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, then 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. The stats listed below will cover from Sunday-Saturday each 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 reports and views via MiLB.tv, giving us a look at the entire farm system throughout the season.
Player of the Week
Fernando Villegas, OF, Bristol – I’m going to start off by saying that this wasn’t a great week around the system. There are 3-4 hitters and at least 2-3 pitchers who normally wouldn’t have made the list and no one had a huge week on the hitting or pitching side. That being said, we still have 21 prospects who put up better than average stats and Fernando Villegas led the way with a .429/.478/.762 slash line in 23 plate appearances with Bristol. Villegas signed last year out of Mexico and his debut was delayed somewhat due to MLB’s slowed process with Mexican players signed last year. That all stemmed from the Rene Gayo/Luis Heredia incident and now the rules have been changed for the better for players from Mexico. Villegas had a late spring injury and began 2019 in the GCL on rehab, where he went hitless in four games. Since joining Bristol, he has been hitting well, putting up a .324/.378/.485 slash line, with eight doubles and a homer in 17 games. The 21-year-old Villegas was considered one of the best prospects out of Mexico when he signed, not quite on par with his teammate Fabricio Macias, but not far behind him either. He’s in a tough spot now because Morgantown is loaded with outfield draft picks ahead of him, so it might be difficult for Villegas to jump to Greensboro next year. He’s put up strong numbers in limited time over the last two years, but he’s still play well below the level of competition he saw in Mexico.
Will Craig, 1B/RF, Indianapolis – Craig has really had a tough season since a hot start led to 15 homers through his first 46 games. He had a .924 OPS at that point. In 56 games since, he has put up a .659 OPS. In a year where offense is up in the International League, that’s even worse than it sounds. Over the course of the season, that .924 OPS would have him ranked 12th in the league. The .659 mark would have him 71st out of 74 players with enough plate appearances to qualify for league leaders. Craig hit his 20th home run of the season early last week and squeezed onto this list with three hits on Saturday. He has been playing some right field recently, standing out there five times in his last 13 games. It hasn’t been smooth sailing with two errors and some misplays, but you have to start somewhere, because he isn’t going to get significant time at first base in the majors with Josh Bell there. Of course, if he doesn’t have more weeks like this last one, then it doesn’t really matter that he’s stuck at first base. Craig hit his 21st home run on Sunday, topping the career high 20 he hit last year with Altoona, so that’s a nice start towards next week’s article.
Jonah Davis, OF, Greensboro – Davis was a very close second for the Player of the Week thanks to hitting three homers last week and putting up a 1.199 OPS. After putting up big numbers for Bristol last year, he has really had a tough 2019 season, one that included a demotion to Morgantown for a short time. He has hit well since returning to Greensboro, but still has a .215/.303/.412 slash line for the season, with 90 strikeouts in 261 plate appearances. Besides the major strikeout issue, the 22-year-old Davis isn’t moving as well as last year. We got reports that his defense was solid in center field in Bristol, nothing special, but he could handle the position. He also had decent speed reports, and again, it wasn’t more than average, but better than someone who is 2-for-9 in steals this season and doesn’t look like they can play center field anymore. Unless he can cut back on the strikeouts, then this is just a raw power hitter profile. As an added note, Davis homered again yesterday.
Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Indianapolis – Except for his Gold Glove defense at third base, it’s been a slightly disappointing season at Triple-A for Hayes. Being the top offensive prospect in the system, you hope for more at this point, despite the fact that he’s one of the youngest position players in the league. Hayes has been hitting a lot of doubles this season, but not enough over-the-fence power yet, and he isn’t hitting for average either. He got on this list for a strong finish to his week, getting on base ten times in his last three games. He also started the week off with a home run. Hayes is hitting .254/.335/.409 on the season, which wouldn’t have been bad prior to 2019, but the new baseballs being used in the International League have led to much higher offensive numbers. Besides the 27 doubles, which is a sign of future power potential in young hitters, his strikeout rate has really dropped over the course of the season. Hayes was striking out more often than normal for him through early May (24.8% strikeout rate), but his strikeout rate is down to 14.1% over his last 62 games. That’s better than his 16.4% career mark.
Juan Jerez, 2B/SS, DSL Pirates – Jerez isn’t putting up huge numbers in the DSL at 17 years old, but the scouting reports have been great. He had a .917 OPS last week in 24 plate appearances, giving him an overall .273/.328/.455 slash line in 46 games. The Pirates signed him last July for $380,000 and he’s been splitting his time between shortstop and second base this year. Jerez is a very athletic player, who could end up sticking at shortstop. He’s showing some nice power in the pitcher-friendly league with ten doubles, five triples and four homers. The power potential is what sold the Pirates on Jerez, and he’s far from done filling out his 6’0″ frame, so we could see much more in the future. His older brother Mario Jerez also plays for the DSL Pirates, though they are currently on different teams.
Kevin Kramer, IF/OF, Indianapolis – Kramer powered his way onto this list. He homered in three straight games from Tuesday to Thursday, then hit his 26th double on Friday. He’s had an all-or-nothing approach lately, with four homers and 12 strikeouts in his last eight games. Despite a hot streak early in the season and some recent success, it’s still been a below average season, which is why his time in the majors has been very limited this year. He has spent six days with the Pirates and played in just one game. After posting an .856 OPS last year, which was well above average for the International League last year, he has .762 OPS this season, which is 32 points below average for the league this season. Kramer’s closing in on his 26th birthday, so he’s getting up there in age for a prospect. It’s actually been a poor year for the entire team, minus the contributions from Pablo Reyes and veterans Jake Elmore and Trayvon Robinson. Indianapolis ranked last in the league in OPS going into Sunday’s action.
Jason Martin, CF, Indianapolis – Four Indianapolis hitters made it here this week and they all have the exact same story. It was a good week for them, but it’s been a down season overall. None of them are sinking at the level, but you should expect more from all four of them. Martin had hits in six straight games this past week, including two doubles during a three-hit game on Thursday. In 74 games, he’s hitting .259/.300/.429 with 18 doubles, three triples and eight home runs. He’s helped out by strong defense in center field, where he has made numerous highlight reel plays. Martin is hurt by a low walk rate and the inability to put his speed to good use on the bases. He’s 6-for-11 in steals this year and his success rate during his career is 56.4%.
Calvin Mitchell, OF, Bradenton – Mitchell had six hits and two walks in four starts last week. He ended the month of July with an .840 OPS in 24 games, which makes that his best month of the season. Despite a slow June, he’s been fairly consistent throughout the season, posting a .755 OPS before the All-Star break, and a .753 mark in 38 games since the break. Even his strikeout rate has been just over 29% during both halves. The walk rate has slightly improved since mid-season, but it is still too low, leading to a 119:25 SO/BB ratio in 413 plate appearances. It’s been a nice season for Mitchell, especially when you factor in his age and the FSL being pitcher-friendly, but there is still plenty of work to be done before he makes the majors because poor BB/SO rates in A-ball don’t translate well to the majors most of the time.
Alexander Mojica, 3B, DSL Pirates – Mojica put up some extraordinary stats before his 17th birthday this past Friday. As one of the youngest players in the league, he has been right near the top in most offensive categories all season. His power numbers have dipped a little since his last home run on July 11th, but that doesn’t mean that he has been struggling, because he still shows up among the top performers each week. He picked up six hits and two walks in his four starts last week, as well as a sacrifice fly off the bench late in one game. His .362/.483/.589 slash line in 44 games has him ranked seventh in average, third in OBP, fifth in slugging and fourth in OPS. Perhaps just as impressive is that he’s hitting for power while posting a 31:28 BB/SO ratio. Mojica’s only real concern is conditioning and that’s been something that they have worked on with him since signing. His listed height/weight is 6’1″, 195 pounds, but he is clearly heavier. He has a 70+ arm according to Pirates scouts, and for a bigger player he still moves well.
Jared Oliva, CF, Altoona – Oliva was recently named as our Player of the Month, narrowly beating out Mason Martin and Oneil Cruz, with any of the three being possibilities to win going into the final day. Oliva had a bit of an odd week, going 0-for-3 in a completion of a suspended game that counted against his May stats, along with an error being changed to a hit the next day in another game. If you take away that questionable hit and add the 0-for-3 to his stats, he doesn’t make this article this week. Regardless, he’s here because he had four multi-hit games, including two hits on July 31st to secure his Player of the Month spot. After putting up a .646 OPS in 54 games during the first half of the season, Oliva has a .964 OPS in 41 games during the second half. He’s also 19-for-22 during that time in steals, giving him a total of 31 stolen bases this year. His stats are very similar to what he put up last year in Bradenton, with the difference being that he started strong last year and finished poorly, while this season has been the opposite.
Randy Romero, OF, DSL Pirates – Romero made it here last week for two 5-for-5 games. He didn’t quite perform that well this past week with “only” nine hits in 21 at-bats. Romero is doing something extremely impressive over the last three weeks, striking out once in 53 plate appearances. He leads the DSL in average with his .410 mark and his 1.012 OPS ranks him seventh in the league. If that was all he was doing, then it would still be a terrific season. That is not the case though, as Romero is a plus runner, who plays the game very smart, both on the bases and in the field. He’s a strong defender at any of the three outfield spots, with an above average arm. He is also 27-for-27 in stolen bases this year. Basically, he’s been the best all-around player in the league and with 18 games remaining, the top candidate for league MVP.
Osvaldo Bido, RHP, Bradenton – Last week in The 21, I mentioned in the write-up for Osvaldo Bido that he received a promotion to Bradenton after a strong season with Greensboro. In 20 Low-A starts, he put up a 3.55 ERA in 111.2 innings, with 90 strikeouts, a .228 BAA and a 1.10 WHIP. In his first start with the Marauders on Tuesday, he went seven innings, allowing two earned runs on six hits and three walks, with four strikeouts. Bido was sitting 93-95 MPH with his fastball, mixing in a nice breaking ball that broke away from right-handed batters, a cutter that hit 90 MPH and a changeup that got some swinging strikes. This is a nice story so far for the Pirates, as he is someone who exactly two years ago was finishing up a tough season in the DSL, where he had trouble throwing strikes. In 50.2 innings in 2017, he walked 36 batters. In 118.2 innings this year, facing much more patient hitters, he has walked 32 batters.
Xavier Concepcion, RHP, Morgantown – Concepcion is a very interesting story. He debuted in the DSL last year at 20 years old. In 23.2 innings, he walked 22 batters and picked up 27 strikeouts. When the ball was put in play, it was often on the ground. So the strikeouts and ground outs were signs of possible success, but the control was really holding him back. Cut to this year and he was pitching strong enough during Extended Spring Training that he skipped right over both the GCL and Bristol. Not much has really changed, except he’s putting up similar numbers three levels higher than last year, which actually shows that there has been some improvement with his control. The walks are still too high, but the strikeouts and ground outs are high too. This past week, Concepcion threw three shutout innings with five strikeouts in one game, and two shutout innings in another, giving him a 2.37 ERA through 12 appearances. What makes him intriguing is fairly simple and straight forward, he throws gas. Right before players headed to their short-season teams in June, I asked if reliever Oliver Mateo was the hardest thrower down at Pirate City. Mateo has control issues too, but he sat 95-99 MPH last year and he has hit 102 MPH this year. I was told that Concepcion had better average velocity. He. Throws. Gas.
Conner Loeprich, RHP, Bradenton – Loeprich has had a chance to make some spot starts this season, along with pitching in long relief, which has him over 70 innings for the season. He made a nice impression last year after being drafted in the 20th round when Baseball America said he had one of the best breaking balls among the pitchers drafted by the Pirates in 2018. After beginning this season in Greensboro, he has recently moved up to Bradenton. Last week, Loeprich allowed one earned run over five innings in a start, then threw another inning on Friday night. As a starter, he was sitting low-90s, touching 94 MPH early in the outing. He throws a lot of strikes and mixes his pitches well, going to his sharp curveball in any count. His off-season focus coming into 2019 was improving his changeup and in briefs looks this season, it has looked like an effective pitch.
James Marvel, RHP, Indianapolis – Marvel was recently named as our Pitcher of the Month for July. He hasn’t pitched since that article, which has a lot of information on his performances and potential, so I’ll be brief here. Marvel gave up two runs over six innings on three hits and one walk, with six strikeouts. That gave him a 2.12 ERA in five starts at Triple-A, with three of those outings being shutout performances. It’s been a highly impressive run so far because all of his numbers have improved while moving up to a high offense environment and better competition. If he continues to do something similar over the final four weeks in Indy, we could see Marvel in the majors in September. Otherwise, he will need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft this winter.
Colin Selby, RHP, Greensboro – When the Pirates added Selby from Extended Spring Training, we got reports that he was sitting 94-96 MPH as a starter down at Pirate City. That was up from low-90s reports we received last year. It wasn’t just velocity though, his slider had improved and pushed his curve to the back burner, while he was also throwing a better changeup. He debuted with some solid results, but the Pirates felt that we could see better results just by giving him time to really settle in and get some consistency going. That has happened recently, as Selby posted a 2.36 ERA in July, then opened up August with nine strikeouts over five shutout innings. He has a 2.85 ERA in 79 innings, with 80 strikeouts, a .208 BAA and a 1.08 WHIP. He’s about ten innings short of qualifying for league leaders and probably won’t be able to get there by the end of the season, but his ERA would rank fourth in the league and his WHIP would be third.
Aaron Shortridge, RHP, Bradenton – Shortridge pitched on Saturday night and threw 5.2 shutout innings on four hits and two walks, with seven strikeouts. That gave him a 3.50 ERA through 20 starts and 110.2 innings, with 85 strikeouts, a .259 BAA and a 1.18 WHIP. Earlier in the year, he was putting up better stats and doing it with a higher strikeout rate. Recently he has been throwing a little harder than he did earlier in the season, touching 93 MPH, but his ERA is up slightly since the All-Star break and his WHIP went from 1.07 pre-break, to 1.42 in seven starts since the All-Star game. It’s another example that velocity isn’t everything, but in this instance it’s what you want to see from him. Shortridge has excellent control and mixes his pitches well, but you don’t see many right-handed starters come up through the minors sitting 88-90 MPH and become successful starters. His outing this past week is definitely a step in the direction you want to see him going, both with the results and a nice strikeout rate to match the added velocity.
Tahnaj Thomas, RHP, Bristol – Thomas is making huge strides this season after lasting just 1.2 innings total in his first two starts combined. The thing that gets the most notice right away is his velocity, but that’s just part of the equation. Thomas has been hitting triple digits in his last three starts, while sitting 95-99 MPH throughout the game. There isn’t another starter in the system who approaches that average fastball velocity. That would be a great start if that was the only improvement he has seen this season, but it’s not. Thomas is pounding the strike zone and overpowering Appalachian League hitters, posting a 41:2 SO/BB ratio in his last 27.2 innings. The third great sign this year is that his slider might be just as good as the fastball. It was at its best on Saturday night when he racked up a career high nine strikeouts in five strong innings of work. We started Thomas off high in the system rankings because of it potential upside, but he’s already ahead of expectations, pushing his high ceiling even higher.
Jesus Valles, RHP, Morgantown – Valles made it into The 21 last week by throwing six shutout innings. It was a nice performance for someone who had a 4.96 ERA in his first seven starts, along with a very low strikeout rate. Despite that strong start, Valles moved to the bullpen this past week. That didn’t set him back though. He went five shutout innings on Thursday night, with two hits, two walks and five strikeouts. The 21-year-old Valles debuted in the DSL last year, where he was considered to be the top pitcher for either Pirates affiliate. He wasn’t considered the best pitching prospect, but just looking at the current pitching ability, he was clearly the best according to those who saw him last year. So it’s not surprising that he was able to skip two levels this year and start for Morgantown. It will be interesting to see how they handle him going forward with this recent string of success.
Pedro Vasquez, RHP, Altoona – Vasquez was a regular here for a little while due to a run of great outings, which earned him the Pitcher of the Month for June. He had a rough July, which was limited to 12 innings due to pitching in the All-Star game and suffering a minor injury that caused him to skip one start later in the month. Vasquez had a nice start to August though, giving up two runs over six innings. He has a 2.83 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 92.1 innings with Altoona this season, so it’s been a strong performance for him overall. If his June and July performances were flipped, he would probably be in Indianapolis already, but if he doesn’t make it up there to finish the season, then he’s at least in a good position for a rotation spot there next year.
Gavin Wallace, RHP, Bradenton – Wallace began the season in the bullpen and got off to a rough start, which has skewed his overall stats all season. In his first six games, he had a 9.20 ERA over 14.2 innings. Since that point he has a 2.62 ERA in 65.1 innings. This past week, Wallace went seven innings, allowing one run on five hits, with no walks and a career best 11 strikeouts. That’s three more strikeouts than his previous career best. Back in 2017, he put up strong number at Morgantown after being drafted in the 15th round. He moved up to West Virginia in 2018 and had decent numbers through 14 starts, before getting promoted to Bradenton after the All-Star break and struggling through ten appearances. Back in 2017, we saw him top out at 95 MPH, while commanding his fastballs (two and four-seamers) all around the zone. He also had a slider and a changeup, with control of each pitch. None of his pitches were really out pitches, so he got by with command and mixing pitches. The reports this year aren’t much different, though they are better. His slider is a little more consistent, and he holds his velocity later in games, while hitting 95 MPH more often.