The Fall Instructional League (FIL) began on Tuesday for the Pittsburgh Pirates, eight days later than originally planned due to Hurricane Irma. The Pirates had very little damage at Pirate City, with a few trees down, some fencing down and water-logged fields. We will begin our coverage of the league on Monday and there will be a lot to cover.
We knew that the Pirates would have a large group of players in the FIL when we got word that 21 players were reporting from the Dominican. The FIL always includes all of the new draft picks, so that added another 37 players after a big signing class this year. It also always includes the players going to the Arizona Fall League (plus a few extras in case replacements are needed) and any injured players.
So even if that’s all of the players who were invited, then you’re talking about a minimum of 85-90 players. The Pirates invited about 20 others though, including Max Kranick and Austin Shields, who both need to make up for some lost innings, as well as Hai-Cheng Gong, the 18-year-old right-handed pitcher out of China, who was signed in May. Gong was on the GCL roster all season, but this is his first time at Pirate City. They also brought over outfielder Cristian Navarro, who was signed this July as an international free agent out of Mexico. That’s very rare to see a July 2nd signing go right to the U.S. that same year for instructs. It doesn’t mean he will completely skip the DSL, but that is a likely option at this point.
The FIL schedule begins on Monday and the Pirates are switching up the games a little this season. Last year, they only played Black & Gold games, aka Pirates vs Pirates. They will have those games this year as well, but just for the younger players. The older players will play games against other teams, which usually consisted of Phillies, Yankees, Orioles and Blue Jays in the past. We will have the full list of players from the league soon as well as the schedule.
One note out of the FIL and it comes from Jonathan Mayo from MLB Pipeline. Kevin Kramer will be playing shortstop while at Pirate City and continue to get reps there in the AFL. Depending on where he begins next season, either Altoona or Indianapolis, he will be on a team with a top shortstop in the system. Cole Tucker will start at Altoona next year and is still expected to play in the AFL, so even in fall ball, Kramer will have a shortstop prospect in the system on the same team. Kramer played shortstop in the past, including four games after he was drafted in 2015, so it’s not a new position for him, but it will add to his versatility. We will have more on this during our FIL coverage, as well as our AFL live coverage in November.
The Pirates released right-handed pitcher Junior Lopez this week, in a move that shouldn’t be surprising. Lopez was suspended for recreational drug use in early April. It was a 25-game suspension, but while he was staying in shape at Pirate City, he suffered an arm injury. That kept him out of game action completely until July 19th, when he started a rehab stint in the GCL. After three games, he was shut down from pitching. The “no surprise” part of him being released is based on the fact that nothing was wrong with Lopez when they shut him down and he spent the last six weeks just hanging around. He was added to the Bradenton roster, then placed on the disabled list, but that was just because his rehab stint had ended and he needed to be placed on a full-season roster.
Lopez looked like a potential prospect in 2015, but he didn’t perform well during Spring Training of 2016 and was the last cut from the Altoona roster. That happened the afternoon before players left for their city (Altoona in his case), so it was a very late decision to leave him back at Bradenton. Lopez finished the 2015 season with a nice stretch in Bradenton, and it was just his second season of pro ball. He regularly hit 93 MPH with his fastball, topping out at 96 MPH. He also had a solid changeup to go along with that fastball, and recorded a lot of groundball outs.
While he’s a big arm with potential, the suspension, followed by injury and benching for the final six weeks, signaled the end of his time with the Pirates.