The Pittsburgh Pirates sent seven players to the Arizona Fall League this year to play for the Peoria Javelinas. They got some strong results from outfielder Jared Oliva, as well as a solid overall performance from their four pitchers. Not everything went as planned, but there’s still more good than bad to talk about in the season recap.
The title talks about the highlights from the season, but the picture up top is Oneil Cruz because he’s the top prospect sent to the league by the Pirates. Cruz did not play much during the season, missing a week mid-season with a minor injury that occurred on a play at second base, followed by him not participating in any of the last seven games. In his abbreviated time, there wasn’t much to get excited about, outside of the occasional highlight videos posted on Twitter that showed off his batting practice power. Cruz hit .190/.304/.216 in 14 games, with one double, seven walks, one stolen base and 21 strikeouts in 42 at-bats. in 12 games at shortstop, he committed just one error in 39 chances.
Cruz saw limited late season time in Altoona this year, where he posted a .757 OPS. He was likely headed back there to start 2020, even if he had a strong AFL season, but this didn’t do anything to help his case, especially with the high strikeout total. It’s possible that Cruz could play winter ball this year, as he has a team in the Dominican and they used him very briefly last winter. Most players see an increase in winter ball time around the same time they reach Double-A.
Jared Oliva had a strong overall season, but it was a lot like what we have seen from him during his career. He’s a very streaky hitter, who hits like a future MLB star at times, and looks like he may never reach the majors at other times. Oliva finished with a strong overall line, hitting .312/.413/.473 in 26 games, leading the league with 11 doubles and 11 steals (in 12 attempts). Those are very nice numbers, but 13 games into the season, he had a 1.141 OPS, then that dropped 255 points over the final 13 games. He went 11-for-49 during his second half. In our Altoona top ten prospects list, we said the thing that keeps Oliva from being a top-of-the-system prospect is consistency. He’s prone to bad slumps that can last a month or more, then does something like win our Player of the Month award in July.
Oliva will go to Indianapolis next year at the age of 24 and could get a chance at the majors later in the season. At minimum he has the defense and speed to be a bench outfielder, but minimizing the slumps and adding some power would be nice. Including his fall action, he has hit just six homers in his last 812 plate appearances, dating back to mid-2018.
Catcher Jason Delay split the catching duties at Altoona with Arden Pabst, so either one of them could have used the AFL to get some extra at-bats. Delay was the one who was chosen and things did not go well on either side of the ball. He hit .094/.216/.125 in 11 games and committed three errors, while going 2-for-18 in throwing out runners. Despite the poor showing, Delay has always received his highest mark for his work with pitchers, where he’s right up there with any catcher in the system in that category. There’s a chance that he starts 2020 in Indianapolis, but the door right now seems wide open for someone among Delay, Pabst and Christian Kelley to step up and take the third-string catcher spot. All of them have the skills defensively, but none of them hit enough in 2019.
On the pitching side, Nick Mears made the best impression. Signed as a non-drafted free agent last August, he worked his way up to Altoona at the end of 2019, almost exactly one calendar year after his pro debut. Mears throws hard (hit 99 MPH in August) and has a solid breaking ball, so this assignment was more about getting him upper level pro experience and working on tightening up his pitches. Mears had a 3.28 ERA in 46.2 innings, with 69 strikeouts, a .186 BAA and a 1.03 WHIP during the regular season, then put together 8.2 shutout innings over eight appearances. He struck out 11 batters, gave up just two hits (.077 BAA) and had an 0.81 WHIP. He walked five batters, which is too many for 8.2 innings, but three of those walks came in one outing. He seems destined for Altoona at the start of 2020, but should at least see Indianapolis during the season.
Blake Cederlind wasn’t quite on par with Mears in the AFL, but he had very similar results. In eight appearances, all of them one inning each, he allowed one run on four hits, seven walks and nine strikeouts. Cederlind was hard to hit, missed some bats, and walked too many batters. His control issue was early on, with five walks in his first two innings. Cederlind throws hard, hitting 102 MPH this year, but he needed the extra work on his off-speed pitches this fall. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with the Pirates some time during the 2020 season, though he’s not ready for the majors yet and shouldn’t be rushed. He’s likely going to be added to the 40-man roster this winter.
Cody Ponce was used as a starter after joining the Pirates in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers in late July. He was a starter in the past as well, but Milwaukee moved him to relief this year, so his innings were much lower than in previous seasons. Ponce made up for some of that lost mound time with 23 innings over five starts with Peoria. He pitched well, posting a 2.35 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP, with a 27:3 SO/BB ratio. Ponce saw some time with Indianapolis late this year and he’s going to end up back there in 2020, likely with a rotation spot. The Pirates will have to make a 40-man roster decision this winter with the 6’5″ right-hander, who turns 26 shortly after the Triple-A season opens.
Beau Sulser is known for having strong control, so his AFL time feels more like a small sample size result. He walked nine batters in 14.1 innings. Sulser managed to keep his ERA down to 3.14, while picking up 13 strikeouts and posting a 1.90 GO/AO ratio, so he did a good job of working around the base runners (1.60 WHIP). The control issue may have just been fatigue. He wasn’t on our possible AFL participant radar because he threw 96 innings this season for Altoona, which was 38.2 more innings than last year. With his fall effort added in, he basically doubled last year’s workload, so that may have had an effect on his AFL work.
Sulser should go to Indianapolis next year, but it’s going to be quite the challenge because he doesn’t throw hard or miss many bats. He’s a ground ball guy, who throws strikes. That should help him in the high offense environment that the International League has become since they started using the MLB baseballs.
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.