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
Rodolfo Castro, 2B, Greensboro – Castro had one of the best weeks we have seen since starting these top performer articles. His slugging percentage alone was 127 points higher than the second best OPS in the system last week. When you add in the .520 OBP due to 11 hits, a walk and a HBP, he ran away with the Player of the Week spot. Castro was off to a slow start while repeating Low-A this year. He had a decent season last year, especially considering that he was one of the youngest players in the league. He still hasn’t reached his 20th birthday. There is upside here with his power and athleticism. Some things like sharpening up his defense and using his speed better can happen over time as he develops and matures. The low walk rate and semi-high strikeout rates are two areas of concern, especially because they are getting worse as he moves up. If he continues to hit well, we should see him move up to Bradenton in the near future. As a late note to this article, Castro is playing shortstop for the second day in a row on Monday. With Oneil Cruz out with a fractured foot, this could be a sign that the move to Bradenton is close for Castro.
Dylan Busby, 3B, Bradenton – Busby appears here for the fourth time with his all or nothing approach. He batted .286/.348/.762 last week, hitting three homers, driving in eight runs and striking out nine times in 21 at-bats. On the season, he is hitting .232/.360/.634, with nine homers in 24 games (he hit his tenth homer on Sunday). His OBP has got a push from being hit by seven pitches. Busby was tied for the most homers with the Pirates through games on Saturday. He also had 35 strikeouts in 82 at-bats, which is the third worst rate in the Florida State League for anyone with more than 60 at-bats (97 players in that group). Busby had one really bad game on defense this past week, committing four errors. That needs to be chalked up to him just having a bad day. He isn’t a great defender, but he has made a total of 17 errors since signing in 2017, so one game accounts for nearly 1/4 of those errors.
Jake Elmore, Util, Indianapolis – Elmore is apparently going to be here every week. Along with Busby, this is his fourth straight appearance in The 21. Unlike Busby, who powered his way on the list each week, Elmore has done it through consistent hitting since Opening Day. He batted .389/.522/.611 in six games. He’s hitting .386/.440/.557 through his first 25 games. Elmore ranks first in the International League in average, seventh in OBP, tenth in OPS, fifth in hits and fourth in doubles. He’s playing left field, shortstop and second base. He’s a depth option for the Pirates right now, and has played parts of five seasons in the majors, so there is a chance we could see him on the Pittsburgh bench at some point this year.
Robbie Glendinning, INF, Bradenton – Glendinning has had an odd season so far. He was slated to go to Bradenton on Opening Day, but a late change had him going to Altoona instead. He put up a .300 average and an .848 OPS in Double-A, but when Stephen Alemais returned to the roster, Glendinning was sent back to Bradenton. Since his “demotion”, he has hit .341/.386/.634 in 11 games, and is now seeing regular time at shortstop with Oneil Cruz being injured. He’s an athletic player, who can also play third base and second base. Glendinning made an outstanding play/long throw on a grounder between shortstop and third base during Saturday night’s game that very few players in the system could have made.
Bralin Jackson, OF, Altoona – Jackson is getting a chance to play regularly this year after being a reserve outfielder for most of the 2018 season in Altoona. He actually did very well last year around mid-season when he had a chance to start a string of games, but he fell off just as quick as the hot streak came on. In 23 at-bats this past week, he hit .435/.435/.585 with three doubles and two stolen bases. Only Rodolfo Castro had more hits last week than the ten that Jackson collected. On the season, the 25-year-old, right-handed hitting Jackson is batting .271/.329/.357 in 23 games. He’s going to have a hard time moving up with the Pirates, but he’s currently making the most of his opportunity and he needs to continue that trend to get more notice.
Grant Koch, C, Greensboro – Koch did not have a positive debut last year after going to Morgantown just days after his team lost the College World Series. His hitting was poor and his defense needed a lot of work to look average. About the only positive was his throwing arm. Koch started off slow for Greensboro this year, and even after a .444/.524/.778 performance last week, he still has a .709 OPS in his first 20 games. He’s only 5-for-20 in throwing out runners, but that speaks more to the pitchers holding runners. His real area of concern on defense are the receiving and blocking skills. He has a tendency to stab at pitches with his glove. He can also try to catch pitches in the dirt instead of blocking them, which hasn’t been a successful technique. It’s his bat that was supposed to carry him though and this past week was the first real sign of life. Through Saturday, he had a ten-game hitting streak active.
Kevin Kramer, 2B, Indianapolis – Kramer got off to a slow start this season. Mixed in with that slow start was a five-day trip to the majors that likely didn’t help, as he didn’t move from the bench during that time. He has started to pick up things lately, including a .409/.480/.773 slash line last week in 25 plate appearances. That gave him a .279/.347/.471 line through 19 games. Kramer was supposed to play some outfield this year according to the Pirates, but he has been at second base 15 times and just got his second start at third base on Sunday. Right now he is probably behind Pablo Reyes on the depth chart, but that could change as the season goes along. Kramer’s biggest concern last year was his 38:127 BB/SO ratio and that hasn’t improved this year. He has a 6:26 ratio in 79 plate appearances.
Jason Martin, OF, Indianapolis – Martin spent 25 days in the majors during April, hitting .229/.289/.286 in 35 at-bats. With him seeing limited action for the entire month, you might expect a little rust. That was somewhat true with his return to Indianapolis, because he did go 3-for-15 (.200 average) at the plate. However, all three hits went for extra bases, and he drew four walks. That led to a .968 OPS in his first week back in the minors. Martin will have a chance to get back to the majors this season, but that might be more difficult as the season goes along (I’m assuming that the Pirates will eventually go more than one day without a new injury). It was the injury bug that got him to the majors sooner than most people expected. He was coming off of a poor showing last year in Triple-A, where he posted a .589 OPS in 59 games. He’s just 23 years old and could use some development time, but the worst case scenario seems to be a September call-up at this point.
Jose Osuna, IF/OF, Indianapolis – Osuna had a Spring Training neck injury, which caused him to get a late start this season. He went to Bradenton for five rehab games, before moving up to Indianapolis for more rehab time. During the week, his rehab assignment turned into a normal minor league assignment, as the Pirates activated him from the injured list on Friday. Osuna hit .333/.500/.500 this past week, reaching base 13 times in five games. The plan right now seems to be moving Osuna all around to keep his versatility. He has played third base, first base, left field and right field already. We already know that he can hit Triple-A pitching, but the 26-year-old will have to continue that trend to get back to the majors.
Travis Swaggerty, CF, Bradenton – Swaggerty is slowly heating up after a quiet start to the season. This is his second straight appearance in The 21, making it this week with a .400/.478/.450 slash line. Through Sunday’s action, he is hitting .260/.321/.365 in 25 games, with four doubles, two homers and four stolen bases. He’s showing all of the tools that made him an early first round pick, but the one concern was his aggressiveness at the plate and some swing-and-miss to his game. He does swing through a lot of pitches, but he’s also aggressive in the strike zone, so he’s not letting any good pitches go by without a swing. That will likely keep his OBP lower than you would like to see, but if the power, defense and speed are all still there, then he will be a valuable player.
Mitchell Tolman, 2B, Altoona – Tolman really did himself a disservice with his 50-game suspension for drug of abuse last year. He had a fine season in Bradenton in 2017, got a late promotion to Altoona, and played in the Arizona Fall League. After serving the suspension, he was sent back to Bradenton last year. Now he’s finally getting a shot to play regularly at Altoona. The early results were poor, but a .960 OPS over seven games this past week has him in the right direction. In 28 games, Tolman has a .238/.295/.388 slash line, while playing solid defense at second base, where he has one error in 104 total chances.
Dario Agrazal, RHP, Indianapolis – With JT Brubaker going on the injured list, Agrazal got a chance to move up to Triple-A. It has been injuries that have held Agrazal back since mid-2017, missing significant time (some of it off-season time) with a pectoral injury, forearm strain and back tightness. He is healthy now and so far he’s making the most of his opportunity. Agrazal was the top pitcher last week, giving up two runs over 6.2 innings in his Indianapolis debut, followed by one unearned run over seven innings in his second start. Of major significance here is that he has 21 strikeouts over 20.2 innings in his last three starts combined. His real step forward in 2017 came when he picked up his strikeout rate in Bradenton. His velocity hasn’t return to the mid-90s we saw back then, but his command of 90-92 MPH on his fastball has been providing him with big results lately.
Cody Bolton, RHP, Bradenton – Bolton was named as our Pitcher of the Month for April. To earn that top spot for April, he had to do well in his start on the final day of the month. Bolton ended up allowing one run on four hits and a walk in six innings, while striking out six batters. In four of his five starts last month, he struck out at least six batters. Bolton has impressed in each game this season, showing a mid-90s fastball, a hard slider/cutter and a strong changeup. He has a tendency to rely on the fastball/cutter too much, which is fine in High-A where it is obviously working, but he’s going to need to use his regular slider and changeup more often in the future. It would be better if he did that more now, even if it hurts his stats a little, because development is much more important than stats at this point in his career.
Jake Brentz, LHP, Altoona – Brentz had a lot of intrigue when he was first acquired from the Seattle Mariners because not long after he joined the Pirates, we saw him hitting triple digits. That velocity came with a lot of control issues, as we would only occasionally see his full potential on display. This season he has taken something off of his fastball (hit 94 MPH last time out) and so far it has led to outstanding results. In 11.2 innings this season, he has allowed one run on six hits and three walks, while striking out 13 batters. He had 39 walks in 32.2 innings last year, spending some of the season back at Bradenton. If Brentz keeps up his early results, we could see him back on the prospect charts, where he would be one of the top lefty relievers in the system.
Nicholas Economos, RHP, Greensboro – Economos began the season in the bullpen, but switched spots with Braeden Ogle, who needs to limit his innings this season. Economos made one start last week and allowed one run over five innings. He picked up seven strikeouts, which has been a big part of his game this season. In 21.2 innings, he has 30 strikeouts, giving him the highest strikeout rate among starters in the system at 12.5 per nine innings. Economos, who was the 21st round pick in 2015, doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He sits high-80s with his fastball, but has success with decent control, along with mixing his pitches well, while also having some deception in his delivery. That style usually works in the lower levels, but we need to see some better velocity (he hit 94 MPH in college) and more reliance on his fastball before you can predict future success.
Scooter Hightower, RHP, Altoona – Hightower has had trouble so far this season in a starting pitcher role. That’s after he finished strong at Altoona last year, winning our August/September Pitcher of the Month award. With our old cutoff of Monday-Sunday for The 21, he would not have been on this list because after allowing one run over six innings on Tuesday, Hightower allowed six runs on Sunday. His season stats now sit at a 5.52 ERA in 29.1 innings. When he’s on his game, Hightower relies on some of the best command in the system. He can hit the four corners of the strike zone and get chases just outside the zone. He had a lot of success in the past getting batters to swing under letter high fastballs, result in high fly ball numbers. We’ve seen him go through long runs of success (he was also our August/September Player of the Month in 2017), but he really needs to be perfect with his pitches to get those results.
Mitch Keller, RHP, Indianapolis – This is the first time that Keller has made the top performers article this season. That’s partially due to his best outing occurring during the same week as one of his worst, as well as missing out earlier in the season when a solid start came during a strong week for pitching. Even his start this week barely got him on here, as he was the last player on the list and a few other players were also considered for the final spot. Keller allowed two runs over six innings in his last start, with both coming in the first inning on a pair of solo homers. His overall line hasn’t been great, but he has looked much better in his last three outings, as opposed to three shaky starts to begin the season. Keller has been hitting 98 MPH with his fastball and showing improvements with his changeup. His curve has always been a plus pitch, and he has now added a slider (Keller said it’s a slider, Indy announcers called it a cutter). The slider sits 86-88 MPH and has a tight break. He threw the pitch up in the zone a lot during this start, while his changeup, which is 88-89 MPH, is thrown down in the zone with late downward action.
Max Kranick, RHP, Bradenton – Kranick had a rough start on Sunday, so that’s something to keep in mind as we look back at his start that got him on this list. Sunday’s game saw a drop in his velocity, and some very poor command. That’s unusual from Kranick, who has looked like a potential top ten prospect in the system at times this year. He’s a strike-thrower, who has hit 97 MPH, while flashing a strong slider and an improving changeup. His one game this past week was the four error game by Dylan Busby mentioned above. The Marauders as a team had an awful day in the field, yet Kranick battled through extra outs given to the opposition, to give up one earned run over five innings. His previous two starts combined saw him allow just two runs over 12 innings. As long as Sunday’s start was just a small blip on the radar, then there should be nothing to be worried about here. It shouldn’t take him long to get back on track.
Domingo Robles, LHP, Bradenton – In his start on April 25th, Robles had a rough first inning, allowing a three-run homer with one out in the game. Over the next 6.2 innings, he threw shutout ball on a walk and two singles. Six days later, he threw seven innings, giving up one unearned run that turned out to be the only run of the game. Robles has allowed three or more runs in three of his starts, and no earned runs over 19 innings in his other three starts combined. He’s a soft-tossing lefty, who gets by with command of his fastball, plus a strong slider and an excellent changeup. He just turned 21 last Monday, so we still could see him add some velocity. For him to succeed working in the 88-90 MPH range, he really needs to be perfect. He’s been 90-92 MPH in the past, but we haven’t seen that range recently.
Hunter Stratton, RHP, Bradenton – Stratton made two relief appearances last week and allowed one run over five innings while striking out seven batters. On the season, he has a 1.50 ERA in 18 innings, with a .172 BAA, an 0.89 WHIP and 18 strikeouts. Stratton was a starter last year and put up inconsistent results, with his control being the major factor when he struggled. He has improved his walk rate this year as a multi-inning reliever and that has led to the better results. Stratton was throwing 88-93 MPH last year. This year in shorter outings, he is 92-93 MPH, with a changeup, mid-80s slider and low-80s curve.
Pedro Vasquez, RHP, Altoona – Vasquez got a late start last year due to a Spring Training illness and never really got going. That eventually led to him being demoted to Bradenton mid-season. He was stretched out to start this year in Spring Training, but only got a rotation spot after Gage Hinsz was injured late and Eduardo Vera was promoted to Indianapolis (Scooter Hightower got the other starting spot). Vasquez is making the most of his opportunity, posting a 2.67 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP through his first 27 innings. This past week he gave up one earned run over five innings, striking out five batters.