Yesterday we took a look at the season recap for the Indianapolis Indians. It was a team loaded with top prospects in the system, though many of them failed to live up to the hype. Today we look at the top ten prospects list and highlight many of those players to see where things went wrong and right this year. The top ten is definitely not as strong as it was at the start of the year, but it still includes many of the top prospects in the system.
To be eligible for this list, a batter needed to have 140 plate appearances, or for pitchers, either 40 innings and/or 20 appearances. We didn’t include players who lost their prospect status prior to the season (such as veterans Jake Elmore or Trayvon Robinson), but we did include guys who lost their prospect status during the season, such as Cole Tucker, Pablo Reyes and Dario Agrazal. That is how we have selected this list every year. Here are the previously released top ten lists:
Indianapolis Top Ten
- Mitch Keller, RHP – Keller came into the year as the top prospect and ended the year as the top prospect thanks to a strong run at Indianapolis and some struggles from the #2 prospect. In early May, Keller broke out a slider for the first time and was using four pitches, though he still threw his fastball more often than the other three pitches combined. The slider was added because his changeup was off from the start of the season. We noted improvements with the pitch last year, but this year he would often spike the pitch. Instead of having late movement, it just looked like a fastball with too much downward plane. It took some time for the slider to really be a reliable third pitch and eventually replace the changeup, which is now just a show-me pitch he uses infrequently against lefties. He has a three-pitch mix now that has led to strong strikeout rates (188 strikeouts in 151.2 innings this year) because he uses the breaking balls more often than he did in the past. Keller was arguably the best pitcher in the International League when he left, but he saw his share of problems in the majors, with a 7.13 ERA in 48 innings, despite a 65:16 SO/BB ratio. He still has prospect status going into 2020, at least until he records his seventh out of the season, but that means that the 23-year-old right-hander will be eligible for the Rookie of the Year award, and he should get every opportunity to make a run at that award.
- Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B – Early in the year when Keller was adjusting to his new slider, Hayes looked like he could take over the top spot in the system. He too had some adjusting to do, which kept his stats down. Hayes was finding out that more experienced pitchers went about their business different and situations that he considered “fastball counts” didn’t always lead to fastballs. He saw a lot of off-speed pitches early and it led to poor results overall at the plate, including an unusually high strikeout rate in April. After posting a .684 OPS in May, the 22-year-old Hayes improved each month, finishing with an .831 OPS in August. His final .751 OPS was below average in a huge year for offense for the league, but the takeaway should be the adjustment he made and the stronger finish to his season. Hayes was outstanding on defense again, committing just three errors all season, while showing terrific range to make some very tough plays look easy. While fielding percentage only tells you how sure-handed someone is and doesn’t credit Hayes for his range, his .989 fielding percentage this year led all third baseman everywhere in pro ball, and was eight points higher than the best in the majors (Matt Chapman). Hayes, who is a slightly above average runner, showed some nice value on the bases by going 12-for-13 in steals. He’s going to open at Indianapolis next year, but the adjustments he made and experience he got in 2019 should get him to Pittsburgh early in 2020.
- Cole Tucker, SS – Tucker got off to a strong start this season and that, plus some injuries, led to him being called up to the majors earlier than expected. Clint Hurdle wasn’t willing to put him out there every day, so Tucker played sporadically over his seven week stint in the big leagues and went back to Indianapolis in early June. After returning to Triple-A, Tucker put up mediocre stats, finishing with an overall line almost identical to the slash line put up by Ke’Bryan Hayes. With both adding strong defense and value on the bases, the only real difference between their seasons is that Tucker got a shot at the majors. During his first stint with the Pirates, he posted a .565 OPS. During his second stint, he had an .819 OPS before missing the final week with a minor knee injury. He will be battling for a job next spring, and could end up at Indianapolis to begin the season. The Pirates had him playing some second base at Indianapolis this year, which didn’t make much sense because they didn’t have anyone better at shortstop, so he would always be the best option to play there if he was in the lineup. If the second baseman needed a rest, it would make more sense to move Kevin Newman there, since he has much more experience at the spot.
- James Marvel, RHP – Marvel ranking fourth on this list shows a combination of the improvements and progress he made, mixed with the struggles of the top prospects going into the season. There was only a one point difference in the voting between fourth and sixth place here, so there’s no real difference in prospect status for these three players. Marvel made it this far by improving his out pitch. Prior to this year, he had the upside of a middle reliever. He commanded three pitches, threw strikes and went right after hitters, getting quick outs and a high ground ball rate. This year was much of the same, except his curveball became a true out pitch that he could throw in any count. Marvel pitched outstanding in 11 starts with Indianapolis, posting a 2.67 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP, with both numbers being much better than the IL league leaders. That led to four starts with the Pirates, two of which ended with two runs over five innings. Marvel will probably be a depth starter option in early 2020 and his future could still be in middle relief, but that role was his ceiling in the very recent past and it’s now his floor.
- Will Craig, 1B – Craig had a phenomenal start to the season, hitting 15 home runs by May 28th, while posting a .924 OPS. Even in an up year for offense, those were strong numbers. Things went downhill quickly after that point. We went from wondering where Craig would play in the majors, back to wondering if he would eventually hit enough to make that a legit question. He finished with a .671 OPS over the final 85 games of the season and hit just seven more homers. For comparison sake on that OPS, only three qualified hitters in the IL finished below a .671 mark, and those three players were all shortstops, not corner infielders relying on their bat to get them to the majors. Craig will get another shot at first base in Indianapolis next year, since no one is pushing him at first base from Altoona. He added right field to his resume later in the season, seeing 13 games at the spot, but there is a lot of work to do before that becomes a legit option. Strikeouts have become an issue here, as he has seen an increase each season since his Morgantown debut in 2016.
- Jason Martin, OF – Martin wasn’t on the Opening Day roster for the Pirates, but he got there shortly after Opening Day and before he played any minor league games. He posted a .575 OPS in 17 games before being sent down to Indianapolis. He would have two more brief stints with the Pirates during the season, with the second one being cut short due to a season-ending shoulder injury. The 23-year-old (turned 24 after the season) Martin had a tough time in his Triple-A debut last year, and when you factor in the changes to the league this season, he wasn’t much better during the first half of his Indianapolis time in 2019. Martin had a .652 OPS back on June 19th and finished with a .731 mark for the season, though that came with an 0-for-14 finish and a 26 point OPS drop before getting called back up to the majors. He has a .679 OPS in 160 games at Triple-A now, so he really hasn’t done anything yet to prove he belongs in the majors. His defense has improved since being acquired from the Pirates, but his base running still leaves something to be desired, and there will be some questions about how he returns from the shoulder injury, though the Pirates expected a full recovery by later this month.
- Kevin Kramer, IF/OF – Kramer came into the season as one of the top prospects in the system and he saw his stock drop a lot. After posting an .856 OPS in Indianapolis last year that led to a September trial with the Pirates, Kramer finished up 2019 with a .752 OPS. That’s a big drop-off under normal circumstances, but there was nothing normal about the difference between 2018 and 2019 in the International League, with the new baseballs, the league OPS was up more than 10% over previous seasons. For reference, his .856 OPS ranked third best in the league last year. This season, an .856 OPS would have ranked 14th best. Kramer this year ranked 47th in the league in OPS out of 64 qualified players. Due to the injury to Jason Martin, Kramer got a shot in September with the Pirates and he posted a .450 OPS in 22 games. Now in two big league trials, the 26-year-old Kramer has a .387 OPS, with 37 strikeouts in 79 at-bats. He played 44 games in the outfield this year, taking away from his middle infield time. That adds versatility, but he’s going to have a hard time translating that into a big league job without improving his offense to 2017-18 minor league standards. Kramer also lost a step on the bases this year, which doesn’t help with the outfield range.
- Pablo Reyes, IF/OF – I personally had Reyes a few spots higher on my list than Kramer, but the overall voting placed them different. My thoughts were that two players the same age playing utility roles are very similar, but Reyes has more athleticism, he had more success in Triple-A this year and in the majors the last two years when each got trials, and he makes more consistent contact. Reyes was the top hitter for Indianapolis this season, albeit in somewhat brief time due to his big league stint and an injury that cost him three weeks. He posted an .885 OPS in 51 games for Indianapolis, then returned to the majors in early August and put up a .699 OPS over his final 48 games. That was much better than the .319 mark he had in April as a bench player, but didn’t approach the .832 OPS he had last September. Right now his role seems like a bench player for the Pirates, though that didn’t work out well early this season. He will be helped in that pursuit by the extra roster spot added (26-man) that goes into effect for the 2020 season. The late season Reyes we saw in 2018 and 2019 is a legit Major League bench piece.
- Dario Agrazal, RHP – Agrazal isn’t the same top prospect we saw before he suffered three significant injuries during the 2017-18 seasons. He isn’t throwing as hard, losing about 3-4 MPH, and his slider went from being a strikeout pitch, back to an average offering. He was still able to turn a solid run in Triple-A into a shot in the majors, and even had some success for a few big league starts, but we saw in the second half what happens when a pitcher doesn’t miss enough at-bats or have any plus offerings. Agrazal gave up 17 runs over his last 14.2 innings with Indianapolis and posted a 6.55 ERA in his last ten big league games, after a 2.25 mark in five starts to begin his time with the Pirates. The 24-year-old from Panama has the upside of a middle reliever now, without regaining what we saw in early 2017. The further he gets away from all of those injuries, the more likely he is to get back to his peak if it’s a possibility. His first healthy off-season in two years could help, so there is some potential to move up this list.
- Luis Escobar, RHP – Escobar had a very odd season. He finished 2018 as a starter for Altoona. He began 2019 as a reliever for Bradenton, dominated at the level, then jumped to Indianapolis. He was stretched out as a starter, did terrific work in that role, then was put back in the bullpen. He got a brief stint mid-season with the Pirates, then didn’t return in September. Escobar as a starter in Indianapolis was better than anyone else in that role, albeit in a small sample size. He put up a 1.61 ERA, an 0.90 WHIP and a .127 BAA as a starter in five games. Those would have been great numbers with the pre-2019 offensive numbers being put up in the IL, but with the new baseballs this season, those stats look like a misprint. The way the Pirates handled him leaves a lot of questions to be answered. He still has one of the best three-pitch mixes in the system and control can be a big issue at times, but the 23-year-old showed signs of being a legit big league option, even if he didn’t get the chance to prove it.