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Pittsburgh Pirates

Original Published Date: October 17, 2017

The Pirates are frustrating.  They came so close three years ago and then again two years ago in making a real impact in the playoffs, but would not pull the trigger on the big trade-deadline deal and bowed out in the first round.  Now, they are struggling at the major league level as they try and assimilate their young players.  It’s a tough dance and so far, the results have been mixed.

The best news is that there continues to be more help on the way.  Mitch Keller is one of the best young pitching prospects in the game but has not reached the kind of fame of similar pitchers of his ability.  Austin Meadows had a mixed year but is still the heir apparent to replace Andrew McCutchen in the outfield next season.  He’s better than he showed and I believe still has near-all-star potential.  Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cole Tucker and Shane Baz all have the upside to be solid major leaguers and the depth continues from there.

It’s tough to do what the Pirates are doing – compete by not spending money.  It will work to a point but there will likely be another inflection point where they will have to spend to win.

Mitch Keller (RHP)

Highest Level: Double-A, ETA: 2019, Fantasy Ceiling: Fantasy Ace

Mitch Keller has quietly developed into one of the best pitchers in the minor leagues.  He’s never mentioned in the same breath as Alex Reyes, Lucas Giolito, or even Walker Buehler, yet all he does is go out and impress.

Working around a back strain that sidelined him for a month, Keller was very impressive in 15 starts in High-A last season.  He posted a 3.14 ERA while striking out 7.5 batters per nine while walking less than 2.5 per nine.  After his promotion to the Eastern League in August, it was more of the same.  In six starts he posted a 3.12 ERA with a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Scouting Report:  I had a chance to see him in his first start in the Eastern League and was impressed.  He sat comfortably in the mid-90’s with a better change-up than I was led to believe, but only released his double-plus couple curveball a couple of times during the game.  I was concerned about the lack of breaking pitches he threw, so I asked around…was there an injury or were the Pirates simply having him work on fastball command?  Fortunately, the verdict was the latter and also to work on improving his change-up.  Based on what I saw, it worked.

He threw strikes, despite walking three (I thought he was squeezed on a couple of pitches) and kept the ball down in the zone.  The fastball had a lot of late wiggle and he was able to locate it to both sides of the plate.   Additionally, the mechanics were solid with nice extension and balance on the landing.  The whole package looked like an ace in the making, but without that 98 MPH consistent heater – more Zack Greinke than Noah Syndergaard.

Fantasy Impact: I play in five Dynasty Leagues and have Keller on every team.  He continues to fly under the radar in leagues and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t hit triple-digits.  But in comparing him to two recent Pirates pitching prospects, Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow, he might not have the pure stuff that Cole and Glasnow do, although it’s very, very good, he’s a better pitcher at this point in his career than they were.  He’s good, really good…I suggest going all-in.

Austin Meadows (OF)

Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2018, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 OF

Sometimes things just don’t work out as they were drawn up…

By the end of the season, Andrew McCutchen should have been wearing a different uniform and Austin Meadows, our number 19 prospect entering the season, should have been manning left field in his place.  However, Cutch had a bounce-back season and looked more like the 2015 model than the 2016 model and Meadows did not hit upon his promotion to Triple-A.  It’s funny…I think the same plan will be drawn up entering 2018.  The Pirates will surely want to get something for their All-Star centerfielder before he opts for free agency after the season, but will Meadows cooperate and come close to his potential?

Based on his performance in Triple-A, it looks like Meadows just needs more development.  In two seasons and 410 at-bats, he hit .239 in Indianapolis with a .400 slug.   Did the Pirates rush him through Double-A?  Perhaps…he did only play 51 games there.  My theory, and it’s based on seeing him in numerous games is that he struggles with off-speed pitching and Triple-A is filled with older and craftier pitchers and he struggled to adjust.  I think he will and at some point, maybe 2018, maybe 2019, he’ll be the player the Pirates thought they had when they drafted him ninth overall in the 2013 MLB Draft.

Scouting Report:  Meadows has a lot of average to above-average tools with his hit-tool being the best of the bunch.  Yes, he struggled last season, but once he learns to lay off breaking pitches out of the zone, the weak contact should reduce and his line drive approach should re-emerge.

His swing is more geared to contact with more doubles then over-the-fence power.  That said, there are a lot of players who demonstrated this approach and once they get to the big leagues, hit 30 home runs.  I’m not suggesting Meadows has 30 home run power, but I could see 15 to 20 once he fully matures.  He also has good speed – it’s not game-changing speed by any stretch, but he should be good for 20 stolen bases per season.

Fantasy Impact:  Meadows stock has taken a hit in Dynasty Leagues, and for good reason.  I still believe the upside is a 20/20 player with a .280/.340 batting average/on-base percentage.  He might take another year or two to start to realize his potential, but I think the talent is in there.  Be patient.

Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B)

Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2019, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 3B

Ke’Bryan Hayes was selected in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft and has been on the Pirates level-a-year train to the big leagues.  He spent last season in High-A and despite a less than impressive .278 batting average, he continued to demonstrate the ability to control the strike zone (15.8% K/9 and 8.5% BB/9).  His power has yet to develop but after working on getting into excellent shape, he stole 26 bases while only getting caught five times.  If this is a new skill that he can hold, his value increases significantly.

Scouting Report:  Hayes shows an advanced feel for hitting, making solid contact that he generates from good bat speed.   He also has excellent strike zone awareness and together with his contactability, projects to have a future plus hit-tool.  While he’s a big kid at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds (I think less now), he hasn’t shown a lot of in-game power.  Currently, his swing is more line drive oriented.  However, I think he will add more loft as he matures and therefore it’s reasonable to think he can hit 12 to 15 home runs down the road.

The speed is new and based on my timings to first, he does have above-average speed.  Since I never timed him prior to 2017, I have to assume the weight loss has opened up the speed.  Assuming that stays, the offensive profile takes a huge step forward.

Fantasy Impact:  Now that Hayes is stealing bases, his stock has taken a significant step forward.  I do believe he will eventually hit for some power (12 to 15) and that combined with 15 to 20 stolen bases and the opportunity to hit .300 will make him extremely valuable in all formats.  However, there is risk.  What if the stolen bases is an outlier?  I did time him to first and put a 60 on his speed.  That’s not a burner but he is a good baserunner, so at a minimum, you would hope that he can steal bases early in his career.

Jordan Luplow (OF)

Highest Level: Majors, ETA: 2017, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 OF

While prospect watchers were all over Austin Meadows and trying to understand his struggles this past season, Jordan Luplow flew past him on the depth chart; all the way to the big leagues.

Signed in the third round of the 2015 MLB Draft, Luplow made unusually quick work of the minor leagues, at least for a Pirates prospect with an impressive 2017 season.  In 117 games across Double and Triple-A, he slashed .302/.381/.527 with 23 home runs and five stolen bases.  The effort earned him time in the big leagues where he held his own in XX games.

Scouting Report:  Luplow doesn’t have loud tools but instead has a bunch of solid-average tools.  He controls the strike zone well, posting a 20% strikeout rate and a 9% walk rate.  He’s got good bat speed and added leverage to the swing that resulted in his power outburst.  He’s also an average runner who should be able to add a handful of stolen bases to the mix.

Fantasy Impact:  Luplow is on my radar in fantasy leagues.  He’s not a star, but instead is the kind of player that will be an injury fill-in and three years later, will still be starting on your fantasy team.  The upside is 20 to 25 home runs with a .270 batting average and a handful of stolen bases annually.

Shane Baz (RHP)

Highest Level: Rookie, ETA: 2021-22, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 SP

Shane Baz had one of the best arms entering the 2017 MLB Draft and the Pirates made the decision to use their first-round pick (12th overall) on the 6-foot-3 righty.  They signed him quickly, paying him a signing bonus of $4.1 million dollars and assigned him to their rookie complex in Bradenton.

Despite turning 18 years old in June, Baz held his own in rookie ball.  In 23.2 innings, he posted a 3.80 ERA with 19 strikeouts and 14 walks.  He did give up a lot of hits (26) but was able to keep the ball in the ballpark and limit the damage.

Scouting Report:  Baz has a four-pitch mix with a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s, a slider and curveball that both show promise of missing bats and a feel for a change-up.  While he’s far from a finished product, few pitchers his age have an arsenal that polished.

The delivery is athletic and he already shows an ability to repeat his delivery.  He needs to disguise his secondary pitches better but the Pirates have a lot to work with.  Of course, Pirate fans and Dynasty League owners will have to wait until at least 2021 before he even sniffs the big league.   A lot can happen, both positive and negative in that timeframe.

Fantasy Impact:  Baz is an intriguing Dynasty League option.  I love the arm speed, athleticism, and his emerging arsenal.  Plus, the Pirates can develop pitchers, both in the minors and at the major league level.  If you do decide to roster him on your Dynasty League team, you’ll have to wait for him to go through the Pirates process.  He will not be fast-pathed to the majors.  In other words, be patient.

Cole Tucker (SS)

Highest Level: High-A, ETA: 2019-20, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 SS

Cole Tucker has been off my radar since shortly after the Pirates surprised the industry by taking him with the 24th overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft.  However, the 37 stolen bases he posted in 68 games in the Florida State League caught my attention and decided to dig back in.

In July, Tucker was promoted and added 11 more steals in 42 games.  He didn’t hit all that well but a lot of that can be explained by a low BABIP.  Are his stolen bases a new skill or is this just an outlier?  It is interesting that Ke’Bryan Hayes had the same stolen base spike, with the same coaching staff…at the same time.  So, for the moment, I’m cautiously optimistic, but want to see more.

Scouting Report: The Pirates have always been very high on Tucker.  They like his size and swing and believe that he will hit for a high average with at least average power.  After four years into his professional career, that has yet to happen, but it’s been a career dotted with injuries and a ton of missed time.  In fact, his 444 at-bats this past season were by far the highpoint of his career.

Tucker has always shown a good understanding of the strike zone with good contact.  His career strikeout rate is 18.2% while his walk rate stands at a robust 9.0%.  However, his swing is more geared towards doubles.  With a slight tweak to the swing, I could see the power developing, but it’s not there yet.  I also mentioned the stolen bases.  He’s not a burner but does have good speed and is a smart base runner.  I don’t think he’ll steal 40 bases at the highest level, but 20 to 25 is doable.

Fantasy Impact: The upside for Cole Tucker is a .280/.350 hitter with 10 to 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases.  That’s a really good player.  Granted, he has yet to do that or even close to it, but that is what projection is all about.  Since he’s available everywhere, I’ve decided to dip into the upside.

Kevin Newman (SS)

Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2018, Fantasy Ceiling: Middle Infielder

Since I focus a lot of my player analysis on the fantasy game, Kevin Newman presents challenges.  He’s a good baseball player with a chance to have a long big league career.  While he makes excellent contact and plays solid defense at a premium position, there is very little power and while he’s a good runner, he hasn’t ever stolen many bases.  Net, net…he profiles more as a waiver wire fill-in player and not a player you throw-in at your shortstop position and forget about.

Given his shallow offensive upside, any dip in production is a concern.  2018 was, therefore, a tough year.  He spent most of the year in Altoona where he slashed .259/.310/.359 with four home runs and four stolen bases in 82 games.  He still made excellent contact, but a .282 BABIP hurt his batting average and OBP.  Once promoted to Triple-A in July, it was more of the same.  Good contact, but little secondary skills.

Scouting Report: Newman has plus bat speed with a short compact stroke and while he’s never hit for much power, he’s strong enough to pop a handful of home runs every year.  His carrying tool is the ability to make contact and work into excellent hitting counts.  That could make him a .300 hitter one day.  While he’s an above-average runner with good instincts on the base paths, he has never stolen many bases.  This could change once the games really matter.  In fact, if he stole 20 bases one year, I would not be shocked.

Defensively, Newman has the athleticism and footwork to be an above-average defender at shortstop.   While there was some concern at the draft table, most of that has disappeared as Newman has been able to quiet his critics in his first two years of professional ball.

Fantasy Impact:  I’ve downshifted on Newman in fantasy leagues, but his value could improve if he starts stealing bases.  To-date, he has yet to demonstrate that skill and given that he turned 24 last August, time is running out for him to learn new tricks.  That said, there could be sneaky value in leagues that favor batting average or even runs scored.  However, if you’re looking for a player to fill-up the stat sheets, you need to look elsewhere.

Steven Brault (LHP)

Highest Level: Majors, ETA: 2016, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP

I have a new theory for finding up and coming arms.  Looked for pitchers drafted by Baltimore but moved to another team.  The most famous of late is Zach Davies who won XX games with the Brewers and Parker Bridwell, who pitched very well for the Angels this past season and now Steven Brault is surfacing.

Scouting Report:  Even though Brault has a handful of major league innings under his belt, most people have no idea who he is.  Drafted by the Orioles in 2013, Brault always posted good numbers but at 6-feet and an average fastball, I never seriously considered him for any Top 10 list.  However, all he does is get guys out.   In 20 starts in Triple-A, he posted a 1.94 ERA with an 8.2 K/9 rate and a reasonable 3.3 BB/9 rate.  In his time in the majors, mostly in relief, he threw a plus slider with a change-up that also got plenty of swings and misses.

His primary pitch is a heavy sinker that gets a ton of ground balls.  This helps to neutralize his short stature and might give him enough to be a number three or four-starter in the big leagues.  Remember, he’s a lefty, so he’ll be given lots and lots of chances.

Fantasy Impact:  I’m not suggesting that Brault is going to be an ace or even one of your top fantasy pitchers.  However, he’s got better stuff than you think, understands how to pitch, and of course is a lefty.  Plus, the Pirates get the most out of their pitchers and therefore I would not be surprised to see a sub 4.00 ERA next to Brault’s name over the next few years.  Not impressed?  A sub 4.00 ERA will likely get you in the top three ERA spots in a 15-team roto-league these days.

Nick Kingham (RHP)

Highest Level: Triple-A, ETA: 2018, Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 SP

Nick Kingham was once a top prospect, but an elbow injury in 2015 that resulted in season-ending Tommy John surgery has delayed his major league debut.  Maybe the worse part of the story was the injury occurred about a month before he was scheduled to make his big league debut.  He’s been struggling to make it back ever since.

2017 was another grind for Kingham.  He spent the first six weeks of the season recovering from a severely sprained ankle.  Once back, he pitched well, probably well enough to see the majors in at least a September call-up, but the Pirates thought otherwise.      Surely 2018 will be the year that Kingham has that major league baseball card with a true stat line on it.

Scouting Report:  Before his injury, Kingham had a very nice three-pitch mix with a four-seamer that sat 92 to 93 MPH that could scrape 94/95, a really nice change-up that shows fade and deception, and a bat-missing above-average curveball.  At 6-foot-5, he stands tall with good posture and gets excellent downward plane on his fastball.  He works down in the zone but will elevate his fastball to get batters to chase.  He also gets nice extension as he produces excellent momentum to the plate and that helps his fastball play-up.  The balance is ok as he does fall-off to the first base side, but it’s not drastic. He does have a tendency to pitch up in the zone, particularly with his fastball, and while home runs have not been a problem, the profile does support that.

Fantasy Impact:  Many Dynasty Owners have forgotten about Kingham but he’s still a solid prospect.  In fact, in his brief time in the majors, he gave us a glimpse of what is possible.  I think he has a chance to be a number three/four starter on your fantasy team and if he is out on your waiver wire, I would definitely be adding him.

Kevin Kramer (2B)

Highest Level: Short Season, ETA: 2020, Fantasy Ceiling: Middle Infielder

Kevin Kramer and Kevin Newman are arguably on pace to be the future double-play combination for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Come on…how great would that be…Newman and Kramer together again?

Kramer was having a nice season when he broke his hand in mid-June and spent the rest of the season on the disabled list.  He did return to action in the Arizona Fall League. Prior to the injury, he played well.  In 53 games, he posted a .880 OPS with six home runs and seven stolen bases.  He did show good plate patience but did strike out a little too much (21.4%).

Scouting Report: I’ve seen Kramer player a couple of times and he shows good bat speed with more line drive power than over-the-fence power.  I do think he has more in-game home run power than he has shown to-date but would only put the ceiling at 12 to 15 home runs annually.  I do think he will hit.  While his strikeout rate was a little elevated this past season, in the past, he has made exceptional contact (86%).  Some of this could be attributed to him changing his swing path to try and elevate pitches more.

He’s an average runner with the expectations of mid to high single-digit stolen annually.

Fantasy Impact: Kramer doesn’t have any standout tool and that does hurt his fantasy upside.  He should be able to hit, but with a 15 home run ceiling and a 10 stolen base ceiling, he should only be rostered in the leagues that roster 300 or more minor league players.

2018 Emerging Prospect

Steve Jennings (RHP)

The Pirates got a gift in the 2017 MLB Draft when uber-athletic Steve Jennings fell to them in the 2nd round (Pick 42).  With a commitment to Ole Miss to play quarterback and an ACL tear caused by a play on the gridiron, teams let him fall.  He’s a got a live arm, is projectable and has the kind of athleticism that rarely makes it into professional baseball.  He’s sushi raw, but with proper development, and the Pirates are good at that, could turn into a top of the rotation asset.

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