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, then 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. The stats listed below will cover from Sunday-Saturday each 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 reports and views via MiLB.tv, giving us a look at the entire farm system throughout the season.
Player of the Week
Mason Martin, 1B, Greensboro – Martin finished with a .300/.417/.900 slash line last week, giving him a 1.317 OPS that tied him with Kevin Kramer for the best in the system last week. However, Martin had 13 more plate appearances than Kramer and he drove in 16 runs, which is extremely impressive for a seven-day stretch. Martin started the week off with a two home run game. He homered again on Saturday, giving him 13 on the season (he hit #14 on Sunday), which tied him for the most in the system with teammate Rodolfo Castro and another first baseman, Will Craig. Martin has a .256/.350/.570 slash line in 46 games this year, which is quite an improvement over the .636 OPS he had in 45 games last year at the level. He ranks fourth in the league in OPS and third in slugging and that’s coming from someone who turns 20 years old on Sunday.
Rodolfo Castro, SS, Greensboro – Castro went 10-for-31 last week with two doubles and two homers. That gave him a .284/.331/.622 slash line through 42 games, which had him second in the league in slugging and third in the league in OPS. His second home run of the week was his 13th of the season, which temporarily tied him for the lead among all Pirates. Castro was playing shortstop every day, but with the return of Ji-Hwan Bae from his 30-game suspension, it appears that the two of them will split time between shortstop and second base. At least for now that is, because Castro has shown that he is ready to be challenged in High-A. Just like his teammates Mason Martin and Lolo Sanchez (see below), he is dominating the level that he had trouble at last year. Also just like both of them, he’s young for the level, turning 20 years old a week ago.
Will Craig, 1B, Indianapolis – Craig went 8-for-22 last week, hitting two doubles and two homers, while drawing three walks. That gave him a 1.189 OPS for the week. Through the first 43 games of the season, he has a .259/.344/.531 slash line. His OBP is higher than last year, and his 13 home runs (he hit #14 on Sunday) are well ahead of the pace he set last season when he led all Pirates with 20 homers. Craig has also continued to improve defensively at first base, so his all around game is better than a year ago. While you wouldn’t declare him ready for the majors after just two months at Triple-A, he’s headed in that direction. The problem will be where do the Pirates play him. It’s not a decision that has to be made this year, but it might be the best time to make the decision, instead of holding him back in Triple-A as a backup to Josh Bell going into next season.
Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Indianapolis – Hayes is having a solid season when you factor in his age, but it’s an up year for offense in the IL (you’ll read that again a few times) and his .739 OPS through 42 games is 49 points below league average. He really didn’t have a big week, getting on this list solely due to a batter winning the Player of the Week, which opened up an extra spot for the hitters. Hayes had an .833 OPS, thanks in part to his 17th double, a triple, and his second home run of the season. The good news is that is isn’t over-matched at the level and this was an improvement over previous stats. Hayes is more than ready defensively, with a current fielding pace at third base that is as good as pro baseball has seen at any level ever. It’s not that just he’s nearly flawless (one error in 108 chances), it’s that he gets to everything, and even looks good at the normal shortstop position when Indianapolis uses the lefty shift, which is often. He also uses his speed well on the bases, so the only thing right now is waiting for him to go from holding his own at the plate to showing that he’s ready for the majors.
Kevin Kramer, IF, Indianapolis – As mentioned above, Kramer posted a 1.317 OPS this past week. He went 6-for-20 with three doubles, three homers and four walks. After starting the season off slow, he has really picked things up the last three weeks. Through 36 games, he has a .286/.375/.516 slash line. While the average is lower, the OBP and slugging are both higher than last year at Indianapolis. The interesting part with him now is that he has recently seen time at shortstop and in the outfield. That’s in addition to playing second base regularly and the occasional start at third base. It would appear that he’s ready offensively to get another shot at the majors, but if he’s going to be used as a utility player, then he needs a little more time in the outfield and some more starts as a refresher at shortstop wouldn’t hurt.
Fabricio Macias, OF, Greensboro – Macias went 10-for-29, with four doubles and a home run last week. That gave him a .250/.308/.431 slash line through 38 games. A closer look at his stats is more revealing of his recent success. Macias started off with an .083 average in his first 16 games. Since that low point, he has hit .369/.411/.619 in 22 games. He’s showing why he was considered the best player age 23 or under in 2017 at 19 years old. Macias was one of the last signings cleared last year before MLB shutdown signings out of Mexico for the better part of a year. While he was allowed to play in Extended Spring Training, he was forced to wait to make his pro debut. We heard that he was having trouble adjusting to life away from his home last year, but after a worrisome slow start (due to that previous homesickness), he seems to be on a great path this season.
Calvin Mitchell, OF, Bradenton – Mitchell put up a .348/.400/.435 slash line last week, mostly driven by a high average, but he also had two doubles to give him ten on the season and a total of 17 extra-base hits. Mitchell has a .772 OPS, which is well the league’s .664 OPS, coming from someone who is one of the youngest position players in the FSL. The hitting is a great sign because his value comes from the bat, so it will need to carry him through the minors and be enough to keep him there as a corner outfield with no speed and limited defense. The one part to watch is his 11:52 BB/SO ratio in 199 plate appearances. The strikeout total is acceptable for someone hitting for power, but it’s important to remember that those numbers tend to get worse as players move up the system, unless they make the plate approach changes. For Mitchell, his walk total is way down compared to last year, while the strikeout total is slightly up.
Hunter Owen, 3B, Altoona – Owen made this list the tough way, adding to his OBP/OPS total by getting hit five times in just 21 plate appearances. In fact, one of those HBP’s caused him to leave one game early and sit out the next day. Owen is having a strong season in Double-A, hitting for power, average and showing improved defense at third base. Overall, he has a .297/.372/.570 slash line in 46 games, with ten home runs. He ranks fourth in the Eastern League with his .942 OPS. At 25 years old (26 in September) Owen is old for the level, so before you get too excited about him, he’s going to need to prove his hitting at the next level. That’s especially true considering that he is coming off of a .781 OPS in High-A last year. His 12:47 BB/SO ratio is in line with his career stats, so his hitting could cool off as we get into the summer months.
Lolo Sanchez, OF, Greensboro – Sanchez has become a regular here this season. Much like Mason Martin, Sanchez struggled as one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League last year. Both players are showing huge improvements, still young for the level, is their second seasons of Low-A. Sanchez hit .393/.500/.429 last week, reaching base 17 times on 11 hits, five walks and one hit-by-pitch. That gives him a season slash line of .329/.407/.506 in 46 games, with 17 extra-base hits and 18 stolen bases. He leads all Pirates with seven outfield assists, and he has just 21 strikeouts in 198 plate appearances. Teams usually move up players around the All-Star break, which is about three weeks off. If he isn’t in Bradenton before then, expect him to go around then.
Jerrick Suiter, 1B, Altoona – Suiter was the lone offensive contributor for Altoona for much of the week. Over a four-game stretch, he had the only RBIs for the Curve. Suiter is one of the biggest guys in the system, and we saw some power out of him in 2017, but he didn’t hit his first home run until game 43 this year. After putting up an .876 OPS last week, he is hitting .270/.320/.352 through 47 games (includes Sunday’s game). Suiter is a strong defensive first baseman, but he has only played the position regularly during two of his six seasons in the system, 2016 in Bradenton and this season. He’s going to need to continue hitting well to get notice in this system at first base, especially after spending last year with Indianapolis.
Lucas Tancas, 1B, Bradenton – If you’re counting at home, Tancas making the list means that all four starting first basemen in the minors were among the top hitters last week. Tancas only gets mentioned last due to alphabetical order, but he had one of the best weeks here. Tancas capped off the week with a walk-off homer on Saturday night. Earlier in the game, he collected his 15th double of the season. He hit a total of six doubles from Monday until Saturday. He has received some praise for better defense this season, which could be due to playing first base full-time this year. Tancas is repeating High-A at 25 years old, so you would expect him to hit well at the level. He has a .783 OPS in a pitcher-friendly league, but the bigger issue than his age might be the 8:48 BB/SO walk ratio in 41 games. That’s a slight increase in strikeouts and a decrease in walks over last year, which isn’t a good sign.
Dario Agrazal, RHP, Indianapolis – When the Pirates went into Friday with no scheduled starter, Agrazal seemed like a strong possibility. It was his day to start in Indianapolis and he had been successful in a short trial at Triple-A. The Pirates went with reliever Michael Feliz, which did not work out at all, while Agrazal allowed one run over six innings, on five hits, with no walks and four strikeouts. He now has a 2.59 ERA and an 0.86 WHIP in 31.1 innings with Indianapolis. On the season, he has a 46:5 SO/BB ratio and a 1.62 GO/AO ratio. We are seeing what Agrazal is capable of when healthy, which has been rare since the middle of 2017. The only thing that hasn’t fully returned is his velocity, which is about two MPH slower on average than before.
Cody Bolton, RHP, Bradenton – Bolton made two starts last week, and while neither was dominating like his first six starts of the year, they were both solid outings in which he displayed a strong arsenal of pitches. In game one, he allowed one run over four innings, striking out five batters. In the second contest on Friday, Bolton went six innings, allowing two runs, with no walks and eight strikeouts. Through nine starts, he has a 2.03 ERA in 48.2 innings, with 52 strikeouts, a .198 BAA and an 0.96 WHIP. Bolton hit 97 MPH four times in his last start, and has hit 98 MPH this year. He has been working heavy with his fastball and new cutter, but he also has a slider and changeup that have been effective pitches. The big thing to watch with him this year is how many innings will the Pirates let him throw. Counting starts in Extended Spring Training last year, he only got in about 70-75 innings before a forearm injury shut him down for the season. We might either see him skip starts here and there in the second half or move to the bullpen later in the year to control his innings. That could prevent him from moving to Double-A this season.
Will Gardner, RHP, Greensboro – Gardner had two solid relief outings this past week. He threw three shutout innings with five strikeouts in his first game. Then came back with 1.2 shutout frames and two more strikeouts in the second game. Gardner began the year in Extended Spring Training, making his season debut on May 10th. In that game, he went one inning and gave up one run. That has been followed by six shutout innings. Gardner was a late round pick last year and has made some huge strides since 2017, which we covered in a player feature this winter. A little has changed since that feature. His main pitch was a four-seam fastball last year, but he now relies heavily on his slurve/slider, which he uses as an out pitch. He has also improved his two-seam fastball and added a splitter. Gardner can get his fastball up to 96 MPH.
Mitch Keller, RHP, Indianapolis – Keller started this season off slow, mostly due to control and command issues. He wasn’t throwing a lot of strikes early, then would throw a lot of fat fastballs, which would get him in trouble. He has looked much better in his last two starts, including his lone outing last week when he gave up one run over seven innings, with six strikeouts. It was the first time this season that he went seven innings. Keller now has a 3.45 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP in 47 innings, with 56 strikeouts. Those aren’t dominating numbers, but it’s a high offense year in the league and he actually ranks seventh in ERA. Keller continues to work on his new pitch, throwing a hard slider, which he mixed in occasionally with his fastball/curve combo. He didn’t throw the changeup often in this last start, but he’s been using it more often this season. His big league debut will be later today. After that, we will find out if he’s up for good.
Max Kranick, RHP, Bradenton – Kranick had a strong April, followed by a very rough beginning to his May. In three starts, he allowed 14 runs in 12.2 innings, failing to get through five in any game. He bounced back in a big way on Wednesday night with a one-hitter over seven innings. He could have went further in the game, but was pulled due to the innings and not his pitch count. Kranick was up to 97 MPH in the start, and throwing his slider often with success. He has the pitch mix to be successful at the upper levels. Now he just needs to find the consistency. Kranick is 21 years old and would have been draft-eligible this year if he went to college, plus he had some down time in 2017 due to injury, so there is still plenty of time for him to develop.
James Marvel, RHP, Altoona – Marvel had a very impressive outing on Friday night, giving up one run on two hits and three walks, with eight strikeouts in 6.2 innings. The part that made it most impressive was the fact that he was facing a Double-A lineup with Dustin Pedroia, Cody Asche and Brock Holt, three players with 2,460 combined Major League games. Marvel was having a strong season, especially through April, where he posted a 1.52 ERA. He had back-to-back rough outings in which he allowed 16 runs over ten innings. That did a number of his overall stats, which he is getting back down to respectability after putting together two strong outings since those games. He has a 3.81 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP and a .232 BAA. Marvel has a nice low-90s fastball that can get up into the mid-90s, along with an impressive curve, that can be used in any count and has become a strikeout pitch.
Alex McRae, RHP, Indianapolis – McRae pitched after Keller against the same Louisville team and nearly matched his performance. McRae went seven innings, allowing two runs on seven hits, with no walks and a season high eight strikeouts. It was his longest outing of the season and a nice sign from someone who has given up 4+ runs in five of his nine starts this season. This is an up year for offense in the International League, so while a 5.18 ERA sounds very bad for someone who had two brief stays in the majors last year, McRae ranks right in the middle of ERA among starters in the IL at 17th place out of 34 qualified pitchers. He’s going to need to be more like the pitcher we saw on Wednesday to get another chance with the Pirates, but his ERA was over 7.00 a month ago, so there have been slow improvements.
Ike Schlabach, LHP, Bradenton – Schlabach had a nice week that ended on a down note. He started it on Sunday with a shutout inning. That was followed by four strong innings on Tuesday, which technically went under Monday’s stats because they were completing a suspended game. Schlabach took over when the game resumed and allowed one run on four hits and no walks, with three strikeouts. The bad ending was when he got hit on his pitching elbow with a 104 MPH line drive, which landed him on the injured list. Schlabach is showing low-90s velocity in short relief roles this season. The 22-year-old lefty has a 3.16 ERA in 25.2 innings this season, with a 1.21 WHIP and a 14:4 SO/BB ratio. He’s holding lefties to a .233 BAA.
Aaron Shortridge, RHP, Bradenton – Shortridge had a start early in the week shortened due to rain. He allowed one run over three innings before the game was suspended. He came back on Saturday and made a strong start, giving up one run on three hits over seven innings, with no walks and four strikeouts. It was the first time he went seven innings in a game as a pro. Shortridge is a strike-thrower, who sits in the high-80s, hitting 90-91 MPH. He gets by with control and mixing his pitches well. He turns 22 in two days, but he still has a bit of projection left to his 6’3″ frame because he didn’t pitch much in college. At his current velocity, there isn’t much room for mistake pitches at the higher levels. We saw that recently with four straight starts of at least three earned runs allowed, but he put together a solid ten innings this past week.
Beau Sulser, RHP, Altoona – Sulser picked up the Altoona pitching staff when they needed it most last week. After Pedro Vasquez was promoted to Indianapolis, Matt Eckelman started in his place and gave up five first inning runs. Sulser came out next and tossed four shutout innings to pick up some of the slack. He had already thrown two shutout frames earlier in the week. It’s been a great season for Sulser, who was with Bradenton to start the year, but moved up to Altoona before making his season debut. He has an 0.61 ERA in 29.1 innings, with an 0.78 WHIP and a .133 BAA. There is a little bit of a surprise to his season and that’s the ten walks. He had just four walks in 57.1 innings last year. Sulser doesn’t throw hard, sitting around 89-90 MPH with his fastball. He has a bit of deception in his delivery and gets great downward plane on his fastball. His changeup is a plus pitch that he uses often, especially against left-handed batters. He also throws a slider/cutter combo, but he relies heavily on the fastball/change.