The minor league regular season ended yesterday, and Altoona is the only team that will continue playing in the post-season. We’ll be doing season recaps of the minors in various forms over the next few weeks, looking at the individual team recaps, along with recaps by positions, top prospect lists, and players of the year.
To start things off, I wanted to take a quick look at the best and worst performers this year, looking at five players from each group who really stood out. Today’s article will focus on five players who took a step forward this year.
This list doesn’t nearly include every player who took a step forward. Instead, I wanted to focus on the guys who provided the biggest impact, either giving the Pirates an option for the majors over the next few years, or a lower level prospect emerging in a big way. You’ll notice there’s only one pitcher on the list. It’s not that pitchers had a bad year in the system, but as far as prospects who took an impactful step forward, there were more hitting examples than pitching examples.
I also didn’t include any of the traded players, and ignored a lot of the short-season guys due to sample size. I’m not sure if Sherten Apostel would have made this article due to the latter condition, but Taylor Hearn would have definitely made this article if he was still in the system.
Let’s take a look at the five players who took an impactful step forward.
Kevin Kramer – The Pirates need a long-term option at second base, which makes this a perfect year for Kevin Kramer to emerge as the top option, potentially ready to step in this month. Kramer has shown power potential all throughout his minor league career, along with the potential for a strong bat overall, but has yet to put it all together in the stats over a full season. He did that this year, hitting for a .311/.365/.492 line in Triple-A, along with 15 home runs. He’s in a good position to get playing time in the majors so that the Pirates can decide whether he can be their starting second baseman going forward.
Oneil Cruz – The Pirates added Cruz from the Dodgers last year at the trade deadline, and at the time he was a toolsy guy with a lot of risk, but a high ceiling, and no numbers to reflect the tools yet. This year the numbers started to reflect the tools, as he hit for a .286/.343/.488 line with 14 homers. He showed off his tremendous raw power, and there should be more in the future. He also saw a reduction in his strikeout totals, which is good to see when combined with the power. The Pirates had him playing shortstop all year, but he profiles as a third baseman at best in the future. He’ll get a shot at Bradenton next year, with a chance to finish off in Altoona. His season this year will make him a big prospect to watch next year as his future upside becomes more clear.
Ke’Bryan Hayes – Hayes has always shown solid defense at third base, rating as the best in the system and one of the best defensive third basemen in all of the minors. His bat has been inconsistent, whether due to age or injuries. Last year in Bradenton he hit for a decent average and got on base, but lacked power, due in large part to weight and muscle loss from a rib injury. He showed more power this year in his jump to Altoona, with a .151 ISO, while also hitting for average and getting on base at a .375 OBP rate. With offense to match the defense, Hayes has emerged as one of the top 50 prospects in the game, and could move higher than that if the hitting continues to take steps forward like it did this year.
Bryan Reynolds – Reynolds put up numbers similar to his performance last year, with an .819 OPS compared to an .826 OPS in 2017. The key thing here is that he was in Double-A this year, versus High-A last year, and his numbers got better as the season went on. That last part is remarkable, as the middle of his season was interrupted by hamate surgery. That typically saps a hitter of his power for a year, but Reynolds returned with power. He had a .140 ISO from July through the end of the season, and if you believe that his power has been reduced by the hamate surgery, then that could be a good sign for his future.
Travis MacGregor – Every year the Pirates seem to have a prep pitcher who steps up with a dominant performance in the lower levels. This year that pitcher was Travis MacGregor, who had a 3.25 ERA and a 74:21 K/BB ratio in 63.2 innings with West Virginia. His season was shortened due to an injury in the middle of the year, but he returned just as strong as he started. MacGregor’s success included a higher strikeout rate than before, along with much improved control. Most of his success came from his fastball, including the strikeouts, and if he can add a solid breaking pitch to the mix, he will be an interesting pitcher to watch going forward. For now, MacGregor has broken out of the standard projectable prep pitcher role, and has emerged into legit prospect territory.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.