Morgantown Top Ten Prospects: Three Projectable Pitchers and a Group of High Draft Picks

Yesterday we posted the season recap for Morgantown. The Black Bears nearly made the playoffs with a group that had many of the top 2019 draft picks for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They also had plenty of international talent, along with two of the best draft picks from the 2018 class. Here’s the top ten list for this year, which is an average group for this level. That’s after we saw a solid group of young talent for the GCL Pirates and a better-than-average group for the Bristol Pirates. The voting here was done by myself, Tim Williams and Wilbur Miller. We used a minimum of 72 plate appearances to qualify for this list (one PA per team game) and either ten appearances or 20 innings pitched for pitchers to qualify.

Morgantown Top Ten

  1. Braxton Ashcraft, RHP – In previous years, the Pirates have sent pitchers drafted out of high school to Bristol in their first full year in the system. Since adding Bristol as an affiliate, the only player who didn’t fit that description (besides the ones who repeated the GCL) was Cody Bolton and he was clearly ready for Low-A ball. Ashcraft, along with Michael Burrows, represents a new scenario for future high school pitchers in the system. The Pirates gave Ashcraft $1,825,000 to sign in the second round last year, which was well over the slot amount. At 6’5″, with a huge frame, he offered a ton of projection, along with reports that he hit 95 MPH as a high school senior. Ashcraft struggled for the most part this season. He had one outing in which he allowed just one run (none with zero runs) and he had many outings with multiple walks, along with no big strikeout games. The thing here though is that he is still just 19 years old, so he was basically a college freshman in a league filled with college juniors and seniors. He filled out some since signing, but there is still a lot of projection left in his frame. He may have posted a 5.77 ERA, but that came with a .239 BAA and right-handed batters hit just .180 against him. As he develops a better changeup and a more consistent breaking ball, that should help against lefties.
  2. Michael Burrows, RHP – Burrows (pictured above) and Ashcraft are basically 1a and 1b. In fact, they were only one spot apart on our mid-season top 50 update, ranking ninth and tenth. Burrows right now is the better pitcher of the two and that partially showed up in the stats. He allowed batters to hit .262 against him, but he posted a 4.33 ERA and his strikeout rate was much higher (8.9 K’s per 9 IP compared to 6.6 for Ashcraft). Burrows has a better breaking ball at this point and his changeup is more advanced. His curve was extremely effective at times, where he could use it to throw strikes early or get chases out of the zone with two strikes. His fastball was 93-95 at times this year, with movement and the ability to spot the pitch. The big difference here between Ashcraft and Burrows is the projection. Burrows has a solid 6’2″ frame, but Ashcraft has that big 6’5″ frame that is still filling out. The good part for Burrows is that he already has everything you like to see and he will presumably be pitching all of next season in Low-A at 20 years old.
  3. Noe Toribio, RHP – Toribio really impressed this season at Morgantown, posting a 2.40 ERA, an 0.93 WHIP and a .185 BAA in 30 innings. He was promoted to Greensboro on July 26th and pitched well in Low-A ball. He was an international signing in 2016 for $100,000 and just turned 20 years old two weeks ago. The initial scouting reports on Toribio said that he could touch 97 MPH, but as a starter his first two years he was hitting 91-92 MPH and putting up mediocre results. His fastball wasn’t much harder this year at 91-93 MPH, but the pitch looked outstanding. It had nice downward plane and a lot of run in and down on right-handed pitchers, starting in the zone and ending down behind their back foot. He mixed that with a slider that was as good as any breaking ball I saw with Morgantown this season. It was a true swing-and-miss pitch. Even his changeup was getting swinging strikes in the zone. The real improvement here for the young right-hander was the ability to throw strikes and the effectiveness of starting pitches in the zone that got swinging strikes as they dropped out of the zone.
  4. JC Flowers, RHP – There was a big difference this season between the third and fourth spots on this list. Everyone from Flowers on down is an older player and doesn’t have the projection of the top two players on this list or the current results of the younger Toribio. That being said, Flowers (drafted in the fourth round) offers projection you don’t normally see at this age because he was a two-way player in college, who was seeing limited innings as a reliever. He posted a 4.50 ERA in 29.1 innings in Morgantown, with 24 strikeouts, a .282 BAA and a 1.50 WHIP. He was slowly built up to five innings as a starter, and his pitches weren’t as effective with the extra work, but that’s just part of getting him ready for a starting role. Flowers saw a drop in his strikeout rate as he went deeper into starts, though his control got better as the season went along. He hit mid-90s as a reliever, mixing his slider with a slider and a changeup. He’s likely going to open up next year in Greensboro and take a slower part as a starter, where the Pirates will need to monitor his innings for at least his first full season.
  5. Jared Triolo, 3B – Triolo was drafted 72nd overall out of Houston, slightly ahead of where he ranked for Baseball America (115th) and well ahead of the 146th spot for MLB Pipeline. The Pirates gave him full slot to sign ($870,700). The lower rankings seemed to fit the profile. He is a strong player, whose power doesn’t play up because of average bat speed. He’s not fast and his defense received split marks, with some thinking he was a solid defender, while others considered him average. The Pirates gave him a chance to play shortstop and he did okay for himself in the tougher spot, but looked more like a corner infielder. He showed some of that power with 19 doubles and five triples, although the true raw power from the 6’3″, 21-year-old, didn’t show up in the form of home runs (he hit two). Triolo’s .703 OPS was just outside of the top 20 for the league.
  6. Grant Ford, RHP – Ford fits a similar profile to Flowers, with both pitching in relief this year in college, getting drafted high (fifth round for Ford), then getting used as a starter in Morgantown. The big difference here is that Ford pitched for three years and didn’t break out until his junior year, while Flowers started pitching as a junior. The experience showed for Ford, who put up a 2.97 ERA in 36.1 innings, with a .241 BAA, 35 strikeouts and a high ground ball rate. Ford threw hard in relief, hitting 97 MPH and mixing it with a slider and a changeup. He had some issues with walks with Morgantown, so it will be interesting to see how the Pirates handle him going forward. If he stays as a starter, it’s going to take him some time to get through the system, but he might be able to make quicker jumps as a reliever, where the fastball will play up and the control won’t be so big of an issue.
  7. Matt Gorski, OF – The Pirates gave Gorski a $1,000,000 bonus in the second round, taking a chance that we have seen not pay off with recent high picks who had a toolsy profile and a similar concern. Gorski put up strong sophomore numbers at Indiana, then saw a slump as a junior as he tried to hit for more power. It resulted in a lot more swing-and-miss than before, which carried over somewhat to the pros. Gorski hit .223/.297/.346 in 49 games for Morgantown. He had a 19:48 BB/SO ratio in 179 at-bats. That’s a manageable strikeout rate if it comes with power, which it obviously didn’t, as you can tell just by looking at that slugging percentage. There are tools here that make him interesting, with raw power, above average speed and a strong arm, but he’s going to need to show that he can translate those tools into success.
  8. Matthew Fraizer, OF – Fraizer is a toolsy player, who the Pirates really liked in this draft, reaching a bit to get him in the third round. There wasn’t much to go on for his junior season because he suffered a broken hamate and missed a lot of time. He played just 19 games, and early season college games usually have weaker competition mixed in, so while he hit .412 and posted a 1.017 OPS, he was still coming off of a sophomore year in which he hit .266 with a .711 OPS. Fraizer did not impress at all with Morgantown, posting a .221/.287/.266 slash line in 43 games. His placement here is all about projection and relying on the pre-injury reports. Hamate surgery saps power, and while he’s not a raw power player, it can take away from his ability to drive the ball. He should be able to provide solid defense, with some speed on the bases and decent on base ability.
  9. Xavier Concepcion, RHP – Concepcion came out of nowhere this year to get a lot of attention. When I asked about him after the 2018 DSL season, he was quickly brushed aside as a hard-thrower with no control. When I asked about him right before the Morgantown season started, I was told that the control was better and he hit triple digits regularly during the spring. In 2018, three levels lower, he had 22 walks in 23.2 innings. In 2019, those walks stayed at 22, but it was against much more patient hitters and in seven more innings. The real difference in his progress showed late in the season, though it came with him dialing his fastball back some by “only” sitting mid-90s and hitting 97 MPH. He walked eight batters in his final 13.2 innings and the one late game where control was a real issue, he threw two no-hit innings and stuck out five batters. The 21-year-old right-hander is going to need to continue to improve his control to really become a legit prospect, but he made a huge leap in just one season already, so we could be talking about a special arm in another year or so.
  10. Blake Sabol, OF – Sabol was drafted in the seventh round out of USC and given a bonus slightly above his slot amount. He’s an athletic player, with good speed and raw power, but it never translated to results in three years at college. He impressed with his numbers as a freshman, then put up similar numbers over the next two years when most players are usually breaking out as players. Sabol’s lefty swing reminded me a lot of Bligh Madris when I saw him often at Morgantown. He would make some hard contact, but it wasn’t a swing designed to produce a lot of power and he could look bad at times. Sabol showed patience at the plate, sometimes to a fault, which resulted in a nice total of 34 walks, but also came with 61 strikeouts. He was playing center field early on and had some issues out there, then switched between the two corner spots.

Other Notables: Three other players got top ten votes and didn’t make the above list. Catcher Kyle Wilkie, outfielder Fernando Villegas, right-handed pitcher Austin Roberts all made at least one list near the bottom. Wilkie provided solid defense and a nice approach at the plate, while coming out of Clemson as a 12th round pick. Villegas missed time due to injury, but he put up strong stats at Bristol and had his moments at Morgantown. He was one of the better hitters in Extended Spring Training before a late injury. Roberts was the 2019 eighth round pick, who posted a 2.70 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP and a .213 BAA in 40 innings. He doesn’t offer much projection with a maxed out 6’0″ frame, but his current stuff made him one of the better players on the team.

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John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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