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5 Players I’m Excited About In The Pirates’ Minors For 2018

Shane Baz’s progress in the minors will be fun to watch this year.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty

Around these here parts, I’m the resident grump on the state of the Pirates’ minor league system.  My other fine crew of baseball writers can talk about this guy or that guy, but at the end of the day, the only players that Neal Huntington has drafted that have produced a 3+ fWAR season are Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole.  The level of production from the minors is not commensurate with the level needed to thrive when you’re on a penny-pinching business model.

The Pirates have not had a good run of drafting/developing in recent years.  They’ve drafted low-upside players like Will Craig and Kevin Newman, players with observable draft-day flaws, in lieu of upside plays.  But all of that seemed to reverse itself with the 2017 draft.

For the first time since the 2013 draft that saw them pick both Reese McGuire and Austin Meadows in the first round, I’m buoyed by this odd sensation.  We’ll call it…’hope.’

The 2017 season in the minors also saw some pre-existing players take significant strides forward in their development.  The minor league season started last Thursday and here’s a list of some players, both on radar and perhaps below radar, that I’m interested in following in 2018.

Shane Baz

The Pirates’ 2017 1st round pick had the most draft-day upside of any pitcher they’ve selected since Jameson Taillon.  While Stetson Allie had loud tools, he was a developmental project.  (That never developed.)  Tyler Glasnow was not expected to be what he was when he was drafted in the 4th round in 2011.  Chad Kuhl was just another 9th round pick in 2013.

But Baz is different.  Here is Taylor Blake Ward’s scouting report from

“Baz’s fastball tends to sit in the low 90’s with tailing action, touching 95. He attacks while commanding to the corners with it, and elevates to change the eye level. He does possess a mid 70’s curve and changeup with fade, both that he shows some feel for and will be average offerings with development. The pitch that leaves scouts drooling is his cutter/slider. With the ability to add some and take some off, it’s a mid to high 80’s offering that has changed over time. There’s sense that he’s focused more on turning it into a slider with vertical movement, but when it’s really on, it has premium velocity with tilt and is upwards of 89 MPH with serious spin.”

Baz was considered to be a tough sign in the 2017 draft, which is part of the reason why he dropped to #12 at the Pirates.  It’s amazing how $4.1M can make you reconsider just how much you want to pitch for TCU.

Shane Baz did not get assigned to Low-A West Virginia to start the season, but that’s not a huge surprise.  Only Jameson Taillon went straight to full season after being drafted.  The standard protocol with the Pirates is to have their first season spent in short-season ball, in this case the other West Virginia team in Morgantown.  I’m still holding out hope that the Pirates hold Baz back in Extended Spring Training until May (to suppress his innings) and then send him straight to Low-A, but having him sort it out in the summer at short-season West Virginia is fine, too.

Lolo Sanchez

Sanchez was a high-profile international signing back in 2015 for $450,000, which makes him Pirate-expensive.  He debuted stateside with the Gulf Coast Pirates in 2017 and put up a Stat Scout Line score of 65, indicating a 3.5 WAR player type.  As an 18-year old, he walked more than he struck out, showed modest power, stole some bases, and was competent in center field.

I don’t expect him to only strikeout 8% of the time in full season ball this year, but if he can have a solid season in the minors, you may be looking at the next great Pirates’ center fielder.  Bypassing the short-season leagues in favor of full season ball at Low-A indicates that the Pirates have faith in him, too.  He appears to be more of a classic ‘moderate power, high speed’ center fielder due to his modest build, but he’s one that could be jumping on to Top 100 prospect consideration with a strong season.

Cole Tucker

Since we debuted Stat Scout Line, I’ve changed my tune and am now singing the praises of Tucker, who scored a 65 on SSL.  As discussed in our recent shortstops in the minors article, I discussed how Tucker’s probably going to spend the majority of the year in Double-A, while Kevin Newman has Triple-A locked down.

But it wouldn’t surprise me if Tucker became the starter at shortstop in 2019 after Jordy Mercer leaves in free agency.  After gaming his service time for a couple of months, the Pirates could put Tucker at short and Newman (if he also has a good season in 2018) at second base.

Cole Tucker has the look of a leadoff hitter, due to his blazing speed and ability to draw a walk.

Mason Martin

As I mentioned up top, I really liked the 2017 draft for the Pirates.  It was mainly due to them drafting and signing a higher number of high school players than in recent years.  Baz, Conner Uselton, Steven Jennings, and Cal Mitchell got the press during the draft, but it was the relatively unheralded 17th round pick of Mason Martin that had the loudest debut.

Martin put up a jaw-dropping .307/.457/.630 triple slash line (1087 OPS) with 11 homers in the Gulf Coast League, all as an 18-year old.  Now, rookie and short-season stats must be taken with a whole block of salt, but it was remarkably refreshing to see a breakout performance from a draftee far outside the top 10 rounds.

Much like Lolo Sanchez, the Pirates are believers in Martin’s ability to handle the transition to full season Low-A ball in 2018.  After playing 1B primarily in the Gulf Coast League, Martin is listed as a RF for Low-A West Virginia to start the season.

Martin scored a 60 on the SSL, but it’s not realistic to expect him to run a .323 isolated slugging percentage again, which was a huge component for his high score in SSL.  Hopefully Martin can put together a strong 2018 and show that his rookie league success was not a Florida mirage.

Mitch Keller

The Pirates only had Mitch Keller and Austin Meadows make the Baseball America Top 100 list for the outset of 2018.  There’s a lot of hope and hype associated with Keller, with #2-level expectations associated with him, but his stats from 2017 didn’t justify those expectations.

Keller logged the majority of his innings at High-A Bradenton and only had a 7.4 K/9.  Although he did have an impressive 11.7 K/9 at Double-A Altoona, it was only in 34 innings.  As a result, his overall weighted SSL score was a 55, indicative of a #3/#4 type of pitcher.

It’s imperative for the Pirates that Keller consolidates his gains at Altoona in 2018 and displays more of the #2-level hype in the minors, rather than a #4 type of pitcher.  Aside from Taillon, the Pirates already have a litter of back-end pitchers.  They desperately need another impact front-end pitcher.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

7 Comments on 5 Players I’m Excited About In The Pirates’ Minors For 2018

  1. I am with you on 4 of the 5. While I like Martin and have hopes for him, I would have to put Ke’Bryan Hayes in there. I truly believe that his back issues sapped his power. Combined with his ability to command the zone and his fielding acumen, I expect big things from him.

  2. Keller looked awesome yesterday as we braved the cold in Altoona. He’s currently among the best 5 Pirate pitchers regardless of level.

    Will Craig hit a bomb. Tucker looked very capable.

    Finally, find the Meadows over the shoulder catch in the snow video from Sunday and share.

  3. cole tucker is going to be huge!

  4. Mitch Keller put up great numbers in AA and in the AFL last year, mostly because he found a changeup grip he was real happy with. This gave him 3 pitches he can throw for strikes, leading to a huge increase in swing and miss ability. This kid is a top of the rotation pitcher in the mold of Jameson Taillon. He has better command than even Taillon did at this level of development.
    Shane Baz and LoLo are both prospects to dream about. We should learn a lot about Sanchez with his agressive push. Remember though he is very young for that league so even a decent showing is exciting.

    The pirates draft strategy the last 2 years have shown a focus on power. Even Will Craig came with a power label. It hadn’t shown up yet in games, although he made a change to his swing to tap into his raw power. He has 2 HR in 3 games in AA, so it’s worth keeping an eye on.
    I actually give 6 current Huntington draftees very solid 3 war plus capabilities. Taillon, Bell, Polanco, Marte, Brault, and Kuhl all have that type of upside and most look close to reaching that upside. I’d even argue Jay Hay and Glasnow have a chance too.

    • Kevin Creagh // April 9, 2018 at 10:19 PM // Reply

      Marte was a Littlefield signing and Harrison was obtained in a trade w the Cubs.

      • JASON DRAPER // April 9, 2018 at 10:27 PM // Reply

        You are correct, my memory had Marte as the first Huntington season, but alas it doesn’t serve me well. I was thinking Jay Hay counts because he did come up threw our system. Still 5 guys with a 3 war is pretty solid. I think Meadows, Tucker, Keller, and Hayes could also have that type of impact eventually.

  5. The Pirates seem to have a lot of B and B+ level prospects but, outside of perhaps Keller, no A- and up level prospects. Along with guys like Austin Meadows and Bryan Reynolds, we really need to hope the guys you mention reach their potential. Overall it seems to me that the Pirates have a pretty mediocre farm system. This can’t be just looked at in a vacuum. Other teams also are counting on their list of B and B+ prospects and, unfortunately, many higher rated teams have more sure thing A level prospects on their list.

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