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Monday, December 5, 2022

Morgantown Season Recap: A Team Filled with High Draft Picks and International Pitchers Nearly Makes the Playoffs

Our third season recap covers Morgantown, a team that just missed making the playoffs by getting eliminated on the final day of the season. The either needed a win in the season finale or a loss by Batavia and neither happened. The Black Bears still had a nice season, finishing with a 40-36 record, achieving that .526 winning percentage with a mixture of 2018/19 draft picks and some international signings, which were mainly on the pitching side. Below you will find a recap of the noteworthy players on the team, and tomorrow we will post the top ten prospects from the club. You can find the GCL Pirates season recap here, and the Bristol Pirates recap here.

The Pirates did an interesting change from the norm, which made this team much better to follow throughout the season. In the past, they have sent high school pitchers to Bristol in their first full season after signing. This season however, they pushed 2018 second round pick Braxton Ashcraft and 11th round pick Michael Burrows to Morgantown. That gave the team two top 20 prospects in the system to open the year. In many seasons, Morgantown begins the year with none of the top 50 prospects because they fill the club with draft picks who obviously haven’t been ranked yet.

It was clearly a push for these two, as the overall numbers reflect, though they would have likely put up similar numbers in Bristol. That’s because Bristol is a higher offense environment, while the entire New York-Penn League is considered to be a pitcher-friendly league. Ashcraft made 11 starts and finished with a 5.77 ERA in 53 innings, with 39 strikeouts, a 1.34 WHIP and a .239 BAA. Burrows also made 11 starts and had a 4.33 ERA in 43.2 innings, with 43 strikeouts and a 1.47 WHIP. Not great numbers for either, but as you will see tomorrow, those numbers don’t tell the entire story.

Right-handers Noe Toribio and Winston Nicacio both finished the season in Greensboro after impressive showings with Morgantown. Toribio, who just turned 20 years old, was dominant in many of his starts with the Black Bears, which led to a 2.40 ERA in 30 innings, with 31 strikeouts, a .185 BAA and an 0.93 WHIP. Nicacio, who was selected in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft, had a 2.96 ERA in 24.1 innings, with a 1.27 WHIP and a .227 BAA. Both pitchers also did well with the jump to Low-A ball, though Nicacio had prior experience at the level.

Jesus Valles made the jump from the DSL Pirates last year, right to Morgantown this season. We don’t see that jump made too often, though the Pirates have been more willing to push the older international players recently. The 21-year-old Valles started off slowly this year, then finished strong. He had a 3.55 ERA in 66 innings, with a 1.23 WHIP. He was selected to the All-Star game, and his 66 innings led all Morgantown players. In fact, he was the only pitcher on the team to put in enough work to qualify for the ERA title (he ranked 13th in the league in both ERA and innings).

The team had some interesting 2019 draft picks in the rotation and the bullpen. Fourth round pick JC Flowers was one of the later signings because his college team was still playing after the draft. He saw limited innings in college as a reliever/closer, then slowly expanded his pitch count as the NYPL season went along. He finished with a 4.30 ERA in 29.1 innings, with a 1.50 WHIP, a 1.54 GO/AO ratio and a 24:11 SO/BB ratio. His strikeout rate dropped as he saw more work, but he’s likely going to remain in the starting role for now.

Fifth round pick Grant Ford went from a relief role this season in college, to starting for the Black Bears. He put up strong numbers as well, posting a 2.97 ERA in 36.1 innings, with a 1.35 WHIP,  a .241 BAA and 35 strikeouts. His walk rate was a little high (4.2 per 9 IP), but he didn’t have any outings where walks were a major issue.

Eighth round pick Austin Roberts and tenth round pick Cameron Junker both made nice impressions in their debut season. Roberts got some late starts and finished with 2.70 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 40 innings. His last outing was a two-hitter over six innings of work. Junker was the best pitcher on the team, putting up a 1.29 ERA in 28 innings over 19 appearances. He had 45 strikeouts, a .143 BAA and an 0.86 WHIP. Junker recorded the save in the NYPL All-Star game. Late round pick Bear Bellomy (28th round) began the season in the Bristol bullpen, but was starting in Morgantown by the end of the year. He had a 0.00 ERA in Bristol, then debuted in relief for the Black Bears, starting off with two scoreless appearances. He eventually let up runs in an expanded role, finishing his Morgantown time with a 3.86 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP in 30.1 innings.

On the international side, right-handers Francis Del Orbe and Xavier Concepcion, along with lefty Denny Roman, all saw significant time in relief. Del Orbe returned from a solid season at Morgantown last year and pitched slightly better in 2019. He posted a 3.43 ERA in 42 innings, with 48 strikeouts, a .219 BAA, and a 1.21 WHIP. He started just one game all year, throwing 3.2 shutout innings in the season finale. Concepcion turned some heads in Extended Spring Training by hitting triple digits, though he did so while throwing very few strikes. That led to him taking a little bit off of his pitches, “only” hitting 97 MPH most nights (sometimes higher). He finished the season with a 2.64 ERA in 30.2 innings, with a .193 BAA, 30 strikeouts and a 2.26 GO/AO ratio. His walk rate was very high, but also dropped as the season went along.

Roman got off to a slow start, then finished strong. His final stats show a 4.19 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and 39 strikeouts in 38.1 innings. That ERA would have been even better if a play on the final day was properly scored. Morgantown clearly committed two errors on one play and neither was scored correctly, which pushed his ERA up from 3.96 going into the game, instead of down from that mark. Roman debuted in the DSL last year and dominated, then skipped to Bristol mid-season.

On the offensive side, the Black Bears had six players who were drafted in the top ten rounds. They were led by outfielder Matt Gorski (57th overall pick) and 3B/SS Jared Triolo (72nd overall). Most of the offense struggled, which can partially be chalked up to the league being pitcher-friendly. In fact, 44 of the 56 batters who qualified for the batting title, finished with an OPS below the .750 mark, and a majority were well below that mark. For comparison sake, the Appalachian League where Bristol plays, had 25 players with at least a .750 OPS.

Gorski was one of those players well below the .750 mark, as he put up a .223/.297/.346 slash line in 49 games. He had 14 extra-base hits, 19 walks and 11 stolen bases, while spending most of his playing time switching between left field and center field. Triolo made the All-Star team and put up an impressive 19 doubles, but he also hit .239 in 60 games and didn’t walk enough to off-set that low average. He mostly played his natural third base position, but also started 17 games at shortstop and played well on defense.

Third round pick Matt Fraizer had a rough season, though he was injured for part of his junior season at Arizona with a broken hamate, so that likely contributed to his numbers. In 43 games for Morgantown, he hit .221/.287/.266, failing to show both power and the ability to get on base. He played all three outfield spots, with most of his time in right field. He’s a toolsy player, so it’s best to wait to see what he can do a full year removed from hamate surgery.

Sixth round pick Will Matthiessen was a two-way player in college and looked like he would be a better pitcher option, though some scouts preferred him as a hitter. He is 6’6″, which leads to a large strike zone. He doesn’t have the smoothest/quickest swing either, so strikeouts could be a big part of his game. He definitely has raw power though. Matthiessen hit .220/.303/.340 in 45 games. He was playing more first base by the end of the season and he looked a lot better there than in the outfield.

Seventh round pick Blake Sabol was an over-slot signing out of USC. He made the All-Star team and was the best hitter for most of the season for Morgantown, though that’s not saying much when their hitters combined for a .664 OPS. That mark was actually sixth best in the 14-team league, so it wasn’t that bad when given in context. Sabol hit .245/.350/.351 in 57 games, with 14 extra-base hits and 34 walks. He also struck out 61 times, so while he showed patience at the plate, it didn’t always benefit him.

Ninth round pick Ethan Paul was a re-drafted by the Pirates, who couldn’t sway him away from returning to Vanderbilt for his senior season. That paid off with a college World Series title, though it likely cost him some bonus money, plus he’s already 23 years old. He hit .232/.340/.320, showing the ability to get on base, but like many of his teammates, strikeouts were an issue. Paul played 33 games total and made 32 starts at shortstop.

Catcher Kyle Wilkie (12th round) impressed on the defensive end of things with his ability to run things behind the plate. He moved well back there, showed some excellent pitch framing skills and he threw out 28% of base runners attempting to steal. The more I watched him as I was getting looks at every pitcher, the more I liked what he did. His offense faded at the end of the year, which can be expected from a college catcher at the end of a really long season. He was the regular starter at Clemson, then caught another 40 games with Morgantown. Wilkie hit .243/.309/.281 in 50 games.

Infielder Cory Wood (19th round) is a small player at 5’9″, 180 pounds, but he showed a solid approach at the plate, even if it didn’t lead to the best numbers. He batted .234/.333/.333 with 13 extra-base hits, 26 walks and 4-for-4 in steals, in 56 games. Wood mostly played at second base with Morgantown and he looked much better there than his few turns at shortstop.

The Black Bears got late season contributions from outfielders Fernando Villegas and Brendt Citta. Both were injured during Spring Training and spent time with Bristol, before moving up mid-season. Citta hit well at each level, putting up an .831 OPS with Bristol and a .792 OPS with Morgantown. Last year’s 38th round pick likely would have been in Greensboro at some point if he wasn’t out for most of the spring. Villegas was hitting well during Extended Spring Training, then got hurt late. After a short rehab in the GCL, he breezed through Bristol, before finishing with a .219/.305/.356 slash line in 21 games with the Black Bears. With the reports we were getting about him in May, he could have ended up at Greensboro if he was healthy all season. He ranked as the eighth best prospect on our Bristol top ten.

On the down side, 2018 seventh round pick Brett Kinneman began the season in Greensboro, before being demoted to Extended Spring Training after a brutal start. He wound up in Morgantown and hit just .183/.304/.277 in 191 at-bats, with 76 strikeouts. Kinneman had a solid debut season with Morgantown last year, so this is going to be a tough hole to climb out of next year, especially with a crowded outfield situation at the lower levels.

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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.


Pirates Prospects has been independently owned and operated since 2009, entirely due to the support of our readers. The site is now completely free, funded entirely by user support. By supporting the site, you are supporting independent writers, one of the best Pittsburgh Pirates communities online, and our mission for the most complete Pirates coverage available.

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