Morning Report: Who Will Be the Top Prospect in the System By the End of 2019?

Game of Thrones returned last night, starting us down the path of the final season to see who ends up on the Iron Throne. My outside the box prediction would be Tyrion and Sansa as the underdog duo that claims power in the end. For that to make sense, I’d have to go into detail about Tyrion’s long development and rise in power throughout the show, with the same quietly happening for Sansa.

But this article isn’t about Game of Thrones. This article is about a different throne, wondering who might end up as the top prospect in the Pirates’ system by the end of the 2019 season. It’s very early in the season, with most hitters having below 50 at-bats, and most pitchers having two starts at most. I’ll be pointing out the small sample sized numbers below, although that’s mostly to show what players need to do or not do going forward, rather than to say those numbers are legitimate.

Here are seven players who might have a claim to the top prospect throne by the end of the year, and their path to that top spot.

Mitch Keller – It would be difficult to see Keller at the top of the prospect list again going into next season. If he’s still a prospect at that point, it would mean something went wrong with his development, or an injury came up. He just turned 23 years old, so it’s not like he’s anywhere close to having a make or break season for his career. He has been working on adjusting his pitching approach, using the changeup and curveball more often in his attack on the mound, especially in the early innings. That’s been rough so far, and you can understand that, since changing your approach isn’t like flipping a switch.

He should have a shot at the majors by the end of the year, and if that doesn’t happen, it probably means something went wrong with that approach. It would be difficult to see him repeating as the top prospect in the system after 1.5 seasons in Triple-A. I’m not predicting this path at all, for the record. But if we’re looking at “How could this guy be the top prospect next year”, I don’t see a path for Keller, since his return as a prospect next year would surely mean a hit to his value.

Ke’Bryan Hayes – For those of you who kept track of the Prospect Guide changes over the offseason, you’ll notice that in the final version of the book, Hayes moved up to the top tier with Keller. That decision had less to do with Keller than it did with Hayes, meaning that Hayes moved up, rather than Keller moving down. As you probably know by now, we prefer tiered rankings over numerical rankings, and both players being in the same tier means you could pick either one as the top prospect in the system.

Hayes is up there because he’s got Gold Glove defense at third base, and combines that with some good offensive skills, with the ability to hit for average, get on base, and some power that continues to develop. If the power continues to develop, then Hayes would look like a relatively safe prospect to bet on, with the upside of an above-average third baseman or better, depending on how well the bat carries over to the big leagues. Like Keller, it might be difficult to imagine a scenario where he’s still a prospect next year without a hit to his value. It’s a bit easier in this case, since Hayes could be impacted short-term by Colin Moran or Jung Ho Kang. That could keep him a prospect long enough to claim the throne, if you will.

Cole Tucker – We’ve had Tucker ranked higher than a lot of other outlets, with a continuous focus on his tools, rather than the results. The tools always looked better than what he showed consistently in games, and what showed up on the stat lines. I’ve written a few times leading into this year that it’s time for Tucker to show results in order to avoid a hit to his prospect status. So far, he’s showing those results to a tune of a .325/.413/.525 line with two homers (three shy of his season total last year). It’s early, so those stats don’t mean much, but that is what Tucker needs to continue to show to move up the lists.

The upside here is a shortstop with positive defensive value at the position who can also hit and provide power from a spot where it can be difficult to find good hitting and good defense. This is a similar story to Hayes, where Tucker could have a good season in Indianapolis, but end up blocked in the short-term by one of the MLB options. That seems less likely right now with Erik Gonzalez and/or Kevin Newman blocking a top prospect, versus Colin Moran doing the same. That’s largely Tucker’s path to being the top prospect: He hits like he’s doing right now, but the MLB options play well enough to keep him down all year (which would be a massive improvement in value for both MLB options so far).

Oneil Cruz – This situation is almost the opposite of Tucker. We’ve seen Cruz put up some impressive offensive numbers, and there could be more to come, as he’s got a lot of raw power in his large frame, and has been doing well the last year to hit for more than just power, while not sacrificing his power in the process. The big question here is whether he can play shortstop, and as I wrote last week, I’m starting to see a possibility for him to stick at the position. It’s difficult to predict this long-term, since Cruz could add some weight to his big frame and take the shortstop position off the table as a result.

For now, he’s got the speed and arm strength for the spot, and his routes and angles have looked better this year, with smoother results on the field. The offensive numbers might take a hit playing in Bradenton, due to the league factors. But so far that hasn’t been a big issue, and he looked fine at the plate when I saw him last week. His path to the top would include showing off that impact bat, and showing more proof that he could stick at shortstop. A promotion to Altoona in the second half with strong results on both sides of the ball would help his stock. It might be difficult for him to pass Tucker if Tucker hits well, since there is almost no risk of Tucker moving off the position, while the risk would be there for Cruz. But even if he had to move to third base, Cruz has the potential in his bat, and enough raw power, to still have a shot at the top spot by the end of the year.

Travis Swaggerty – Swaggerty was the first round pick last year, and could be the future replacement for Starling Marte in center field. He looks good defensively in center field, and has good speed on the bases and in the field to add to his skills. The problem is that the offense hasn’t looked good so far. His numbers last year in Morgantown weren’t bad, but his strikeout rate was alarmingly high. He’s lowered that a bit this year, but his walks, average, and power production have also gone down in the process. Some of this could be attributed to the Florida State League, although those don’t help to ease the previous concerns about his offense.

Swaggerty’s profile is different than the guys on this list so far. There’s more upside with the other guys, to the point of impact potential, but still with a lot of risk in some cases. The defense should get Swaggerty to the majors as a bench option at the least, and he’s got a good chance to be at least an average starting center fielder if he hits enough. He’d need a big improvement on his offense to look like an above-average or better starter in the future, and that would also be his path to the top, while maybe hoping for some graduations ahead of him.

Will Craig – We’re usually lower on first base prospects, holding them back until they show good results and a lot of power in the upper levels. Right now, Craig is on pace to hit 74 homers in a 480 at-bat season (his total at-bats from last year), and I’d say that might be enough to warrant consideration for the top spot in the system. In all seriousness, the key for me with Craig is his ability to hit for power AND maintain his average and on-base skills. He added power last year, but saw a decline in his average and walk rates, along with an increase in the strikeouts. The latter isn’t an issue if the hits and walks are still there.

So far this year, Craig is hitting for average and drawing walks. Fortunately for the Pirates, Josh Bell is also off to a hot start in the majors, showing numbers that look more like what we expected from Bell from day one. There could be an interesting situation developing at first base if both hitters continue to perform well (and that scenario should have Pirates fans hoping for the DH to come to the NL, in which case Craig would be the better option for first base, due to better defensive skills). It would be difficult to see Craig take the top spot with so many prospects ahead of him who play harder positions, while playing those positions well. It’s not difficult to imagine him being stuck in the minors this year with the way Bell has started off. His path to “the throne” would pretty much require monster numbers.

Cody Bolton – I wanted to go for a sleeper pick here, and Cody Bolton might be the best guy for that pick. There’s a big drop off in pitching talent behind Mitch Keller, with most of the prospects in the system being highly projectable guys in the lower levels who have yet to break out. We could be starting to see Bolton’s breakout year. He’s throwing his fastball in the mid-90s, touching 97 frequently, and displaying good control and good movement on the pitch. What is more encouraging here is that he’s throwing a new cutter, and the pitch has been promising so far, with a lot of movement and swings and misses.

Bolton might have a better shot at being the top pitching prospect in the system by the end of the year than the top overall prospect — perhaps the “King in the North” title in this breakdown. It would be difficult to see him moving beyond that and being the top prospect in the system without some success in Altoona for a few months. Even then, it would be difficult to take an emerging pitcher from the lower levels over someone like Hayes or Tucker if they are showing promise with the bats. I could see him being a top five prospect by the end of the year, with a shot at the throne in future years if he continues the current upward trend he’s on right now.

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates won 4-3 over the Washington Nationals on Sunday afternoon. The Pirates are off today. They travel to Detroit for a quick two-game series that begins on Tuesday, before returning home for seven games.

The minor league schedule includes the third start of the season for JT Brubaker. He allowed two runs over 4.2 innings in his debut, then looked better in his next start, giving up one run over six innings, with seven strikeouts. Altoona was rained out yesterday, so James Marvel should get his third start today. Marvel has had two vastly different starts, throwing six shutout innings with one hit and nine strikeouts on Opening Day, then following it up with four runs on eight hits in 5.2 innings. Aaron Shortridge will make his third start for Bradenton. He has allowed just one run and no walks in 11 innings this season. Steven Jennings makes his third start for Greensboro. He has allowed batters to hit .342 against him in 9.1 innings.

The full 2019 Pirates Prospects Prospect Guide is now available, up to date as of April 3rd, with every player in the minor league system. Includes full reports on the top 50 prospects, reports on over 150 other players, as well as looks back at the recent drafts and international signing classes.

MLB: Pittsburgh (8-6) @ Detroit (8-7) 6:40 PM 4/16
Probable starter: Joe Musgrove (0.00 ERA, 15:3 SO/BB, 15.0 IP)

AAA: Indianapolis (6-4) vs Toledo (5-5) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: JT Brubaker (2.53 ERA, 10:3 SO/BB, 10.2 IP)

AA: Altoona (6-4) vs Harrisburg (9-2) 6:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: James Marvel (3.09 ERA, 12:2 SO/BB, 11.2 IP)

High-A: Bradenton (7-4) @ Tampa (4-7) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Aaron Shortridge (0.82 ERA, 6:0 SO/BB, 11.0 IP)

Low-A: Greensboro (6-5) @ Augusta (4-5) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Steven Jennings (6.75 ERA, 8:2 SO/BB, 9.1 IP)

HIGHLIGHTS

From Indianapolis, Cole Tucker doing special things in the field

Here’s two strikeout pitches from Cody Bolton. They were much better than the postgame interview/questions

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

4/13: John Bormann placed on injured list. Dean Lockery added to Bradenton roster.

4/11: Ji-Hwan Bae and Zac Susi added to Greensboro roster. Raul Siri and Steven Jennings assigned to Extended Spring Training

4/11: Kevin Newman placed on injured list. Pirates recalled Kevin Kramer

4/11: Alfredo Reyes promoted from Altoona to Indianapolis. Stephen Alemais added to Altoona roster

4/10: Ryan Haug placed on injured list. Raul Siri added to Greensboro roster.

4/9: Pirates release John Pomeroy and Jake Mielock

4/9: Elias Diaz assigned to Indianapolis on rehab. Rookie Davis added to Indianapolis roster

4/8: Jonah Davis and Braeden Ogle added to Greensboro roster. Zac Susi and Raul Siri assigned to Morgantown

4/8: Sean Keselica assigned to Altoona from Indianapolis

4/7: Gage Hinsz placed on injured list.

4/6: Eduardo Vera promoted to Indianapolis. Beau Sulser promoted to Altoona

4/5: Jared Oliva placed on injured list. Ryan Peurifoy added to Altoona roster

4/5: Kyle Crick placed on disabled list. Jason Martin recalled from Indianapolis.

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

There have been five former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date and one small trade of note. Among the players born on this date, Ed Abbaticchio, infielder for the 1907-10 Pirates. He was a favorite of Pirates’ owner Barney Dreyfuss while with the Boston Doves (Braves) and Dreyfuss was willing to pay a large price to acquire him. The Pirates gave up center fielder Ginger Beaumont and second baseman Claude Ritchey, stars from the 1901-03 teams that won three straight NL pennants. They also included pitcher Patsy Flaherty in the December, 1906 trade.

Abbaticchio didn’t put up great stats for the Pirates and he was a seldom-used bench player for the 1909 World Series champs, but he is well-known for one reason. He was the first Italian star in baseball, and possibly the first Italian player in the league, making his debut 26 years after the first MLB game. We say possibly, because there is one player from the 1880’s named Lewis “Buttercup” Dickerson, who has very questionable Italian heritage, though he is in the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame.

In four years with the Pirates, Abbaticchio hit .253/.348/.318 and spent most of his time at second base, losing the job in 1909 to rookie Dots Miller.

Other players born on this date include Jeromy Burnitz, Mike Diaz, Bill Pierro and King Cole. Pierro is an interesting player to read about because he was a strong minor league pitcher, who had his career cut short by a near-tragedy. He had just one year in the majors and was on his way to make the 1951 Pirates when a mystery illness shut him down. It turned out to be brain inflammation and he never played again. Pierro lived until 2006, so he had a long life, but the illness ended his baseball career at age 24.

On this date in 2009, the Pirates traded two minor league pitchers, Eric Krebs and Harvey Garcia, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Delwyn Young.

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