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Pittsburgh Pirates


Original Published Date: October 15, 2019

piratesThe Pirates continue to languish along with an ok team, but one that isn’t yet ready to compete.  While their minor league system has some nice players, there are not enough impact players to move the needle from good team to Championship level team.

Mitch Keller got plenty of time in the Major Leagues this season but still isn’t showing what I think will be at least a mid-rotation, if not more ceiling.  Ke’Bryan Hayes is their top-ranked positional player and should see plenty of time in Pittsburgh in 2020.  The power has yet to develop but at least average power is in there.  Oneil Cruz rounds out their big three and might be the most exciting.  He won’t play short long-term but could be a dynamic power-hitting right-fielder who will steal some bases early in his career.

Prospect Quick Shot

  • Top Prospect: Mitch Keller
  • Biggest Mover: Oneil Cruz
  • Emerging Prospect: Mason Martin

Enjoy the list and please click on the baseball card to visit our partner amazon.com to explore additional information on each player.

1. Mitch Keller (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Majors ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 40 SP
  • Tools Summary: Still has the stuff and delivery to be at least a mid-rotation starter, if not more.

Mitch Keller has been one of my guys.  I own him in all my Dynasty Leagues and he rewarded me in 2019 with 33 innings and an 8.18 ERA in the Major Leagues.  Er…hmm…

Look, I get it…it’s not been good.  But, I still believe.  The arsenal is excellent with a fastball that is averaging 96 MPH with a high spin rate and a curveball that also has a high spin rate.  A high spin rate indicates the movement of the pitch.  The change-up is only an average offering, but it’s enough to keep glove-side batters honest.

I still think the upside is a number two starter.  He just needs time to develop and the Pirates have said they will keep him the rotation in Pittsburgh.  When will he finally put up fantasy goodness?  I wish I knew…

2. Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B)

  • Highest Level:  Triple-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 3B
  • Tools Summary: Still has the makings of a solid hit tool with power and a little bit of speed.

We are still waiting on that season when Ke’Bryan Hayes puts it all together. It clearly wasn’t in 2019, or at least that is what I hope.  In 110 games, he slashed .265/.336/.415 with 10 home runs and 11 stolen bases.  That’s ok, but not the stat line you like to see in a Top 100 player (#60 on our mid-season Top 100).

If you dig under the peripheral stats, he’s controlling the strike zone very well.  He’s never posted a K/9 over 20% and has posted a walk rate usually over 10% (in 2019, it was 9.0%).  I think the .265 average with a .336 OBP is a nice floor for his projection with a chance to do 10 to 15 points higher in each category.  The power is the concerning piece.  He just doesn’t have much loft in his swing and that can be clearly seen in GB/FB ratios.  In 2019, he posted a 45.8% ground ball rate and a 35.4% fly-ball rate.  That’s not the characteristics of a power hitter.

I still believe Hayes will hit with 20 home runs pop while adding 8 to 10 stolen bases.  He has solid raw power and once he adds loft, I think the power will emerge.  He doesn’t turn 23 until January.

3. Oneil Cruz (SS)

  • Highest Level:  Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 30 OF (I think he moves off SS)
  • Tools Summary: 6-foot-6 with big raw power and some swing and miss. Intriguing upside.

Surprisingly, the Pirates have been moving Oneil Cruz through the minor leagues quickly.  In fact, when he arrived in Altoona, he was the third-youngest player in the league.  While I didn’t do the research, I’m not sure the Pirates have ever had a player that young on their Double-A roster. Despite spending six weeks on the IL this season with a broken foot, he played very well. In 241 plate appearances between High and Double-A, he slashed .298/.356/.475 with eight home runs and 11 stolen bases.

At 6-foot-6 (I’ve seen him, and he looks taller to me), the Pirates still have him at short.  We’ve always been concerned about 6-foot-4 shortstops, but Oneil is at least two inches taller.  It’s hard to believe he will stay there.  He’s got a great arm, so he could play third; but wait, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a third baseman that tall.  So, it’s likely the outfield.

From a tool’s standpoint, he’s got them.  He’s got double-plus raw power, he’s a good runner with a swing that works.  Now at his height, there will be strikeouts.  In fact, he’s striking out at 25% clip in the upper minors and that will likely continue.  But it could come with 30 plus home runs and a handful of stolen bases.

Because of his size, Cruz is an unusual prospect and therefore there is a risk that he will hit his ceiling.  However, I believe in the player and in fact, it might be a do-over for the Pirates as physically, he reminds me a lot of Gregory Polanco.

4. Travis Swaggerty (OF)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 40 OF
  • Tools Summary: Double-plus speed with a little pop.  He needs to reduce his strikeouts to reach his potential.

I was very high on Travis Swaggerty entering the draft but swallowed hard when the Pirates drafted him.  Would the Pirates develop him properly or would he become 2024’s version of Austin Meadow – a kid with a ton of upside that spent too long in the minors just to become an all-star for another organization?  However, the Pirates changed their organizational approach to hitting over the winter and it seems to be working.  Positional players are performing better, including Swaggerty.

In 121 games in High-A (yes, High-A for a 2018 draftee!!), Swaggerty hit .265 with nine home runs and 23 stolen bases.  He’s struck out 22% of the time and walking 11% of the time.  While the strikeout rate is a little high, he is controlling the strike zone enough for him to get to his secondary tools.  His secondary tools are highlighted by his double-plus speed with enough power to pop double-digit home runs annually.

If it all comes together, I think he’s a better version of Austin Meadow – a top-of-the-lineup threat with 30 stolen bases and 10 to 12 home runs.  However, he needs to continue to work on reducing his strikeout rate to make this a reality.

5. Quinn Priester (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Rookie ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 SP
  • Tools Summary: Projectable right-hander with good present stuff and control.

The Pirates used their 2019 first-round pick to select Quinn Priester, a projectable high school pitcher from Illinois.  He pitched well in his eight games in the GCL posting a 3.03 ERA striking out over 10 per nine while keeping his walks down. They also gave him one start in Low-A to end the season which is a good sign as to where he will start the 2020 campaign. His control, pitchability, and arsenal is advanced enough to handle that level.

From a scouting perspective, Priester has a promising arsenal with a fastball that sits in the low 90s and curveball that could develop into a plus offering.  His change-up is not as developed as the other two pitches but should develop as well.  Finally, at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, I would expect that low 90s fastball to grow at least a grade to be sitting mid-90s in a couple of years.

6. Cody Bolton (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Double-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 60 SP
  • Tools Summary: Good, not great stuff but it plays up because he pounds the strike zone.

After an impressive season in 2018 where Cody Bolton had a 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio while only walking 12 batters in 5.2 innings, the Pirates surprisingly promoted him to High-A after only nine starts in the Sally League.  Clearly, they saw something in the young right-hander, and he excelled.  In 12 starts, he pitched to a 1.61 ERA striking out over 10 per nine while again walking less than two per nine.

The Pirates then decided to move him to Double-A where he found the sledding more difficult.  While the stat line wasn’t great, Bolton has the arsenal and control to pitch at the highest level.  His arsenal consists of a fastball that sits 92 to 94 MPH with a good slider and change-up.  The pitches all play up because he can throw them for strikes.  If it all comes together, the ceiling is a number four starter in the mold of Joe Musgrove.

7. Cal Mitchell (OF)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2021-22 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 50 OF with risk
  • Tools Summary: Solid power potential with some speed.  Currently struggling to control the strike zone.

Cal Mitchell was a sexy pickup last year in Dynasty Leagues as posted a nice .280/.344/.427 slash line in 119 games in the Sally League.  He showed good future power potential with a little bit of speed.  What he needed to focus on was his approach at the plate as he tended to get overly aggressive and expand the strike zone.  This year, that has happened.

In 118 games in High-A, he posted a 29% strikeout rate and walked only 6% of the time.  He has shown good power, particularly for the Florida State League with 15 home runs and a .155 ISO.

At 20, Mitchell was one of the youngest players in the FSL in 2019 and therefore, there is still time for him to work on his approach.  He’s athletic and from all accounts has good makeup so I’m sticking with my ceiling of a Top 50 outfielder in fantasy.

8. Sammy Siani (OF)

  • Highest Level:  Rookie ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 60 OF
  • Tools Summary: Good speed with some power.  Already showing some plate discipline.

The Pirates used their 2019 supplemental first-round pick to select Sammy Siani, younger brother of Cincinnati Reds Mike Siani.  Mike really opened eyes this season, particularly with his 41 stolen bases.  Sammy though is a different type of player.  He’s not as tooled up as his older brother but might ultimately be the better hitter.

In his first exposure to professional ball in the GCL, he struggled, hitting .241 with a .372 OBP but with five stolen bases. He did show a good understanding of the strike zone, walking nearly 16% of the time but also struggled to make contact (25% K/9).  Plus, he showed no power.  Again, it was a small sample size and he’s only 18.  He does have good bat speed and as he fills out, should develop some power.  If you add it all up, he could be a .260/.350/.420 hitter with 10 to 12 home runs and 15 plus stolen bases.

9. Kevin Kramer (2B/3B/OF)

  • Highest Level:  Majors ETA: 2019 Fantasy Ceiling:  Middle Infielder
  • Tools Summary: Average tools are pushing him to a utility role in the big leagues.

The Pirates finally gave their trio of middle infielders, Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, and Kevin Kramer a shot at the big leagues.  Newman beat out Tucker for the starting shortstop, but Kramer only got one plate appearance during the season before getting a September call-up.

Kramer came up as a second baseman, but the Pirates have been playing him at third and the outfield to give him additional versatility.  Offensively, it was a down year.  There was a big falloff in both OBP and SLG.  In fact, he slugged .492 in 2018 in Triple and even with the juiced ball, only managed to slug .417 in 2019.

I think the Pirates are doing the right thing with Kramer as his ultimate position is likely a utility player in the big leagues.  If he catches on, he could hit .260, a .320 OBP, 10 to 15 home runs with a handful of stolen bases.

10. Lolo Sanchez (OF)

  • Highest Level:  High-A- ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 75 OF
  • Tools Summary: Plus speed and can hit.  Is that enough?  He’s more likely a fourth outfielder in the big leagues.

The Pirates had Lolo Sanchez return to the Sally League to begin the 2019 and he had no trouble with the league.  In 60 games, he posted a .818 OPS with three home runs and 20 stolen bases showing great contactabiliy (10.6% K/9 ratio).   He found the sledding more difficult upon his promotion to the Florida State League hitting an anemic .196 in 52 games.  Part of the problem was a .233 BABIP.  Throughout his struggle at the level, he continued to make great contact and get his walks.

From a scouting perspective, Sanchez has good bat speed, but 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.  However, profiles like Sanchez frequently wind up as a fourth or fifth outfielder.  You see, fantasy players love speed, but in the big leagues, a player needs enough strength to drive the ball to have success.  I think Sanchez is right on the edge.

11. Will Craig (1B)

  • Highest Level:  Triple-A- ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling:  Corner Infielder
  • Tools Summary: Average power and hit tool.  No clear path for playing time.

Will Craig was the Pirates first-round pick (Pick #22) in 2016 and is now on the doorstep of the Major Leagues.  The problem is he’s blocked by Josh Bell and candidly, hasn’t played all that great.  He had a fine season in 2019, but by no means was it a “move over Josh Bell season”.  In 131 games in Triple-A, he slashed .249/.326/.435 with 23 home runs.  The power output wasn’t good, particularly when you factor in the juiced ball.  He also struck out 26% of the time while walking 8% of the time.

Craig needs a trade in order to get playing time, but even with that playing time, I’m not sure how much production will be there.  He’s never posted a SLG over .450 and doesn’t control the strike zone at a high enough level to support a high OBP.  Plus, he turns 25 in November.  For now, we have put a Corner Infielder fantasy projection on him, which is to say, he’s in the range of 16 to 30 first baseman.

12. Mason Martin (1B)

  • Highest Level:  High-A- ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling:  Corner Infielder
  • Tools Summary: Double plus power but with significant swing and miss.  Still young.

Mason Martin spent the first three months of the minor league system destroying Sally League pitching, leading the league in home runs with 23 while batting a respectable .262.  In July, he was promoted to the Florida State League where he continued to pound the ball.  In 49 games, he hit 12 home runs with a .529 SLG.  The home run total, even in less than half a season, put him near the top of the leaderboard.

Martin doesn’t have the athleticism that will allow him to move off first, so he’s going to have to continue to hit to make it the big leagues.  The power is significant, but more born out of brute strength than elite bat speed.  If he can improve his approach and make enough contact, he could develop into a solid first base prospect.  However, if the approach doesn’t improve, the upside might be more AJ Reed.

13. Rodolfo Castro (2B)

  • Highest Level:  High-A- ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling:  Utility Player
  • Tools Summary: Some speed and power.  Needs to improve contact rate and find a defensive home.

Rodolfo Castro is an intriguing offensive player who hasn’t quite found his home in the field.  Offensively, he has good bat speed and is also a good runner.  He can get aggressive at the plate, expanding the strike zone in the process.  If he can improve that, there is a chance for power and speed.  Defensively, the Pirates have played him at short, second and third.  He didn’t excel at any position committing 23 errors in the process.

While the upside is likely a utility player in the Majors, if he can become more selective at the plate, there is a nice power-speed combination that would play nicely for fantasy owners.

14. Ji-Hwan Bae (SS)

  • Highest Level:  Low-A ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling:  Utility Player
  • Tools Summary: Light hitting shortstop with double-plus speed.

Ji-Hwan Bae was originally signed by the Braves but his contract was voided when the Braves were penalized for international player acquisition irregularities in 2017. He’s now played two seasons of professional ball with similar results.  He’s a solid defender, makes solid contact with top-shelf speed.  He’s not completely void of power as he slugged .430 this past season, but he swing lacks loft and given his size and swing mechanics, I just don’t see any over-the-fence power developing.

The ceiling is likely a utility player in the big leagues but as an injury fill-in, he could rack up stolen bases in a hurry for a fantasy owner.

15. Cristopher Cruz (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  DNP ETA: 2024+ Fantasy Ceiling:  Unknown
  • Tools Summary: Projectable right-hander with solid present stuff which is expected to tick up as he matures.

When you acquire a 16-year-old pitcher, you’re signing a raw talent with hopefully some physical projection that with training and maturity, could turn into something.  Cristopher Cruz was that kind of talent when the Pirates signed him to a $850,000 signing bonus last July.  He has an athletic body with clean mechanics that should allow him to put on good weight in order to develop a plus fastball.  He’s also showing the ability to spin a curveball with an idea of throwing strikes.

At 16, a lot can happen, but there is enough upside that I thought it was worth him making our list.  He should pitch in the DSL in 2020 before making his way stateside in 2021.

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