Arizona Fall League Preview: Oneil Cruz Leads the Way for the Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates have sent seven players to the Arizona Fall League for the 30-game schedule, which begins tonight. They announced the first six players three weeks ago, then we learned on Monday that right-handed pitcher Beau Sulser was added to the roster. The Pirates are also sending their Coordinator of Instruction, Dave Turgeon, who will be the manager. Logan Byman, who does Strength and Conditioning with the Pirates, will be with the coaching staff. Here’s a look at the new schedule for the league and the Pirates prospects participating.

The AFL has a completely different schedule this year. It’s starting three weeks sooner and the early part of the schedule includes all night games. We used to post the game recap every day around 6 PM, but the games will be ending around midnight each night until October 2nd, so expect them late at night or in the early morning. After October 2nd, they will mostly be playing day games, with a few night games mixed in (9:30 EST start time). The Pirates this year will be members of the Peoria Javelinas. The league has scheduled some games against teams from the Mexican winter league this year, though the Javelinas won’t be participating in any of those contests.

The big name for the Pirates will be shortstop Oneil Cruz, who is one of the best prospects in the league this year. His assignment to the league will help him make up for lost time due to multiple injuries this season, with the worst being a fractured foot that had him out for nearly two full months. Cruz finished the year in Altoona, where he was getting on base at a solid clip, but his power numbers dropped out from Bradenton. Between three stops, including a very brief rehab stint in the GCL,  Cruz hit .298/.356/.475 in 73 games. His .951 fielding percentage was easily the best of his career.

The second biggest prospect right now would be center field Jared Oliva, who missed some time early in the season with a concussion, but played nearly every game after he returned, so he still got in 123 games this year. Oliva hit .277/.352/.398 with 36 extra-base hits and 36 stolen bases. He was wildly inconsistent this year, putting up poor April and May starts, nice months in June and July, then finished on a down note over the final five weeks. Oliva did the same thing last year at Bradenton, showing long stretches of success and poor play. He’s a solid defender in center field and runs the bases well (smart runner), so this is more about getting him at-bats against upper level pitching.

Sticking with the position players, catcher Jason Delay is the third batter being sent by the Pirates. The other four Pirates in the league this year are all right-handed pitchers. Delay was never injured during the year, but he did have a fairly even split with Arden Pabst for playing time behind the plate. In 67 games, Delay hit .234/.286/.398, with 21 extra-base hits. He had a huge three-week stretch in early May, then put up a .498 OPS over the rest of the season. The AFL will allow him a chance to get extra playing time behind the plate (his defense is already strong) and those extra at-bats will help him with the expected jump to Triple-A next year.

On the pitching side, you have four pitchers who began the season at relievers, but two of them finished in the starting rotation. Starting with Cody Ponce, who was picked up from the Milwaukee Brewers in the Jordan Lyles deal. The Pirates not only switched him to starting, they also moved him up to Triple-A after the deal. Ponce had a 5.30 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 18.2 innings with Indianapolis. He also allowed four runs over six innings in three appearances with Altoona.

Ponce had three years in Double-A before the trade, so he already has plenty of upper level experience at 25 years old, but he also saw a drop in his innings this season. As a starter in 2017, he threw 137.2 innings. That dropped to 95 innings last year when he spent half of the season as a starter. This year, he was down to just 63 innings. So if they want to use him as a starter next year, he’s going to need the work in the AFL. Ponce will be getting work as a starter in Arizona, so he should get around 25 innings.

Blake Cederlind was a starter when he first joined the Pirates as a 2016 draft pick. In 2017, he made just seven starts, then moved to full-time relief. He had an outstanding season with Altoona this year, posting a 1.77 ERA in 45.2 innings, with 42 strikeouts, a .191 BAA and a 1.03 WHIP. Cederlind got a late promotion to Indianapolis and struggled in his very limited time. He is in the AFL to help out his secondary pitches and command. He regularly touches 100 MPH and even hit 102 during one game we saw him live this year. His off-speed pitches and control showed improvements this year, but there is still more work to do before he is big league ready.

Nick Mears signed as a non-drafted free agent late in the 2018 season. It took him just 45.2 innings before he was promoted to Double-A, where he finished this season. He isn’t far behind Cederlind in the velocity, hitting 99 MPH late in the season and sitting 96-98 MPH in many games. Mears also has a strong breaking ball right now, so this AFL assignment is really just about getting him upper level experience and more work. Between three stops this season, mostly spent in Bradenton, Mears had a 3.28 ERA in 46.2 innings, with 69 strikeouts, a .186 BAA and a 1.03 WHIP.

Beau Sulser was an unexpected addition. Usually you look for someone who needs the innings, but he threw 96 innings this year. He threw 98 innings during his first two seasons combined. The 25-year-old Sulser already has command of his pitches, a solid changeup and a decent breaking ball, plus he uses both of his pitches often. He doesn’t throw hard though and he probably isn’t going to add velocity, as he’s older and has already filled out his frame. In his 96 innings with Altoona this season, Sulser had a 2.72 ERA, with 63 strikeouts, a .243 BAA and a 1.24 WHIP. He had 63 strikeouts in 57.1 innings last year with West Virginia, so that was quite a drop in his K rate over one season. Sulser will be used as a starter in Arizona.

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