At the beginning of the season, the Indianapolis Indians were supposed to be the main team to watch. It looked like they would have eight of the top 12 prospects for the Pittsburgh Pirates, plus some other top 50 prospects. They never had that main group of top prospects together, as the Pirates battled through injuries all season and that took away some of the excitement surrounding Indianapolis. That wasn’t the only reason Indianapolis failed to live up to expectations.
The International League started using the same baseball as the Majors Leagues. That led to a huge jump in offense. In previous seasons, a low .700 OPS was considered average in this league. Last year the league combined for a .708 OPS. Indianapolis posted a team OPS of .737 in 2019 and they were the worst hitting team in the 14-team league. A .737 OPS last year would have put them just 16 points behind the best hitting team in the league…Indianapolis. So not only did the team have a bad year hitting in 2019, they weren’t even as good as the 2018 squad using the old baseballs.
On the pitching side, the league saw the average ERA just from 3.84 to 4.90 in one year. Indianapolis was basically average each year, though they went from slightly worse than average in 2018, to slightly better this year, so their jump in ERA was under a run per game.
That combination of poor hitting and solid pitching led to 66-74 record, which put them 15 games out of first place. Below you will find a recap of the noteworthy players from the team. That will be followed tomorrow by the top ten prospects list, where we will go in depth for the best players. Here are the previously released season recaps:
We start with the pitchers, where Indianapolis had the top prospect in the system. Mitch Keller had a disappointing debut in the majors, despite a 12.2 SO/9IP rate in his 11 starts. He kept his prospect status by falling just short of the 50 innings maximum allowed in the majors. Keller had a 3.56 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP, with 123 strikeouts in 103.2 innings. He fell just short of qualifying for league leaders, but his ERA and WHIP would have ranked second in the IL, while he was leading the league in strikeouts before being called up to the Pirates in August.
JT Brubaker was supposed to provide Indianapolis with a second strong starting pitcher, and he would also give the Pirates an early season depth option. He suffered a forearm injury in his fourth start, then had a setback during his rehab, which cost him a chance to pitch in the majors this year.
While Keller was one of the best starters in the International League over the course of the season, James Marvel was even better during his time in the league. In 11 starts, he had a 2.67 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP over 60.2 innings. Using last year’s normal IL numbers, Marvel would have ranked third in ERA and second in WHIP if he had enough innings to qualify. In 2019, both of his numbers were well ahead of the league leader.
Dario Agrazal turned a short run in Triple-A into an extended look in the majors. His stats during the second half of the season, both in the majors and minors, were very poor. He ended up his Indianapolis time with a 4.78 ERA in 64 innings over 12 starts, but that hides the reason he got the big league shot. Agrazal debuted in Triple-A with two runs over 6.2 innings in late April, then posted a 2.05 ERA over the month of May. He gave up 26 runs over his last 26.2 innings with Indianapolis.
Cam Vieaux pitched great in Altoona, but that didn’t carry over into Triple-A, where he posted a 5.05 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP in 62.1 innings over 13 starts. For comparison, he threw 76.2 innings in 13 starts with Altoona. Alex McRae made 22 starts and posted a 5.20 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP in 114.1 innings. Rookie Davis had a 5.64 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP in nine starts and four relief appearances. He is currently a free agent, option for the early out, which he could do after being removed from the 40-man roster.
The rotation had two major disappointments with Eduardo Vera and Brandon Waddell. Both were prospects coming into the season, ranking right around 30th in the system. Vera was off all season, not showing anything that got him rated that high in the system. Early in the year he was barely hitting 90 MPH in starts. That’s coming from someone who sat 93-95, hitting 97 MPH during his breakout season in 2017. He didn’t have the command that he showed the previous two years, and for some reason he got away from using his changeup often, which has been his best pitch. Vera was likely hurt by the lack of downtime during the off-season. After pitching in the playoffs with Altoona, he played winter ball in Mexico, then was throwing earlier in the off-season in an attempt to make a strong impression during Spring Training. All of those things combined led to a 6.75 ERA in a team-leading 118.2 innings before he was released in August (he immediately signed with the Nationals and finished the season in their system).
Waddell was the opposite of Vera. He was showing better velocity this season, albeit in a relief role. That seemed like an ideal role for Waddell, who has been known since college for coming up big in pressure situations. His season was absolutely awful, except when he dominated in Double-A for a short time before returning to Indianapolis. He had an 8.70 ERA and a 1.93 WHIP in 61 innings in Triple-A, yet somehow managed to pick up 111 strikeouts in 97.1 innings over two levels. Not only was he dropped from the starting rotation, he wasn’t performing in a role that appeared to be his ticket to the majors.
On the bullpen side, Indianapolis saw All-Star performances from Montana DuRapau and Dovydas Neverauskas, though neither could carry that over to the majors. DuRapau held his strong performance all season, while Neverauskas faltered at the end. The 27-year-old DuRapau finished with a 2.14 ERA and an 0.76 WHIP in 46.1 innings. Neverauskas had a 2.31 ERA at the All-Star break, but a pair of seven-run outings really pushed his ERA north. He had a 2.79 ERA in 34 of his 36 outings, yet finished with a 5.02 ERA due to those two games.
Luis Escobar got an early season promotion to Indianapolis and even spent a short time in the majors, but he had a very odd season. The Pirates switched him to relief, they mid-season extended him as a starter, then put him back in the bullpen. That would make sense if he failed in the starting role, but instead he put up a 1.61 ERA, an 0.90 WHIP and a .127 BAA as a starter. As a reliever, those numbers jumped to a 5.79 ERA, a 2.02 WHIP and a .336 BAA.
Geoff Hartlieb pitched great during his time in Indianapolis. Coming into the year, it appeared that he needed a full season of Triple-A before he would see the majors. Injuries rushed him to the majors early when he had a nice ERA, but also a high walk rate. Not surprising, the poorly timed promotion resulted in some ugly big league numbers. When he returned to Indianapolis, he pitched well, finishing with a 2.50 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 39.2 innings.
The perfect transition from pitching to the offensive side is the guy who did the opposite this season. JB Shuck began pitching regularly late in the year and had a 3.79 ERA in 19 innings, with 23 strikeouts. He also posted a .785 OPS, which was fourth best among anyone who saw significant time with the team. He will become a minor league free agent next month, unless the Pirates re-sign him before then.
The offense was supposed to be huge this year for the team and they collectively did a poor job all season. They had an infield of third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, shortstop Cole Tucker, second baseman Kevin Kramer and first baseman Will Craig. In the outfield, they had Bryan Reynolds and Jason Martin, giving them a potential lineup that had six of the best prospects in the system. Reynolds tore up pitching for 13 games before being promoted to the Pirates, where he stayed the rest of the season. Martin and the rest were there for at least most of the season, with Craig and Hayes spending the entire year in the minors.
Hayes was the top hitting prospect for the Pirates going into the season and he held that spot in our mid-season update. He didn’t do well as one of the youngest position players in the league. Hayes had a .265/.336/.415 slash line in 110 games. Last year those would have been solid numbers, but they were below league average this year. Hayes had some positives, with a strong finish on offense, off-the-charts defense, and he added value on the bases by going 12-for-13 in steals.
Tucker ranked third in the system going into the year and got off to a strong start, which helped him reach the majors earlier than expected, after injuries opened up a spot. He didn’t do as well after returning to Triple-A mid-season, so his overall numbers look average. With Indianapolis, he hit .261/.346/.413 in 77 games, basically putting up the same slash line as Hayes, while also adding value defensively and on the bases.
Craig got off to a tremendous start that had people wondering where the Pirates would play him and when he would get called up. He really cooled off after hitting his 15th home run on May 28th. He had a .924 OPS at that point, then posted a .671 OPS over the final 85 games, with just seven more homers. That finish, which was much longer than his hot streak (46 games) would have been bad last year in the IL, so they look really poor this year for a first baseman known for his bat.
Martin was in the majors to begin the season, then got a brief mid-season promotion, before returning (and getting injured immediately) in September. He started slow back in Triple-A and finished up solid, leading to a final .259/.312/.419 slash line in 101 games. He played strong defense in center field, which is nice to see in the spacious Victory Field, where Indianapolis plays their home games.
Kramer was probably the most disappointing here because of his age (he’s 26 now) and his prior success at the level. He posted an .856 OPS last year with Indianapolis, which made his one of the better hitters in the league. This season his .752 OPS wasn’t even league average. With the better baseballs, his slugging dropped 75 points. He lost a step on the bases and his already high strikeout rate increased even more. That was followed by a September trial that looked much like his 2018 debut in the majors. Kramer has a .387 OPS in 43 big league games.
All five of those top prospects posted an OPS below average. Then there was Pablo Reyes, who had an .885 OPS in 51 games. He spent nearly half of the season in the majors, where he had a .596 OPS, though he hit better in his second stint with the Pirates than he did back in April. The only two regulars on the team who approached his numbers were veterans Jake Elmore and Trayvon Robinson. Elmore got two big league trials, and even hit .333 in September with the Pirates. Robinson posted an .840 OPS and made the All-Star game, but never got a shot in the majors.
Catcher Christian Kelley continued to provide strong defense, but his .533 OPS was absolutely awful and kept him from getting a September trial as the third-string catcher. Eric Wood posted a .733 OPS in 78 games, after he re-signed late as a minor league free agent. Hunter Owen tore through Double-A, but he had a .622 OPS in 42 games with the Indians, and he’s already 26 years old.