|Original Published Date: October 16, 2018|
It’s hard to conceive of them gutting their major league squad since most of their core guys are still quite young. While many are very good players, they just don’t have enough impact players to win championships; particularly pitchers. In looking to their minor league system, while I like many of the players, particularly Mitch Keller, Travis Swaggerty, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and O’Neil Cruz, they lack true impact players. And, apart from the trade of Chris Archer, they have never shown the willingness to “go for it” at the trading deadline. Net-net, they are stuck in the middle.
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1. Mitch Keller (RHP)
Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 SP
Mitch Keller continues his Pirates slow-march to the major leagues. He split his time between Double and Triple-A with also a stint on the disabled list. He was dominant in Double-A posting a 2.72 ERA in 14 starts striking out nearly eight per nine while showing plus control. When he got to Triple-A, he struggled with his control. It was early in his tenure in Triple-A, but in August the walk rate was back to his career average.
I’ve had a chance to scout Keller throughout his career and had the chance to see him again last season. He has a plus fastball that sits in the mid-90’s, a plus, perhaps double-plus curveball, and a change-up that has improved significantly. The mechanics are smooth and he throws strikes. But in today’s game, if you don’t hit triple-digits, you’re not on the Mt. Rushmore of prospect pitching. I think Keller is that good. In fact, he reminds me of Zack Greinke. He’s a bit understated with great stuff, control and knows how to pitch.
The question is when will see him in the big leagues. Assuming he doesn’t sign a team-friendly deal, it’s likely mid-June. The Pirates have a history of playing the Super-2 game and holding their guys back. I know that won’t sit well with Pirates fans and Dynasty League owners, but unfortunately, we have a strong history in which to make our prediction.
2. Travis Swaggerty (OF)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2021-22 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 OF
I think the Pirates got a bargain when they snagged Travis Swaggerty with the 10th overall pick in last June’s MLB Draft. He showed plus speed, some pop and an excellent approach in his three years at South Alabama. In fact, in his three college seasons, he walked more than he struck out.
After the Pirates drafted him, they sent him to the New York Penn League where he posted an .819 OPS in 36 games. For the last two weeks of the season, he joined the Power in the Sally League and struggled. Granted, it was only two weeks, but in 62 at-bats, he only had eight hits.
There is an intriguing toolset with Swaggerty. He has speed, enough pop to hit 15 to 20 home runs and an approach at the plate that should work. In fact, he reminds me a little of Andrew Benintendi when Boston made him their seventh overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft. So far, that’s working out pretty well.
3. Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 15 3B
Ke’Bryan Hayes built on a solid season in 2017, to put up similar numbers in his promotion to Double-A. His slash line in 117 games was .293/.375/.444 while doing a great job of controlling the strike zone (16.5% strikeout rate and 11.2% walk rate). He also stole 12 bases, down significantly from the 27 he stole in 2017, but more in-line with his average speed.
Hayes’ top tool is his ability to get on base. He’s a great hitter with a solid approach that should lead to a .280/.360 hit-tool at the highest level. What has always been a question is his power. He’s got enough strength and loft in his swing to hit more than seven, which is what he did last year, but I don’t see him as a 20 plus home run threat. Instead, I would pencil in 12 to 18 with some upside. Throw-in 10 or so stolen bases a year and if you have the makings of a solid fantasy contributor.
4. O’Neil Cruz (SS)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2021-22 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 30 OF
The Pirates acquired O’Neil Cruz in the 2017 deadline deal that sent Tony Watson to the Dodgers. He was the perfect high-upside return that teams are looking for when they make these types of deal. He was young (18-years-old), toolsy, tall and projectable, but with little idea of an approach at the plate. In 89 games before the trade, he hit .240 with a 29% strikeout rate. Things started to come together this season.
In 103 games in Low-A for the Pirates, he improved his strikeout rate to 23% and started to see his double-plus raw power translate into in-game power slugging .488 with 14 home runs. He also stole 11 bases, but as he fills out, his speed will also fall.
While he was signed as a shortstop, at 6-foot-6, that just isn’t going to stick. With a plus arm, double-plus power potential, he profiles best as a power-hitting right-fielder. He’s still very raw and I doubt his hit tool will develop to more than a .260/.330 average, but if it comes with 30 plus home runs that should play quite nicely.
5. Calvin Mitchell (OF)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 40 OF
Calvin Mitchell was a sexy pickup mid-season in Dynasty Leagues and for good reason. He had a very nice step-up year playing in Low-A, West Virginia. In 119 games, he slashed .280/.344/.427 with 10 home runs and 29 doubles. He tired in the second half as his slugging fell to .330 but given his strong first half, the Pirates believe that he’s turned the corner in his development.
He’s got a nice lefty stroke and over time, he’s shortened up on the swing and his strikeouts have reduced. The best part is he hasn’t lost much power in the process. He’s an average runner presently, but as he fills out, the speed will take an even further setback. If it all comes together, he could hit .270/.330 with 25 plus home runs. That’s could be a very nice fantasy contributor.
6. Kevin Newman (SS)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 SS/2B
When Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer were selected in back-to-back rounds in the 2015 MLB Draft, the dream was to have them create a double-play duo of Kramer-Newman. While it had already happened in the minor leagues, in 2018, it happened in the major leagues. Seinfeld fans around the world, including yours truly, got a chuckle.
Who’s going to be better? Well, I like Newman more as there is more speed and his approach and ability to make contact is bordering on elite. Plus, for fantasy owners, the speed is an added bonus with a chance to steal 20 plus stolen bases annually. Because of his lack of power, I doubt he’ll ever be an elite fantasy shortstop. However, as a low-end shortstop or a middle infielder, I think there is sneaky value.
7. Cole Tucker (SS)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2019-20 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 20 SS
Cole Tucker’s primary skill continues to be his ability to steal bases in bunches. In 133 games in Double-A, he stole 35 with a success rate of 74%. He has legitimate double-plus speed and if he gets the at-bats, he should be able to steal 30 plus bases in the big leagues. The question, of course, is will he get the at-bats.
As a hitter, he doesn’t have a lot of strength and is more of a slappy hitter, spraying the ball around to all fields. He also doesn’t make elite contact and without any power, his offensive game doesn’t have a huge ceiling. That said, he’s a very good a defender and could see stretches of time where he gets full-time at-bats. This is particularly true if he gets traded. If I’m a Dynasty League owner, I’m still holding.
8. Bryan Reynolds (OF)
Highest Level: Double-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 50 OF
In Bryan Reynolds first three years of professional ball, he’s proven one thing – he can hit. In 265 games, he’s hit .302 with a .369 OBP. Last year in Double-A, he controlled the strike zone extremely well (19% strikeout rate and an 11% walk rate).
What he has yet to show is much power. Unfortunately, he started the year on the disabled list after having hamate surgery prior to the start of the season. While he only managed seven home runs, he did hit 18 doubles and posted a .438 SLG. I expect his power to increase after his wrist completely heals from his surgery.
The upside is a full-time regular in the big leagues with a chance to hit .290 with 15 to 20 home runs and a handful of stolen bases. That’s not a star, but he has the one tool that keeps on giving – the ability to hit.
9. Kevin Kramer (SS/2B/3B)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Middle Infielder
Drafted in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft, Kevin Kramer made his major league debut in 2018 after having a nice all-around season. He spent the entire season prior to his call-up in Triple-A where he hit .311 with 15 home runs and 13 stolen bases. He did strikeout too much and if it weren’t for an unsustainable .392 BABIP, the stat line would have looked much different.
Kramer is a nice player. A little bit of speed, a little bit of pop, and idea at the plate, and can play both short and second base. He might not be a star, but he could play enough to become fantasy relevant. While much less famous, he has a game similar to that of Dansby Swanson. You add it all up, that’s a middle infielder in a deep 15-team fantasy league.
10. Jason Martin (OF)
Highest Level: Triple-A ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 OF
Jason Martin was part of the Gerrit Cole trade that sent the young right-handed pitcher to the Astros in the off-season. Martin has an intriguing power-speed combination and even hit .325 at Altoona over the first half of the year. Granted, his batting average was fueled by a .396 BABIP that unfortunately corrected after his promotion to Triple-A. Throughout both levels, he still showed in-game power and a little speed.
Long-term Jason Martin is likely a fourth outfielder for the Pirates, but if he can improve his strikeout rate, which isn’t horrible at 22%, he could be more. From a fantasy standpoint, the power-speed combination continues to be something in which I would invest as he could get his chance in 2019.
11. Jared Oliva (OF)
Highest Level: High-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 60 OF
If you take a look at Jared Oliva’s overall stat line for 2018, it’s easy to get excited. In the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, he hit .275, slugged .424 with nine home runs, and stole 33 bags. However, if you dig into his season, almost all the damage was done by mid-June. In fact, he didn’t hit a home run after June 22nd and finished up the season slugging .218 in August. I did not hear of an injury. Perhaps, he just wore out, but at 22-years-old, that seems less plausible.
His carrying tool continues to be his plus speed but he needs to improve his contactability in order to continue to get full-time at-bats. But, there’s athleticism and he was a walk-on for the University of Arizona, suggesting that he could be a late-bloomer.
12. Braxton Ashcraft (RHP)
Highest Level: Rookie ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 SP with extreme risk
The Pirates selected Braxton Ashcraft in the second round of the 2018 MLB Draft. He’s raw, but a very athletic pitcher that split his time between football and baseball in high school. He was a wide receiver in high school and was signed to play the Big 12 and many thought he would be drafted as an outfielder. But, the Pirates liked his arm and ability to repeat his mechanics and felt they could he teach him the rest.
He has an average fastball but as he matures, he’ll likely increase his velocity. He shows an ability to spin a curveball and even a feel for a change-up. While there’s a lot to like, he has a long way to go and being in the Pirates organization, they will surely take it slow and easy.
13. Lolo Sanchez (OF)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2021-22 Fantasy Ceiling: Top 45 OF with extreme risk
After a nice GCL showing in 2017, the Pirates aggressive assigned Lolo Sanchez to West Virginia, their Low-A affiliate. The athletic Dominican more than held his own by hitting .243/.322, controlling the strike zone very well (16% strikeout rate and a 9% walk rate), and stealing 30 bags.
While he has good bat speed, his swing is more geared for line drive contact, so I don’t see him developing a lot of power. But, the speed is for real and I think he’ll hit. Therefore, if it all comes together, Sanchez could develop into a top-of-the-lineup .280 hitter with 30 plus stolen base potential and a handful of home runs. That should be enough to give him full-time at-bats in the big leagues.
14. Clay Holmes (RHP)
Highest Level: Majors ETA: 2018 Fantasy Ceiling: Swing Pitcher
After seven long years, Clay Holmes made his major league debut to start the 2018 season. He was up-and-down most of the year and while his major league stat line was highlighted by an 8.84 ERA and an equally ugly 8.35 BB/9 rate, he can say he’s a major league pitcher.
Holmes upside is a back-of-the-rotation arm, or more likely a swing pitcher who will work primarily out of the bullpen but could see some spot starts. He has a good four-seamer that can hit 95 to 96 when he pitches in relief and an average curveball and change-up. He does lose his release point and can have bouts of wildness as demonstrated in his big league call-up.
15. Mason Martin (1B)
Highest Level: Low-A ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling: Extra Bat
After a nice debut season in 2017, the sledding got a little more difficult in 2018 for Mason Martin. The Pirates gave him an aggressive assignment to Low-A to begin the 2018 campaign, but things did not go well and he was sent back to the Complex in early June. He didn’t play much better when assigned to the Appy League.
Part of his problem was he was just too passive at the plate. While he walked 16% of the time in Low-A, he got himself into too many deep counts which elevated his strikeout rate to an unsustainable 32%. Why do we care and why is he on this list? He’s got double-plus power that if he can work on his approach, the power could be significant. From a Dynasty League, he’s not rosterable, but should be monitored.