With Spring Training 2018 just around the corner, baseball fans can finally see the light at the end of the long winter tunnel. It’s a fun time of year for those of us that love to watch prospects. All the prospect lists are hitting our Twitter feeds and favorite websites, namely the 30 days of prospects that we just finished here at Prospects1500. Top 50 lists for all 30 teams, posted ahead of Spring Training, so you’ll know who to keep an eye on in February and March.
These final few days before pitchers and catchers report is especially fun, as teams start to announce their non-roster invitees, meaning any player not on the 40-man roster that will be invited to major league camp. This invitation can be used for many reasons, to get that young kid a first taste of being with the big club, like Cole Tucker, the #3 prospect in my Pirates Top 50. The 21-year-old is the shortstop of the future in Pittsburgh, but won’t likely start the year above Double-A. It can also be used as a test of sorts, like for Tyler Eppler, the #31 prospect in my Pittsburgh Top 50. Eppler has moved quickly through the Pittsburgh system, playing all of 2017 in Triple-A, in just his third full season since being drafted in the 6th round in 2014. Despite moving quickly, Eppler has pitched to mixed results, so with a lot of pitching at the AAA level the Pirates will likely want to get a look at Eppler against some major league competition to see how he reacts to it. It can also be used to look for depth, as is the case with Ryan Lavarnway. While Lavarnway is a long way from any prospect lists at this point, he could be a valuable depth addition to a AAA team to protect a rather thin catching unit from injury.
I’d like to focus on a few of the younger non-roster invitees as well as some of the prospects already on the 40-man roster and where I likely see their season starting.
A few names seem like locks. It’s expected that Colin Moran (#6) will be the third baseman and that Rule 5 pick Nick Burdi (#22) will either be on the 25-man roster or on the Disabled list. While most of the Pittsburgh bullpen seems to have taken shape, Kyle Crick (#24) and Dovydas Neverauskas, who both saw relative success in the majors last year, will likely battle with each other for one of what looks like two spots up for grabs. If Crick can prove he can throw strikes, he likely has more upside and therefore a slight upper hand, but proving he can throw strikes may not be as easy as it seems. We also see utility infielder Max Moroff (#30) looking to claim a roster spot after spending about a third of the season with the big club last year. He’s likely the only player on the roster after Jordy Mercer with experience at shortstop, so he likely finds his way onto the 25-man roster as well. On the back end of this list we find Jordan Luplow (#25). Despite struggling a bit in his first shot at the bigs last year, Luplow appears at this point to be in line to get a shot as the 4th outfielder to start the year. Luplow continued to hit in AAA last year and can play either corner outfield position. Barring any additional moves, I would expect to see Luplow in Pittsburgh in April.
After the trade of Andrew McCutchen this winter, I immediately thought that we would see Austin Meadows (#2) in the outfield for Pittsburgh in April. With only 410 at bats above AA and a capable Adam Frazier to man left while Meadows is given the time to prove he’s ready, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Kevin Newman (#7) is also another interesting name to keep an eye on. With only 166 at bats above AA, he is likely to start the year in AAA but could be an option fairly early on if he starts hot, Josh Harrison is moved or if Jordy Mercer struggles. SP Nick Kingham (#16), SP Clay Holmes (#19) and RP Edgar Santana (#28) are all players that are more or less ready. All three would likely be buried a bit on the MLB depth chart, with 6 or 7 starters ahead of them. Kingham, Holmes and Santana are likely slightly behind Crick and Neverauskas, and they’ll all likely begin the year in AAA, ready to step in when given the opportunity.
The few remaining players are all likely on the young side to have any realistic shot at making the 25-man roster for Opening Day. The recently acquired Bryan Reynolds (#5) has not played above High-A yet, so while it will be exciting to see him in the Black and Yellow even if he did everything perfectly, Reynolds isn’t seeing Pittsburgh in April. The Pirates would love to see some of the swing and miss in Reynolds’ approach go away, so a likely assignment to AA will follow the invitation, with a late 2019 ETA at the earliest for him. Kevin Kramer (#11) is just slightly ahead of Reynolds. Had a hand injury not cut Kramer’s 2017 short, we may be talking about him as an option by mid-season. But with only 202 at bats in Double A, I would imagine Kramer won’t be an option until September, if at all this season. The Pirates won’t want to rush Kramer, as the bat really came alive in 2017 and the comparisons to former Pirate Neil Walker seemed to be much more accurate.
Lastly, a few pitchers will see big league camp in 2018. Luis Escobar (#8) was a breakout star in 2017, posting a K/9 of 11.5 in A-ball. A non-roster invitation to spring is likely a reward, as Escobar will probably spend all of 2018 in High-A. Dario Agrazal (#35) is not quite as far off as Escobar, as he spent most of the year in High-A. Agrazal has continued to throw well as a starter, but will likely follow the same path as the last player on our list, Yeudy Garcia (#26) by ending up in the pen. Agrazal throws a power sinker, that would likely play up out of the pen, where his weaker secondary pitches would not hurt him. Garcia has bounced between the rotation and the pen, but seemed to settle in, in the latter part of 2017, in the AA bullpen. Garcia, much like Crick, needs to prove he can consistently throw strikes and should move quickly once that happens.
Article featured image of Luis Escobar – courtesy Pirates Prospects on YouTube