The 2018 Arizona Fall League season wrapped up on Thursday for the Surprise Saguaros. The Pittsburgh Pirates originally selected eight players to go to the fall league. That number was down to six by the end of the season and the Pirates received mixed results from their players.
We start with the early departures and catcher Arden Pabst never made it to the league, despite heading to the Fall Instructional League to remain in game shape after the Altoona season ended. Pabst wasn’t going to get playing time with three other catchers in a league that plays a 30-game schedule. It’s too bad that he didn’t go because shortly after the season started, one of the catchers got hurt and Pabst could have been part of a three-man rotation behind the plate, with some DH at-bats also available. By the time that they decided to remove that injured catcher from the roster, it was already three weeks since Pabst last played a game at Pirate City, so joining the team late wasn’t an option.
Dario Agrazal made one start before he was shut down due to a back injury. He allowed five runs in five innings on Opening Day and his velocity was down about 5-6 MPH from what we saw in 2016-17 before injuries started to hit. This was his third significant injury in 16 months and all three have been different.
As for the players who were there all season, the Pirates saw significant offense from both Cole Tucker and Will Craig. In particular, Tucker really stood out because he hit .370/.442/.457 and received just as much praise for his defense as he did for the offense, with his base running not far behind. He finished third in the league in average, fourth in OBP, second in hits, fifth in runs scored and 11th in OPS (just a few points back of eighth place). Tucker did everything except hit for power, though he finished within two doubles of the league leader in that category.
Craig impressed with his power, tying for the league lead with six homers. What was even better is that he did that while hitting for average and cutting down on his strikeouts. His 18 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances (20.0 K%) was a nice improvement on his regular season rate, which helped lead to a .304 average this fall. Craig’s .947 OPS was the fourth best in the league, and well over 200 points higher than league average. He got some praise for his defense as well, specifically with the way he turned a handful of 3-6-3/3-6-1 double plays.
Bryan Reynolds was in the AFL to make up for some lost at-bats during the season. He performed well with Altoona after his hamate surgery in April, so there was no reason to expect him to struggle in Arizona. He finished with a .188/.338/.234 slash line in 18 games. The 14 walks were a good sign, but he still finished 52nd in the six-team league in OPS. Reynolds had some adventures on defense as well, with some particular trouble in the throwing area, but there were also some mentions of poor reads in left field. So it was an overall poor showing in the league for the 23-year-old.
On the pitching side, Blake Weiman was the most impressive overall, though his last two outings left a lot to be desired. That may have been due to fatigue, as he was up over 80 innings out of the bullpen at that point. He posted a 3.95 ERA in 13.2 innings, with a 12:4 SO/BB ratio and a .250 BAA. Among players selected to the Fall-Stars game, he was selected as the best control pitcher. That’s not surprising, as he issued just nine walks in 67 innings during the regular season. Left-handed batters went 3-for-20 against him this fall.
While Weiman gets by with excellent control and goes to his off-speed pitches often, his 93-94 MPH velocity pales in comparison to Geoff Hartlieb, who is among the hardest throwers for the Pirates. Hartlieb hit triple digits often during the fall, while sitting 97-99 MPH most of the time. He was working on his two-seam fastball more often, which sits about 93-95, and gives him an effective ground ball pitch. The 24-year-old, 6’6″ right-hander, had a lot of trouble in the AFL. He posted a 6.59 ERA, a 2.26 WHIP and a .383 BAA, with eight walks and 12 strikeouts in 13.2 innings. Those were well off of his solid numbers from the regular season with Altoona. According to a report I received, his delivery was very inconsistent, which led to control issues.
Matt Eckelman had a 2.05 ERA during the regular season, splitting his time between Bradenton and Altoona. Batters hit .213 against him and he averaged nearly a strikeout per inning. That didn’t carry over into the fall, where he struggled in nearly every outing. He posted a 13.00 ERA in nine innings, with his mound time likely limited due to performance. Batters hit .325 against the 25-year-old right-hander, who posted an awful 11:3 BB/SO ratio. Eckelman has a huge 6’4″ frame, and only pitched 50.1 innings during the season (including playoffs). That was a lot lower than his 2017 total with West Virginia, so it’s hard to believe that fatigue factored in to his performance. His velocity was sitting at 92-94 MPH, which is the norm for him, but he has control issues and his breaking ball was very inconsistent.
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.