Yesterday we posted the season recap for the Bristol Pirates and noted that the top ten prospects list would be much stronger than normal at this level. The Pirates have sent some solid pitching prospects here in the past, but the real difference this year is the depth of the list. The list below is the top ten listed voted on by myself, Tim Williams and Wilbur Miller. At this level for hitters, we use a minimum of one plate appearance per team game to qualify. One the pitching side, we used ten appearances or 20 innings pitched. The most significant player left off by those minimums was Yoyner Fajardo, who ranked #7 on our GCL Pirates top ten list last week. At the bottom, we also take a quick look at the other notables on this team.
Bristol Pirates Top Ten
- Tahnaj Thomas, RHP – Thomas was acquired from the Cleveland Indians over the winter in the Jordan Luplow/Max Moroff deal. He was already considered a decent prospect based on his potential, but he may have already exceeded expectations with his pitches. Thomas got a late start in baseball in the Bahamas and his first two seasons of pro ball amounted to 58 innings pitched. When the Pirates got him, he could hit mid-90s and his 6’4″ frame screamed projection. His spring started with a minor shoulder injury and then the Pirates tweaked his delivery before he really got going in Extended Spring Training, where we heard reports that he was hitting 97 MPH. By the first few games of the regular season in early July, his fastball found another gear and he hit 101 MPH. That velocity alone is going to get attention, but the reason he moved up the prospect charts this year is that he was throwing more strikes while throwing harder. His slider also become a legit swing-and-miss pitch, while he also worked on improving his changeup throughout the season. Once Thomas began attacking hitters with all three pitches and trusting his stuff, he became a better pitcher. It’s very possible that we see him open the season in Greensboro next year.
- Santiago Florez, RHP – Florez was signed at age 16 out of Colombia and despite very poor control in the DSL in 2017, he was very intriguing from the start. He was touching 92 MPH with his fastball when he signed and stood 6’5″, 222 pounds. Between the youth and that giant frame, you knew there had to be more velocity in the tank. That velocity showed up during the 2018 GCL season when he began hitting 96 MPH in starts. The control also took a big leap forward, which landed him among the top 50 prospects in the system. This year his biggest improvement was with his breaking ball, which he worked on all season. He went from a loopy curveball to a harder slider. He also started seeing more movement on his changeup. Florez was sitting 95-97 MPH at times, showing a slight uptick in velocity. Those three things gave him a better three-pitch mix than we saw last season. He’s a possibility to begin the year in Greensboro just like Thomas.
- Francisco Acuna, IF – Acuna is a player most people here should know. Between his regular season action and playing winter ball the last two years in Colombia, he has received a lot of mentions. He had a solid rookie season in the DSL at age 17 in 2017, posting a .677 OPS, with 53 walks and 19 stolen bases. He then played in Colombia, where he was in a league that compares well to A-ball, so it was quite a step up from what he was seeing in the DSL. The 2018 season got off to a bad start with some off-the-field trouble that got him sent back to the Dominican for a time. He returned for the GCL season, but had a rough year and wasn’t playing every day. After a solid winter ball season back home, Acuna came to Spring Training this year and added some weight, which helped him drive the ball well this season. He was originally signed at 5’7″, 150 pounds, but he’s clearly a much stronger player now, yet he still has the athleticism that allows him to play shortstop. He posted a .793 OPS this year, collecting 22 extra-base hits in 53 games. Acuna has solid tools all around, a strong approach at the plate and now he’s shown the ability to hit for a little power, which really helped his prospect status this season.
- Daniel Rivero, OF – Rivero was one of the top DSL prospects for the Pirates last year, ranking third as part of a trio of outfielders at the top of that list. If we updated that list now, Rivero would likely take the top spot after his late season performance in Bristol. The Pirates signed him out of Venezuela in 2017 and he held his own in the DSL last year, posting a .749 OPS, while showing strong tools on defense. He jumped to the U.S. this spring and played well, so the Pirates decided that he could skip a level to Bristol. It took a bit of adjustment to the level before the 18-year-old from Venezuela looked like he belonged there. Rivero had a .461 OPS in June, followed by a .623 OPS in July. In August, that mark jumped to .778 and he was in the lineup every day. He finished off strong with five hits in the three-game playoff series. Outfield is extremely crowded in the lower levels, so we will see if he can get a spot in Greensboro next year.
- Adrian Florencio, RHP – There’s a separation in current talent on this list at this point, but the 5-10 (and even lower) have a lot more strength and potential than we usually see at Bristol. Florencio was signed at age 19 as an international free agent and he looks like they found a hidden gem now. He’s listed at 6’6″, 205 pounds, but I’m told that he’s slightly taller and weighs in at 240 pounds, with it being a solid frame and lots of strength. His numbers in 2019 don’t really stand out, with a 4.75 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, a .282 BAA and 38 strikeouts in 47.1 innings, but this list is about prospects and performance is only part of what we consider this low in the system. Florencio went from sitting high-80s to throwing low-90s since signing with the Pirates and he will hit 94 MPH in starts, with more likely in the future. He has one of the better changeups at this level, with the ability to throw it to lefties and righties and get swing-and-misses with the pitch. His slider is still more of a work in progress, so that will help with his results as it gets better. There’s huge potential upside here, but still plenty of work to be done.
- Luis Ortiz, RHP – Ortiz was signed at age 19 for $25,000 last October and he showed immediate improvements after joining the Pirates. He now hits 95 MPH with his fastball after sitting in the high-80s when he signed. Those improvements helped him skip over the bottom two levels of the system and open up his career at Bristol. He mixes his fastball with a slider and changeup that both showed improvements as the spring/season went along. The big issue here seems to be stamina. Ortiz is listed at 6’2″, 163 pounds, though he put on weight since signing. He needs to continue to fill out and put in the work to get stronger. That showed late in the season when he went from a 2.33 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP in July, to a 5.53 ERA and 1.78 WHIP in August. The upside here might be as a reliever down the line, where the stuff will play up in shorter outings and stamina won’t be an issue.
- Aaron Shackelford, 3B – Shackelford put up obscene power numbers in college this year, hitting 36 homers in 188 at-bats at The Masters University. His slugging alone was 1.096 for the season. For Bristol, he hit .274/.339/.491 in 53 games, with 18 doubles, two triples and eight home runs. The main reason that he’s not higher on this list is his prior experience compared to most players at this level. Shackelford was a college senior in 2019, who turns 23 next month, so the Appalachian League isn’t the best level to judge his talent. He was announced as a shortstop in the draft, then mainly played third base, which puts a little added pressure on the bat. The power is legit though, and he’s a very strong player in a 5’10” frame. He should get a push to full-season ball next year, so they can see what he can do at a more age-appropriate level. Then we will know if that power can really translate to pro ball.
- Fernando Villegas, OF – Villegas just barely played enough to make it onto this list. He was hitting great during Extended Spring Training this year, but a late injury cost him the start of the season in June. He began to rehab in the GCL, then moved up to Bristol on July 10th. He did so well in 18 games that he was moved up to Morgantown to finish the season. Villegas put up a .319/.372/.472 slash line with Bristol and I’m told that he was hitting the ball better than those numbers indicate. His success at the lower levels shouldn’t be a surprise because he’s 21 years old and played against better competition in Mexico before signing with the Pirates. He’s a solid defender with decent speed, but the bat is the real tool here. The bigger issue for his future is where he is going to play. The Pirates stocked up on young international outfielders and 2019 draft picks in the outfield, so some pretty good hitters are going to be left behind at Extended Spring Training next year.
- Eli Wilson, C – Wilson got a lot of praise for his all-around game, both behind the plate and the way he approached at-bats. Drafted in the 16th round this year out of Minnesota, he is the son of former big league catcher Dan Wilson, and it’s clear that he learned the game well at a young age. The offensive side left something to be desired with a .234 average, but he showed a little bit of power and patience, which led to a .721 OPS. The real upside here is the defense and his work with pitchers. Wilson excelled behind the plate in all facets, including blocking pitches and throwing out 39.1% of base runners attempting to steal. He also did a great job of adjusting for hitters, changing the way they attacked them game-to-game. The Pirates drafted two other catchers this year who went to Bradenton, plus had another catcher there early in the season, but Wilson played so well that he received a large majority of the playing time.
- Jose Maldonado, RHP – Maldonado would have rated higher on this list in the early part of the season, but other guys took steps forward and he took a step back. He signed in 2017 at 18 years old and saw brief action in the DSL last year, before moving up to the GCL. He pitched a game that ended up getting rained out after four innings, so on paper it looks like he skipped from the DSL to Bristol this year. He actually turned some heads last fall in the Instructional League with a low-90s fastball and a sharp breaking slurve. Maldonado was hitting 95 MPH this spring and showing a nice plan of attack on the mound, but early in the season he started to lose trust in his pitches and wasn’t attacking hitters. That led to five starts in a row at one point in which he issued 3+ walks. We have seen pitchers in the past with strong repertoires who don’t go after hitters and that’s never a recipe for success, so he needs to be more aggressive on the mound.
Other Notables: Right-handed pitcher Yordi Rosario got a top ten vote but fell just short of making the list. He not only pitched well with a 2.87 ERA, an 0.99 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 31.1 innings, he also got much better as the season went along, adding 3-4 MPH to his pitches while throwing a ton of strikes (just four walks all season). Jean Eusebio signed for $550,000 at age 16 in 2017 and hasn’t shown results on the field yet over three years and three levels, but he just turned 19 last week and has the tools to still be a legit prospect. Jesus Valdez actually made two of the three top ten lists submitted here. He was acquired for David Freese last year and put up an .807 OPS this season. He turns 22 later this year, so that hurts his current prospect status. He’s an athletic player, but his defense needs some work (would help if he had a regular position) and he doesn’t have any plus tools.
Josh Bissonette got high marks for his all-around game on defense, offense and on the bases. He basically does a lot of things right on the field, which should help carry him to the upper levels of the system. Yoelvis Reyes is a talented 19-year-old righty, with a 6’2″ frame and a four-pitch mix. Right now he tops out at 91 MPH, but there could be more in the tank. He also tends to rely on his breaking balls too much at this point. Samson Abernathy and CJ Dandeneau are two older college players who have big league upside if everything clicks. They should be able to jump to full-season ball next year and possibly get to Bradenton mid-season.