|EVALUATING THE PROSPECTS 2016
The Pirates have put together a stunning collection of players who possess strong hit-tool projections, sort of reminiscent of the strategy attributed to the Cardinals’ scouting and development heads in the last 5-10 years. Even just looking at the last three drafts, they have taken five hitters in the various first rounds – Kevin Newman, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cole Tucker, Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire – and all but Tucker project for average-or-better hit tools as their likely future grades. In fairness, there’s a case to be made that Tucker deserves a 50 as well.
In recent years the Pirates’ player-development system has not been able to get the most out of many of their positional players’ power potentials, a trend that a number of their current prospects will have to hope changes course. You could throw pitcher injuries into the mix as well, but that may only be more apparent because of the dramatic focus on acquiring top-tier hitters over pitchers in the draft and international markets.
There shouldn’t be a ton of surprise rankings on this list, except for perhaps Reese McGuire. He looked like a totally different player in the Arizona Fall League, and it was substantial enough to buy into more of his offensive potential than I have before. Overall, this is just a solid system with plenty of front-line talent and a great mix of upside and floor filling out the next two tiers. It’s an exciting time to watch Pirates’ prospects.
Here’s the primer for the series and my scouting thoughts in general. The grades I put on players heavily weight the functionality of each tool in game situations, rather than just pure tool grades. Here is a table to understand the position player grades:
|Grade||Tool Is Called||Batting Average||HR||ISO||Baserunning Runs||Fielding Runs|
As well as one to understand what the overall grades approximate:
|Grade||Hitter||Starting Pitcher||Relief Pitcher||WAR|
|80||Top 1-2||#1 Starter||—-||7|
|55||Above Avg||#3/4||Mid Closer||2.5|
|50||Avg Regular||#4||Low CL/High SU||2|
|40||Bench||Swing/Spot SP||Middle RP||1|
|35||Emergency Call-Up||Emergency Call-Up||Emergency Call-Up||0|
One other difference in the way I communicate scouting grades to you is the presence of three numbers on each tool instead of just two. The first number is the current grade. The second number is the likely future grade; or, if you prefer percentiles, call this the 50th percentile projection. The third number is the ceiling grade, or 90th percentile projection, to help demonstrate the volatility and raw potential of a tool. I feel this gives readers a better sense of the possible outcomes a player could achieve, and more information to understand my thoughts on the likelihood of reaching those levels. If you prefer the traditional methodologies of other publications, I would suggest averaging the latter two grades together to get a semi-optimistic view of where a player projects.
In the biographical information, level refers to where they finished the year, unless they were sent down for injury rehab or other extraneous reasons. Ages are listed as of April 1, 2016. You can also find each player’s previous rank from Kiley’s list last year. Below, Dave Cameron shares his thoughts on the general state of the organization. Returning for his popular cameo, Carson Cistulli picks his favorite fringe prospect toward the end of the list.
The Pirates are in the enviable position of being a present contender with a strong base of young talent, anchored by a franchise player and one of the game’s elite starting pitchers. And they have more young talent on the way, with a couple of high-ceiling arms close to the majors, and some interesting offensive prospects not that far away either. But while the Pirates are in a good position, they need to be careful to not fall into the trap of being good but not quite good enough, which is especially problematic given their divisional foes. The Cubs and Cardinals present significant roadblocks to the postseason, and while the Pirates are definitely a contender, they’re a contender with some weak spots. If the team is in the running for another playoff berth this summer, I’d like to see them be a bit more aggressive in trying to sacrifice some long-term potential for a short-term boost. You only get Andrew McCutchen’s prime for so long. Don’t waste it.
Video courtesy of imokemp
1. Tyler Glasnow, RHP
Current Level/Age: Double-A/22.6, 6’8/225, L/R
Acquired: Drafted 152nd overall (5th round) in 2011 out of California HS by PIT for $600,000 bonus
Previous Rank: 1
The scariest thing about Glasnow is that he still shows signs of improvements to come as he gains more body control. He arguably already has two plus or better pitches in his fastball and curveball, and his changeup is a good bet to play around average. I don’t think throwing strikes is going to be an issue with another year or two of honing his craft. His misses stem from trying to do too much or his delivery getting a little out of whack, both things that should naturally correct themselves with a little time.
There isn’t much of a reason to think Glasnow won’t improve his walk rates and the consistency of his secondary offerings. He’s very athletic on the mound, and he’s around the zone consistently even when he gives up free passes. Improving his approach to hitters will be the biggest difference-maker. Once he understands that he can create poor contact as often as he misses bats, he will be more aggressive letting hitters get themselves out instead of never letting them touch the ball. The command he shows when he’s employing less than max effort portends above-average ability to locate his pitches, with a chance for a plus grade as he further develops physically and mentally.
He could throw above-average innings for Pittsburgh right now, but they’re right in allowing him some more time to find the consistency he needs to reach the same ridiculous level of performance there as he has in the upper minors. The stuff is there to be at least a number-two starter, and there are enough other improvements in his future to see one of the highest ceilings in the game.
Fastball: 65/70/75 Curveball: 55/65/70 Changeup: 45/50/50 Command: 45+/55/60
2. Austin Meadows, OF
Current Level/Age: Double-A/20.9, 6’3/200, L/L
Acquired: Drafted 9th overall (1st round) in 2013 out of Georgia HS by PIT for $3.0296 million bonus
Previous Rank: 2
Meadows has an incredibly fast bat and room to continue building strength, though his hitting ability comes more from an innate feel for squaring up the ball rather than a perfect swing. He has a good amount of physical development left in his future, likely taking his plus raw speed down closer to average, though he projects to be an above-average defender with a fringe-average arm. His hit tool is the carrying quality here, though he won’t hurt you in any category.
At the plate, his predominately downward path makes him more of a gap power hitter for now, though his strength makes up for it to a degree. Though physical maturation could push him into plus range, it will be more telling if he adjusts his swing plane to tap into it consistently. He won’t need to hit for power to be a valuable bat because of his ability to hit and get on base, and even at above-average future power he’s an all-star hitter.
Meadows’ eye injury this spring is scary for any Bucs fan who is paranoid about a Tony Conigliaro repeat, but we’re all mature and don’t get emotional about prospects… For now we’ll just have to wait and see where he’s at in a couple months after his recovery from surgery. If and when he comes back fully, he is likely to head back to Double-A, with Pittsburgh within reach by the end of the season if he continues where he left off last year with the bat.
Hit: 45/60/65 Power: 45/55/55+ Run: 55/55/60 Field: 55/55/55+ Throw: 45/45/45+
3. Reese McGuire, C
Current Level/Age: High-A/21.1, 5’11/215, L/R
Acquired: Drafted 14th overall (1st round) in 2013 out of Washington HS by PIT for $2.3698 million bonus
Previous Rank: 6
I was pleasantly surprised with the Reese McGuire that showed up in the Arizona Fall League; he finally showed some potential to use his plus bat speed to drive the ball with some authority instead of just making contact. It wasn’t just the numbers where he showed improvement either; his swing looked like it was meant to be doing some damage. He still has work to do on both his offense and defense, but the changes this fall were encouraging enough to project him closer to his offensive ceiling than I would have admitted at this time last year.
Prior to the fall, McGuire had the same bat speed and loose, athletic swing, but his swing plane was geared for low line drives and ground balls. To that end, he had delivered through the regular season last year, with few swings and misses but not much to show for it. His path in the fall looked good enough to tap into his above-average raw power given enough time to develop, making him a much more interesting prospect than the good-glove, questionable-hitting catcher he looked like before.
He has plus arm strength out of the crouch, but below-average footwork and transfers pull his current arm grade down to average. He gets great reviews for calling a game behind the plate, and present above-average receiving and average blocking ability give him plenty of skills to be a valuable backstop. Team sources swear by his receiving work as a whole, so I’m trusting their judgment by bumping his future grades up. With the emphasis the Pirates have placed on his defense, it’s reasonable to see future gains made in all his defensive tools, giving him upside as a true plus defender. His improved hitting forecast makes the total package look like an above-average regular at minimum.
Hit: 35/50/55 Power: 35/45/50+ Run: 45/40/45 Field: 55/60/60+ Throw: 50/55/60
Video courtesy of Major League Baseball
4. Josh Bell, 1B
Current Level/Age: Triple-A/22.6, 6’8/225, B/R
Acquired: Drafted 61st overall (2nd round) in 2011 out of Texas HS by PIT for $5 million bonus
Previous Rank: 4
A switch-hitter with excellent feel for squaring the ball up, Bell hasn’t quite found the power into which scouts were hoping he would grow a few years ago. There’s plenty of raw strength and decent lift to his swing on the left side, but he takes enough swings with more of a line-drive approach that he maxes out around above-average in the power department. Defensively limited to first base, he still has enough offensive value with his hard contact and excellent plate discipline to profile as an above-average regular. The only knock against his offense is his relative lack of power from the right side, but it’s not enough to warrant abandoning switch-hitting.
Hit: 55/65/70 Power: 45/50+/55 Run: 40/40/40 Field: 40/40+/45 Throw: 55/55/55
Ramirez is a very unique hitter to watch at this stage of his career. His hit tool may already be above-average at the major-league level, but the way it works is awkward to see. To me, it looks like someone took one of the most athletic upper halves in baseball and plopped it on some sort of swiveling rocking chair. Not to downplay his overall athletic ability, since he does have plus raw speed and a (very?) outside chance at sticking in center field. Most likely he ends up a corner outfielder light on arm strength and power but with enough on-base ability to be a well above-average regular, hitting his way into a starting role.
As alluded to above, Ramirez’ legs and hands work on completely different wavelengths, making his raw power pretty untouchable and leaving him looking fooled on a lot of swings. The fun part is his hands and barrel awareness are so good that he can consistently dump balls in the outfield even when he has completely lost his balance over his legs.
In the video above, this manifests itself in a swing on which Ramirez appears to have been punched in the stomach by an invisible fist, hanging on for dear life to make contact, only to square it up and hit a sure single into left field. Major-league pitchers will be able to get him off balance more than he is now, but there’s a special place in the game for hitters with his ability to barrel the ball. Even if he is limited to left field defensively, his hit tool will carry him into a valued job in the big leagues.
Hit: 50/60+/70 Power: 30/35/40 Run: 55/50/55 Field: 50/50/50+ Throw: 45/45/45
6. Jameson Taillon, RHP
Current Level/Age: Triple-A/24.4, 6’5/240, R/R
Acquired: Drafted 2nd overall (1st round) in 2010 out of Texas HS by PIT for $6.5 million bonus
Previous Rank: 3
It’s true, Jameson Taillon still exists! Tommy John surgery in 2014 and hernia surgery last year have prevented him from throwing a professional pitch since October 2013. With two years of development spent rehabbing, it’s tough to pin down where he’ll end up until he’s back throwing. All present reports have Taillon ready to go full force on Opening Day, so for now we’ll call last year a wash and keep relatively the same expectations for his long-term potential until proven otherwise.
Fastball: 60/65/70 Curveball: 55/60/65 Changeup: 40/45+/50 Command: 40/45/50
Newman is yet another hit tool-oriented recent draft pick, though he also pairs it with plus speed and the tools to stick at shortstop. Armed with a short, quick, low line drive swing and great contact skills, he has been a high-average machine the last few years leading up to the 2015 draft. He puts together excellent at-bats with a discerning eye while also aggressively attacking pitches in the zone.
Questions about his long-term viability at short are very premature. Though he only has average raw arm strength, he is ridiculously fast getting rid of the ball, making his arm functionally more like an above-average or better tool. He makes every play at short look easy, though admittedly the first few plays I saw him make, that same effect can come off as low-speed and hint at needing to move off short.
The fact is he has an outstanding internal clock when it comes to knowing how much time he has to make each play, and he never looks rushed as a result. His plus speed allows him to cover plenty of ground, and his footwork from setting up for a catch to turning it into a throw is top-notch. In all, where the raw tools and flashiness are lacking, the instincts and technique easily make up the difference.
Hit: 40/50/55+ Power: 25/30/35 Run: 60/60/60 Field: 55/60/65 Throw: 50/55/55
Hayes has an advanced combination of hitting ability and approach to his at-bats for a high school draftee. Though his raw power may not translate into game power until many years down the line, if ever, he projects to hit enough line drives and control the strike zone to make him a solid hitter. On defense, he lacks the quickness to have even average range in the future, but his soft hands and practiced footwork will allow him to play third base unless his conditioning slacks off. Hayes has a higher floor than most high-school bats, and could end up moving pretty quickly through the lower minors.
Hit: 35/50+/60 Power: 25/45/50 Run: 45/40/45 Field: 40/45/50+ Throw: 55/55/60
Much of Hanson’s problems are blamed on ongoing maturity issues, so at this point, these grades could mean nothing if he doesn’t get his act together. He has all the physical ability he needs to be starting infielder for the Bucs, but mental lapses and letting things out of his control affect his play continue to stifle his tools. At the plate, he’s mostly an all-fields line drive/ground ball hitter, though he can make you pay with his pull-side power if he gets a pitch up in the zone. The ship hasn’t sailed on reaching his ceiling yet, but it’s getting close to the time where the organization needs to see some consistency to be able to count on him going forward.
Hit: 45/50/55 Power: 35/35-40/40 Run: 60/60/65 Field: 50/50/55 Throw: 45/45/45+
The latest rumors have Kingham on track to return sometime in the middle of this season. While he’s never had a huge ceiling or even a potential plus pitch on which to hang his prospect status, his above-average stuff across the board and average command gave him a safe future in the big-league rotation, with mid-rotation upside. Nothing really changes until we know more about how his rehab goes, but he gets bumped down slightly into the 45+ group for the injury.
Fastball: 50/55/55+ Curveball: 50/50/50 Changeup: 50/55/55 Command: 45/50/55
Tarpley was half the return for Travis Snider from the Orioles last offseason, and surprised everyone in 2015 with a superb year in the South Atlantic League. Though he may have been a little advanced for the league, it’s exactly the type of season he needed to help shed his reputation of having makeup issues. His fastball runs in the low- to mid-90s with some run and sink, and his slider and curve both have their moments of looking above-average.
Though his control took a major step forward, his command isn’t where it needs to be to stick as a starter, and his stuff doesn’t project high enough to be able to just pump it into the zone. A back-end starter or mid- to late-inning reliever job is most likely in his future, but I would like to see him against better competition.
Fastball: 55/55+/60 Curveball: 45/50/55 Slider: 45/50/50 Changeup: 40/40/45 Command: 45/45+/50
Garcia was an older sign for an international player when he joined the organization as a 20-year-old in 2013, which explains the aggressive jump from the Dominican Summer League in 2014 to the South Atlantic League last year. The surprising part was seeing him come out sitting in the mid-90s while flashing a potential above-average breaking ball. He went on to lead the league in earned run average.
Though his changeup is lacking, and his command isn’t there yet, there is some starter potential here. His timeline will be a bit accelerated, which will probably push him into the bullpen, but he has a clean delivery and a solid platform year having thrown 124.1 innings last year.
Fastball: 55/60/65 Slider: 45/50/55 Changeup: 40/40/45 Command: 40/45/45+
Diaz came on strong the last couple years with solid hitting performances leading up to his big-league debut last year. He’s an above-average defensive catcher with a strong arm, and pitchers love working with him. His bat has fringe-average upside, making him a sneaky candidate for a starting role if everything clicks. More likely, he ends up a solid backup or platoon partner for the Pirates.
Hit: 45/45+/50 Power: 35/35/40 Run: 35/35/35 Field: 55/55/55 Throw: 55/55/60
Williams has a decent ground-ball repertoire, with a sinking fastball running anywhere 89-94. He has a clean arm action with a a slightly abbreviated finish, but he does well to use his body to absorb any excess stress. All of his offspeed pitches grade out around average, as does his command. It’s a strong enough kit to project as a fifth starter without a ton of upside.
Fastball: 50/55/55 Curveball: 45/45-50/50 Slider: 50/50/55 Changeup: 45/45/45+ Command: 45/45+/50
Brault was the other half of the Travis Snider deal with the O’s, adding another high-floor arm to the system with starter upside. He throws with a closed stride that makes him tough on lefties, and his best offspeed pitch is a changeup delivered with great arm action. That combination, along with great command, give him the ability to survive without elite stuff. He will be ready for a big-league trial hopefully by the end of this season.
Fastball: 50/50/50 Curveball: 45/45-50/50 Slider: 45/45+/50 Changeup: 50/55/55+ Command: 50/55/55
Tucker was the Pirates’ first-round pick in 2014, and has produced two solid half seasons of high-contact offense to go with his above-average defense. He’s still physically underdeveloped, which makes it even more impressive how well he has acclimated to facing professional pitching. His actions at shortstop are solid enough to be an asset on defense, especially if his shoulder strength comes back fully after labrum surgery last year. For Tucker to hit for any kind of power would require an overhaul of his swing and approach, but he does have plenty of strength gains in his future, so it’s not impossible.
Overall, he has a high floor as a solid bench player because of his defense, and his speed and hit tool upside give him the potential to be an above-average starter. Pay attention to how his shoulder looks coming back, since it could impact both is hitting and throwing abilities if there are any residual effects.
Hit: 30/45/50 Power: 25/35/35+ Run: 60/55/60 Field: 55/55/60 Throw: 50/50+/55
Moroff is a high-effort player with enough bat to be at least a bench bat, possibly more if he reaches his ceiling on his hit tool. He has hit a surprising number of doubles the last few years in the minors, giving him modest gap power, especially if he’s given pitches to hit up in the zone. Strikeouts are a slight cause for concern as he traverses Triple-A on his way to the big leagues, but I think he has the ability to be a decent role player for a big-league team.
Hit: 45/50/55 Power: 35/35/40 Run: 45/50/50 Field: 50/50/50 Throw: 50/50/50
A tenacious defender and a tough out at the plate, Kramer is a high floor, low ceiling infielder whose skill set fits best at second base. Though he hit for some power in his junior year at UCLA, he likely maxes out at around 40-grade pop. He makes plenty of contact and has a solid line-drive swing that can shoot gaps on pitches up in the zone or on the inner half. He has great makeup, and has a good chance of maxing out his fringy tools.
Hit: 40/50/55 Power: 30/35/40 Run: 50/55/55 Field: 50/50/50-55 Throw: 45/45+/50
A forearm strain kept him out of all but six starts last season, and he has yet to throw above Rookie ball, but there’s some intrigue with his kit. His feel for his changeup is likely to remain questionable, but he has decent movement on his fastball and his curve has above-average potential. He needs to put together a healthy season in Low-A before really knowing where he’s at, but there’s potential for a back-end starter here.
Fastball: 50/55/55 Curveball: 45/50/55 Changeup: 40/45/45+ Command: 40/45/45
Frazier spent time at shortstop, third base and the outfield in 2015, all while hitting .324 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. He doesn’t have a ton of upside as a no-power hitter with defensive versatility, but he’s as textbook of a utility player as you can find. He has a high floor with his hitting ability, and may force his way into a bigger role should he sustain his contact and on-base excellence.
Hit: 45/55/55+ Power: 25/30/30 Run: 50/50/50 Field: 50/50/50 Throw: 50/50/50
Kuhl is getting some love as a starter prospect, but I like him more as a potential bullpen arm. The command is fringy for the rotation, although there’s enough potential that he may be able to ground ball and weak contact his way into a fifth-starter role.
Fastball: 45/50/50 Slider: 45/50/50+ Changeup: 40/45/45-50 Command: 40/45/45
Garcia has big tools in the form of plus-plus arm strength and plus raw power, but the reason he falls short of future regular status is his subpar hit tool. He has a powerful swing with a good path for creating power, but his barrel takes a long route to contact, exposing itself early to the pitch by getting away from Garcia’s body early. Combined with his innate contact and plate-discipline issues, the best he can hope for is turning into a powerful platoon bat.
Hit: 35/40/40-45 Power: 45/55/60 Run: 45/45/50 Field: 50/50/50 Throw: 65/65/65
Cole Figueroa, 2B/3B/SS, MLB
Combining his Steamer and ZiPS projections, Figueroa is forecast to record just a 7.7% strikeout rate in the majors this year, a figure that would have represented the second-best mark among 141 qualified batters in 2015, just behind Daniel Murphy and just ahead of Andrelton Simmons. The top-10 qualifiers by strikeout rate in the majors last season produced a collective .292 average — roughly 1.5 standard deviations better than league average. Obviously, there are other factors (BABIP, home runs) which contribute directly to batting average and (also obviously) batting average itself is only one factor in overall offensive production. But it’s also a pretty important factor. And a low strikeout rate allows a hitter to compensate nicely for a lack of power on contact. Packaging that relatively high offensive floor with an above-average defensive profile suggests that the 28-year-old Figueroa has more to offer than his 57 career plate appearances would otherwise suggest.
Nor does any of this acknowledge Figueroa’s compelling biographical narrative, by virtue of which one finds that he has taught himself how to code — with a view, that, to better understanding his own trajectory as a ballplayer.
Here, in conclusion, is irrefutable evidence that Figueroa also possesses the requisite strength to hit at least one home run:
Upper-level hitters: OF Barrett Barnes (VIDEO) offers a little of everything, but only his base-running projects to be average or better. He could be a reserve outfielder if everything plays to their ceilings.
Lower-level hitters: OF Logan Hill (VIDEO) got a great first taste in Low-A last year after being drafted in the 25th round, continuing the promising offensive production he showed at Troy University. The consensus opinion on his tools don’t match up with the early returns, but I’ll be sure to get a closer look at him this year. OF Casey Hughston (VIDEO) has an athletic swing with above-average raw power, but his swing path is more built for line drives and he has approach issues to work out. 1B Carlos Munoz (VIDEO) has more than proven he can hit short-season pitching, though questions about his power potential and defensive issues abound. Getting to face full-season competition will help earn him a spot on or off this list.
3B/OF Jordan Luplow (VIDEO) switched to playing third base full-time and has innate ability to hit with decent stolen-base numbers. The problems are both third and outfield are looking fringy, partly due to expected declining speed as he matures, and he lacks much lift to his swing. He may have enough natural feel to hit his way into the big leagues, but there are questions across the board that make it tough to sneak him on the list. OF Tito Polo (VIDEO) had a down year with the bat in Single-A, but he stole 46 bases and continues to make a case for staying in center field. The bat may still not be enough, but he’s an interesting follow.
Upper-level pitchers: RHP Clay Holmes (VIDEO) has a sinking fastball thrown from a stiff delivery that gives him some deception but also affects his command. He pounds the zone enough to possibly project as a ground-ball specialist out of the pen, but health and offspeed effectiveness are question marks. RHP Tyler Eppler (VIDEO) has the control and command you want to see from a pitching prospect, but there just isn’t enough stuff to keep hitters honest. His location gives him a chance to work some innings in the majors, albeit with a fairly hittable collection of pitches. The lack of proven durability drops him down as well.
Lower-level pitchers: RHP Luis Escobar (VIDEO) has started to grow into a respectable fastball that Rookie-ball hitters couldn’t handle. His command and secondary stuff need to improve before jumping on the list. RHP Jacob Taylor is a junior-college draftee from last year with a promising fastball. He’s new to pitching full-time and will miss most of this year with Tommy John surgery rehab.