The Pirates four full season minor league affiliates got their seasons underway last week. One of the things I look for when I analyze the rosters at the beginning of the minor league season is which players are assigned to repeat a level. Repeating can be a sign that a player’s development is not going so smoothly. In other cases repeating is simply the result of being blocked by other players at the same position in the upper levels of the system. I do not consider it repeating if a player received an end of season promotion in the prior year in which he played less than 30 games or pitched in less than 12 games. I ignore repeating at the AAA level as this is almost always because the player is being blocked at the major league level. Here are the repeaters on the season opening rosters of the Pir ates minor league affiliates:
Sebastian Valle – Demoted from AAA – Valle is a 24 year old catcher that the Pirates signed as a minor league free agent this offseason. He bounced between AA and AAA in the Phillies organization last season. He will split duties with Jacob Stallings at Altoona. Valle could be a late bloomer, but he is most likely destined to be organizational depth.
Dan Gamache – Repeating AA – Gamache is a 24 year old IF. He hit well in 39 games with Altoona last season posting a triple slash line of .275/.340/.486. He missed the first three months of the season with a foot fracture. He should be a regular in the Altoona lineup splitting his playing time between 2B, 3B, and DH.
Gift Ngoepe – Repeating AA – Ngoepe is a 25 year old slick fielding SS whose bat has failed to develop. This will be the 3rd straight season Ngoepe has spent at AA Altoona.
Edward Salcedo – Demoted from AAA – The Pirates acquired Salcedo from the Braves in an offseason trade. He is only 23 years old so it is a little misleading that he is being demoted to AA. The Braves advanced him to AAA very quickly where he struggled mightily last season. He has hit 56 home runs in his minor league career so he does have some pop. He played 3B and OF with the Braves. Reports are the Pirates intend to use him at 3B, RF and occasionally 1B with Altoona.
Willy Garcia – Repeating AA – Garcia is a toolsy corner OF with a lot of power but with some serious plate discipline flaws. He hit an impressive 18 home runs with Altoona last season, but also had a K:BB ration of 6 to 1.
Keon Broxton – Repeating AA – Broxton had a breakout season last year at AA posting an .853 OPS, and the Pirates gave the 25 year old CF an extended look during at invite this March to Major League Spring Training. He is repeating AA because he is organizationally blocked. He deserved a promotion to AAA and will likely get there as soon as a spot opens in Indianapolis.
Stetson Allie – Repeating AA – Allie’s story is pretty well known. Drafted as a pitcher and converted to 1B, he has big time power but a lot of swing and miss in his bat. He improved his walked rate last season which is encouraging. 21 Homers and 71 walks in just 117 games last season at Altoona is pretty impressive. He has potential to be a three true outcomes short side platoon hitter in the major leagues. The Pirates plan to transition him to RF this season to increase his versatility and to open playing time at 1B for top prospect Josh Bell.
Zack Dodson - Repeating AA – Dodson, a southpaw starting pitcher, continues to be stalled at AA. This will be his third straight season at Altoona. The Pirates drafted him in the 4th Rd of the 2009 draft and gave him a $600K signing bonus. It is hard to classify him as any thing other than a disappointment at this stage of his development.
Angel Sanchez - Repeating AA – Sanchez is a RHP that spent time at AA last year with four different organizations. The Pirates briefly had him on their 40 man roster. He is 24 years old and has good velocity. In all likelihood he will work out of the Altoona bullpen this season.
Matt Benedict - Repeating AA – Benedict is a RH relief pitcher. He had a 5.77 ERA in 53 innings last season with Altoona. At 26 years old with little upside his days in affiliated ball appear to be numbered.
Jin-De Jhang – Repeating A+ – Jhang is a catcher with good defensive skills, but struggled offensively last season at A+. To be fair he was given an aggressive promotion – last season was a “skipper”, bypassing West Virginia. He will split time behind the dish this season at Bradenton with Reese McGuire.
Jose Osuna – Repeating A+ – Osuna is a 22 year old 1B that will be repeating at A+ Bradenton for the 3rd straight season. In some cases that might be red flag, but not in this case. Osuna was given an aggressive promotion to A+ in 2013 at just 20 years old. Last season he repeated at A+, but posted a solid .804 OPS. He would be at AA this season if not for being blocked by Josh Bell. Osuna should receive a promotion to AA by mid-season. He is still age appropriate for this level.
Jordan Steranka – Repeating A+ – Steranka is a 25 year old 1B with little power and is repeating at A+. That is all you really need to know about him.
Justin Maffei – Repeating A+ – Maffei played half the season at Bradenton last season and posted a strong .303 AVG in 49 games. It was likely a mirage as he has never shown that kind of ability before. The 23 year old should see fairly regular time in CF for the Marauders this season.
Ryan Hafner – Repeating A+ – Hafner is a very tall RHP that pitched exclusively out of the pen for Bradenton last season. the 23 year old posted a 4.31 ERA in 77.1 innings.
Jake Burnette – Repeating Full Season A – Burnette has been stalled by injuries. This is essentially his 3rd straight year at West Virginia despite having pitched in only 7 games previously for the Power.
Dovydas Neverauskas – Repeating Full Season A – Neverauskas had a rough season last year in the West Virginia rotation. He made 26 starts and pitched 123.2 innings with the Power 2014. He was hit hard (allowed 151 hits) and struggled with his command. He is 22 years old and well seasoned for this level of play. I believe this is a make or break year for Neverauskas.
Francisco Diaz – Repeating Full Season A – Diaz is a 25 year old catcher who has been playing in West Virginia since 2012. He is nothing more than organization filler as a backup catcher in the lower ranks.
Elvis Escobar – Repeating Full Season A – At just 5’8″ Escobar is the shortest player in the system. He is a lefty hitter that has shown neither an impressive hit tool nor great plate discipline thus far in his career. He started last season with West Virginia but was demoted to Jamestown at mid season after posting a paltry .239 OBP thru 55 games with the Power. Escobar is only 20 years old and plays very good defense in CF.
Jeff Roy – Repeating Full Season A – Roy is another smallish left-handed hitting OF with below average plate discipline and no power. He is three years older than Escobar and a lesser defender. He is settling in as an organizational filler extra OF. Last season he split time between West Virginia and Bradenton.
The Pirates four full season minor league affiliates announced their Opening Day rosters yesterday. One of the first things I look for when the minor league rosters are released is which players are given assignments that bypass a level in the system. Skipping a level can be a sign that the team is high on a player and would like to fast track his advancement. Other times a player might be asked to skip a level due to a roster crunch at a particular position. I also look closely at which players are being asked to repeat a level. I will address those players in a future post. Without further ado here are the players assigned to the Opening Day minor league rosters that are skipping ahead this season:
Kawika Emsley-Pai – From A to AAA, Skipping both A+ and AA – Kawika Emsley-Pai is nothing more than an organizational filler as a backup catcher. He is a 26 year old non-prospect with a career minor league average of .201. He did play 3 games at AA last year, but saw most of his playing time last season as the backup to Reese McGuire at West Virginia. There is a good chance Emsly-Pai will be shuffled around between the affiliates this season as catching needs develop due to injuries.
Frank Duncan – From Short Season A to A+, Skipping Full Season A – Duncan pitched well last year in his first pro season with Jamestown of the NYP League. He displayed excellent control issuing just 11 walks in 65 innings. But because he was drafted as a college senior he will be 23 years old this season. This right hander does not have a lot of time on his side so the Pirates are giving him an aggressive push to find out about him as quickly as possible.
Tyler Eppler – From Short Season A to A+, Skipping Full Season A – Eppler also is a RHP that pitched well in his first pro season with Jamestown of the NYP League. However, Eppler is a year younger and has a better pedigree than Duncan. Eppler was the Pirates 6th Rd draft pick last summer.
Julio Vivas – From Rookie Ball to A+, Skipping Short and Full Season A – This is a very aggressive push. Vivas did post exceptional numbers last year in Rookie Ball. The RHP struck out 29 and issued just 2 walks in 26.2 innings last season. Vivas is only 21 years old.
Yeudy Garcia – From DSL to Full Season A, Skipping GCL and Short Season A – This is another very aggressive push. I don’t recall any other cases of the Pirates’ foreign prospects making their debut in the states at West Virginia. But Garcia is not a particularly young prospect. At 22 he is older than most of the Dominicans playing in the DSL. The Pirates obviously feel the need to test him in order to find out what they have in this kid.
Cole Tucker – From Rookie Ball to Full Season A, Skipping Short Season A – This is the big one. The Pirates are promoting their 1st Rd Pick from last year’s draft to play SS for West Virginia in the competitive South Atlantic League at just 18 years of age. This is an aggressive push reminiscent of last season when Reese McGuire made the same jump.
Tito Polo – From Rookie Ball to Full Season A, Skipping Short Season A – Polo is a Colombian OF that has shown a solid hit tool in the DSL. Last season in the GCL he slashed .291/.374/.475 in 44 games. Polo is only 20 years old. If he does reasonably well at West Virginia this season he will likely break into the rankings as a top 25 player in the system. An excellent year would make his stock soar even higher.
In recent seasons The Pirates have built a defensive strategy around positional infield shifting. This strategy requires pitchers that can pound the lower half of the strike zone to induce ground balls – something the Pirates have been exceptionally good at as Travis Sawchik of the Trib pointed out in is this excellent piece, “Pirates pitchers finding success with expanded strike zone”. As a staff the Pirates 51.5% ground ball percentage was tops in baseball by a wide margin. Individually Charlie Morton ranked 8th best (55.7%) and Francisco Liriano ranked 9th best (54.4%) in GB% among starting pitchers with a minimum of 100 IPs last season season. In the bullpen Jared Hughes posted a 64.6% ground ball rate, good enough for 6th best among relievers with at least 30 IPs. The Pirates clearly have been able to create ground ball pitchers at the big league level. But what about the next wave of pitchers coming up from the minors? Are there any high percentage ground ball specialists emerging in the farm system? The answer is yes, and his name is John Kuchno.
John Kuchno is a tall 6’5″ RHP drafted by the Pirates in the 18th round of the 2012 draft after his sophomore season at Ohio State. His control is fair, he doesn’t miss many bats, and as a late round pick he doesn’t come with a pedigree. But of all the pitchers in the Pirates farm system none do a better job of keeping the ball on the ground than Kuchno. Last season Kuchno produced a 58.1% GB% with Bradenton of the Advanced A Florida State League. The previous season with the West Virginia Power he posted a 55.2% rate. In fact, Kuchno has gotten better at rolling ground balls at every stop in the minors. That is notable because ground ball rates decline league wide the further up the ranks of the minors. Last season the GB% in the AAA International League was 42.0% compared to 43.6% in AA Eastern League and 44.6% in The Florida State League and the South Atlantic League (the two full season A ball leagues in which the Pirates have affiliates). Here are Kuchno’s ground ball rates compared to league averages during his first three minor league seasons:
||League AVG GB%
John Kuchno does not miss enough bats to be the kind of prospect anyone should get too excited about. Last year he struck out just 3.88 batters per 9 innings. His career minor league rate is just 5.19 K/9. And he did not rack up tons of Ks in college either. However, with the Pirates emphasis on ground balls it would be foolish to dismiss Kuchno. There is simply no one better than Kuchno in the Pirates’ farm system at inducing ground balls.
The Pirates have a deep farm system, but only the top of the system and the elite prospects get much attention. There are plenty of hidden gems outside the top 20 prospects. Here are five players of interest to me that bear watching in 2015.
1) Catcher Jin-De Jhang – Jhang hasn’t always been off the radar. He was rated the #20 prospect in 2013 by PiratesProspect.com after receiving a $250,000 signing bonus. Since then he has lost some of his luster. Last season he struggled offensively. He posted just a .219 batting average in 77 games with the Bradenton Marauders of the Florida State League. His struggles last season shouldn’t be unexpected considering Jhang skipped a level bypassing West Virgina in the SALLY League and going straight to Advanced A ball. Jhang probably wasn’t ready for such a jump, but the Pirates felt it necessary to sacrifice his development to allow Reese McGuire the opportunity to play every day with the West Virginia Power. Despite having a tough year in Advanced A ball Jin-De Jhang still flashed his potential. He wasn’t overpowered by pitching in the Florida State League. Jhang can make contact. His K% of 12.3% was quite good. Defensively he threw out 32% of base stealers. That is a strong rate. At just 21 years old he was nearly two years younger than the FSL League average. Jhang still has plenty of time on his side.
2) Left-handed SP Hector Garcia – Garcia isn’t currently the Pirates best left handed pitching prospect, but he is the best LHP prospect that you probably haven’t yet heard of. Garcia is a Dominican that the Pirates signed as an International Free Agent two years ago. The Pirates felt he was advanced enough to send him to the states last summer at age 18. That was after just one season playing in the Dominican Summer League. In 2014 Garcia was the youngest player assigned to the Bristol Pirates of the Appalachian league. He was also Bristol’s most effective starting pitcher. In 48 innings he posted a 3.38 ERA with a 9.38 K/9 and 3.56 BB/9. Watch out for Hector Garcia, he could be the Pirates next breakout pitching prospect.
3) Left-handed RP John Sever – While Hector Garcia was Bristol’s best starting pitcher, his teammate John Sever was the best reliever on the team. In fact, Sever was arguably the most dominate reliever in the entire farm system last season. Sever fanned 63 batters in just 40.2 innings. Perhaps the Pirates didn’t challenge Sever enough. He was drafted as a college junior in the 20th round of the 2014 draft. The Pirates usually send college draftees to their NY-Penn League affiliate. The NY-Penn League is stronger competition than the Appalachian League. However, Sever’s performance at Bristol was too good to be chalked up entirely to just inferior hitters. Sever stands 6’5″. Left handed pitchers with that kind of height and a low 90′s fastball can go a long way. Sever shouldn’t be ignored.
4) Right-handed RP Sam Street – Sam Street is one of the more unusual prospects in the Pirates’ farm system. That’s even if you can call him a prospect. The 22 year old native of Australia has a fastball that only tops out in the mid 80′s. He was drafted as a college senior in the 16th round. Not the most impressive of pedigrees for sure. But Street has an unusual sidearm delivery that hitters have trouble seeing. His first taste of pro ball was with the Jamestown Jammers of the NY-Penn League where he posted a sensational 0.614 WHIP. Street is a control freak. He walked just 4 batters in 27.2 innings. Even more impressive was that he allowed just 13 hits. It is unlikely that Street can be anywhere near that effective as he progresses up the ladder. But you never know for sure when it comes to players with unusual sidearm deliveries.
5) Infielder Sam Kennelly – Kennelly is an Aussie that the Pirates signed three years ago for $225,000 as an International Free Agent. He finally made his rookie ball debut in the states with the Gulf Coast Pirates last summer. He slashed 284/388/343 in 30 games. He showed excellent plate discipline with a BB/K rate of nearly 1 to 1 (16 walks and 17 Ks). His offensive numbers in the GCL were very similar to Cole Tucker‘s (Tucker was the Pirates 1st Rd draft pick in 2014). Kennelly is only 6 months older than Tucker. Kennelly mostly worked defensively at 2B. The GCL may be a long way from the major leagues, but Kennelly has gotten his pro career off on the right foot and at a relatively young age for the GCL.
A trio of starting pitchers in the West Virginia Power rotation are having a strong finish to the 2014 season. Buddy Borden has been the breakout pitcher for the Power this year. Borden has been good all season, but he has been exceptional in the month of August. In 4 starts this month Borden has a 0.77 ERA with 31 strikeouts and only 4 walks in 23.1 innings pitched. For the season Borden has a 2.97 ERA in 124.1 innings. He will likely get one more start this weekend. The season ends for the Power on Monday, September 1st.
Left-hander Cody Dickson struggled mightily the first half of the season for the Power. At the All-Star break Dickson’s ERA was an unsightly 5.58. But Dickson has been outstanding in the second half of the season. He has held opponents to 3 earned runs or less in 13 of his last 14 starts. His ERA has plummeted to a respectable 3.96 for the season. August has been his best month. In 5 starts this month he has a 2.28 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 11 walks in 27.2 innings. Dickson’s strong finish to the season positions him as arguably the Pittsburgh Pirates top left-handed pitching prospect.
Quietly the much maligned Luis Heredia is also showing some nice improvements in the final weeks of the season. Heredia was once considered a top prospect. Most of his career to date, including much of this season, would have to be classified as a disappointment. But Heredia is still just 20 years old. If he can pitch like he has this month there is still a chance he can develop into a major league pitcher. Heredia has made 6 starts this month and has posted a 3.06 ERA. He still is not missing enough bats – just 21 Ks in 35.1 innings, but his command is showing a lot of improvement. He has walked just 7 batters this month. At the very least Heredia was able to salvage his season. As Heredia moves on to Fall instructs he has something to build on.
I watched the Pittsburgh Pirates short season A Ball affiliate the Jamestown Jammers take on the Aberdeen Iron Birds at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, MD on 8/10/14. The Iron Birds won the game 10-4. The Jammers are not loaded with many high end prospects. None of the top 10 ranked players in the Pirates system are on the Jammers’ roster. The talent level in this game was further diluted because the Jammers did not have C Taylor Gushue or C Kevin Krause in the starting lineup. The two catchers have been the best hitters for the Jammers this season. Instead Jamestown started Deybi Garcia behind the plate. Here are some of the noteworthy players I observed.
Alex McRae got the start for the Jammers. It was a pretty rough outing for McRae. He started ok. A lot of ground balls through the first two innings. The grounders turned to line drives in the 3rd inning. He was knocked out in the 4th inning after giving up a pair of home runs. Aberdeen had a lefty heavy lineup and McRae really seemed to struggle against left-handed hitters. This was the first poor outing of the season for McRae. He sat between 90-92 mph with his fastball. Here is a snippet of McRae’s delivery:
The most impressive fastball of the night belonged to Luis Urena. He pitched two scoreless innings. Urena is an interesting prospect. He was signed out of the Dominican in 2009 as an OF. After four seasons of struggling to make contact the Pirates decided this season to convert him to a pitcher. From what I saw it looks like a good plan. He has a nice delivery and a very live arm. He sat between 92-94 mph with most of his pitches at the high end of that range. The problem is that was literally all Urena threw. Not one off speed pitch in his two innings of work. However, the control of his fastball was quite good on this night, and the Abderdeen lineup struggled to square him up. If he ever develops a breaking pitch he could make it as a relief pitcher.
Eric Dorsch pitched a scoreless 8th inning. The only thing notable about Dorsch is his size. The guy is huge. The Pirates list him as 6′ 8″. For a guy that big he doesn’t throw all that hard. He topped out at 91 mph.
Speedy left-handed hitting CF Elvis Escobar is having a nice season for the Jammers as their leadoff hitter, but he really struggled with breaking balls from Aberdeen’s left-handed starting pitcher Stephen Tarpley. One of the more impressive looking players in the Jammer’s lineup was OF Michael Suchy. Suchy is big strong guy. He is built a lot like Matt Holliday. Despite the strong frame Suchy has yet to show much power with the Jammers. He is still looking for his first home run of the season. In this game he did have a sharply hit line drive single to right field and a bloop double down the right field line. Here is a snippet of Suchy’s swing:
Big things were expected for OF Austin Meadows this season. Meadows was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates with the 9th overall selection in the 1st round of the 2013 MLB draft. Meadows got his career off to a good start by smashing 7 HRs with a .977 OPS in 48 games of Rookie League Ball to close out 2013. He was considered a consensus Top 100 prospect in 2014 preseason rankings. Meadows was expected to play a full season of A ball in 2014 with the West Virginia Power. Unfortunately, he was derailed by hamstring injuries and missed the first three months of the season. After a short rehab stint in the Gulf Coast Rookie League, Meadows finally made his WV Power debut on July 12th. It has taken him a while to find his power stroke, but it has finally arrived. Meadows hit his first home run of the season earlier this week off of Lucas Giolito (the top pitching prospect of the Washinbgton Nationals). He followed that up with another home run the next day. Meadows is now hitting .333 with a solid .829 OPS. He has recorded multiple hits in 9 of his 20 games with the Power this seaosn. Since he joined the WV Power the team has been playing much better. Their record is 11-13 since Meadows’ first appearance nearly a month ago. It might not seem like much but this is a team that had just a .300 winning percentage over the first half of the season. Austin Meadows has given them a nice boost. More importantly what was looking like a lost season for Meadows now appears to be salvaged. Now that he is back on the field and play well his prospect stock should not suffer much from the missed time early in the season. The future for Austin Meadows is still very bright.
For most of 2014 the West Virginia Power could classify this season as a train wreck. The South Atlantic League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates got off to a poor start, saw their most talented prospects go down with injuries, and limped into the Sally League all-star break at mid-June with a record of just 20-48. But fortunes have begun to change in the second half, and SS JaCoby Jones is a big reason why. Since the start of July, Jones has been raking at a blistering pace. His triple slash line for the month is .424/.466/.818. In 16 games this month Jones has hammered 8 HRs with 16 RBIs. He leads the club with 16 HRs this season. The next closest is Edwin Espinal with 4 HRs. The Power as a team have hit just 40 HRs. JaCoby Jones’s power surge has helped West Virginia enjoy a little more success on the field in the second half of the season. Their record since the All-Star break is 14-14.
I got to see JaCoby Jones play against Lakewood a few weeks ago. He flashed many of the tools that scouts have raved about. He has a strong powerful swing. He still needs to cut down on the misses, but when he makes contact the ball jumps off of his bat. Here is some video I took of an AB in which Jones lined out to deep center field on 6/20/14.
It has been a very tough season for the Pirates’ prospects down in West Virginia. The WV Power pull into the all-star break riding a 14 game losing streak. They are dead last in the South Atlantic League Northern Division with a record of just 20-48. Not much has gone right for the Power this season. Injuries have played a big factor. Much of the best talent that was expected to see time at West Virginia this season is on the DL. OF Austin Meadows injured his hamstring in Spring Training and has yet to play a game. OF Barrett Barnes also injured his hamstring just 4 games into the season. He hasn’t played since. Luis Heredia, the top pitching prospect with the Power at the start of the season, missed much of the first half with a shoulder injury. Heredia did return in early June and has shown some progress. In his latest outing on June 15th he pitched 5 innings and allowed just 1 ER, 4 hits, 2 walks, and struck out 4. It was Heredia’s best outing of the season.
Not only have injuries been an issue for the Power, but they also have not had many break out performers. Prior to the season Cody Dickson was considered to be one of top 3 or 4 left-handed pitchers in the Pirates’ system. Dickson had an impressive debut outing for Power, but has struggled ever since. His ERA stands at 5.58 in 59.2 innings of work. In recent outings Dickson’s command has been a real problem. He has walked 3 batters or more in 6 of his last 9 starts.
Buddy Borden has been perhaps the brightest spot on the Power pitching staff. Borden is a 22 year old right-hander selected in the 7th round of the 2013 MLB draft. He has a 3.67 ERA in 61.1 innings this season. Borden is the only starting pitcher for the Power to allow less hits than innings pitched. For the season he has surrendered 52 hits, walked 28 batters, and struck out 48.
There hasn’t been many noteworthy offensive performers for the Power either. 2B Erich Weiss is the only player with a batting average over .300. Weiss and Catcher Reese McGuire represented the Power in the Sally League all-star game earlier this week. SS JaCoby Jones leads the team with 8 home runs. A potential power hitting SS like Jones is an intriguing prospect, but he comes with some significant flaws. Jones leads the team with 74 whiffs in just 66 games. On the season he is hitting .260 with a .747 OPS.
The youngest player on the Power has also been their best player. That would be Reese McGuire. McGuire is noted for his advanced defensive skills. He has not disappointed. In 38 games behind the dish he has thrown out and impressive 23 base runners. Offensively McGuire put together a hitting streak from May 7th to May 30th that covered 19 games. Although he didn’t show much power early on (only 7 extra base hits thus far) he has stung ball a little harder as of late. He hit his first career minor league home run last Saturday. He then ripped a triple in the SAL all-star game on Tuesday night.