Yesterday we looked at the season preview for the Greensboro Grasshoppers. It’s a group that has a lot of potential for breakouts prospects. We go up a level to the Bradenton Marauders today and they’re a group that has both top end talent and some potential. The minor league season begins on Thursday for all four full-season affiliates.
We start with the big three players on offense, which will make the middle of this lineup something to watch all season. Shortstop Oneil Cruz provides the most upside in the system, especially if he can stick at shortstop. At 6’7″ and still filling out, that still seems unlikely, but the Pirates plan on keeping him there for the foreseeable future. His real value is the power bat, which he showed off a bit with two Spring Training homers for the Pirates. Cruz also has above average speed and a cannon for an arm.
Travis Swaggerty doesn’t have the same raw power potential, but he is a potential five-tool center fielder. The 2018 first round pick wasn’t having the best spring this year, though he did end on a high note with a big game last week. Swaggerty will have 20-year-old Calvin Mitchell on his side in the outfield. Mitchell posted a .771 OPS with West Virginia last year, and has the potential to add more power. While the Florida State League isn’t the place where guys usually show off power, these three players could provide some major offense for the Marauders.
There is a drop in offense after those players, but there are still some names to watch. Starting with the rest of the infield, Adrian Valerio, Michael Gretler, Dylan Busby and Robbie Glendinning will take the time at second base and third base, with Valerio likely to start at shortstop when Cruz isn’t there. We did a player feature for Gretler this winter, showing that he has the athleticism to play anywhere, so if he isn’t splitting third base with Busby, he still has options and will see regular playing time. Lucas Tancas could see regular time at first base, though multiple players could also see time there to get everyone sufficient at-bats.
The catchers to begin the season will be John Bormann and Raul Hernandez. Deon Stafford is currently out due to an oblique issue, but he isn’t expected to miss a lot of time. Once he can return, he will take over the starting spot. Gretler got some catching experience over the winter and played a little in college, but don’t expect him to be more than just a fill in. Bradenton currently has 30 players, not including Stafford, so the bench and bullpen could change during the early part of the year. Jesse Medrano is one of those players who could play anywhere in the infield and has also gone behind the plate. He could either be an extra or one of the last bench spots.
Alongside Swaggerty and Mitchell, the Pirates are also sending Ryan Peurifoy, Chris Sharpe, Randolph Gassaway and Daniel Amaral (For a short time yesterday, I mistakenly had him on the Greensboro preview). Amaral was playing every day for Morgantown last year and now they’re skipping him over a level, so he would probably have the inside track. The other three appear to be backups, and at least one of them could be an extra with the team. Gassaway has been playing some first base this spring.
The starting rotation has three young arms from West Virginia. Max Kranick and Cody Bolton are the two top players to watch here. Kranick showed excellent control, improved off-speed stuff, and a bump in his velocity last year. Bolton was making huge strides until a forearm injury shut him down for the season in mid-July. Both have a chance to really improve their prospect status this summer if they can pick up where they left off last year. The third Power pitcher is Domingo Robles, who took a hit to his prospect status last year because he wasn’t a power pitcher. Robles saw a drop in velocity, despite putting up solid results. He is still just 20 years old and filling out, so he could regain his prospect status this year.
Those three will be joined in the rotation by Aaron Shortridge and Oddy Nunez. Shortridge was the fourth round pick last year for the Pirates, and pitched well in his limited time in the Morgantown rotation before he was shut down due to soreness. Nunez began last year in Bradenton after a terrific 2017 campaign with West Virginia. He was a potential breakout prospect in 2018, but instead the 6’8″ lefty was showing a decrease of 4-5 MPH on his pitches, and he wasn’t throwing as many strikes. He will be 22 years old this entire season, so there is still time for him to turn things around. Being put in the rotation over some other starters is a nice sign.
The bullpen has ten players listed, so some of these guys won’t be there right away. Teams in the minors will carry extra pitchers occasionally, activating them at times, while “demoting” a starting pitcher for a few days. That’s in quotation marks, because it’s just a paper move and the starter doesn’t actually go anywhere. Bradenton will undoubtedly have some players in that role with 15 total pitchers.
The bullpen includes Gavin Wallace, Ronnie Agustin, Joel Cesar, Blake Cederlind, Ike Schlabach, Beau Sulser, Ryan Valdes, Drew Fischer, Hunter Stratton and one big surprise in Luis Escobar. The Pirates decided to move Escobar to the bullpen this spring, while also placing him at Bradenton again, after finishing 2018 in Altoona. The move obviously hurts his prospect status, but with him using his second minor league option this year, it could speed up his path to the majors. The rest of the bullpen includes a mix of former starters and hard-throwers. Cederlind hit triple digits numerous times last year, though that didn’t always lead to the best results. Valdes is one of the rare pitchers who throws a palmball.