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Graduations and down years hurt stock.
With Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer, the Pirates have a large number of potential big league infielders at high Class A and above. With the exception of Hayes, none are seen as more than solid regulars, but the Pirates have gotten good production out of Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer and Adam Frazier, all of whom carried similar expectations when they were in the minors.
The Pirates' starting pitching depth is at its thinnest level in years thanks to the graduations of Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams in the past two years as well as the struggles from some young arms. Mitch Keller is one of the best pitching prospects in the game, but after him, the next wave of pitching prospects, such as 2017 first-rounder Shane Baz, spent the season in Rookie ball.
Notable Graduations: 1B Josh Bell (4) hit for big-time power, while RHPs Trevor Williams (14) and Tyler Glasnow (3) and LHP Steven Brault (7) all made starts.
Keller, whose older brother Jon is a righthander in the Rockies system, became a major draft prospect between his junior and senior years of high school when he added 10 mph and started hitting the mid-90s at showcase events. He struck out 91 batters in 69 innings as a senior and was committed to North Carolina, but the Pirates selected him in the second round in 2014 and got him on board with a $1 million bonus. Keller started out strong in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2014 but missed much of 2015 with forearm problems. However, his dominant 2016 campaign at low Class A West Virginia turned him into a priority prospect when he combined swing-and-miss stuff with outstanding command, striking out 131 batters and walking just 18. His rise accelerated in 2017 despite a lower-back injury that cost him several weeks and a shin injury that also cost him time. Keller began the season with high Class A Bradenton and was promoted to Double-A Altoona in August. He pitched a one-hit, 90-pitch shutout in the Eastern League playoffs against Bowie. Keller has put on muscle to a rangy frame, which allows him to produce easy velocity without overly stressing his arm. His fastball sits 94-96 mph with late life, tilt and armside run. He can hit 99 when he rears back. His fastball command is improving, and he can throw it to all four quadrants against batters on either side of the plate. His heater sets up a big looping curveball with an 11-5 shape with hard downward bite. He still considers his fastball his best pitch, but the Pirates are trying to convince him to trust his curveball. Their next goal is to help him with a developing changeup, which is still an average pitch for him. It has armside run and sink, but he probably needs to take something off because it comes in too close to 90 mph. Keller projects to be a mid- to top-of-the-rotation starter and could eventually mesh with a big league staff mostly comprised of young, tall righthanders with skill sets similar to his. He will most likely begin 2018 at Altoona, but could find his way to Triple-A Indianapolis by the end of the season. A big league debut in 2019 seems probable.
Meadows was considered one of the best high school bats in the 2013 draft. The Pirates took him No. 9 overall and signed him away from a Clemson commitment for $3,029,600. Meadows backed up his reputation all the way through Double-A, but he has struggled at Triple-A Indianapolis. He suffered through an injury-riddled 2017 season, playing just 81 games thanks to hamstring and oblique injuries. It's the third different season where hamstring injuries have hamstrung him. Throughout his career, Meadows has shown a smooth swing, good feel for the barrel and the strike zone, so his struggles at Triple-A don't worry the Pirates. They trust that Meadows will be a plus hitter who will develop consistent home run power, even if it doesn't come early in his major league career. He is a plus runner with solid outfield instincts. His arm is his weakest tool, but it's still adequate enough to play all three outfield spots. Meadows was widely expected to make his big league debut in 2017, but injuries prevented that from happening. There's a good chance he'll start 2018 at Indianapolis, especially if Andrew McCutchen remains with the team. Meadows has a chance of finally breaking through if he can stay healthy.
Baz was a two-way star at Concordia Lutheran High, the same program that produced system-mate Ke'Bryan Hayes. As a senior, he played on USA Baseball's 18U National Team and recorded an 0.93 ERA and hit .431. The Pirates took him No. 12 overall in 2017 and gave him a slightly over-slot bonus of $4.1 million, buying him out of a commitment to Texas Christian. Baz finished the season strong in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, allowing only one run in nine innings in his final three starts. Baz has a long athletic frame that can support additional weight. His double-plus fastball sits between 94-96 mph with late heavy life--both armside run and late sink that makes it exceptionally difficult on righthanded hitters. He's working with both a slider and a curveball, and both have bite, depth and plus potential. Baz's changeup isn't quite as developed but shows late fade. His control is advanced for his age. Baz will require time to develop, but he has all the ingredients to eventually be a front-of-the-rotation starter. The Pirates haven't taken a prep pitcher in the first round since Jameson Taillon in 2010, and Taillon began at low Class A West Virginia in his first full season.
The Pirates took Hayes, whose father Charlie played 14 years in the big leagues, with the No. 32 pick in 2015, convincing him to turn down a commitment to Tennessee. After a strong performance in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2015, he played in just 65 games in 2016 thanks to a cracked rib. However, he still started 2017 in high Class A Bradenton and had his most complete season to date. Hayes showed better feel for the strike zone, a compact swing and the ability to drive the ball to all fields in 2017. He hasn't shown a lot of home run power, but he could develop power similar to that of his father, who hit 144 home runs. Hayes continued to drop baby fat and add muscle in 2017. He's transformed from a poor baserunner into an above-average one. The conditioning also aided his range at third base. He has sure hands and a quick first step. He should be a defensive asset as a plus defender with a a plus arm. Hayes will likely begin 2018 at Double-A Altoona despite being just 21 on Opening Day. While his statistics have been modest, scouts see him as a future above-average regular thanks to his hitting ability, work ethic and understanding of the game.
Newman won the Cape Cod League batting title twice and hit .370 in his junior year at Arizona. He continued to build on his reputation as a pure hitter in his first two seasons as a professional, hitting a combined .320 in 2016. Newman has a strong frame and outstanding feel for the strike zone and the barrel, so the Pirates have to fight the temptation to mess with his swing to try to produce more power. However, he has struggled any time his swing has become too big and has found his most success hitting line drives to the opposite field. He shows the potential for a plus hit tool, albeit with well below-average power. Newman has good speed on the basepaths and good athleticism, but his body is a bit stiff. He has average range and an average arm at shortstop. He's steady defensively, though and tends to make all the routine plays without issue, committing just 17 errors in the past two seasons. Newman could still use some time at Triple-A Indianapolis. If he hits in 2018, he could earn a big league callup, particularly if Jordy Mercer is traded. He's a sure-fire big leaguer, but the question is how much impact he'll have.
The Pirates surprised many by taking Tucker in the first round in 2014 convincing him to pass up a commitment to Arizona. He missed time in 2015 as he recovered from labrum surgery to his right shoulder and the injury seemed to still limit him in 2016. Despite a broken left thumb, he had his best offensive season at high Class A Bradenton in 2017, when he led the Florida State League with 36 stolen bases, then helped Double-A Altoona to an Eastern League championship. Tucker made drastic strides as a hitter in 2017, greatly improving his strike-zone awareness and overall approach. He has a loose swing and quick hands from both sides of the plate. Below-average power is still the weakest part of his game, but he has present gap power. His wiry frame suggests he can add strength as he ages. Tucker's long strides obscure his plus speed, his most impressive tool, and he drastically improved his intelligence on the basepaths in 2017. He is a fluid athlete with good range who projects as above-average at shortstop, and his above-average arm is back to full strength. Tucker will likely start 2018 at Double-A Altoona but could eventually challenge Kevin Newman for a spot in the big leagues.
Pirates international scouts found Escobar as a 17-year-old in Cartagena, Colombia, and liked his live arm. They signed him for $150,000. He was just 155 pounds at the time and played third base, but the Pirates pushed him to pitch. Escobar has increased his velocity as he added weight and strength, and his breakthrough season in 2017 included a trip to the Futures Game. At low Class A West Virginia in 2017 he led the South Atlantic League with 168 strikeouts and a .200 opponent average, though he also ranked second with 60 walks. Escobar throws a four-seam fastball with riding action that he can get up to 97 mph and usually sits in the 93-95 range. He can still be a little scattershot with his fastball, but he has made major control improvements in the past year. He pairs his heater with a sharp above-average 12-6 curveball with late drop. His changeup needs further development, but it generates fringe-average to average grades as well. Escobar will likely begin 2018 at high Class A Bradenton. Some scouts see him as a future power reliever, but if his changeup and control keep developing he could stay in the rotation.
Kingham was one of several long-framed high school pitchers the Pirates went over slot to sign at the beginning of the decade. However, he has become a forgotten member of that group thanks to injury. He rose steadily through the organization until 2015, when he had Tommy John surgery while in his second season at Triple-A Indianapolis. That cost him most of that season and 2016, when he made just 10 starts. His 2017 campaign also got a late start thanks to a spring training ankle injury that kept him out until mid-May. Kingham's average fastball generally sits around 92 mph, but his 6-foot-6 frame allows him to create downhill plane. He has an average hard curveball with three-quarters break and a plus changeup with sinking action. His control is a strength, but he can sometimes get hit hard by staying in the zone too much. The Pirates consider Kingham one of 10 pitchers they would feel comfortable starting at the big league level, but the Pittsburgh rotation remained relatively injury free in 2017, and he was never called up. He will be in the rotation mix in 2018, but that's no guarantee that he'll be called up from Indianapolis.
The Pirates acquired Hearn along with Felipe Rivero when they traded Mark Melancon to the Nationals in 2016. Rivero became the Pirates' closer in 2017 and was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. Hearn has some of the same attributes as Rivero. He missed the final two months of 2017 at high Class A Bradenton thanks to a strained left oblique but still finished with 11 strikeouts per nine innings in a career-high 89 innings. Hearn's near top-of-the-scale fastball plays in the 96-97 mph range, and he frequently hit 99 in games. On occasion he even topped triple digits. His below-average control is still an issue, and he is also working on secondary pitches. Hearn is making progress with his potentially average 84-86 mph changeup. It's tough on both righthanded and lefthanded hitters. He's working on his fringy slider, but he hasn't found a shape and velocity he feels comfortable with yet. The central question for Hearn is whether or not he can remain a starter, and that might not be possible if his control and slider don't improve. He will likely move up to Double-A Altoona in 2018, but he could move to the bullpen there if it becomes clear that's his best bet to reach the majors.
The Pirates made Sanchez their big-ticket signing on the 2015 international market, coming to terms for $450,000. He showed impressive maturity for an 18-year-old in his first season in the U.S. in 2017, when he hit .284/.359/.417 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League with 21 walks against just 19 strikeouts and 14 stolen bases. He led the circuit with 42 runs and placed third with 85 total bases. Sanchez showed excellent hand-eye coordination and plate control in the GCL. Even though his frame doesn't project for more than average power, his four home runs showed he is capable of running into a few because he's good at getting the barrel to the ball and his body possesses some twitchy athleticism. Sanchez's speed is a plus-plus tool, and he has good baserunning awareness for his age. He's also an above-average center fielder with an above-average arm. His display of all of those tools in the GCL have quickened his track significantly. Sanchez may not start 2018 at low Class A West Virginia if the Pirates keep him in extended spring training, but he will almost certainly end up there at some point.
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