, if he wants to make a great impression over his final five weeks before minor league free agency.
Brandon Waddell, LHP, Indianapolis – Waddell made two starts this past week, going six innings with one run allowed on Tuesday, then following that up with two runs over 5.2 innings on Sunday. He has allowed a total of seven runs in his last five starts combined. Waddell had a 7.84 ERA in his first eight games with Indianapolis and even moved to the bullpen for a brief time. That was before he turned things around in July and put up a 2.03 ERA in 31 innings, with 25 strikeouts. The Pirates will be in an interesting spot with Waddell this winter. He has to be added to the 40-man roster, or he will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft. They will still get at least six more starts before the season ends to make that decision. If he finishes up the last five weeks like he pitched in July, that will make the decision more difficult.