In a quiet off-season, the Pirates will head into the 2019 season with very few unanswered questions. We’re not sure who will be the 5th starter or who will start at shortstop. We can’t say how much time Jung Ho Kang will see at third base or what the bullpen looks like beyond Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela and Kyle Crick. However, compared to many teams, the major league roster is mostly settled in Pittsburgh. That doesn’t mean I don’t have room for plenty of prospect-related predictions. With a few players from the January Pirates Top 50 involved in Opening Day roster decisions, we will start there and work through the system level by level with some projected stat lines and landing spots for various prospects.
1. Kevin Newman & Pablo Reyes will make the Opening Day roster, with Newman starting at shortstop and Reyes in a super utility role. While Newman struggled in his MLB debut last September, I see him proving that was simply growing pains while slashing a projected .291/.347/.402 with 30+ extra base hits and 20+ stolen bases.
Reyes is the ultimate in super utility, playing 6 different positions across his stops in Double-A Altoona, Triple-A Indianapolis, and in Pittsburgh last season. That kind of versatility should easily get Reyes 350+ at bats, which I predict will yield 12 home runs and 18 stolen bases while slashing .273/.341/.422. This will make both Newman and Reyes big time contributors in 2019.
2. Triple-A Indianapolis will be loaded with top 20 organizational prospects by June. It would be a shock if Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cole Tucker, and Jason Martin didn’t start the 2019 season in Indy. With little left to prove, I predict Hayes will take another step forward doubling his career best with 14 home runs, while continuing to maintain his very solid slash line at .287/.371/.493. Depending on the year Colin Moran and Jung Ho Kang have, I could easily see Hayes in Pittsburgh by September.
After a season and a half in Altoona, Tucker will look to take the next step forward in Indy. I’m beginning to wonder if Tucker has that next step in him though. His numbers have been very consistent across all 4 of his Minor League stops and it’s starting to feel like this just might be the best Tucker we’re going to see. I hope the bat grows into his big frame, but I think we will see much of the same this year, .264/.355/.371 with a career high 8 home runs and 33 stolen bases.
Martin tore the cover off the ball in the first half of 2018 in Altoona before crashing back to earth after his promotion. Some of that can definitely be attributed to good luck and then bad luck, posting a .396 BABIP in Double-A and a .261 BABIP in Triple-A, as his BB% and K% did not see drastic shifts from his career norms. I see Martin bouncing back from his horrible Triple-A debut, hitting 21 home runs with double digit stolen bases and a .275/.341/.461 slash line. I still feel this likely makes him a 4th OF for most teams, but that’s a solid floor.
I see Bryan Reynolds and Will Craig joining the above-mentioned trio in Indianapolis by June, after solid showings in Altoona to start the season. Had a hand injury not cost Reynolds the first 2 months of 2018, I think he would start the season in Indy also. Despite a slow start coming back from injury, Reynolds still managed to post career best 11.2% BB% and a career low 19.1% K%. While Reynolds had some residual soreness in his hand in his Arizona Fall League stint, I’m hearing he is fully healthy, and I look for him to really breakout in 2019. I’m expecting career highs across the board for Reynolds with 15 home runs, a K% under 16%, and a .321/.397/.486 slash line.
Lastly, I see Will Craig ending up in Indy by June. The 2019 season is a huge one for Craig, as we need to see exactly what we should expect from him. In his first 816 plate appearances, Craig posted a 13% BB% and an 18% K%, both respectable numbers for a power hitting corner infielder. However, he only hit 8 home runs in those 816 plate appearances. Then in 2018, Craig smashed 20 home runs but saw his BB% fall to 7.7% and his K% jump to 23%. Needless to say, his AVG and OBP took big hits in 2018. Some of that can be attributed to bad luck with a drop in BABIP, but for Craig to succeed at the Major League level he needs to find a way to return those BB and K %’s to his previous levels while maintaining his power. I see Craig taking a step in that direction in 2019, hitting a career high 23 home runs while slashing .255/.337/.477.
3. The story in 2019 at Double-A Altoona will likely be the pitching. While many of the top young arms in the system are still a step away from Altoona, there will still be some who make a showing there in 2019. First among those is Luis Escobar. Escobar ranks only behind Mitch Keller when it comes to pitchers in the Pirates system. However, 2019 is probably the make it or break it season for Escobar when it comes to sticking as a potential starting option. Escobar has continued to struggle with command and that is quickly pushing him to the bullpen, where his already above average 3-pitch mix would really play up. He will start 2019 in the Altoona rotation though, where I see him pushing his K/9 back up to the 8.5 level and lowering his FIP back down to around 4.30. However, I ultimately see the command issues continuing though and a shift to the pen by 2020.
Another very interesting arm that will likely start the year in Altoona is Eduardo Vera. Vera has really come on strong after missing almost all of 2015 and 2016 with injuries. He will likely be pushed in 2019, as he will turn 25 in July and spent more than half of the season in Altoona last year. I think Vera will open in Altoona, partially due to the depth the Pirates have in Indianapolis, but will quickly find himself in Triple-A. I see Vera continuing to use his solid 4-pitch mix to improve his K/9 to the 7.5-8.0 area while maintaining his above average command. Keep an eye on Vera for 2020.
4. High-A Bradenton will be a huge focus for the 2019 Pirates minor league system as it will likely be the landing spot for a trio of exciting young top 10 organizational prospects. All 3 will play the entire 2019 season as 20 years old and could easily all be top 5 organizational prospects by year’s end. The biggest of those prospects is Oneil Cruz. Cruz took a huge step forward in 2018, nearly doubling his career high in HR while significantly raising every portion of his slash line and cutting his K rate by 7%. I see all of these trends continuing going into 2019 as Cruz moves forward to Bradenton. I see a 20-home run, 10-steal season, with a .277/.347/.493 slash line.
Following very closely behind Cruz is OF Cal Mitchell. Pittsburgh was very aggressive with Mitchell, assigning the prep OF to full season A ball in his first full professional season and it paid off. Consistently facing older, more experienced pitching, as he only had 6 at bats all season against pitchers younger than him, Mitchell raked in the first half of the season and proved more than ready for the next challenge. I think the stats will remain suppressed a bit while Mitchell continues to be one of the younger players at his level, but the tools will definitely shine through. I see 15 home runs, an improved BB% to around 10% and a slash line of .284/.358/.449.
Lastly, but not far behind Mitchell, is Lolo Sanchez. After his brutal start to the 2018 season, Sanchez turned things around. In that first month of the season, Sanchez struck out at a 25% clip; however, each month after that, his K rate returned to much closer to his career level. This skews his K rate greatly, but he almost doubled his career high, from 9.5% to 16.3%, quickly showing why the slash line suffered. Knowing Sanchez turned it around, though, leads me to believe he will continue to trend up and return to his previous level of success. I see 30+ steals with a .279/.361/.415 slash line.
5. In 2019, the full season, A ball affiliate for Pittsburgh has moved to Greensboro and become the Grasshoppers, meaning Travis Swaggerty will likely patrol center field in Greensboro, at least at the start of the 2019 season. It appeared Swaggerty really struggled after his promotion to A ball in August 2018, but it seems to me to be bad luck. A .159 BABIP certainly makes it tough to have an average much better than .129, so I anticipate seeing the Travis Swaggerty we all expect in April. I predict .292/.359/.464 with 13 home runs and 18 stolen bases, with a BB% above 10%.
I also expect to see Dylan Busby return to full season A ball to start the season. Just as I mentioned with Vera above, I expect this to be short stint, as Busby would almost certainly be ticketed for High-A Bradenton had a fastball to the head not limited Busby to 177 plate appearances in 2018. Busby needs to walk more and strike out less, but the raw power is there and I expect him to hit 15-20 home runs with 10 stolen bases. A slash line of .257/.338/.485 is easily achievable, even if he spends most of the year in Bradenton.
As aggressive as Pittsburgh has been at the lower levels recently, I would expect to see names such as Ji-Hwan Bae, Jonah Davis, and Aaron Shortridge all in Greensboro in 2019. I expect much of the same from Bae in 2019. Bae makes a ton of contact, striking out only 10% of the time in 2018, but not driving the ball much, with only 8 extra base hits. Look for him to zone in a bit more and drive the ball consistently in 2019.
Jonah Davis had one of the better debuts in the entire system in 2018. While I can’t say I expect that his slash line will stay at the level it was, I do think the kid can hit. With plenty of raw power and a good eye, Davis was a steal in the 15th round. I see 20+ home runs, double-digit steals, and a BB rate over 12%. A slash line of .279/.373/.508 seems to be a great place to settle in. I think Davis could move quickly.
Aaron Shortridge was another very solid debut in 2018. When you post a K/9 of over 11, a BB/9 around 2, and a FIP of 2.30, you’re in pretty good shape. I don’t see ace upside with Shortridge or anything like that, but I do think he has mid-rotation upside and, much like Davis, is young for a college draft pick. I expect a bit of regression, but still see a 9+ K/9 and more like a 3.00 FIP.
6. Since I’ve ended up being way wordier here than I’d like, I’ll lump all the short season teams into one final group, with a prep OF and some exciting stateside debuts to preview. Jack Herman could be an absolute steal after being drafted in the 30th round last year. Keep an eye on this kid. He tore up the Gulf Coast League and will likely see time in Bristol and West Virginia this year. A high BABIP (.393) likely pushed the slash line a bit, but a 14% BB rate and a 14% K rate certainly don’t hurt. I believe Herman will continue to succeed at the plate, approaching double-digit home runs and stolen bases while slashing .322/.392/.493 and potentially finding himself in full season ball to start 2020.
We should be seeing stateside debuts for Juan Pie and Shendrik Apostel this season. Both had successful years in the Dominican Summer League in 2018 and will likely start in the Gulf Coast League this summer. Very different hitters, both Pie and Apostel drive the ball consistently. Like most young prospects coming out of the DSL, both are also very raw but the upside is there. I see Pie approaching 25 extra base hits, with a few more of those getting over the fence in 2019. As he continues to grow, so should the power. Apostel certainly has the power. I look for him to improve his K rate in 2019. I see it dipping under 25% with double digit home runs.