Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check
Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check in on the Pirates.
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Over the last several years, the Pirates had built a reputation of developing young arms down on the farm. The world of player development goes in cycles, however, and now it's the bats collecting in the upper levels of the system that are standing out.
• Pirates Top 30 Prospects | Q&A with Cole Tucker
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Six of the Pirates' current top nine prospects are hitters who will be in Double- or Triple-A, led by No. 2 Austin Meadows (headed to Triple-A Indianapolis), but also including No. 4 Ke'Bryan Hayes (Double-A Altoona), No. 5 Cole Tucker (Altoona), No. 6 Bryan Reynolds (Altoona), No. 7 Kevin Newman (Indianapolis) and No. 9 Kevin Kramer (Indianapolis). And it goes far beyond the top third of the Top 30.
"Looking at the crops of position players at Double- and Triple-A. Some Triple-A guys have been up and down, then you also have Kramer and Newman this year, who are famous guys who have performed and are pieces of our future," Pirates farm director Larry Broadway said. "There's that group coming up. Then there's Tucker, Reynolds, Will Craig, Stephen Alemais, Jason Martin, even Logan Hill.
"It should be exciting to watch both of those position player groups and see how they do with a lot of them being at their new affiliate at the upper levels for the first time."
Much of the cycle is because of graduations. Broadway is quick to point out that the ascension of young arms like Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, Jameson Taillon, Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow to Pittsburgh is a big reason why the hitters might stand out now.
And it's not like there isn't interesting pitching getting ready in Pirate City currently. Top prospect Mitch Keller will also be in Altoona, making the Curve a must-see team in 2018. And there are guys preparing to be the first line of reserves when there's a need in Pittsburgh.
"Guys like Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler, guys we feel are immediate help that aren't rookies at Triple-A," Broadway said. "On some other clubs and some other years, they may be breaking with the club right now. They have the opportunity to go to Indy and be ready."
Not all of these upper-level arms will be needed to start games at the big-league level, obviously, though there is a desire to continue to let them develop as starters. The Pirates have recently worked out a quasi-hybrid plan for pitchers at the upper levels so they get a chance to see what it's like to work out of the bullpen, just in case.
"Especially in Double and Triple-A, we're going to continue to look for opportunities to pull our starters out of the rotation," Broadway said. "Hopefully, we can have six or seven starters at each spot, so you can rotate guys in, pull guys out, get them a relief appearance. Just to try and get some different experiences for them because 90 percent of them are going to go up to the big leagues as relievers when it's needed. It's not really fair to make them do something for the first time in the big leagues. We've made that a bigger emphasis the last couple of years."
Teens making impression
In last June's Draft, the Pirates went after young, high-upside talent, especially in the early rounds. It started with high school right-hander Shane Baz, now the organization's No. 3 prospect, and continued with their next three picks: right-hander Steven Jennings and outfielders Calvin Mitchell and Connor Uselton. When you add in international acquisitions like Lolo Sanchez and Rodolfo Castro, hitters who stood out in the Gulf Coast League last summer, as well as trade acquisition Oneil Cruz (courtesy of the Tony Watson trade), the pre-20 set has really stood out this spring.
"It's been exciting," Broadway said. "This is probably the youngest group of overall guys we've had in a while. The 18-19-year olds we have in the system, who have the chance to get out and play full-season ball this year is exciting. We haven't had that. It's been fun watching them."
It's not just their on-field skills that have caught the eye of the player development staff. Even with Jennings on the mend from a rib injury, the 2017 Draft class has really impressed with how they have carried themselves.
"The 2017 Draft class is really unique, both college and high school guys, in the quality of guys we have," Broadway said. "Not that other classes haven't been good, but there seems to be a different vibe with the leadership, even the young guys coming out of high school, with the presence they have, the connection with their teammates, the overall buy-in to the philosophy. Their parents and coaches did a great job and our scouts did a great job on the selection side."
Hayes is coming off a solid year in the Florida State League, one in which he showed plus defense at third, an ability to steal bases and a knack for making consistent contact and getting on base. One thing that didn't show up much was power, as he finished the year with a .363 slugging percentage and just 25 extra-base hits. Scouts feel the power is going to come and hitting in the pitching-friendly FSL certainly didn't help. As he prepares to move to the upper levels, the 21-year-old is already showing signs that more extra-base ability is coming.
"He looks strong in camp," Broadway said "He's focused on driving the ball to the gaps a little more, getting the ball off the ground, not talking about launch angle, just being more productive. He's worked on that a lot, from instructs and into the season and it looks like he'll be driving the gaps a bit more."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.