The 21: Eduardo Vera Thrives Under Pressure to Earn Player of the Week Honors

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

Eduardo Vera, RHP, Altoona – Vera apparently thrives under pressure. Not only does he have just one regular season start left (and possibly 1-2 playoff starts) before he reaches minor league free agency, he made two starts this past week with first place on the line. On Tuesday night, he went one and allowed one run on three hits over seven innings, while striking out seven batters. That was one strikeout short of his career high…until Sunday. With a chance to secure a playoff spot, Vera pitched 7.2 shutout innings on two hits, with nine strikeouts. He was dealing from the start in this game, pounding the strike zone with mid-90s fastballs, while using his changeup effectively for outs. He’s putting together his best work at the end of a long season, with 149 innings already. The Pirates definitely have an interesting decision to make with him. He clearly has MLB abilities, but his low strikeout totals limit his upside. He’s a strike-thrower who pitches to contact. He also just put up 16 strikeouts this past week in two big games, so if we saw more of this from him, then he certainly looked like someone who could start in the majors at some point. My guess is that they try to re-sign him before free agency takes effect in early November, but I won’t completely rule out a 40-man spot.

Hitters

Francisco Acuna, 2B/SS, GCL Pirates – This season got off to a rough start for Acuna, who had a discipline issue early in the year and was sent to the Dominican to workout. The 18-year-old from Colombia was one of the top prospects coming over from the DSL last fall for instructs. Then he played winter ball in his home country and put up solid numbers as an everyday shortstop and one of the youngest players in the league. The discipline issue seemed to really set him back, even though he only spent a month in the Dominican before returning to the U.S. Until this last week, he was having a rough GCL season and wasn’t playing every day. Acuna came into action last Monday with a .189 average and a .507 OPS. By then end of the week, he raised that average 41 points and added 86 points to the OPS. He also had a three-hit game during the middle of the previous week. So the end of the GCL season came at a bad time for him, but he should either return for the Fall Instructional League in September, or get a chance to play every day in winter ball.

Pat Dorrian, 3B, Bristol – Dorrian replaced Sherten Apostel at third base in Bristol after Apostel was announced as the player to be named later in the Texas Rangers trade on July 31st. Dorrian has played seven games since the promotion and he is hitting .364/.481/.727, with four extra-base hits. While he wasn’t there at the end, Dorrian finished with the third best OPS (.938) in the Gulf Coast League. He was also second in triples and RBIs, fourth in OBP and sixth in slugging. Dorrian’s 21 extra-base hits are the second most among 2018 draft picks/NDFA signings behind teammate Jonah Davis. About the only thing that has gone wrong this season is his seven errors so far for Bristol, which equals what he had at third base in the GCL in 85 more total chances.

Yoyner Fajardo, INF, DSL Pirates – Fajardo finished up the DSL season strong, with seven hits, two walks, five RBIs and five stolen bases last week. That gave him a final season line of .311/.402/.455 in 62 games and led to him being invited to the U.S. for the Fall Instructional League. His .857 OPS led all Pirates in the Dominican this year and he went 17-for-20 in stolen base attempts. His eight triples were one behind the league leader. Fajardo is a 19-year-old lefty hitter from the Dominican, signed by the Pirates back in March. They had him playing six different positions, everywhere but first base, catcher and pitcher, so it’s impossible right now to tell where he will end up. If he was strong at any one spot, they would have kept him there for a majority of his games this season.

Logan Hill, OF, Altoona – After putting up mediocre numbers for the first four months of the season, the 25-year-old Hill is finally showing the potential we saw last year in Bradenton. Big things were expected from Hill this year. He already had 22 games with Altoona last year, plus he played in the Arizona Fall League and he isn’t young for the level, so he was supposed to be a big bat in the middle of the order. That didn’t happen until the calendar turned to August and he’s been completely different since then. After hitting two homers early last week, he’s up to 17 for the season. Hill is batting .355/.432/.605 in 23 games this month, helping Altoona go on a recent run that now has them guaranteed a playoff spot. Now he hopes the strong hitting carries over into this week as they look for the division title.

Fabricio Macias, OF, Morgantown – Macias had to accomplish a first here between last week and this week, and it definitely wasn’t by choice. He made The 21 last week while playing for West Virginia, then got demoted when the Pirates promoted three draft picks. Down one level, he didn’t let it bother him. Macias went out and had three hits and three RBIs on Tuesday. Four hits and a walk in five plate appearances on Friday. Then three hits and a walk on Sunday. He was briefly with Morgantown earlier this year for a few days until West Virginia came home from a road trip. In 13 games with the Black Bears, he is now hitting .388/.455/.510 in 49 at-bats. It’s interesting to note that his spot with the Power was taken by Travis Swaggerty to help with the playoff run and he has a .434 OPS since they switched spots.

Jose Osuna, IF/OF, Indianapolis – Osuna wasn’t showing much over-the-fence power going into this past week. He had just seven homers total, including his time in Pittsburgh. However, he also had 29 doubles, so he was by no means turning into a singles hitter. He showed some power as the past week drew to a close, hitting homers on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. That gave him a .325/.381/.502 slash line through 77 games. At this point, I’d expect him to rejoin the Pirates whenever the season is done in Indianapolis, meaning I don’t think there is a rush to get him back on September 1st. That will depend of whether or not they make the playoffs and how far the go if they do. He’s probably just going to see limited time off the bench when he does return because the results haven’t been there during his chances in the majors.

Hunter Owen, 3B, Bradenton – If Vera didn’t flat out dominate in two big games, Owen would have had himself the Player of the Week spot. He homered four times last week, once in each of the last four games. He also had six other hits, scored seven runs and drove in seven runs. Owen got off to a rough start this season, with a .203 average and a .642 OPS on June 1st. That’s not what you want to see from a 24-year-old (turns 25 next month) in High-A, whose value comes solely from his bat. He has turned things around since then, and while the 18:114 BB/SO ratio leaves a lot to be desired on both sides, hitting 18 homers in Bradenton is no small feat. Owen’s big test will be next year against better pitchers, who usually exploit that lack of plate patience at the Double-A level.

Bryan Reynolds, OF, Altoona – I mentioned Reynolds got on the list a bunch of times early by being steady and just doing enough to make the back of the top ten. Now he’s been one of the better hitters in the system recently, looking like the top prospect the Pirates were hoping for in the Andrew McCutchen deal. Reynolds had five multi-hit games last week, picking up his seventh home run among the 14 hits. He is hitting .347/.412/.495 in August and .300/.379/.442 in 81 games this season. Since Jason Martin has been promoted to Indianapolis, Reynolds has been seeing almost all of his playing time in center field. The ability to play center field would give him more overall value, but it’s the bat that will eventually get him to the majors, with a possible ETA mid-season next year if there’s a spot.

Lolo Sanchez, OF, West Virginia – Sanchez is saving what looked like a lost season at the halfway point. Going into the last month of the season, it seemed like a safe bet that he would repeat Low-A next year, at least to begin the year. Now I wouldn’t take that bet. After another solid week in August, he is hitting .333/.403/.365 in 19 games this month. Since the All-Star break, he’s batting .282/.372/.341 in 52 games. He has now stolen 28 bases after adding three last week, plus he is known as a strong defender. Sanchez is putting up an OPS that is 19 points higher than the league average over a half of a season which is exactly what you want to see from someone who was 18 years old still back on Opening Day.

Deon Stafford, C, West Virginia – Stafford made it on this list due to a combo you like to see from him. He homered twice last week and drew five walks. He had just 22 walks total coming into the week. The homers gave him ten on the season. He now has a .261/.325/.446 slash line in 76 games this season. For the month of August, he has a .965 OPS. That’s after putting up a .474 OPS in July. The strange part of his resurgence is that it came right after he had a concussion that landed him on the disabled list. That obviously isn’t what helped him start hitting, but it’s possible that the downtime for a catcher in his first full season of pro ball, helped him get back on track. He definitely wouldn’t be the first catcher who was worn down during the peak of summer by playing regularly.

Pitchers

Tyler Eppler, RHP, Indianapolis – Eppler really needed a strong out on Friday night. Not only had he been struggling recently, Indianapolis is fighting for a playoff spot. He came up big, throwing six innings, with one run on five hits and a walk, with four strikeouts and a 7:4 GO/AO ratio. Eppler was one of the top starters in the system during the first half of the season. However, in his last seven starts, he gave up at least three runs in every game and watched his ERA go up every outing. This is his second season starting for Indianapolis, and while he has shown improvements in nearly every pitching category, he still hasn’t done enough to earn a promotion to the majors. That most likely means he will go into this off-season as a Rule 5 eligible player. Eppler has better stuff than some of the pitchers who have seen time with the Pirates this year, but at this point, he’s unlikely to make it as a starter. His fastball, which has touched 96 MPH, could play up as a reliever though. His chances are also helped out by having excellent control.

Luis Escobar, RHP, Altoona – Escobar has been struggling with high pitch counts in Altoona. Going into his lone start last week, he totaled just 17.1 innings in his previous four appearances, leaving early in all four games. Escobar rebounded with a nice performance on Wednesday night, going 6.1 innings with two runs on six hits and one walk, with four strikeouts. His problem has not only been control related, but digging deeper, he was always getting behind in counts early and then he was forced to go fastball, which led to damage. Escobar with Altoona has a 4.54 ERA in 35.2 innings over seven starts, with 21 walks and 25 strikeouts. Walks were an issue too last year, but he had 168 strikeouts in 131.2 innings, while holding batters to a .200 average. He still has a nice BAA this season (.225), but his walk rate in exactly the same, while his strikeouts have taken a huge tumble. Escobar is down 3.8 K/9IP from last year, with his rate dropping even more since he reached Altoona. Unfortunately for him, he was suspended on Sunday for violating club policies in Altoona and might be done for the season.

Mario Garcia, RHP, DSL Pirates – Garcia wrapped up a terrific rookie season with six shutout innings on Tuesday. In his previous outing, he allowed one run over six innings and set a season high with seven strikeouts. The 19-year-old, right-hander from Mexico, finished with a 1.94 ERA in 46.1 innings, with a 1.19 WHIP, a .257 BAA and 39 strikeouts. The Pirates signed Garcia right after the 2017 July 2nd signing period began, along with two other players from Mexico. It marked their first signings out of Mexico in four years and they would end up signing six players from the country before the 2017-18 international signing period ended. Players from Mexico usually sign at a later date, so his age shouldn’t scare you off. That being said, the numbers in the DSL really don’t mean much because he has faced better competition in his home country. It hasn’t been announced yet if he will make the jump to the U.S. for the Fall Instructional League, but he appears to be ready.

Scooter Hightower, RHP, Altoona – Hightower pitched a scoreless inning of relief early last week, then came back during the second game of a doubleheader on Saturday and tossed six shutout innings. The start was an outstanding game, with just two hits, no walks, five strikeouts and he needed just 69 pitches. Hightower was promoted to Altoona on July 4th after posting a 1.47 ERA in 30.2 innings, with 35 strikeouts, an 0.88 WHIP and a .211 BAA. Since the promotion, his numbers haven’t been far off those high standards. In 32.1 innings in Double-A, he has a 2.78 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, 28 strikeouts and a .210 BAA. I expected a drop-off in his numbers because he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, so going from the Florida State League to the more hitter-friendly Eastern League, while also facing more experienced hitters, usually leads to a lot of damage for those type of pitchers. He has allowed just one home run since being promoted, so his above average control and ability the command the zone, has helped keep him away from the homers so far.

Mitch Keller, RHP, Indianapolis – Keller had two solid outings last week, throwing 11 innings without any earned runs, though you wouldn’t classify either outing as dominant. He threw five innings with one unearned run on Tuesday, then came back with six innings on Sunday that included three runs, but they were all unearned. Keller had some control issues in the first game and a lot of loud outs. His control was much better on Sunday, but those loud outs turned into hits, with eight total, including four doubles. It was still errors that hurt him the most and it’s a big turnaround from his first five starts in Triple-A when he had a 7.99 ERA. Keller has now given up just three earned runs in his last 23 innings, giving him a 4.63 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 46.2 with Indianapolis..

Max Kranick, RHP, West Virginia – Kranick had an outstanding outing on Monday night, throwing six shutout innings with three hits, no walks and five strikeouts. He was supposed to make a second start on Sunday, but a blister on his finger on his pitching hand now has him on the disabled list and out until that completely heals. Kranick has been showing impressive control lately. In his last nine starts, he has thrown 41.2 innings, with four walks and 50 strikeouts. The best part about his impressive control is that he not only added about three MPH to his velocity this year, he is also throwing his breaking balls often, including a slider that he first started throwing last fall in the Instructional League. Not every pitcher can make a jump in velocity, add a new pitch, and throw more strikes. Kranick will be attending the Fall Instructional League again this season to add to his inning total. He had a few starts limited due to rain and this last missed start has kept his innings down to 75, not including the innings he put in during Extended Spring Training before making his West Virginia debut on May 18th.

James Marvel, RHP, Altoona – Marvel has been stellar since joining Altoona three weeks ago. In four starts, he has pitched into the seventh inning each time and he has a 2.33 ERA in 27 innings. He was already the organization’s leader in innings pitched when he came to the Curve and he has extended that lead, which now has him at a total of 161.1 innings. These have been big starts lately as well, with Altoona fighting for the division title. He made two starts this past week and recorded the win in both games. On Monday, he allowed two runs over 6.1 innings. On Saturday, he pitched a complete game during the first game of a doubleheader, allowing two runs over seven innings. Marvel just missed being in our mid-season top 50 prospects list, but when Christopher Bostick, Shane Baz and Sherten Apostel all left the organization, it opened three spots in the top 50 and Marvel now holds the final spot. If he keeps pitching like he has since joining Altoona, he will move up that list.

Alex McRae, RHP, Indianapolis – McRae made two appearances this past week, both in relief and each time he went four innings. In fact, he hasn’t made a start since mid-July, before his second recall to the majors. McRae allowed one earned run on Tuesday in a game against the team Indianapolis is fighting for first place. He came back out four days later, when Nick Kingham was called up to the majors on the day he was supposed to start, and McRae gave them four shutout innings. Middle relief in the best role for him right now and it’s smart to keep him stretched out a bit in case he needs to put in innings. McRae’s pitch-to-contact style, which results in quick outs on the ground, in perfect for middle relief, as long as he’s throwing more strikes than we have seen throughout this season (50 walks in 111 innings).

Noe Toribio, RHP, GCL Pirates – Toribio finished up his 2018 season strong on Thursday, going six innings, with one run on five hits and a walk. It was an overall tough season for the 18-year-old (turned 19 over the weekend) righty from the Dominican. He had one outstanding outing right in the middle of the year when he threw six shutout innings and struck out eight batters. Other than that, he finished with 5.68 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP in 50.1 innings. The Pirates signed him in July of 2016 for $100,000 bonus and there were soon reports that he touched 97 MPH. From every report we got, he sat 91-92 MPH as a starter, though he was able to hold his velocity late in starts at an early age. The Pirates gave him a spot in the GCL starting rotation ahead of pitchers who received similar bonuses, so that shows that they think highly of his potential.

Brandon Waddell, LHP, Indianapolis – Waddell needed a big pitching performance on Wednesday and so did Indianapolis. The Indians began a series against the team they were tied with in first place and Waddell proved once again to be a big game pitcher. He threw six shutout innings while striking out eight batters. The reason he needed it just as much as the team is because his previous three starts this month had all gone poorly compared to his strong July. In 15.1 innings since being named as our Pitcher of the Month, he allowed ten runs on 18 hits and seven walks. Waddell has always been a big game pitcher, dating back to his early college days. He has pitched well in the playoffs since being drafted and he came up big in the College World Series multiple times. It’s that bulldog mentality, along with a solid four-pitch mix, that makes him a likely bullpen arm in the majors. He could probably be a fifth starter for some teams down the line, but his stuff played up better in relief during the Arizona Fall League and the Pirates have better depth options for starting ahead of him.

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