A couple weeks ago, we were talking about a team that lost nine games in a row, but since then the DSL Pirates have really turned things around. They have gone 10-4 since breaking the streak, including a 4-2 record this week. Last week, we highlighted a hard-throwing starter that just might be a prospect. This week we focus in on a rookie catcher that has looked good both at the plate and behind it recently.
This week we start with a transaction for the DSL team. They sent one player to the GCL and got another player back. Lefty reliever Cristian Mota was promoted to the United States early this week. He can hit 95 MPH with his fastball and attacks hitters with the pitch. He was too old for the DSL, so it is good to see him move up after throwing just six innings.
The DSL Pirates got back third baseman Jhoan Herrera. He was in Extended Spring Training and assigned to the Bristol roster, but never played due to an ankle injury. When he was healthy and ready to go, the Pirates sent him back to the DSL so he could see playing time. So far, the 19-year-old, who received a $300,000 bonus in 2012, is 3-for-10 with a double and two walks in four games.
Speedy center fielder Victor Fernandez returned to action last Saturday after experiencing some minor hamstring issues. He is 2-for-18 since returning, so the injury looks like it halted his early success. Fernandez was hitting over .300, stealing bases and leading the team in OPS when he went down. His speed is game-changing in the outfield and on the bases, so hopefully for the Pirates, he can get back on track.
As for the top prospects, 16-year-old Jeremias Portorreal has continued to struggle. He went 2-for-15 this week, with a double and three walks. He is hitting .178 this season, with a .580 OPS and a team-leading 37 strikeouts. Only defensive-minded backup catcher Ramy Perez has a lower average and OPS among Pirates players. The important thing to remember with Portorreal, besides the strong scouting reports when he signed, is the fact he is the youngest player on the team. At his age, some growing pains are to be expected.
Second baseman Raul Siri continues to hit, putting up a .333/.424/.569 triple slash line through 37 games. He was especially good this week, putting up a 1.053 OPS in 22 at-bats. As I have said with him, he is still a suspect until further notice. His stats are good, but he was a little older than normal when he signed, he is very small and his signing got no fanfare at all. Those are three things you look at when a player signs and if all three are on the wrong side, it usually doesn’t say much about his prospect status. If he continues to hit like he has though, there is no doubt he will make a name for himself by the time the season is over.
Edison Lantigua had his best week of the season, going 7-for-19 with three doubles and a triple. He signed for the third highest bonus last year among Pirates players, behind Portorreal and shortstop Adrian Valerio. Lantigua has hit the best of the bunch, posting an .846 OPS through 28 games. The one thing with Lantigua is that he has become more aggressive at the plate, walking 16 times in his first 18 games, while striking out 14 times. In his last ten games, in which he has a .357 average, he has two walks and ten strikeouts. So while he is hitting better, the plate patience has definitely taken a step back. That isn’t bad when you’re having success, but it’s usually not a sustainable approach at the plate. For the record, someone with the team said that they “See a much better hitter now” when asked about Lantigua, comparing his start to his last couple weeks.
Shortstop Adrian Valerio started this week off with a bang, then closed it out quietly. He had four hits on Monday, including his first career triple, then went 2-for-17 the rest of the week. He is hitting .238/.301/.369 this year in 130 at-bats. The 17-year-old defensive wizard has received praise all year for his work at shortstop, but that part of his game was never in question. He has been a streaky hitter at the plate this year, though he has made consistent contact, striking out just 17 times all season.
Strong Pitching From the Usual Suspects
The pitching with the Pirates has been very bad at times, but most of trouble comes when the relievers enter the game. The starters have been decent for the most part, especially the top prospects among the group. They used a total of 18 pitchers this week, but there are still only four pitchers at this point worth mentioning.
Last week, we talked about the prospect status of Yeudy Garcia(see link at top) and whether a 21-year-old rookie can really be considered a prospect. Garcia throws hard, hitting 95 MPH in the starting role. He throws strikes, he keeps the ball on the ground and he picks up strikeouts. There isn’t much more you could ask for from him and this week, in his only start, he threw 4.2 shutout innings. Garcia has an outstanding 3.60 GO/AO ratio and 28 strikeouts in 33.2 innings, plus he hasn’t allowed a homer. His age may work against him, but it’s hard to overlook the results and arsenal.
Richard Mitchell threw five innings in his one start this week, allowing just an unearned run. The 18-year-old righty threw five shutout innings in his last appearance too, so he has been really good recently. Mitchell can hit 91 MPH and works a change-up and curve in often, throwing all three pitches for strikes. He pitches to contact, concentrating on getting ahead of the hitters and getting quick outs. His .233 BAA, with no homers and nine walks in 33.1 innings, are all strong stats in his first season as a starter.
Righty Luis Escobar is still the top prospect among pitchers, even though he hasn’t put up the best stats of this group. The 18-year-old is two years removed from third base, so he is still raw on the mound, but throws hard and is showing a good feel for pitching, which will only get better. He gave up two runs over four innings this week in his only start. On the year, he has a 6.87 ERA, which is heavily skewed by his ten earned runs over 1.2 innings in his second pro start. Since then, he’s allowed ten earned runs in 26.2 innings, so that is quite a turn around.
Reliever Armando Bustamante gave up one run over four innings this week in his only appearance. You don’t often see relievers throw four innings in the DSL and this is the second time Bustamante has done just that. After some early season control issues, he has given up two runs over 14.2 innings in his last five appearances combined.
Catching Prospect Working Both Sides of the Ball
Catcher Mikell Granberry is an 18-year-old rookie from Mexico. When he signed, we posted videos of him that showed a strong defensive catcher, with good hands, a plus arm and we were told he makes good contact at the plate. We were also told that he was very athletic with good speed for a catcher. So far this year, Granberry has been the main catcher for the Pirates, starting 21 games.
Sure, he came with all the tools to be a prospect behind the plate, but Granberry has put in a lot of work to get to where he is and it came with some early season struggles. Teams were running wild on Pirates pitchers early on and as the main catcher, Granberry took the brunt of that abuse. Even as a catcher with a strong arm and quick release, there were games where the other team stole nine bases and seven bases, both without a caught stealing.
Recently though, he has been much better, proving that when the pitchers do their job on the mound, a good throwing catcher is able to do his job. The stolen bases against have dropped dramatically recently and his success rate at throwing out runners is slowly improving.
Granberry considers his own strong point to be his ability to block pitches in the dirt, which helps his pitchers have the confidence to throw breaking balls with runners on, knowing the ball is going to stay in front of the catcher and the runners aren’t going anywhere. He credits his coach Osiel Flores with helping him stay relaxed behind the plate, which has helped his game improve through the down times when the team was losing everyday and opposing runners were going wild on the bases. Along with Flores, Cecilio Beltre is another coach for the Pirates that has helped him since the day he arrived at the Dominican academy, making him a better all-around catcher.
On the offensive side, he has had some ups and downs at the plate. Granberry hit two homers in June and drew 11 walks in 15 games, but he wasn’t happy with his overall performance and he’s made some adjustments.
Granberry said “I’ve been working on staying back and letting the ball come to me. Being aggressive from pitch one has also helped me a lot.”
The early July numbers are good, with a .320 average in seven games, but his recent hot streak has come in just his last five games. He is 8-for-18 in those last five contests, with five walks.
Perhaps the best part of his game, came from a mid-week conversation we had. I asked him how he did one day after we talked a little bit about his hitting the previous night. His answer was simple, “Not good, we lost”. Without seeing the box score, which doesn’t post until much later in the day, I left it at that thinking he had a bad day. When the score posted later on, I saw his line from the game, 1-for-2, with three walks and two runs scored. Most players in a slump would be ecstatic about that day at the plate, but his team lost that, so it was a bad day. It says a lot about a young player when they have a team-first approach like that.
When asked about his personal goals for the season. Granberry said “I would like to stay strong on defense, I think I’ve been doing a good job lately catching. I liked to keep my approach at the plate too.”
What he’s been doing lately sure seems to be working, both for his offense and for the Pirates, who have turned their season around after a slow start. Having a steady defensive catcher behind the plate has no doubt helped the team climb back up in the standings.
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.