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
Ben Bengtson, 3B, West Virginia – Bengtson is getting regular playing time while Dylan Busby is still rehabbing down in the GCL and he made the most of it this week. Bengtson had a four-hit game on Thursday and added three more hits on Saturday. He had a total of nine hits on the week, including his third home run of the season and five doubles. Bengtson had just 11 extra-base hits coming into the week and his .540 OPS went up 74 points. He really needed this big week because it’s been a rough season otherwise, between barely getting playing time early in the year, then putting up a .258 OPS in May. Bengtson is an athletic third baseman with some power, which we really saw for the first time this week. It appears that Busby should return sometime soon, though he’s struggling in the GCL and hasn’t progressed to playing nine innings yet. Bengtson needs to continue capitalizing on his chance to play everyday.
Stephen Alemais, 2B/SS, Altoona – Alemais played five games this week and he had five hits and five walks. The 23-year-old infielder had a very rough patch in the middle of the season, but some big weeks since then has him at a .260/.322/.327 slash line through 81 games. Those aren’t great numbers, but he also had an 0-for-25 stretch bring those numbers down. At one point in mid-May, his OPS dropped below the .500 mark. With Cole Tucker playing everyday, Alemais has played just seven games at shortstop this season. That’s his best position, but he’s getting valuable regular playing time at second base and showing off the skills that make him an above average defender. He may need that versatility to get a real shot in the majors down the line.
Albert Baur, 1B, Bradenton – Baur was a regular in The 21 for most of the first half of the season, even being named Player of the Week once. He went through a few weeks where he wasn’t slumping, but also wasn’t doing enough to earn top performer honors. He’s back this week after collecting hits in all seven games, including three multi-hit games. Baur also homered twice last week, driving in three runs in two different games. On the season, he is hitting .291/.346/.463 in 76 games. That’s probably enough to get him promoted, but we might not see that until next year with Will Craig serving as the starting first baseman in Altoona now, and Jordan George taking the backup role. You would probably need Craig to be promoted, because unlike George, Baur does not have a second position.
Pedro Castillo, OF, DSL Pirates – Castillo received the second highest bonus in the 2016-17 international signing class for the Pirates. He was described as a raw left-handed hitter with potential. That showed last season when he had a .562 OPS and was one of the few DSL players not to get an invite to the Fall Instructional League last September. This year back in the DSL, he’s hitting for a higher average, drawing more walks, showing more power and he’s running the bases better, even after a minor groin injury cost him eight days. Castillo currently has an eight-game hitting streak, with walks in five of those games. The only odd part to his success is that his strikeouts have increased, although he seems to be doing better lately.
Jonah Davis, OF, Bristol – Davis nearly became a two-time winner of the Player of the Week in The 21, quite literally losing out in his last at-bat. He had eight hits, with one double, one triple and one homer, while driving in seven runs. Davis has played just 17 games since being drafted and he already has 15 extra-base hits. Strikeouts have been a concern, though we saw a nice turnaround in that area recently, with two strikeouts in his last 23 at-bats. He’s a major college player in the Appalachian League, so it’s hard to get too excited about the stats, but it’s the talent level that is the bigger picture. He’s a center fielder with speed and some obvious power. That’s a tough toolset to find in the 15th round.
Casey Hughston, OF, Bradenton – You probably haven’t heard Hughston’s name much this season and for good reason. After a putting up a strong week these last seven days, he has a .195/.289/.288 slash line in 68 games. That’s as a 24-year-old repeating the same level as last year. Despite the poor overall season, it’s harder to find a player in the system with the tool package of Hughston. He has plus speed, terrific raw power, excellent defense in center field and an above average arm. Unfortunately, he’s completely missing the most important tool and that has led to the .577 OPS and 80 strikeouts in 215 at-bats. If you watch him play though, you completely understand why he still gets regular playing time, with the hope that things click just enough at the plate that he can move up the system.
Bligh Madris, RF, Bradenton – Madris had seven hits this past week, including his seventh home run of the season. So far in July, he has an .844 OPS, which would easily be his best month of the season if he can keep that pace. It’s hard to say that he’s having a disappointing season with his .251/.308/.406 slash line through 76 games. Madris was a ninth round pick from a smaller school, who was described as raw when he was drafted. Add in that this is his first full season and he skipped a level to a pitcher-friendly league, and he’s really about where you would expect him to be at this point. The problem lies in the fact that he’s strictly a corner outfielder with average speed, so all of his value will come from his bat. In that sense, he hasn’t done enough this year, but he’s in the middle of a nice July and has seven weeks to finish up strong.
Kyle Mottice, INF, GCL Pirates – The Pirates signed four middle infielders as non-drafted free agents this year and sent all of them to the GCL. That’s not an ideal assignment for them, but there was a clear need for infielders and Mottice is making the most of his time recently. He’s actually made starts at all four infield spots already, with one error in 65 chances. He got on The 21 for his hitting though, which includes his first two extra-base hits this past week. Mottice is hitting .261/.424/.304 in 13 games. He has 11 walks against just five strikeouts and he’s 5-for-5 in stolen bases. He had a breakout season in college as a senior this year, so we will see down the line if he’s just an older player taking advantage of young pitchers, or if something clicked the year and he can build off of that.
Brett Pope, INF, Bradenton – I mentioned how close Jonah Davis was to being the Player of the Week and Pope was right behind him for the closest three-way race we’ve had this season. Pope began this season in Extended Spring Training, which was a bit unexpected considering his college background and strong defense at shortstop. That gave him a chance to play every day though, so once he got to full-season ball, he only spent a short time with the West Virginia Power, then moved up to Bradenton because he was playing so well. He’s been hitting even better in High-A, posting a .375 average through 14 games, with more walks than strikeouts. Surprisingly, he hasn’t played a single game at shortstop yet this season, seeing time at third base and second base. Pope went 9-for-18 with six walks this past week.
Bryan Reynolds, OF, Altoona – Reynolds made the list this week despite collecting just four hits. It helped that three of those hits were doubles and he also walked seven times in just five games. Reynolds has made The 21 a few times recently and I keep mentioning that he’s doing it very quietly. It never seems like he has any big games, but that stats are there at the end of the week. He has now played 39 games this year and he has posted a .271/.361/.393 slash line. Somewhat surprisingly, he hasn’t played any center field since returning from his hamate surgery, spending all of his time in left field. That’s despite Jason Martin being promoted weeks ago. Reynolds still leads my list of possible Arizona Fall League candidates and he could use the extra playing time against upper level pitching.
Cole Tucker, SS, Altoona – Tucker had a strong week that was shortened by the Eastern League All-Star break. He collected a total of six hits, scored six runs and drew three walks. One of those hits was his third home run of the season. Tucker had a .580 OPS on June 2nd. Since then it has increased 68 points, with help of an .804 OPS so far in July. He has 20 stolen bases and they have all come since May 20th in 24 attempts. His fielding has been above average all season, so it looks like he is finally putting everything together after a very rough beginning to the season. If he can continue on the same current July pace (or better) for the final seven weeks of the schedule, then it will end up being a solid season for one of the youngest players in the league.
Osvaldo Bido, RHP, Morgantown – Bido made The 21 last week after allowing one run over five innings, with no walks and eight strikeouts. It was a career high in strikeouts and a rare occurrence that he didn’t walk anyone. In his lone start this past week, Bido gave up just one run over six innings. He surrendered three hits, walked two batter and had two strikeouts. He also posted a 9:2 GO/AO ratio and needed just 74 pitches to get through his outing. It wasn’t as dominating as the previous start, but Bido has the stuff to be a top pitching prospect in the system and we might be seeing him taking big steps towards reaching that potential. His control have improved significantly and he still has room to fill out his 6’3″ frame.
Cody Bolton, RHP, West Virginia – Bolton pitched outstanding during Spring Training and Extended Spring Training this year, which led to him jumping over some top prospects to get to West Virginia much earlier than expected. He started off on fire, giving up just three earned runs in his first five starts combined. Things got a little rough after that stretch. Bolton faced Hagerstown on July 1st and gave up three runs in the first inning, then another three in the second. He had a rematch six days later and improved his results, allowing three runs over six innings. Bolton was even better in his only start last week. He went seven innings for the first time in his career. He allowed two runs on five hits and a walk, while also setting a career high with nine strikeouts. This time last year, he had just turned 19 years old and had two innings as a pro. Now he throws harder, has better secondary pitches and a stronger frame, while putting up big numbers in full-season ball when his fellow prep pitchers from the 2017 draft class are putting up so-so numbers two levels lower.
Luis Escobar, RHP, Bradenton – Escobar has been more consistent recently, picking up more strikeouts and putting together better overall results. In his lone start this past week, he went seven innings, giving up two runs on five hits and one walk. He had six strikeouts and an 8:5 GO/AO ratio, while throwing nearly 70% of his pitches for strikes. It was the second time this year that he completed seven innings. In his previous start, Escobar set a season high with nine strikeouts and he did it without walking anyone. So the control has been better, and that has helped lead him to better results and more strikeouts. With his stuff, which includes a mid-90s fastball, a curve that looks plus at times and a solid changeup that gets swing-and-misses, Escobar is just a little bit better control away from everything clicking. He can be his own worst enemy at times, overthrowing in big spots. So it’s not only control of his pitches that he needs, it’s control of himself at all times.
Santiago Florez, RHP, GCL Pirates – During the 2016-17 international signing period, the Pirates signed the 16-year-old Florez for $150,000 bonus out of Colombia. He was listed at 6’5″, 160 pounds. Now at age 18, his weight is listed at 222 pounds. He has definitely put some muscle on his big frame since signing, especially lower body strength. After a season in the DSL that saw him battle control issues most starts (38 walks in 53.1 innings), Florez has moved up to the GCL, where walks are still an issue, but batters are having a tough time collecting hits against the sinkerball righty. One week ago today, he took on the Tigers East and threw six no-hit innings. It was the first time that he went six innings in a start. Florez is definitely one to keep an eye on and youth is on his side. For comparison sake, he’s seven months younger than Braxton Ashcraft, the 2nd round pick of the Pirates, who signed out of high school this year.
Alex Manasa, RHP, Morgantown – Manasa has had a rough time since making The 21 after each of his first two starts this season. I mentioned both times that he was not pitching well in Extended Spring Training and the scouting reports were not glowing. He still got results in those first two performances before giving up 15 earned runs over his next 14 innings. His lone start last week didn’t look like it would end up strong either, but he really bounced back from a rough beginning. Manasa walked three of the first four batters, then over the next 5.2 innings, he allowed one run on three hits and no walks, ending up with a fine six inning performance. In 32.1 innings this season, he has a .292 BAA and an 18:14 SO/BB ratio. He has a nice 1.46 GO/AO ratio, but other than that, it’s been rough. The bright side would be the fact that he’s an inexperienced pitcher, who is just 20 years old. The downside is that he was making nice progress with Bristol last year and has taken a step back since then.
James Marvel, RHP, Bradenton – Marvel is making a clear push to get promoted to Altoona before the season is over. With just over seven weeks left in the season, he is putting up his best stretch of pitching. Marvel started with six shutout innings on June 27th. He faced the same team five days later and allowed two runs over seven innings, while walking none and striking out seven batters. Another five days later and he set a career high with nine strikeouts, while allowing one run over seven innings. In his only start last week, Marvel made it three straight outings with seven innings pitched. He gave up two runs, but both were unearned. He had no walks and six strikeouts. That gives him a stretch of three runs over his last 27 innings (1.00 ERA). He was our Player of the Week in last week’s The 21 and he backed that up with a brilliant performance. The best part for Marvel is that he’s still getting a solid ground ball rate, while walking very few batters and he has picked up at least five strikeouts in each of his last six starts. He appears to be ready for Altoona.
Beau Sulser, RHP, West Virginia – Sulser had two strong multi-inning relief appearances this past week. On Monday, he gave up one hit and no walks over two shutout innings. Three days later, he went 3.2 scoreless innings, facing the minimum. In 38 innings over 21 appearances, the 24-year-old righty has a 2.13 ERA, a .213 BAA and an 0.82 WHIP, with 38 strikeouts and a 1.24 GO/AO ratio. Sulser was a tenth round pick out of Dartmouth last year, selected their to save money for over-slot picks. He’s putting up solid results for the level, though at 24, he’s 3-5 years older than many of the players in the league. We won’t really know how good he could be until we see him in Double-A.
Noe Toribio, RHP, GCL Pirates – Last year in the DSL, we had Toribio as the best pitching prospect from the 2017 team. He didn’t have stats to match that claim, with a 4.13 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP, but there was a lot to like about the young righty from the Dominican. Toribio sat 91-92 MPH with his fastball, and had reportedly hit 97 MPH in relief, though we didn’t get that number in our reports. What he did so well that got him highly ranked was his ability to maintain hi velocity all game. He’s still just 18 years old now, with room to still fill out his 6’2″ frame, so it’s easy to picture him adding velocity as he gets older. He also has the makings of a nice curve/changeup combo to go along with that fastball. This season in the GCL, Toribio was putting up similar stats to last year until his start on Thursday. He threw six shutout innings, giving up two hits, with no walks and eight strikeouts. That’s a new career high for strikeouts and this outing showed what type of potential he has for the future.
Eduardo Vera, RHP, Altoona – Vera didn’t have the greatest start this past week, but it was how the start came about that got him on this list. Just three batters into his July 4th outing, Vera was smoked by a line drive on his pitching forearm. It was bad enough that they sent him right to the hospital to get it checked out for any possible breaks. Eight days later, during the first game back from the Eastern League All-Star break, Vera was back out on the mound making his scheduled start. He went six innings, allowing two runs on seven hits and two walks, with two strikeouts. He had an 8:4 GO/AO ratio, which is impressive by his standards because he’s more of a fly ball pitcher. You can’t blame Vera for wanting to come back so quickly. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and he’s hoping for a 40-man roster spot.
Brandon Waddell, LHP, Indianapolis – Waddell was pitching in relief for a couple of weeks for Indianapolis, after some shaky starts. He pitched outstanding with Altoona this year, but those results didn’t carry over right away. In his start on July 4th, Waddell went seven innings and gave up two runs. It wasn’t a dominating performance, as it included nine hits, two walks and just three strikeouts, but it was a clear step in the right direction. He built on that outing in his lone appearance last week. On Friday night, Waddell tossed seven shutout innings, giving up just two hits, one walk and he set a career high with nine strikeouts. That’s what you would like to see from the 24-year-old lefty, who will be Rule 5 eligible for the first time this winter. He might not have any more than fifth starter potential, but Waddell has been known to come in huge in big spots since his college days, so he might make a strong reliever someday, who you can trust late in games. He has hit 94 MPH as a starter, so there could be more in there for shorter outings.
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.