Every Monday during the minor league season, we take a look at the top performers in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system, giving scouting reports on the top ten pitchers and top ten hitters from the previous week. The column was originally called Top Performers until last year when we changed it to The Twenty. The number 21 obviously has a lot of significance for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans, so we expanded this article to include one extra player.
Each Monday, we will highlight one Player of the Week, who will be followed by ten pitchers and ten batters who excelled during the previous week. This isn’t a top prospect list, so any player in the system can make the list if he has a strong week. Our scouting reports are based on first-hand views throughout the system, where we have coverage for all four full-season affiliates. We also get extra views via MiLB.tv, giving us a look at the entire farm system throughout the season.
Player of the Week
Will Craig, 1B, Altoona – Even if he showed no power this week, Craig may have competed for Player of the Week honors. He had three games with three hits and one hit in each of his other three games. He cemented his spot here by hitting homers in five of those six games. Craig was tied with his home run total over all of last season coming into this past week, then he nearly hit that same amount over the last six days. After an off-day on Monday, he drove in five runs on Tuesday, two more on Thursday and three on Saturday, finishing the week with 12 RBIs, giving him 50 for the season before the halfway point. What makes it even more impressive is that he drew walks in four straight games, so he was showing a combo of patience and power. He now has his OPS up to .835 on the season, putting him just outside the top ten in the Eastern League.
Angel Basabe, CF, DSL Pirates – Basabe received the third highest bonus ($450,000) handed out by the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2017-18 international signing period. It’s the second highest bonus among Pirates currently in the DSL and since Juan Pie ($500,000) is on the other Pirate affiliate in the league, then that makes Basabe the top player to follow on his team. Signed as a 16-year-old (turned 17 in December), he was described as a solid all around center fielder, with a strong bat from the left side. He was listed at 6’0″, 153 pounds when he signed, but he has filled out some since then, with more room to add muscle as he gets older. Basabe had a total of 11 hits this week, collecting at least one in all six games he played. He hit his first pro home run on Tuesday and drove in two runs in three straight games. So far he is hitting .356/.420/.578 now ten games into his young career. If all goes well, we will see him in at Pirate City in September for the Fall Instructional League.
Rodolfo Castro, 2B, West Virginia – Castro played seven games last week and had hits in all seven contests. He also drove in a total of nine runs. On Thursday, he connected on his sixth home run of the season, tying his total from the GCL last year. On Saturday, he topped that mark with his seventh homer. Castro was showing a little more power last year still, but he was also playing in a league closer to his own age. He just turned 19 years old less than a month ago, so he’s among the youngest players in the South Atlantic League. While his stats haven’t been great, he hasn’t been completely over-matched at the level. If he can improve as the season goes along, then he will likely move up to Bradenton next year.
Oneil Cruz, SS, West Virginia – Cruz extended his hit streak to nine games one Sunday, one day after bringing his average over the .300 mark with a four-hit game. He drove in three runs on Monday and another three on Saturday, when he collected two triples and a double. Through 63 games, he is now hitting .303/.363/.516, with 29 extra-base hits. Calvin Mitchell has been West Virginia’s leading hitter all season, but Cruz is now just four points behind him in the OPS category and he passed him in slugging on Saturday. Cruz is having the breakout season so far that the Pirates hoped for when they acquired him in the Tony Watson trade. The defense at shortstop is still very rough, but his bat is what will carry him. If he reaches his offensive potential, the Pirates will find a spot for him.
Bralin Jackson, OF, Altoona – Jackson making this list is a great story because he was playing in independent ball last year. He really wasn’t doing much with Altoona prior to this week, seeing sporadic playing time, but that changed in a hurry. On Wednesday he had a three-hit game. That got him back in the lineup on Thursday and he responded with four hits and three runs scored. Then on Friday, he had three more hits, including his third homer, and drove in four runs. Through 33 games, he is now hitting .301/.333/.437 in 103 at-bats. Jackson was a fifth round draft pick out of high school in 2012 by the Tampa Bay Rays, who cut him in 2016. He’s still just 24 years old, which means we could be seeing him tapping into that potential that got him drafted that high.
Kevin Kramer, 2B/3B, Indianapolis – Kramer had four multi-hit games last week, two of them involving a home run and three RBIs. His home run on Saturday tied him at the time with Will Craig, who hit one an hour earlier, for the most in the farm system. Kramer also has 14 doubles and two triples, which has helped him to a .272/.333/.477 slash line through 62 games. Kramer is likely going to see time in Pittsburgh this season, though I believe he still needs some more time in Triple-A. That’s especially true if he’s being brought up for a position other than second base full-time. He’s played a handful of games at third base and hasn’t seen time at shortstop in a month. He could still use some work on his base running and his 59:19 SO/BB ratio isn’t ideal unless he can keep up the recent power surge at the same time.
Ryan Lavarnway, C, Indianapolis – Lavarnway gives the Pirates extra catching depth behind Jacob Stallings. He has played parts of six seasons in the majors, dating back to his debut in 2011. He hasn’t had much success at the plate in the big leagues, but name a fourth string catcher who has that on his resume. With Stallings in the majors, Lavarnway made the most of his chance to play everyday. He homered on Thursday and Friday and had hits in eight straight games. He’s the type of player you hope you don’t need in the majors at any point this season because it means two catchers ahead of him are hurt, but he can serve as the backup if needed.
Matthew Mercedes, 1B/3B, DSL Pirates – Mercedes is one of the few returning players from the 2017 DSL Pirates. He didn’t get much time last year, especially not at third base with the emergence of Sherten Apostel. Mercedes has been off to a strong start this season, homering twice in his debut, then hitting a third one shortly after. This past week he homered for the fourth time, tops among Pirates in the DSL. He also had two three-hit games and he drove in six runs. He has driven in a total of 14 runs in 11 games and perhaps most impressive is his strikeout total. After doing a nice job of making contact last year with 18 strikeouts in 134 plate appearances, he has improved on that early on with three strikeouts in 47 plate appearances. Mercedes is slightly older for the DSL, turning 20 on the last day of the season. He signed late because his father, who is a famous player agent, made his complete high school before he could sign.
Jose Osuna, Util, Indianapolis – Osuna has been moving around more on defense in Indianapolis since being sent down. Over the last four games however, he has been at first base. Before that, they had him play a stretch in right field and that was after playing a few games at third base. That’s key for him if he’s going to get playing time in Pittsburgh. Indianapolis is now loaded with players who are looking to get back to the majors or get their first shot, so versatility could be the ticket back. Osuna is hitting well too, collecting ten hits total over the past week, including his fourth Triple-A homer and his 19th double.
Jared Oliva, CF, Bradenton – We try to use 20 plate appearances as a cut-off here, but Bradenton played just four games this week due to their All-Star break. Oliva not only had the most plate appearances on the team (16), he also hit the best, so we made an exception. He went 6-for-13 this week, connecting on his seventh home run of the season. On the season, he is hitting .286/.379/.472 in 56 games. The power is quite surprising because he showed no signs of being a power hitter last year, making a lot of soft contact, with the occasional line drives. His game appeared to be speed-based, as a threat to steal at any time and he covered a lot of ground in the outfield. You add power to that and he’s a very interesting player right now.
Bryan Reynolds, OF, Altoona – Reynolds has been slow to get back up to speed after his hamate surgery back in April. He returned on May 29th and has played 13 games since then. He had a .524 OPS coming into this past week, then hit three doubles and his first home run of the season, driving in a total of six runs. It’s going to be difficult to judge Reynolds this season because the hamate surgery usually results in power being sapped from a player’s game for up to a year. You want to see him put together strong at-bats and hit for some average at this point, while also playing the solid defense he has been known for during his career and in college. With his missed time this season and the fact that he’s in Double-A, Reynolds seems like a perfect candidate to play in the Arizona Fall League in October.
Cody Bolton, RHP, West Virginia – Bolton set the bar high with his first start in Low-A, throwing five shutout innings. He raised it the next week with six shutout frames, then came back with 4.1 shutout innings in a start where he ran into a high pitch count and some fifth inning trouble. That still put him at 15.1 innings without a run coming into his fourth start this past week.Bolton extended the streak to 19.1 innings before allowing a lead-off homer in the fifth. He would get through five innings with two runs on four hits and no walks. He now has 20 strikeouts through 20.1 innings, with an 0.89 ERA, an 0.74 WHIP and a .153 BAA. Bolton impressed this spring and was one of the best pitchers in Extended Spring Training, which earned him a push that we rarely see. Prep pitchers in their first full season usually go to Bristol. That’s where Shane Baz and Steven Jennings are now, and they were the two highest picks last year. Bolton has enough time this year to stay ahead of them with a spot in Bradenton if he can continue to pitch well throughout the remainder of the season.
Taylor Hearn, LHP, Altoona – Hearn has been dominating lately, going into last week’s start with six earned runs allowed over his last six starts. We have seen his velocity return to normal after being down in the low-90s earlier this season. His slider has also been improving, giving him a strong three-pitch mix. On Thursday morning, he allowed two runs on six hits, with ten strikeouts. After 12 starts this season, he now has a 3.57 ERA, with 71 strikeouts in 63 innings, to go along with a 1.14 WHIP and a .205 BAA. Back on May 4th, after a tough outing, Hearn had a 5.81 ERA through his first five games, but he has seen a steady decline since that game. There have always been questions about whether Hearn could stick as a starter, but now that he’s having success in Double-A, you’re going to see him continue to get chances to remain in the rotation. Being a power lefty reliever if that fails down the line is a nice fallback option.
Clay Holmes, RHP, Indianapolis – Holmes has shown up here three weeks in a row after being absent from this article for a little while. His control has been much better lately and that led to five shutout innings on Wednesday, and now just one run over his last 17 innings. If the Pirates needed a second starter from Indianapolis after Nick Kingham, then Holmes would likely get the call. Tyler Eppler has been pitching well all season and looking much better than last year, but Holmes has the 40-man roster spot advantage to go along with his recent stretch of strong outings. He has more strikeouts than innings pitched this year and his ground ball rate is very high, which has been his strength since he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2015. Three outings in a row of throwing strikes isn’t enough to say that his control has taken a step forward, but it’s a very nice start to that being a possibility.
Nick Kingham, RHP, Indianapolis – Kingham had an outstanding performance on Thursday night. He didn’t give up his first runner until the seventh inning and it was on a ball hit back to the mound that he threw away, although it was scored as a hit and an error. He would give up a clean, hard hit in the eighth by former Pirates prospect Edwin Espinal to make it legit, but that was it in eight shutout frames. He struck out six batters. There really isn’t much to talk about here. Kingham is the sixth starter and to be that player, you need to make starts. So he is at Indianapolis. The only thing he needs to work on is losing that last option he has so they can’t send him down anymore.
Max Kranick, RHP, West Virginia – Kranick made our list after his first two starts were solid performances with West Virginia. He joined the team in May after pitching terrific throughout all of Extended Spring Training. After those two starts, he hit some bumps in his introduction to full-season ball. His next two starts were subpar, although one game he allowed four runs in the second inning, then finished up his outing with three shutout innings. Friday night was his first start since then and he tossed five shutout frames on six hits and no walks, with three strikeouts. Kranick has been throwing harder this year, getting his fastball up to 96 MPH. His curveball is a really nice secondary pitch and his slider is improving. He’s still a work in progress at this point. You would like to see him miss more bats and he has the stuff to do it. He’s also been an extreme flyball pitcher, so that’s something to keep an eye on for the future. Right now though, he’s pitching well for the jump to West Virginia and showing plenty of potential.
Alex Manasa, RHP, Morgantown – Manasa was the 11th round draft pick last year out of a small community college, where he wasn’t concentrating on pitching full-time. He’s just 20 years old still and in the early stages of the pitching process. We saw plenty of progress last year during his time at Bristol, but the reports from Extended Spring Training said that he wasn’t throwing hard and was getting hit around often. So it was a little surprising to see his Opening Dy performance for Morgantown. He went six innings, allowing one run on five hits and a walk, with three strikeouts. The Opening Day assignment doesn’t really mean anything other than it was his day to pitch. They don’t set up the rotations in the minors like they do in the majors. We will have to watch how he does over the next few weeks before we overlook two months worth of spring reports from Pirate City, but this is obviously the start you want to see.
James Marvel, RHP, Indianapolis – Marvel has been inconsistent this year, which has led to mediocre stats from a 24-year-old in High-A. It’s important to remember that his Tommy John surgery cost him college and pro time, so he gets some slack on the age part for now. Marvel’s start last week was a strong effort, as he pitched a complete game (seven innings) during the second game of a doubleheader. He allowed one earned run on two hits and no walks, while picking up a season-high seven strikeouts. Marvel throws strikes, relying on a sinker in the low-90s for early contact and ground ball outs. He has 52 strikeouts in 77 innings, which is just below his strikeout rate for his pro career, but just above where he was last year in Bradenton. If he can miss more bats like his last start, then he has a chance to stick as a starter longer, but he seems more likely destined for middle relief at this point.
Oddy Nunez, LHP, Bradenton – Nunez spent a week on the disabled list with an unspecified injury (possibly just a break/rest), missing just the minimum seven days. He had a couple of rough outings before the DL trip, which included five walks in his last game. He returned on Wednesday to allow one run on seven hits and one walk in five innings. Nunez hasn’t had the velocity or the control this season that made him such an intriguing prospect at 20 years old last year (not to mention he’s a 6’7″ lefty). He looks more like the pitcher we saw in the GCL in 2016 and got reports on in 2015 from the DSL. Last year he was getting a lot of ground balls and some horrible defense behind him really cost him a few times. If he can get back to that low-90s sinker and better control, then he will likely see a lot of success because he was difficult to square up last year.
Jesus Valles, RHP, DSL Pirates – The Pirates signed Valles with a large group of players on March 9th, which included their top international signing, Ji-Hwan Bae. Valles was one of five players from Venezuela in that group and at 20 years old, he was the oldest. The Pirates love 6’3″ right-handed pitchers, so he had that going for him. Valles has been in the rotation, where he dominated in his one start this past week, throwing six shutout innings on two hits, with no walks and seven strikeouts. In 15.1 innings so far, he has one walk and 15 strikeouts. Valles throws his four-seam fastball 90-92 MPH and it’s his best pitch. He also has a sinker (88-90), a terrific changeup (80-84) and a curve (76-78).
Cam Vieaux, LHP, Altoona – Vieaux wasn’t really impressing during his time in Bradenton this year. He had a 3.81 ERA, a high flyball rate and that led to him giving up too many homers. Even the strikeout rate was low, but he seemed to really take steps forward in his final two starts at the level. Vieaux was sitting 93-94 MPH and mixing his pitches well, which led to 17 strikeouts over 12.2 innings in those final game. That got him a push to Altoona and he made The 21 last week due to one run over seven innings, with no walks and seven strikeouts, in his Double-A debut. He made one start last week and nearly put up an identical line, striking out five instead of seven, with one run and no walks over seven frames. His jump to Altoona has been very impressive so far and it looks like it’s part of a jump that he made as a pitcher within the last three weeks.
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.