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
Sean Brady, LHP, Altoona – Brady has a start at the beginning of the week that qualified as a Quality Start, going six innings with three runs allowed. That is a nice start, but would never get someone listed here unless they did something like strike out 15 batters. Brady got here because he tossed a complete game shutout on Friday night, scattering seven hits and a walk, while striking out six batters. With no batters having a huge week, this start won his the Player of the Week award. He’s been a steady presence in the Altoona rotation this year, good for 6+ innings in almost every start. He hasn’t dominated during that time and doesn’t really have the stuff to dominate, but he knows how to pitch. As look as his control is on, he’s going to have a solid game. Brady becomes a minor league free agent at the end of this year. I don’t think he will be brought back because there should be Bradenton pitchers moving up to Altoona next year to cover the innings he’s been filling.
Ji-Hwan Bae, SS/2B, Greensboro – Following a two-hit game to end the previous week, Bae rattled off hits in all six games this past week. That stretch, which included a four-hit game, gave him a .319 average. That put him at the top of the South Atlantic League leaderboard for batting averages. Bae hasn’t hit any homers this year, but he still has 24 doubles, two triples, 42 walks and 29 stolen bases. Along with playing solid defense, he’s doing everything else that you would like to see from a player, and some power could still be on the way, as he just turned 20 years old a month ago and he makes a lot of solid contact. He’s not small either, standing in at 6’1″, with room to fill out. His approach is more contact oriented to get on base and utilize his speed.
Oneil Cruz, SS, Altoona – It took a little while, but Cruz finally hit his first home run in Double-A on Saturday night. He was still showing some power, collecting six doubles and three triples up to that point, but he’s known for his incredible raw power. It produced seven homers in 35 games with the Marauders before his promotion. It took him 96 plate appearances to get the first one out of the way with the Curve. Cruz has a .275/.333/.451 slash line in 27 games with Altoona. You would imagine that he’s going to begin the 2020 season in Double-A. Between the fact that he’s 21, not dominating the level and will only get in about 35 games, that move would make sense. He could however see some time in the Arizona Fall League and/or the Dominican winter league this off-season. That would help his progress and make up for some lost games due to his early season injuries.
Jasiah Dixon, OF, GCL Pirates – Dixon, who won’t turn 18 years old until the final day of the GCL season, had a solid week to add to what has already been a strong debut in pro ball. He had four multi-hit games and walked three times. The Pirates drafted Dixon in the 23rd round, despite the fact that Baseball America had him rated 177th in the draft class. His initial asking price, along with a commitment to USC, likely scared teams off early. He signed for $225,000 and it could end up being a steal for the Pirates. Dixon is hitting .349/.438/.444 in 19 games, with four doubles, one triple, nine walks and five steals. He has already played all three outfield spots, but most of that time has been in right field. His best tools right now are his speed, which has been described as “plus-plus”, as well as an arm that gets a plus rating.
Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Indianapolis – Hayes had the best week for all hitters in the system, led by four consecutive multi-hit contests. His week started off slow with the hits, going 2-for-12 in the first three games, though both of those hits were home runs. The second one gave him ten homers on the season, reaching double digits for the first time. He has 41 extra-base hits this year. It will be interesting to see if the Pirates add him in September, or send him to the Arizona Fall League. He has struggled for most of the season, which has led to a .747 OPS in his first 103 games. That normally would be a solid number, especially for someone his age in Triple-A, but this year of high offense has led to a near 100 point rise in the league OPS, so he’s current about 45 points below league average.
Fabricio Macias, OF, Greensboro – Macias has shown up among the top performers quite often, especially after a very slow start to the season. If you took out his first 16 games of the year, he has a .309/.355/.429 slash line in his last 98 games. Macias has a crazy home/road split for his batting average, hitting .331 in Greensboro and .218 on the road. Despite the .113 point difference, he has 20 extra-base hits in 52 road games, compared to just 12 extra-base hits in 62 home contests. It’s been an average overall season, which is slightly disappointing considering that he was voted the top player under 23 years old (when he was 19) in Mexico before signing with the Pirates last year. He also had some Low-A experience already from 2018. He should be in Bradenton next year, where we could see better things from him, because the potential with the bat is there, he just needs the consistency.
Norkis Marcos, SS, GCL Pirates – Marcos turned 18 years old just before the GCL season started. In his DSL pro debut last year, he showed strong on base skills (.373 OBP) and he went 14-for-15 in stolen bases. He also looked the part of someone who could stick at shortstop in the future. On the defensive end, this year has been very similar to last season. He’s been starting at shortstop regularly, while also getting a few chances here and there at second base. The errors are a bit high, but at this age and level, you look more for the skills/tools than the errors. A lot of them are due to inexperience and also playing on minor league fields surrounded by other inexperienced players. Marcos got here due to his offense, which saw him go 8-for-20 with his second home run. He’s hitting .237/.299/.333 with 11 steals this season in 41 games. Those aren’t great numbers obviously, though not far from league average in the GCL (.238 average and .678 OPS).
Mason Martin, 1B, Bradenton – Martin has been on an all-or-nothing streak over the last three weeks. That has led to a .235 OBP over his last 20 games, with 32 strikeouts. Yet he still has a .494 slugging percentage during that time. He got on the list this week strictly due to one game, though it was a big game. On Friday night he hit two homers, singled, scored three runs and drove in three. That gave him 34 homers on the season and 123 RBIs in 126 games. Even with all of the strikeouts this season, he has seemed to come up clutch in every big situation. The power is obviously legit, but the strikeouts are going to be something to watch going forward. Especially when he’s facing more experienced pitchers at the next two levels.
Bryan Mateo, 1B/LF, DSL Pirates – Mateo isn’t a name you have heard much on this site, even if you read everything. He was a July 2nd signing in 2017, even though he was already 18 years old at the time and that day is filled with 16/17-year-old signings. He played 53 games in the DSL last year and put together a mediocre performance, with no real highlights. No power, speed or high average, and that was coming from an older corner player. His stats were basically the same this season prior to the final week, and he played in fewer games. Mateo had five hits (one triple), four walks and was hit by two pitches. That gave him a final season slash line of .283/.366/.377 in 48 games. Whether that’s enough to get him to the U.S. at age 20 is to be seen, but he hasn’t shown much upside in two seasons.
Lucas Tancas, 1B/OF, Bradenton – Tancas has moved to the outfield most of the time since Mason Martin was promoted to Bradenton. He has occasionally been the DH, as well as filling in the few times Martin wasn’t the starter. He had seven hits this past week, including a grand slam on Saturday, which helped land him here. He’s actually been outhitting Martin by a lot in August, but you’re talking about a 25-year-old in Tancas and Martin turned 20 back in June, so there’s no doubt that it was the correct move. Tancas is showing some power and he’s been a better than average league hitter. The problem (besides the advanced age) is the plate patience, which really holds him back. He has 26 walks and 137 strikeouts in 411 plate appearances.
Kyle Wilkie, C, Morgantown – Wilkie had himself quite a three-game stretch, with the first game counting in the previous week’s stats. He went 4-for-5 back on August 16th, then started this past week with a 5-for-5 night and a 3-for-5 night. That raised his average 60 points, though a 1-for-11 finish brought him back down 14 points. Wilkie was a 12th round pick out of Clemson this year and he’s been getting the majority of the playing time behind the plate with Morgantown. Overall, he has a .269/.345/.314 slash line, with more walks (17) than strikeouts (16). He has looked solid behind the plate when I’ve seen him, while throwing out 28.8% of base runners. He’s likely to get the starting spot in Greensboro next year, as there doesn’t seem to be any challengers for that position.
Santiago Florez, RHP, Bristol – Florez had an outstanding start on Tuesday night, throwing six shutout innings on four hits, with no walks and seven strikeouts. It is his season high for both innings and strikeouts, while also being the first game since his season opener that he didn’t walk a batter. His fastball was consistently hitting 94 MPH all game long, while he went to his slider and changeup more often to keep hitters off-balance. He went right after hitters and got a lot of soft outs on the first pitch of the at-bat, which helped him go later in the game. At 19 years old, with a big 6’5″ frame, Florez is one of the more exciting pitchers in the system, and we saw exactly why in his performance this past week.
Will Kobos, RHP, Greensboro – Kobos started on Wednesday night and went five shutout innings without a hit. He walked three batters and picked up eight strikeouts. He has made it into The 21 once before this year and while doing the write-up for him, I decided to watch the start first because I wasn’t impressed with the first view I got a week or so earlier. That’s basically the same impression I got the second time and haven’t seen him pitch since. I wasn’t able to watch his five no-hit innings this week because it wasn’t available online, so I went back a few starts to watch him throw four no-hit innings earlier this month. Kobos on the night went fastball heavy among his 61 pitches, probably throwing at least 45 of them. His command was spotty, but he threw a lot of strikes. He hit 95 MPH in the first inning, 92-93 MPH later. The curve was used about a dozen times, with some really nice 12-to-6 breaks in there, along with a few that missed their mark. That pitch was in the high 70s. He threw just two changeups, despite facing a lot of lefty hitters, and neither one looked good. So the scouting report is about the same. He gets decent velocity and has a workhorse type frame, but five no-hit innings with eight strikeouts is a bit misleading. He could look much better in a short relief role though, especially if he hits 95 as a starter, so I’m not writing him off by any means.
Cody Ponce, RHP, Indianapolis – The Pirates acquired the 25-year-old Ponce in the Jordan Lyles trade with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was a starter in the past, but moved to relief this season. The Pirates have moved him back to the starting role and he put up a strong line on Wednesday night, throwing five shutout innings on two hits, with no walks and eight strikeouts. That was just his second appearance in Triple-A and it followed six runs over four innings. Ponce had an odd looking outing, with a handful of hard hit outs and foul balls, including a near home run, but the two hits he allowed were a weak grounder up the middle and a check swing soft liner to center field. He used his fastball often and the umpire had a generous strike zone. His cutter got some swinging strikes, while the curve had a nice break, but he couldn’t get it over the plate or close enough for chases.
Yefry Ramirez, RHP, Indianapolis – Ramirez just missed making it here last week and had a very similar start on Thursday night, so I had to squeeze him onto the list today. Last weekend, he went six innings with two runs on two hits and three walks, with nine strikeouts. That was followed this past week by six innings with two runs again, this time with four hits, one walk and eight strikeouts. Between his four stops in the minors/majors this year, he has really picked up the strikeouts, posting a total of 96 in 77 innings. The problem for the 25-year-old is that it hasn’t really translated to any success in 79.1 innings in the majors, and he has a 4.00 ERA during his time in Triple-A. He’s likely to get a shot with the Pirates in September.
Jorge Ramos, RHP, DSL Pirates – Ramos finished off the 2019 season very strong, throwing five shutout innings on Monday, followed by five more shutout frames on the final day of the season (Saturday). He was one of the younger pitchers in the league for the Pirates, turning 17 shortly after Opening Day. At 6’0″, 150+ pounds, he’s also one of the smaller pitchers. Ramos was a somewhat significant signing. MLB put a freeze on signing players out of Mexico to work out better deals for the players. Teams used to get 75% of the players bonus and while it wasn’t mandatory that young players from Mexico signed with teams in Mexico prior to signing with an MLB team, it was highly recommended. Now the players get all of their bonus and a finders fee is paid out on top of the signings. When he signed, the Pirates liked the arm speed and projection as he filled out. Ramos did fairly well for someone that young, who was all about projection, posting a 3.04 ERA in 53.1 innings, with 46 strikeouts and a 1.33 WHIP.
Domingo Robles, LHP, Altoona – Robles has put in a lot of work this season, surpassing the 143.1 innings he threw last year already, going over the 150 mark for the first time in his career. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing at Altoona though, where he had a strong performance on Wednesday night. Robles went seven innings, allowing one run, while striking out nine batters. That tied his career high in strikeouts, set back in April of last year with West Virginia. The 2020 season is going to be an important one for the 21-year-old Robles. I have mentioned numerous times before that soft-tossing lefties can make it to Double-A without much trouble, as long as they have control and a nice mix of pitches, but this is where they usually get sorted out. Robles has a 4.55 ERA and a .294 BAA in Altoona. He has the control/command you like to see. He has a nice breaking ball and a strong changeup, but the velocity can get into the high-80s in starts. He’s still young enough and has a solid 6’2″ frame, that we could see more velocity, which would really help him take things to the next level.
Aaron Shortridge, RHP, Bradenton – Shortridge lives here now in The 21 and he’s one of our better tenants. This is his fourth straight week here, this time for his Tuesday night start that saw him give up one run over six innings. In his last four starts combined, he has allowed two runs over 25.2 innings. He now leads the Florida State League with 130.2 innings, while ranking sixth with a 3.10 ERA and fifth with a 1.13 WHIP. It’s been a fairly impressive season, considering the he not only skipped Low-A ball, he seems to be getting stronger as the season goes along. You don’t often hear about guys adding velocity late in the FSL season like he did this year. The heat and humidity is brutal there as the summer goes along and many players who are there all season wear down at the end. The especially true for both catchers and starting pitchers, but Shortridge keeps plugging along with a strong finish that will get him to Altoona next year.
Tahnaj Thomas, RHP, Bristol – While we pushed him fairly well in our Prospect Guide coming into the season based on his potential, the 20-year-old Thomas has still exceeded all expectations this season. That includes showing better control, an improved slider and getting his fastball up to 101 MPH at one point. In his start on Thursday night, he went six innings, giving up one run on five hits and a walk. Thomas was facing a Pulaski that hunted his fastball in previous match-ups, so the game plan on Thursday night was to keep the hitters off-balance by going to his slider and changeup more often and earlier in the game. He executed the plan brilliantly and kept his pitch count efficient enough to go six innings for the first time in his career. Thomas now has a 3.32 ERA through 11 starts, with a 1.15 WHIP, a .220 BAA and 54 strikeouts in 43.1 innings.
Bryan Torres, RHP, GCL Pirates – Torres was the top international signing for the Pirates during the 2017-18 July 2nd signing period. While his $180,000 bonus isn’t a huge amount, it was more than the Pirates have spent on an international pitcher since signing Luis Heredia seven years earlier. They had a lot of six-figure bonuses for pitchers during that time, but almost all were in the 100-150K range. That has changed since 2017, especially this year, but that doesn’t take away from Torres being their top pitching target. He’s also from Nicaragua, where the top talent tends to get less than their equals in the Dominican or Venezuela. Torres turned 18 back in April and he has a solid 6’2″, 210 pound frame. He reaches low-90s, with a sinker, curve and change, plus solid control of his pitches. He got on our list this week with one run over three innings on Monday, followed by one run over five innings on Friday. He was not pitching well prior to his last three outings, sporting a 9.15 ERA through his first 19.2 innings, so he really needed this strong finish to his season.
Cam Vieaux, LHP, Altoona – Vieaux came within one out of being our Player of the Week. He was among the top performers last week after throwing six shutout innings in his return to Altoona, after serving 2+ months in the Indianapolis rotation. That was followed by seven shutout innings on Monday night, He gave up four hits, two walks and struck out six batters. On Saturday night, he had a no-hitter going for 5.2 innings. It was by no means a perfect outing, with a high pitch count and four walks, but 13 shutout innings would get you Player of the Week 92.1% of the time (that’s a made up fact). Before he could get that final out, Vieaux served up a three-run homer, knocking him from the top spot, down to just one of the best. That home run broke a streak of 23.2 scoreless innings, which started with his final outing in Indianapolis. Vieaux is likely going to get a rotation spot in Indianapolis next year. His 5.05 ERA and 1.48 WHIP don’t sound impressive, even for someone promoted mid-season, but with the high offense this year in the International League, those stats are basically league average (4.92 ERA and 1.44 WHIP).
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.