BRADENTON, Fla. -- The goal of every player development department is to create a steady stream of talent ready to help the big league club, either via promotion or as trade pieces for a general manager to use.
For years, the Pirates have been among the best at maintaining that stream, and while their system isn’t quite as deep as it once was, there will be quite the pool of talent collecting in Triple-A Indianapolis this year.
Much of that talent has been on display in big league camp this spring and is now settling in on the Minor League side to get ready for the start of the season. While it’s headed by Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh's No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, on the mound, it’s the infield that particularly stands out.
A young, all-homegrown starting infield of Ke’Bryan Hayes at third base, Cole Tucker at shortstop, Kevin Kramer at second and Will Craig at first could compete with some big league lineups. Throw in outfielders Jason Martin and Bryan Reynolds, and there’s not a whole lot of room at a level that typically has more veterans on the roster.
“It creates interesting challenges,” Bucs farm director Larry Broadway said. “They need to play at that level, but you also know you need Major League-ready guys to be able to go to Pittsburgh on April 15, or whenever somebody gets hurt. The recruiting phase of Minor League free agency becomes difficult. You tell them, ‘Well, you’re competing for a Major League bench spot or a Triple-A bench spot.’ There’s no regular spot anywhere.”
The Pirates will try to find a way to get some of those veterans some playing time because if there’s a hole in Pittsburgh early in the season, they’re unlikely to call a player like Hayes or Tucker up to fill it. There will be some serious shuffling going on to keep people sharp, but the mass promotion of six lineup mainstays limits the options.
“It was big that group moved this year, even though they’re young,” Broadway said. “A lot of times, you’re keeping one or two of those guys back so you can add a legit Major League veteran depth player to Triple-A, which we decided we weren’t going to do. We took all those guys who should be playing there and are getting them up there. Getting them all there at the same time isn’t ideal for [general manager] Neal [Huntington] in depth, but it’s what we need to do.”
No one stood out in big league camp more than Hayes and Tucker, the future left side of the Bucs’ infield. Hayes hit .346 with two homers and nine RBIs in 26 at-bats, while Tucker posted a .389/.450/.889 line in 18 at-bats in the Grapefruit League. In the short time they’ve been back at Pirate City, they haven’t missed a beat, with the duo’s makeup as good as its tools.
“Right away, Tuck came down and hit a ball off the wall in center field here,” Broadway said. “It looks different. There was always charisma with those guys, but you go up there and feel like you’re a part of the team and then come out, there’s a different level of belief or confidence that comes off with it.
“They’re both awesome young men. It can go one of two ways. They could be bitter, thinking they should be up there still. Or they can say, 'That was an incredible experience,' and ‘Let’s go.’ Both of those guys are ready to get after it.”
Cruz continues to stand out
The Pirates' prospects in Minor League camp don’t have names on the backs of their jerseys, so without a roster, it’s often tough to know who’s who. That isn’t the case with Oneil Cruz. Shortstops who are 6-foot-6 kind of stand out.
Cruz's uniqueness led one Bucs instructor to call him “a unicorn” in camp on Thursday. The 20-year-old who came to Pittsburgh in the 2017 Tony Watson trade had a solid first full year in the organization in '18, and everybody is excited to see what he can do for an encore.
“Cruz is a fun one to keep watching grow, two steps forward, two steps back,” Broadway said. “He’s never going to be a straight trajectory, linear growth pattern. It’s going to be really exciting sometimes and other times, it’s going to be really frustrating.”
There are signs of permanent growth on both sides of the ball so far this spring. Though Cruz reached double digits in home runs and steals in 2018, it was clear he needed to work on his overall approach, and he’s been making improvements there.
“When you watch him take pitches now, there’s a better sense of what his strike zone is and a better sense of what he wants to go at and go hit,” Broadway said. “He’s taking a lot of pitches he had been swinging at in the past, rolling over on weak ground balls or just pulling off. You can see him starting to spit on them early, which is encouraging.”
The typical line on Cruz has been that it’s a question of when, not if, he’ll have to move away from shortstop. After all, how many 6-foot-6 shortstops have there been? Not so fast, say the Pirates.
“Defensively, he continues to improve on the consistency of the routine play,” Broadway said. “He’s been really good going left or right because he gets athletic to make those plays. It’s the ones at you, there’s a lot of limbs and levers inside his body. A decision to move him off there is not going to be made in the near future. We’re going to let him go and if he continues to get better at the rate he’s gotten better, then it’s going to be pretty special.
After a very strong United States debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2017, a lot of people jumped aboard the Lolo Sanchez bandwagon. More buzz was created when he stole home in a big league Spring Training game a year ago, but he couldn't maintain it during a jump to full-season ball.
A solid August helped salvage Sanchez's stats a bit, but there was a definite need to turn the page from a disappointing season.
The good news is it looks like the young outfielder has done it. Much of it has been mechanical as a better setup has Sanchez in a better position to hit. On Thursday, he hit a ball on the screws, a line drive to right field. That’s a good sign for the right-handed hitter, given that his 2018 spray chart almost looks like a solid coat of paint in left field.
“He got himself in a bad spot last year with his hands really low, and he had trouble getting to pitches,” Broadway said. “He got in a hole early and had a hard time getting out of it. He looks better. He has better posture, he has his hands in a good spot, giving him the chance to make hard contact all across the field and not just to one spot, dead pull.”