West Virginia has been the home of the breakout prospect the last few years. They had Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson in 2012 and Tyler Glasnow in 2013. They had smaller scale breakouts like JaCoby Jones and Yeudy Garcia after that, then returned to the big impact breakout guy with Mitch Keller last year. This year looks to be a down year for the club, as there aren’t as many high upside guys who could take a step up to the top of the system.
That’s not to say that West Virginia doesn’t have prospects. Luis Escobar is a top 20 prospect who could be a top five prospect one day, while Stephen Alemais is a top 30 prospect with some breakout potential. Beyond those two, the West Virginia group has a few guys in the back-end of the top 50, along with a group of guys who don’t factor in to the rankings. As a result, we’re less likely to see the Polanco/Glasnow/Keller type of prospect emerging, with the hope that a Jones or Garcia can step up.
Here are the top ten prospects at the level, based on our rankings in the 2017 Prospect Guide.
1. Luis Escobar, RHP – Escobar was ranked as the 19th best prospect in our 2017 Prospect Guide. He already moved up one spot with Josh Bell graduating on Opening Day, but he has a chance to jump into the top five prospects by the end of the season. Escobar has a fastball that sits 93-95 MPH and can touch 97. He has a strong changeup that can be used as a strikeout pitch. He also has a curveball that gets swinging strikes and looks like a plus pitch at times. Those are the makings of a top of the rotation pitcher, but he does have plenty of work to do before you can start to dream big.
Escobar doesn’t have the best control, which can lead to some short outings. He has a high-effort delivery and doesn’t have the biggest frame, so there are concerns that he could end up as a power reliever. The Pirates will keep him as a starter for as long as possible due to the upside. He doesn’t turn 21 until the end of May, so time is clearly on his side. Escobar doesn’t throw his curve for strikes often, as it is more of a chase pitch. That works well at the lower levels, but he’s going to need to be able to throw it for strikes to succeed at higher levels. I would expect him to spend the entire season at West Virginia (possibly moving up late like Mitch Keller did last year). Escobar will work on throwing strikes and building up his innings. His progress will determine whether he makes the jump to the top group of prospects for the Pirates, or remains in the back of the top 20 prospects.
2. Stephen Alemais, SS – Alemais is one of the best defensive players for the Pirates at any position. He does everything you want to see at shortstop, with quick feet and range to both sides. He makes the routine and spectacular plays, with a steady glove and a strong arm. There isn’t much doubt that his defense is Major League quality and possibly Gold Glove quality, but there is doubt as to whether his bat will be good enough for him to even reach the majors. That’s an area he worked on this offseason with Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes, and going back to his time in the Fall Instructional League, we have already started to see some improvements.
Alemais might not be at West Virginia too long. The Pirates have Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker at shortstop in the two levels above him. When they are both ready to move up, then he should follow and take over shortstop in Bradenton. Alemais will still have to show he’s ready for the move on the offensive side. As a college player from a major school in his first full season of pro ball, he should be able to handle Low-A pitching, so I don’t expect the offense to hold him back at this point. He could see some time at second base as well, to add to his versatility.
3. Adrian Valerio, SS – West Virginia has two skilled defensive shortstops among their top three prospects this season. They may never play together because it’s possible that Alemais moves up to Bradenton when Valerio returns from a broken hand he suffered during Spring Training. His timetable for return at this point is 4-7 weeks, though the Pirates could choose to hold him back a little in Extended Spring Training to get him more reps at shortstop. If he returns before Alemais leaves, the expect them to split the time at shortstop and second base. Valerio might not be as strong defensively as Alemais, but he isn’t far behind and he’s two years younger.
Just like Alemais, the offensive side could hold Valerio back from reaching his full potential. He works best as a line drive hitter who tries to get on base. Unfortunately, he can get into a power-hitter mindset at times and that has led to stretches of a poor approach at the plate and extended slumps. It’s the same thing we have seen with Alen Hanson over the years, where hitting a home run can be the worst thing they could do, because it takes them away from their strength at the plate. Valerio should spend the entire season at West Virginia once he returns and his progress at the plate will determine whether he is a top 30 prospect by the end of the season.
4. Blake Cederlind, RHRP – The Pirates drafted Cederlind in the fifth round last year and went the safer approach with his placement, sending the hard-throwing college arm to Bristol instead of Morgantown. Due to his workload during the college season, he was limited in his innings with the Pirates, putting in a total of 17.1 innings over six starts. He was a little shaky in a couple starts, but he finished with nine shutout innings over his last two outings. That finish came earlier than expected due to some forearm tightness. The Pirates were very cautious with his return, and by the Fall Instructional League, he was back on the mound and throwing in game situations.
Cederlind was one of the hardest throwers this spring, consistently hitting 95-96 MPH. His focus this season will be throwing his fastball for strikes and working on his off-speed pitches. Right now he profiles as a power reliever because his changeup, curveball and slider all are considered below average pitches, with the changeup being the best of the group. The Pirates will start him in the bullpen and slowly increase his innings, which will lead to him making starts later in the season. That’s to limit his overall innings and give him a chance to work on his secondary pitches. Expect him to spend the entire season at West Virginia.
5. Cam Vieaux, LHP – Vieaux made it into the back of our top 50 prospect list by putting up solid results at Morgantown after the Pirates made him a sixth round pick in last year’s draft. He’s a 6′ 4″ lefty with solid control of three pitches. After drafting Vieaux, the Pirates wanted to try to get more velocity out of him, so he didn’t fit that soft-tossing lefty profile. They also scrapped his curveball and had him concentrate on his slider, which showed improvements during the course of the season. Vieaux’s velocity was down just a tick from college to the pros, which could be due to a long season and a lot of innings. He wasn’t throwing hard this spring either, sitting 88-90 MPH.
The Pirates have skipped advanced college pitchers over West Virginia in the recent past, with Brandon Waddell, Frank Duncan, Tyler Eppler and Chad Kuhl all making that jump in the previous three years. Vieaux seemed like the next in line for that jump, but he will at least start the season in West Virginia and could be an early season call-up to Bradenton if something opens up. He turned 23 back in December, so he’s older than your average player in their first full season. Vieaux will work on commanding his three pitches and hopefully add to his velocity, at least hoping to get back to the 90-93 MPH he flashed before the draft. His upside is limited to a back-end starter, who could end up as a lefty reliever.
6. James Marvel, RHP – The Pirates took Marvel late in the 2015 draft and paid him a slightly over-slot bonus to sign. That was despite the fact that he was in the middle of rehab from Tommy John surgery and had not pitched that season. Marvel returned to action with Morgantown last year and put up mixed results in his 13 starts, occasionally looking great, then struggling through other starts. The fact that he returned healthy and put in his innings was more important that the overall results at that point. This season will be more about results, as he has a spot in the West Virginia rotation and will compete with Cam Vieaux to see which starter would be the first to get called up if a spot opens.
Marvel relies heavily on a sinker that produces a lot of ground balls. The pitch sat 88-91 MPH with movement last year, but the hope is that he can add a little velocity (while maintaining the movement) as he gets further away from his Tommy John surgery. When he is on, Marvel does a great job of keeping the ball down in the zone and he doesn’t mind throwing inside to both lefties and righties. He also throws an average curveball and a changeup that he will get to work on this season. He doesn’t have a swing-and-miss pitch at this point. Much like Vieaux, he has the upside of a back-end starter, but Marvel could end up as a ground ball specialist out of the bullpen.
7. Dylan Prohoroff, RHRP – Prohoroff is a wild card arm out of the bullpen. The Pirates drafted him in the eighth round last year after seeing him flash a fastball that occasionally touched 95-97 MPH. He wasn’t throwing that hard after being drafted, sitting 91-92 MPH in limited outings, and he dropped off even more during instructs. Prohoroff has a violent delivery, which has extreme head-whacking at the end. That is something the Pirates worked on him with to cut out, which would help with his control and get him to be more consistent with his velocity.
Prohoroff almost exclusively relied on his fastball during college, occasionally going to a slider that needed work. The pitch improved after he signed with the Pirates, and he also added a changeup during the offseason. Due to the high-effort delivery and reliance on his fastball, he will likely be limited in his usage this season to 1-2 inning outings out of the bullpen. His role in the future appears to be a power reliever if he can be more consistent with the velocity and develop his slider into an out pitch.
8. Sandy Santos, CF – Not much changed with Santos from last year until this year, and even going back to when we reported on him in the DSL. The Pirates have a toolsy center fielder, with a strong 6′ 3″ frame, who shows power, speed and a strong arm. He sounds like someone who should be further up this list, but his play on the field has been extremely erratic over the years. If you catch Santos on the right day, he looks like he should be one of the top prospects in the system. Those “right days” don’t happen enough for him to warrant a high-ranking yet. Frustrating would be the best term to describe his game.
Santos put up a .748 OPS in the pitcher-friendly NYPL last year, batting out of the lead-off spot and playing center field everyday. He has above average speed, which leads to great range in the outfield, but doesn’t translate well to the bases, where he was just 7-for-17 in steals. Despite that speed, he is one of the worst base runners in the system, with an out of control style that usually leads to bad decisions. In the outfield, he displays a strong arm, which he likes to show off. That leads to a lot of poor decisions on throws, while rarely hitting the cutoff man to limit runners moving up. At the plate he has a tendency to over-swing in big spots, when he can generate power with his normal approach. Basically, he looks like someone who tries too hard all of the time and it rarely works out well. The tools are all there for him to be a breakout player this year, but he turns 23 soon in his fifth season of pro ball, and he often looks like he’s just learning the sport.
9. Victor Fernandez, LF – When Fernandez signed with the Pirates in 2014, he was getting attention before he ever played his first pro game. During Spring Training games in the Dominican that year, we got reports that he was a terror on the base paths, running at every opportunity and never getting thrown out. He was described as having plus-plus speed (actually description was “the fastest person I’ve ever seen” from one source). He made it to the Fall Instructional League that year and put on an impressive display, with sub-4.00 speeds to first base from the right side and once getting to second on a double, standing up at the bag in seven seconds flat. I told you all that to tell you he is still a fast runner, but has lost a step or two since filling out his frame.
Fernandez put up an .832 OPS last year at Bristol and at 22 years old this season, he makes the jump to West Virginia. His bat and above average speed make him an interesting player to watch. Fernandez makes consistent solid contact, but he isn’t going to hit for power. He’s better when he stays within in his games and hitting line drives to the gaps, then using his speed to take extra bases. He needs to improve his outfield play, as he is limited to a corner spot at this point due to poor reads off the bat. His speed helps make up for late jumps and occasional bad routes. He should spend the entire season at West Virginia and another solid year at the plate will get him on our top 50 prospect list.
10. Oddy Nunez, LHP – It seems like every year we see strong results from a left-handed pitcher in the lower levels and when you get a report on them, they end up with good control of a fastball in the high-80s and not much else. That makes it easy to lump them all into a group of soft-tossing lefties and wait to see if they can have success at the upper levels before getting excited about them. We also talk a lot about younger pitchers with projectable frames to add velocity. At 19 years old last year in the GCL, and at 6′ 5″ with plenty of room to fill out, Nunez fit both of those groups. This spring he took a huge step forward and that led to the Pirates skipping him over two teams, from the GCL to West Virginia.
Nunez went from sitting 86-88 MPH out of the bullpen in his first two seasons, to hitting 93 MPH this spring. That’s the type of jump you hope to see from a young pitcher as they fill out, and there could still be more in the tank. He combines that fastball with a slider that’s tough to hit. That has led to a decent strikeout rate and a solid ground ball rate each of the last two seasons. Nunez will get to start this season, although he will be limited to keep his innings from piling up. He has thrown 56.1 innings in two seasons as a pro, while also putting in limited bullpen innings in Extended Spring Training and instructs. He doesn’t have a lot of innings on paper, but those other innings will be factored in when trying to figure out how big of a jump in innings he can make this season. He’s definitely one to keep an eye on this year and has a chance to be further up this list by the end of the season.
Other Notable Prospects: West Virginia doesn’t have many top prospects, but there are other players to watch outside the top ten. Eduardo Vera has a similar story to Oddy Nunez in that he increased his velocity this offseason and will make the jump from the GCL. While Vera has two solid off-speed pitches, he’s two years older than Nunez and a smaller right-handed pitcher. Matt Frawley displayed solid command of a low-90s fastball during Spring Training, throwing the pitch on a downward plane and keeping it low in the zone. He could move up to Bradenton at some point during the season. Matt Anderson was the tenth round draft pick last year and put up some strong strikeout numbers at Morgantown until a blister problem limited his use and effectiveness.
Hunter Owen put on a hitting display during Spring Training this year, which drew a lot of attention. He can play multiple positions, though the Pirates plan to get him more starts at third base, where his defense needs work. Arden Pabst will be the starting catcher. Drafted in the 12th round, he has above average defense and a strong arm, but the bat holds him back for now.
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.