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First Pitch: Surprises and Disappointments From the Pirates’ Lower Levels

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For the last two-plus weeks, I’ve been on the road, getting a lot of live coverage of the lower levels, including my first looks at most of the 2016 draft picks. I’m currently making my way back home to Bradenton, with my next game to cover being Saturday morning in the GCL (hopefully featuring Jacob Taylor and Hector Garcia making their next rehab appearances). I’ve got plenty of features from West Virginia, Morgantown, and Bristol coming in the next few weeks. But for now, I wanted to give a quick summary of the trip, looking at the surprises and disappointments at each level.

West Virginia

Biggest Surprise – My focus was on three pitchers for this portion of the trip, looking at Mitch Keller, Gage Hinsz, and Taylor Hearn. It’s hard to really call anything here a surprise, since I was expecting big things from all three. I could include Hearn here, since I hadn’t seen him before, and I came away very impressed. But I also expected a big arm, so again, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see him do so well. I think the biggest surprise, edging out Hearn, was Mitch Keller. I’ve seen Keller a lot over the years, including earlier this season. But I was surprised at how much progress he has made this year. He’s now consistently sitting 94-97 MPH, carrying his velocity through the start, and his changeup has improved. I saw Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow at this stage, and Keller is looking better and more advanced than both of them did.

Biggest Disappointment – Casey Hughston, taken in the third round last year, has dealt with some horrible strikeout issues so far. I’ve written about this issue, where he struggles on pitches on the outer half of the plate. This hasn’t improved, and Low-A pitchers are targeting that, as I saw consistently during this trip. He isn’t showing any improvements, which isn’t a good sign for a college hitter in Low-A. It’s only going to get more difficult as he moves up, where pitchers have much more control and can expose that weakness a lot easier. It’s not that it’s impossible for him to improve here, but he’s shown no improvements in a year, which is a bad sign.

Morgantown

Biggest Surprise – I had heard the defense for Stephen Alemais was good, but what I saw in my five days in Morgantown was a daily highlight reel. He’s got some of the best defense at the shortstop position in the system, with good arm strength, a lot of range, and smooth hands. He could make it to the majors on his defense alone as a backup, but the Pirates will try to get some offense out of him so he can be more. I wrote about how they’re trying to do that last week.

Biggest Disappointment – It’s really difficult to have a disappointment at this level. That’s because, even if a player isn’t performing well, you can’t really tell if that is legit. College players are now playing deeper in the year than they have before, and making adjustments to pro ball. We saw last year with Kevin Newman that you can’t really base much on the short-season results, and even the reports change. So I don’t really look at this level with potential disappointments, since we can’t tell that this soon.

Bristol

Biggest Surprise – There wasn’t really a surprise at this level. There were a few pitchers who did well, but none of them really project as big prospects going forward. With that disclaimer, the surprise I’m going with here is smaller scale. That would be Matt Eckelman, who had better fastball velocity than I expected, sitting 91-93, and touching 94 with good control. There have been some good results from the lower level, middle and late round pitchers in Bristol, but Eckelman might have a shot at carrying his success to higher levels. I don’t see him as more than a middle relief prospect at this point, which means right now he has to work to just get to that point.

Biggest Disappointment – The roster was pretty thin, due to a few injuries to top round draft picks. Fifth rounder Blake Cederlind and seventh rounder Brent Gibbs were both out, and are expected to miss the final few weeks of the season. That reduced the talent available to watch, and delayed my views of Cederlind and Gibbs until instructs, hopefully.

**Prospect Watch: Kingham and Duncan Throw Shutout Ball. Nick Kingham moved to Bradenton and had a great outing today. Frank Duncan continued his success in Indianapolis. Brian Peloza will have an article on Duncan tomorrow.

**Brandon Waddell Continues to Get Ground Balls, Striving for Consistency. Sean McCool looks at what Waddell has been working on in Altoona this year, with his two-seam/slider combo working well for him.

**Morning Report: NYPL All-Star Results and High Praise for One Morgantown Player. John Dreker reviews the Morgantown All-Stars, along with some of the reports that came from the event.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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