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
Michael Burrows, RHP, Morgantown – Burrows made his first two starts of the season last week and both of them were strong performances. He went five shutout innings in his first game, with two hits, three walks and five strikeouts. He gave up one run over four innings in his next start, with two hits, two walks and seven strikeouts. There was no radar for either game, but he was sitting 93-95 MPH in Extended Spring Training games. Burrows has a fastball with a lot of run, boring inside on right-handed batters, and he can also get nice downward plane on the pitch low in the zone. He has five walks in nine innings, but he wasn’t wild in his second start (first one wasn’t broadcast online). His curveball is a strong pitch that he can throw for strikes or bury in the dirt for chases. One of his harder curves was a nasty pitch, looking like it fell of a table at the last second before getting to home plate. He also got some swinging strikes on his changeup. If was an impressive outing, shortened slightly due to one long at-bat, which resulted in the only run scoring. After four frames, he was at 71 pitches with a 75-pitch limit.
Jauri Custodio, OF, DSL Pirates – We mentioned last week that Custodio had an interesting background, signing with the Pirates nine months after his $150,000 deal with the Colorado Rockies was voided due to injury. Their loss seems to be the Pirates’ gain. Custodio is off to a very fast start, hitting .417/.417/.625 this past week, and .338/.372/.514 through 16 games. In 78 plate appearances, the 17-year-old, right-handed hitting outfielder has just four strikeouts. The one downside (which you will hear again shortly) is that he has just two walks so far. You’ll obviously take that when he’s hitting for both power and a high average, but rarely do low walk totals translate to success at higher levels. Usually they start high and either maintain or drop down as players go higher. With the way Custodio is hitting, he may soon start getting pitched around, so the walks could increase with just a little patience not to chase pitches.
Juan Jerez, IF, DSL Pirates – Jerez hit .389/.389/.611 in 18 plate appearances last week, giving him a 1.000 OPS. That’s not much above what he’s been doing for the season, with a .333/.358/.587 slash line in 16 games. The 17-year-old right-handed hitter from the Dominican has been mostly at second base in his first season, with 11 starts there and two at shortstop. He was signed back on July 2nd for $380,000, getting that bonus due to his hitting ability in games, showing both strong bat speed and some power. The only thing you would like to see more of at this point is walks (two in 67 plate appearances), but he’s already showing in game power at an early age, which is rare at this level. There are questions about his ability to play shortstop in the future, but he will still likely see occasional time there.
Bligh Madris, RF, Altoona – This was one of the worst weeks I’ve seen for hitters in all the years of doing the top performers articles. I had to lower the minimum plate appearances I use (normally 20) otherwise I would have been including sub-.800 OPS players. That being said, Madris was the best of the group and he had a strong week, hitting .389/.476/.611 in 21 plate appearances, with a double, homer, three walks and just one strikeout. He has put together a great June so far, hitting .302/.389/.556 in 19 games. That was after posting a .492 OPS in May. With an average start in April, he now has a season slash line of .259/.327/.381 in 67 games. As mentioned before, Madris needs to put up numbers like this to get recognition because his value is all in his bat. He’s an average defender in right field, who doesn’t have speed and he’s not going to hit 20+ homers in a season.
Kyle Mottice, 2B, Morgantown/Greensboro – Mottice was sent down to Morgantown just over a week ago, despite putting up strong on base numbers at Greensboro. He had a .528 OPS in 19 games before the demotion. It didn’t last long, as he played just five games for the Black Bears before returning to the level he should have never left. Mottice has an approach that is built on getting on first base. He’s a high contact hitter, so even though he doesn’t hit the ball hard, he puts it in play often and he either finds holes or uses his above average speed to get an infield hit. He will also draw his share of walks and he stands right on the plate, so a hit-by-pitch works fine by him as well. Once he’s on first base, he’s a threat to steal second base, using his speed and smarts to combine for a very high success rate. Mottice batted .438/.526/.500 this past week, and his career OBP through his first 60 pro games is a .494 mark. He has been on base at least once in 24 of 25 games this year. The one game he didn’t get on base was during a 7-inning contest where he batted just three times.
Jared Oliva, CF, Altoona – Oliva was off to a really slow start this season but he has picked it up recently. In April he had a .669 OPS, then it dropped down to .562 in 25 May games. His average dropped down to .193 in early June before he turned things around. This past week he hit .375/.474/.500 in 21 plate appearances. Oliva’s best tool is his speed and he wasn’t getting on base enough to use it. In the last two weeks though, he is 7-for-7 in stolen bases, thanks in part to getting on base often. He’s added 34 points to his OBP since that low point earlier this month. Oliva showed a power surge last year during the first half, but since his ninth home run of the season back on June 22, 2018, he has hit just four homers in 414 plate appearances. So for him to have enough value, he’s going to have to keep getting on base often and use his speed, which combined with his center field defense, would make him a solid overall player.
Chris Sharpe, OF, Bradenton/Altoona – Sharpe has been a regular here recently, and this week he performed well for two teams. After putting up a .292/.385/.451 slash line in 64 games with Bradenton, he was promoted to Altoona. It took just two games for him to collect his first Double-A home run. Sharpe has 18 doubles, two triples, six homers and 15 stolen bases this season, showing some power, speed and the ability to get on base. He’s doing all of this while cutting his strikeout rate from 29.4% last year to 19.4% this year. It’s been an impressive season for the recently turned 23-year-old, who was given an over-slot bonus to sign in the 14th round in 2017. This mid-season promotion really gives him a good chance to get upper level at-bats and establish himself as a legit prospect if he can keep up the all-around strong play.
Luis Tejeda, SS, DSL Pirates – The Pirates put up some big numbers in the DSL last week and Tejeda was a big part of that offense. He hit .412/.474/.471 in 19 plate appearances. He entered the week with a .250/.318/.375 slash line, which actually isn’t a bad line for the DSL, which is considered one of the friendlier leagues for pitchers. The entire league has a .706 OPS this season. Now he’s at a .769 OPS, which is made impressive by the fact that he might be the youngest player in the league. The birth date cutoff for someone to be in the league this year is August 31, 2002, just five days after his birthday. So you’re not going to find anyone more than five days younger. The Pirates gave Tejeda $500,000 to sign on his 16th birthday because of his advanced approach and power at the plate at an early age. He might not stick at shortstop, but the Pirates are leaving him there for now.
Mitchell Tolman, 2B, Altoona – Tolman hit .350/.409/.500 last week in 22 plate appearances. He hit his fourth home run of the season and got HBP twice, otherwise singles accounted for everything else. He’s been playing full-time this year at second base, as he tries to rebuild his prospect status to where it was before his 50-game suspension last year. Tolman is hitting .257/.322/.361 in 69 games, so overall the offense hasn’t been there enough this season, at least not to get him consideration to move up a level. He’s a solid defender at second base, who we know can handle third base, since he won the Gold Glove given out to one player at each spot over all of college baseball. He’s not getting any push from someone at Bradenton doing well, so Tolman should have time to show if he belongs in Indianapolis next year.
Cole Tucker, SS, Indianapolis – Tucker had his first two-HR game since 2017 on Thursday. That was followed by three hits the next day. While it doesn’t count for last week’s stats here (we go Sunday-Saturday), Tucker hit his sixth Triple-A home run on Sunday, giving him a total of eight on the year when you include the two he hit with the Pirates. The Pirates sent Tucker down just as his bat was starting to heat up and he’s put up an .835 OPS in 12 games since being sent back to Indianapolis. He will be back up in Pittsburgh at some point this year, but exactly when really depends on how long the Pirates are willing to let Jung Ho Kang take a spot or Adam Frazier take a starting spot with his OPS hovering around .700 at this point.
Eric Wood, IF/OF, Indianapolis – Wood was originally playing overseas this year but a problem with his manager (supposedly over a missed bunt sign) led to him becoming a free agent. The Pirates re-signed him immediately and he’s been serving in a utility role for Indianapolis this season. Wood has played mostly in right field when he isn’t the DH, but he also has starts in left field, first base and third base. He hit .353/.421/.471 in 19 plate appearances last week. Despite a .226 batting average this season, he has a .438 slugging percentage, thanks largely to his eight home runs in 137 at-bats. Wood looks like he is headed for minor league free agency again. He had a solid .822 OPS last year, while dealing with a few minor injuries throughout the season. He’s probably not going to get a shot with the Pirates this year unless his stats really turn around, but I wouldn’t rule out him making the majors at some point since he’s 26 years old.
Cody Bolton, RHP, Bradenton – Bolton was given a two-week rest before the Florida State League All-Star break. It was called a groin injury, but it sounded more like something to help limit his innings. He missed most of the second half last year, so when he added up his regular season and Extended Spring Training work, he pitched about 70 total innings. After pitching four innings on Thursday, he’s already up to 61.2 innings this season with over two months left in the year. We usually don’t have pitchers who only went four innings in a week unless they really did something special. Bolton did just that, striking out five batters over four perfect innings. That lowered his ERA to 1.61 and his WHIP to 0.86 in 12 starts. Going into Sunday’s action, he ranked second in ERA and first in WHIP in the FSL. He was also seventh in strikeouts (69) despite ranking 27th in innings pitched. Bolton was promoted to Altoona on Sunday.
Brad Case, RHP, Bradenton – Case showed the importance of using all of your pitches in the minors. We have seen pitchers stick with two pitches because that attack works against minor league hitters if those two pitches are elite. He was having trouble with his cutter early during Tuesday’s game, so he dropped it and started using his changeup more often, to go along with his fastball and slider. He had a feel for the cutter later in the game and was using four pitches to finish strong. In his second start in High-A, he went seven innings, allowing two earned runs on six hits, with no walks and five strikeouts. Including his stats with Greensboro, Case has a 2.69 ERA in 77 innings, with a .205 BAA, an 0.83 WHIP and a 59:5 SO/BB ratio. One full year away from his debut in the GCL (June 22, 2018) after being drafted in the 17th round, he is now four levels higher.
Montana DuRapau, RHP, Indianapolis – DuRapau got two looks with the Pirates this year when all of the injuries were piling up. He got hit around during his big league time, posting a 9.31 ERA and a 1.97 WHIP in 9.1 innings over nine appearances. DuRapau doesn’t have the best pitches or even the velocity of some other Triple-A pitchers, but he does put up solid results, so it’s not surprising that he was at least given a look. His age (27) and upper level experience also helped out his case. This past week he tossed five shutout innings on just one hit and one walk, with four strikeouts. He has a 1.14 ERA and an 0.63 WHIP this season with Indianapolis, so it’s possible that he may get another shot in the future. If not anytime soon, a September look is an option.
Mario Garcia, RHP, DSL Pirates – Garcia made two long relief outings, giving up a total of two runs over 7.2 innings, while picking up 13 strikeouts. On the season in five long relief appearances, he has a 2.29 ERA in 19.2 innings, with a 1.17 WHIP, a .240 BAA and a 27:5 SO/BB ratio. Garcia is a second-year player in the DSL and already 20 years old. He was one of six signings out of Mexico during the 2017-18 international signing period after the Pirates basically ignored the country for the previous four years. Garcia put up strong stats during the 2018 season, including a 1.94 ERA in 46.1 innings, but stats can be deceiving in the DSL. Pitchers can get by with strong control, or by going heavy with off-speed pitches, yet they lack velocity or projection. Garcia was already a fairly advanced pitcher in Mexico when he signed in 2017, so the fact that he isn’t in the U.S. already isn’t a great sign.
Sean Keselica, LHP, Indianapolis – Keselica began the season in Indianapolis, but was quickly returned to Altoona. It took about a month for him to get back to Triple-A, and while he had an 0.00 ERA in his nine innings with Altoona, that didn’t include five unearned runs and six walks. Control issues have actually been a problem all season for Keselica, which has kept him from getting a shot with the Pirates when almost everyone else in the bullpen was being tried out for a short time. That being said, the 26-year-old lefty allowed one run over five innings last week while striking out seven batters. When he is finding the strike zone, he has picked up 33 strikeouts in 35.1 innings, while also posting a 1.43 GO/AO ratio. Keselica tops out at 94 MPH, mixes his three pitches well, and has had a lot of success against left-handed batters this year, holding them to a .162 average.
James Marvel, RHP, Altoona – Marvel has had quite a season so far for Altoona, but last week’s start was one of his best. In 7.2 innings, he allowed one run on four hits, with no walks and nine strikeouts. That gave him a 3.36 ERA through 85.2 innings, with a 71:22 SO/BB ratio, a .239 BAA and a 1.14 WHIP. Marvel has mostly been a pitch to contact guy during his time with the Pirates, but he increased his velocity last year and his curveball is a true strikeout pitch now. He’s also helped by above average control, which leads to a lot of grounders when he does get contact. Marvel had two poor starts in a row in early May. In his other 12 games combined, he has a 2.14 ERA in 75.2 innings. When you add in his successful five starts at Altoona last year, the 25-year-old right-hander looks ready to move up to Indianapolis.
Winston Nicacio, RHP, Morgantown – Nicacio pitched twice last week, once as a starter and once in long relief. The start was okay, with two runs over four innings, but he landed in The 21 by throwing three no-hit, shutout innings in his relief outing. The Pirates acquired the 22-year-old from the Dominican in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. It’s a little unclear how he was available to be picked, as he was a year short of being eligible. The most likely explanation is that his contract was voided by the team that signed him (St Louis Cardinals) or another team, before he signed with the Cardinals. That would have made him eligible after one season. The Pirates liked Nicacio because he hit 94 MPH and mixed his fastball with two solid breaking balls. It’s a bit disappointing that he ended up with Morgantown because he already had Low-A experience before coming to the Pirates.
Luis Nova, RHP, Greensboro – Nova was topping out at 94 MPH last year when he got to the U.S. In a recent start I was able to watch, his fastball was reaching 92 MPH and his attack included a ton of off-speed pitches (well over 50%). That approach can lead to a lot of success at the lower levels, but those players usually get sorted out by the time they reach Double-A. The 21-year-old Nova allowed two runs over six innings on Thursday, giving up two hits and a walk, while striking out seven batters. In three starts with Greensboro, he has a 2.57 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, a .208 BAA and a 9.0 SO/9IP rate. He was originally slated to begin the year with Bristol, but a need for innings in Bradenton, followed by a need for a starter the next week in Greensboro, has led to him being two levels higher than expected this season.
Colin Selby, RHP, Greensboro – Selby improved enough over what we saw last year, that he earned a spot in the Greensboro rotation while pitching in Extended Spring Training. He added some velocity to his fastball, going from low-90s to sitting 94-96 MPH, without sacrificing any control. He also improved his slider, throwing it harder with a nice sharp break. Selby’s changeup has been progressing nicely, while his curveball has gone from a regularly used pitch to his fourth option. This past week, Selby allowed one run on three hits and no walks in six innings. He had five strikeouts, giving him 44 in 41.2 innings with Greensboro. He also has a .185 BAA and a 1.02 WHIP.
Pedro Vasquez, RHP, Altoona – Vasquez might as well move in to this spot in The 21. In his last five starts combined, he has given up one earned run in 31 innings. The first start from this stretch was a spot start in Indianapolis, which resulted in six shutout innings. I thought being demoted after such a game could be detrimental to the 23-year-old right-hander, but it has apparently been motivation for him to get back to Triple-A. Vasquez was our Player of the Week last week, where we talked about his arsenal and why he has been so successful lately. Nothing has changed in one start, so here’s the copy and paste of his pitches: Vasquez works in the low-90s with his fastball, mixing it with a mid-80s changeup and a low-80s curve. He mixes his pitches well, pounds the strike zone and wastes no time between pitches, making for some very quick innings when he’s on his game.