SEE ALSO: Midseason Top 10 Prospects
For the third straight season, the Pirates are hurtling toward the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline without a clear indication of what direction they should take.
They were still under .500 as June came to a close, but an 8-1 surge into the All-Star break has them just 5.5 games out of a wild card spot in the wide open National League.
The difference between this season and the last two is that the Pirates don’t have an obvious marquee piece to consider moving. The Pirates held on to Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole at the deadline each of the last two seasons, but dealt them to the Giants and Astros, respectively, in the offseason. Now, their most promising players are either on long-term contracts (Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Felipe Vasquez) or still on their rookie deals with several years of team control remaining (Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, Austin Meadows). Also, they don’t have a long list of top 100 caliber prospects to package for a marquee addition if they decide they want to be buyers. Top prospect Mitch Keller will likely be considered untouchable by the Pirates’ brass, and the rest of their prospects with the highest ceilings are still in their teens.
Still, the Pirates have a handful of tradable veterans (Francisco Cervelli, Corey Dickerson, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Ivan Nova) and depth among starting pitchers and infielders at the Triple-A and Double-A levels, all of which could lead to some below-the-radar moves as the end of July approaches.
After a couple of rough outings in May, Keller made some mechanical corrections and dominated Double-A competition in June, leading to a promotion from Altoona at the end of the month. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder added a sinking changeup to a fastball that sits between 94-96 mph and big curveball, He allowed just two runs in 26 innings in his final four starts before his promotion, surrendering just one hit in eight shutout innings in his final start with the Curve. At the time of his promotion, he led the Eastern League in wins (nine), ranked third in ERA (2.72), seventh in WHIP (1.12) and ninth in strikeouts (76).
low Class A West Virginia
When the Pirates acquired the 6-foot-7 Cruz last season in the trade that sent Tony Watson to the Dodgers, he was the rawest of raw talents. In 2018, he has begun to show what he’s capable of when he has some direction. He developed an approach at the plate beyond his grip-it-and-rip-it philosophy of 2017 and became one of the most productive hitters in the South Atlantic League. Defensively, he doesn’t have a long-term obvious home yet, but he shows range and remarkable arm strength at short. He struggles to sync up his long-limbed body at times, which has led to 28 errors in just over half a season, but he’s improving in that regard daily.
3. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
The son of former major-league third baseman Charlie Hayes has arguably made the most consistent, steady progress of the Pirates’ infield prospects on their upper-classification teams. Hayes won the Rawlings Gold Glove Award last season as the best defensive third baseman in all of minor league baseball and hasn’t taken any steps back, committing just three errors in his first 66 games. Offensively, the Pirates are seeing an increase in exit velocity, and Hayes is hitting the ball in the air more even though he isn’t really focused on launch angle and home runs.
Rookie League Bristol
The Pirates tend to take it slow with pitchers they draft out of high school. Such was the case with Baz, their 2017 first-round pick. After spending last season in the Gulf Coast League, Baz began 2018 in extended spring training and will spend the summer in the Appalachian League, waiting to even go to Class A ball before 2019. The goal for Baz this summer is to focus on inducing weak contact to increase pitch efficiency as opposed to trying to miss bats.
Short-season West Virginia
Swaggerty was considered to have arguably the best combination of tools of any outfielder in the 2018 draft, with enough speed and arm strength to stay in center field and enough power and plate discipline to keep his bat in the lineup. The Pirates made him the No. 10 overall pick and signed him for a $4.4 million signing bonus. Swaggerty recorded more walks than strikeouts in each of his last two seasons at South Alabama while also registering double-digit home runs, although he hit just .296 against mid-major competition, raising some concerns about his overall hitting ability.
Reynolds missed the start of the season after having hamate bone surgery and took rounding into form since his return, but he’s hit .288 with a .408 on-base percentage since June 13 and is showing improved bat-to-ball skills from the left side. He hasn’t tapped into his above-average raw power yet, and the injury doesn’t help, but his continued strides as a hitter help him profile as a major leaguer. Defensively Reynolds is primarily playing left field now, which is where he profiles long-term with the ability to play center as needed.
Newman got outside of himself in 2017 trying to add power, and it led to drops in all three slash line categories. This year he’s gotten back to being a singles and doubles hitter, which is what got him this far to begin with. Newman is still a little bit stiff at shortstop and his arm isn’t much better than average, but he’s sure-handed and intelligent, and the Pirates have been training him to quarterback the infield. He will likely see major league time this season, and he could find himself starting at shortstop in August and September if the Pirates decide to trade veteran Jordy Mercer.
Kramer embraced the launch-angle revolution and it has paid off. The former UCLA star hit more home runs (11) by July 1 this year season than he had combined in his first three seasons as a pro (10). He still shows gap-to-gap power as well with 22 doubles and three triples for a .473 slugging percentage. Kramer is striking out more, but is not necessarily bothered by the trade-off. Kramer’s bat could get him into the big leagues as early as August or September, and the Pirates are increasingly confident that he can handle third base, shortstop or second base.
low Class A West Virginia
Mitchell is just 19, but the Pirates are most impressed by his maturity at the plate. Mitchell has one of the better slash lines in the organization (.285/.352/.454) with 19 doubles, three triples and eight home runs, and he shows all the tools to hit at higher levels. He has a clean bat path and a disciplined approach, and there isn’t any area of the plate where he consistently gets beat. Defensively Mitchell isn’t nearly as advanced and his arm strength is questionable at best in left field, but his bat will play as he gains reps and confidence in the outfield.
Tucker remains the most fluid defender of the Pirates’ middle infield prospects and a prodigious base-stealer, which gives him survivable skills. Tucker pressed at the plate for much of 2018’s first half and struggled hitting lefthanded—usually the switch-hitter’s best side — but the Pirates identified the flaw as him pulling out too far on his front side. After working on that and to cut down excess movement, Tucker has turned it around and is batting .315/.387/.478 since June 24.
- OF Jared Oliva, a seventh-round pick from Arizona in 2017, didn’t hit a single home run in the New York-Penn League last year, but he already had nine by July 1 in the Florida State League. He also has 28 stolen bases, tied for the league lead.
- OF Jason Martin, acquired from Houston in the Gerrit Cole trade, continues to exceed evaluators’ projections and has hit .321/.378/.509 between Double-A and Triple-A.
- LHP Taylor Hearn had a 5.81 ERA through his first five starts but has been dominant since, posting a 2.19 ERA and .178 opponent average in his last 12 outings. Hearn’s long-term destiny is seen as likely still in the bullpen, but the Pirates will give him every chance to be a starter, with how much his slider improves key to his future outlook.
- LHP Brandon Waddell was one of Altoona’s go-to pitchers in its Eastern League title run last year, but Triple-A hasn’t treated him nearly as well. He’s allowed 48 hits in 40 innings at Indianapolis, with a 4.95 ERA and .294 opponent average.
- RHP Yeudy Garcia seemed to find himself once he was moved from the rotation to the bullpen at Double-A Altoona, but he’s struggled to keep runners off the bases and has a 1.51 WHIP through 27 appearances.
- OF Bryan Reynolds missed most of April and May with a broken hamate bone.
- RHP Travis MacGregor missed half of May and most of June with a shoulder injury.
- LHP Braeden Ogle has been out since late April with shoulder inflammation.
- OF Austin Meadows was called up to Pittsburgh on May 18 and hit well enough to stay up in a four-man outfield rotation with Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. He was named National League Rookie of the Month in May after hitting .409 in his first 13 games. Even after cooling off in June, he still owned a .298/.333/477 slash line at the break.
- 3B Colin Moran has been the Pirates everyday third baseman since Opening Day, batting .264/.337/.404 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs through the All-Star break.
- RHP Nick Kingham earned his first callup and settled into the Pirates rotation, going 4-4, 4.26 in his first nine starts.
- RHPs Edgar Santana, Ricardo Rodriguez and Kyle Crick have made up the core of the Pirates bullpen as rookies and provided a reliable bridge to closer Felipe Vazquez.
- INF Max Moroff has settled into a backup infielder role with the Pirates, primarily playing second base.