The GCL Pirates had a strange season from the start. The Gulf Coast League has always had the shortest schedule with 60-game seasons. This year, the league had a crazy schedule, where some teams had 56 games, others had 54 and the Pirates were one of a handful of teams with only 52 games. That led to extra off-days during the season, but the Pirates would actually play intrasquad games on those days, so there was plenty of action that didn’t show up on the stat sheets.
This team looked like it would be much more interesting after the Pirates went heavy with high school draft picks three weeks before the GCL season started. Every prep player they have signed, has played in the GCL since they moved the signing deadline up a few years back. We heard right away that the Pirates were going to sign four of their high school draft picks, which made it very likely that this team be loaded with young draft pick. It didn’t end up that way though.
The Pirates were unable to sign 36th overall pick Gunner Hoglund due to medical issues. The delay on the decision to not sign him, pushed back the signings of Braxton Ashcraft (2nd round) and Michael Burrows (11th round), so they didn’t get a lot of mound time. The Pirates barely had any over-slot money available for later picks, so they ended up with just three total high school picks signing.
There was also the issue that numerous players they brought over from the DSL were over-matched in Extended Spring Training and they needed to sign non-drafted free agents to fill out the rosters. That last part may have actually turned out to be a blessing for the Pirates because their NDFA signings were outperforming the college draft picks.
You had guys making jumps we have never seen before, a pitching adding velocity out of nowhere, others taking large leaps in their ability to throw strikes. There were NDFA guys tearing the cover off the ball and college draft picks struggling, and then the disappointment of not even getting the minimum amount of prep players as expected. There were a lot of unexpected things over a short season, some of it good and some of it bad. We look at them all below.
Starting on offense, the Pirates had three very interesting players over from the Dominican and all three of them had somewhat disappointing seasons, though they all come with disclaimers. Outfielder Jean Eusebio was the top player among the group and he finished with a .236/.281/.349 slash line in 31 games. Infielder Francisco Acuna was highly rated after showing off tools last year, but he finished with a .230/.310/.283 slash line in 36 games. The game total looks low for these two, but when you add in Spring Training, Extended Spring Training and those off-day games during the season, they each played 100+ games this year. Acuna turned 18 years old in January, while Eusebio didn’t turn 18 until the final week of the season, so both still have plenty of time to improve.
The third one was catcher Samuel Inoa, who didn’t come close to the amount of playing time as the other two players because he was dealing with injury issues prior to the season and during the season. He barely even caught this year due to a hamstring issue that lingered. This season was much like last year in the DSL when he had three different injuries cost him time. In his 28 games played during the season, he put up an .829 OPS. So the potential is there if he can stay healthy.
The Pirates also had two interesting international players make their pro debuts in the GCL this year. Outfielder Fernando Villegas from Mexico was overshadowed by shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae from South Korea. Villegas had played against much better competition in Mexico before coming to the U.S., so this wasn’t a great test for him. He still put up an .852 OPS in 25 games, so at least the numbers were there. Bae was the top international signing for the Pirates in 2017-18, getting a $1.25 M bonus. He hit .271/.362/.349 in 35 games and showed off all of the tools to be a future top prospect.
The Pirates lone high school position player this year really impressed. Jack Herman was a 30th round pick, who signed for a $50,000 bonus. The expectations weren’t high, although all eyes were focused on him just because he signed early and ended up being the lone prep position player. Herman hit .340/.435/.489 in 37 games, with 14 extra-base hits and 23 walks. The Pirates even gave him some time in center field and he didn’t commit any errors in 72 total chances.
The GCL Pirates used a total of 29 hitters for only 52 games. That total included four players on rehab assignments, which happens every year in this league. There were also five players who were cut before the season ended, which doesn’t happen every year. Finally, two catchers were signed late due to a need behind the plate, and Mariano Dotel was brought over from the DSL during the final week because of three injuries and a player moving up to Bristol.
The six up players mentioned up top (seven if you include Dotel) are all interesting due to their age. The Pirates also had some interesting players due to their performance in the league. The top one would be Pat Dorrian, who was our Player of the Month for August. He was an NDFA signing, but he wasn’t eligible for the draft due to signing out of high school in 2014 with the Atlanta Braves, before deciding to go to college and backing out of the deal. Dorrian was one of the top hitters in the GCL this year. The disclaimer is that he was a college player in a league that usually has much younger players, but the league ddid have 100+ college players this year and he was the best of the entire group. He put up a .938 OPS before moving to Bristol for the final ten days.
Steven Kraft was also hitting well until a hamstring injury ended his season early. He had an .882 OPS in 31 games, with 13 walks and 11 strikeouts. He was mostly a second baseman in college, but the Pirates had him taking fly balls in the outfield, so that could be a spot for him going forward.
Kyle Mottice was another NDFA player, who put up a .472 OBP in 35 games. That’s the highest OBP since Justin Morneau had a .478 mark 18 years ago. He also went 16-for-16 in stolen bases. The Pirates put three college draft picks (position players) in this league and they didn’t come close to the production that they received from these three NDFA players.
On the pitching side, it was also a large group for just 52 games. A total of 27 players took the mound. That list included three injured players who combined for just 7.2 innings. It had two position players and one released player, who combined for four innings. Travis MacGregor was the only rehab player and he added seven innings in two starts. There were also three players who quickly moved up to Bristol and one DSL pitcher who made a start during the final week. So there were 11 pitchers who combined for just 32.1 innings. The other 16 players had some interesting names.
The most interesting names were the two high school picks, Braxton Ashcraft and Michael Burrows. With a 1.825 M bonus, there are high expectations for Ashcraft. He made five starts and had a 4.58 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP, with 12 strikeouts in 17.2 innings. Burrows ($500K bonus) was extremely impressive, giving up six hits and no earned runs in 14 innings. Burrows looked like the more advanced pitcher right now as well, although Ashcraft has a ton of projection in his 6’5″ frame.
The biggest leap forward among players who were already around, came from right-hander Santiago Florez. For some perspective on his age, he’s six months younger than Burrows and seven months younger than Ashcraft, so Florez would have been a young draft pick this year, or a slightly older prep pick next year if he was from the U.S. We have said over and over that he has potential, yet it still came out of nowhere this year. When I asked about him in June for the GCL season preview, I heard he was still sitting low-90s, but by the middle of this season, Florez was hitting 96 MPH as a starting pitcher. He still has some control issues, but he showed his potential with some outstanding performances, including six no-hit innings in early July.
Noe Toribio didn’t put up the best stats this season, posting a 5.68 ERA in 50.2 innings, with a 1.52 WHIP. He turned 19 on the last day of the season and has a big arm, so there is potential. The Pirates gave him more innings than anyone else and he showed both the ability to miss bat and a high ground ball rate. He sits low-90s with his fastball and has reportedly hit 97 MPH, though he hasn’t come close to that number in games.
Brad Case was the best pitcher on the team this year. He was a college draft pick, who was in the GCL working on a mechanical adjustment to help his velocity and his slider. He ended up in Morgantown by the end of the season and had a strong start there during the last week.
Randy Jimenez and Wilmer Contreras didn’t put up great stats, but those who saw them both last year in the DSL and this year in the GCL, noticed a ton of improvements. Both received decent bonuses from the Pirates, so they didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. It was the leap that they took in throwing strikes over one season that makes them worth remembering as potential prospects down the line. Jimenez in particular has a low-90s sinker and cutter two-pitch combo that were both getting rave reviews, so continued improvements in control could take him a long way. Contreras had one outing that made his season ERA go from 2.56 to 4.22, so that’s quite the misleading final total.
The final two players worth noting made a jump that you never see. Lizardy Dicent and Luis Nova both began the year in the DSL and finished in Bristol, with the majority of their time spent in the GCL. At 20 (Nova) and 21 years old, they were old for international signings, but you’re talking about a pitcher in Nova who hits 94 MPH in long relief outings, and Dicent has hit 96 MPH in shorter outings. That’s quite a jump in the level of competition, and you’re only talking about them debuting as pros in June and ending up in Bristol by August.
We will have the top ten prospects from the GCL Pirates tomorrow, where we will get into more detail about ten of the players listed above.