The Pittsburgh Pirates are team that appears unlikely to compete in 2020, and while they have some intriguing talent at the top of the system (most notably Mitch Keller and Oneil Cruz) overall things aren’t particularly deep. While there are a few players who could take significant leaps forward, their progress will ultimately determine the systems outlook. Who are the names should we know? Who could leap forward in their development? Let’s take a look:
1) Mitch Keller – Right-Handed Pitcher
ETA – Already Arrived
Grade – A-
Keller’s MLB debut was a spectacular failure, posting a 7.13 ERA and 1.83 WHIP over 48.0 IP. Even during those struggles he showed strikeouts (12.19 K/9) and control (3.00 BB/9), both of which resembled the marks he posted over 103.2 IP at Triple-A (10.68 K/9, 3.04 BB/9). There was plenty of poor luck behind the numbers, with a .475 BABIP and 59.6% strand rate, further supporting a rebound performance.
The one concern would be the potential for home run issues, after he posted a 39.2% groundball rate. However he was better at Triple-A (44.7%), and a 35.9% Hard% should help limit the damage. With a fastball that averaged 95.6 mph in the Majors, all signs point towards a rebound. Now isn’t the time to downgrade him, it’s the time to be looking to buy low.
2) Oneil Cruz – Shortstop
ETA – 2020
Grade – B+
There’s obviously concerns whether or not Cruz can remain at shortstop considering his size, but the power potential will play at any position. That’s assuming he learns to control the strike zone, though strikeouts are going to remain a part of his game. Just look at the numbers over 292 PA split between High-A and Double-A:
- SwStr% – 16.7%
- Strikeout Rate – 25.3%
- Walk Rate – 8.2%
While he hit .298 last year, he benefited from a .384 BABIP and that’s not going to continue. Obviously he’s not Aaron Judge, but in 280 PA at Double-A back in ’15 Judge had a 25.0% strikeout rate, 8.6% walk rate and 11.6% SwStr%, and given their size and power potential it’s easy to draw a comparison. Cruz could develop into a “poor man’s Judge”, likely hitting closer to .250-.260 but with 35+ HR regularly.
3) Ke’Bryan Hayes – Third Baseman
ETA – 2020
Grade – B
Hayes showed a solid command of the strike zone, with a 7.5% SwStr% in 492 PA spent mostly at Triple-A (480 PA). While the rest of the league was showing a surge in power, he did not as he managed 10 HR (to go along with 30 doubles and 2 triples). He does have some speed, swiping 12 bases, and he’s generally shown an ability to draw some walks. That said is there enough to truly grab our attention?
For now his defense and bloodlines (he’s the son of Charlie Hayes) remains the best selling points. There’s hope that he could add power, and the doubles show it’s not impossible, though we need to start to see it before it becomes too late.
4) Travis Swaggerty – Outfielder
ETA – 2021
Grade – B
Can he keep the strikeouts in check as he continues to advance through the system? That’s the only thing that appears like it could hold him back (and is the only thing that’s currently suppressing his grade). Playing the year at High-A Swaggerty (524 PA), after being selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, showed the potential to develop both power (20 doubles, 3 triples and 9 HR) and speed (23-for-31 in SB) while also showing enough knowledge of the strike zone to consistently get on base (10.9% walk rate). The speed may ultimately prove to be the best tool, but the power is enough and it’s possible he develops into a 15/30 type player with a high OBP.
The question is the strikeout rate, and whether or not he’ll make enough contact to tap into the upside. His 22.1% strikeout rate isn’t abysmal, and given his age and the level his 10.9% SwStr% is elevated but not a huge red flag. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain or approve upon it against more advanced pitching, but if he does he could quickly draw attention.
5) Quinn Priester – Right-Handed Pitcher
ETA – 2023
Grade – B-
Priester was selected 18th in the 2019 draft, the Pirates appear ready to push him quickly up the organizational ladder. In 32.2 IP at Rookie Ball he showed all the skills we look for from a pitcher, and while it’s a small sample it can’t go overlooked:
- Strikeouts – 10.19 K/9
- Control – 2.76 BB/9
- Groundballs – 55.4%
He went on to make one appearance at Low-A, which is likely where he’ll open the year. The 19-year old currently sits in the low-90s with his fastball, but reports have him touching 97 mph and as he physically matures (he’s listed at 6’3” and 195 lbs.) he should add a few mph. The bigger question is the development of his changeup, and if it comes he should deliver on the promise of being a SP2 type.
The Next Five:
6) Liover Peguero – Shortstop (Grade – C+) – The key piece in the Starling Marte trade, Peguero isn’t there yet but he has the potential to take a significant step forward in 2020. Given his age (he played the majority of ’19 at 18-years old) his 9.9% SwStr% is promising, especially since he maintained it at Low-A (9.7%), and the upside is of 12-15 HR and 20+ SB. We’ll have to see if he matures physically and taps into his power, but seeing him rise into the “B” grade range this season wouldn’t be surprising.
7) Sammy Siani – Outfielder (Grade – C+) – In his first taste of professional baseball the 18-year old Siani showed both strikeouts (24.9% SwStr%) and walks (15.9% walk rate) over 164 PA in Rookie Ball. The brother of the Reds’ Mike Siani, he has the potential to carry above average tools across the board (even if he doesn’t stand out in any of them). There are a lot of different outcomes, with the range of a fourth outfielder to a star outfielder. It’s enough to put him on radars and see how things develop.
8) Brennan Malone – Right-Handed Pitcher (Grade – C+) – Malone was the other player acquired in the deal that sent Marte to Arizona. The 33rd selection in the 2019 draft, he only threw 8.0 innings in the minor leagues so there isn’t much data to go on yet. The 6’4” starter has the upside of a SP2/SP3, with a three-pitch arsenal that could further improve as he gains experience and develops physically. Like many young pitchers the key lies in his changeup, and whether or not it develops into an above average offering.
9) Cody Bolton – Right-Handed Pitcher (Grade – C+) – Bolton split the year between High-A (61.2 IP) and Double-A (40.0 IP), though he struggled after the promotion (5.85 ERA) while the strikeouts (10.07 K/9 to 7.43), control (2.04 BB/9 to 3.60) and groundball rate (46.7% to 34.2%) all regressed. That’s a red flag, though the Pirates aren’t going to push any panic buttons yet. A few more bumps could lead to a shift to the bullpen, where his fastball/cutter (some refer to it as a slider) could play up more. A return to Double-A to start ’20 is likely, and how he starts will determine the outlook.
10) Lolo Sanchez – Outfielder (Grade – C) – Maybe we are just suckers for his skill/upside, after Sanchez hit .257 with 5 HR (27 total extra base hits) over 458 PA split between Single-A and High-A. He stole 33 bases (in 48 attempts) with an elite contact rate (5.1% SwStr%), showing what could be possible. He struggled after being promoted, hitting .196, but a .233 BABIP looms large given his speed and 6.0% SwStr%. It’s possible that he ultimately develops into a fourth outfielder, but the ceiling is higher. He’s not a player who should be ignored.
Sources – Fangraphs, MILB.com
Make sure to check out all of our 2020 prospect rankings: