February 17, 2016
Pittsburgh Pirates Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: You know what? I’m starting to think Pittsburgh is pretty good at this. There’s pitching, there are outfielders, and there’s depth up the middle.
The Top Ten
1. Tyler Glasnow, RHP
Good things come to those who wait. Glasnow has shown steady improvement over his time in the Pittsburgh system, and now ranks as one of the game’s best power-pitching prospects. His fastball sits 93-96 with downhill plane and sink, and routinely touches 98 mph, with the occasional foray into triple digits. If you sit on that fastball you will look quite the fool when Glasnow throws his power curveball, a pitch that has superb, hard, downward action. He rarely throws it for a strike, but because of his length and how quickly it gets to hitters, it’s difficult to pick up out of the hand. The change is still a work in progress, grading as a 45 more because of a lack of deception than a lack of movement.
Glasnow’s ability to repeat his delivery comes and goes, and in turn so does his command. He threw more strikes in 2015 than he did in any other season, but there are still fits of erratic control, and he misses in the zone more than you’d like for a top of the rotation guy.
If Glasnow can throw quality strikes more consistently he’s a future ace, as his ability to miss bats is as good as any pitching prospect’s you’ll see. If he can’t, he’ll still miss a lot of bats, but will frustrate with self-inflicted damage.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: I’ve never been the high guy on Glasnow, so why start now? It’s a big swing-and-miss profile, which could lead to 200-plus strikeouts in the majors at peak, but he also carries a ton of WHIP risk, as he won’t be able to replicate the extremely low hit rates he has put up in the minors against major league hitters. If he becomes Tyson Ross, that’s a win for dynasty owners.
Major League ETA: 2016
2. Austin Meadows, OF
Meadows wasn’t terrible in the first half, but from June 27th on he slashed .347/.377/.477 with 22 extra-base hits and 12 stolen bases. I’m not saying that’s sustainable at the upper levels, but I am saying there’s a chance this is a special player. He’s a smart, assertive hitter who will swing at first-pitch strikes, but also will work counts into his favor and won’t give up on at-bats. The swing path and lack of weight transfer hurt his power output, but the natural strength and plus bat speed allows a projection for just above-average power, with a chance for more if he begins to incorporate loft and/or his lower half. Once on base he’s someone pitchers have to pay attention to, and 30-plus steals are feasible, if not likely.
When he was coming out of high school, some were concerned about Meadows sticking in center field, but those concerns have dissipated. He takes quality routes to the baseball, and his speed allows him to get to balls your average center fielder wouldn’t. The arm strength is only average, so if forced to move off the position, left field would be the more natural landing spot than right. The bat will play wherever, but as a center fielder he’s a potential All-Star who can make an impact in every facet of the game.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: The overall package is what propels Meadows into the dynasty consciousness, and not his individual attractiveness in any one category. He’s sort of like Shin-Soo Choo in that way, and that’s the path for him to translate a group of offensive skills into high-end OF2 value.
Major League ETA: 2017
3. Jameson Taillon, RHP
Ranking a pitcher who hasn’t thrown a pitch in two years this high is risky—especially in a system as strong as Pittsburgh’s—but Taillon’s profile is too impressive to drop below the top three. Like Glasnow, he has two swing-and-miss offerings at his disposal, led by a high-90s fastball with hard run that gives both left- and right-handed hitters trouble. The curveball is a true 12-6 yakker, and on top of the spin and depth, he can locate it for strikes. The change is his weak link, but for weak links it’s pretty good, showing above-average deception and tumble. He throws all three pitches for strikes, and the command is good enough to project him as a starter.
It’s impossible to say how Taillon will respond to missing so much time. With two plus pitches, prototypical size and good enough command, the upside matches anyone but Glasnow in the system. The risk is considerably higher, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: High-end expectations for Taillon had drifted down to SP3 level before the injury, and two years off from pitching doesn’t make you more likely to reach that type of upside. He’s still a top 100 fantasy prospect, as it’s an attractive organization for an arm and reports are that he’s healthy coming into the season, but the risk is intense.
Major League ETA: 2017
4. Kevin Newman, SS
Newman’s first professional season was disappointing, but based on what he showed at Arizona, it’s likely it was just a momentary aberration. His feel for the barrel is elite. His line-drive swing and above-average bat speed allow him to shoot line drives all over the field. He also has shown a willingness to draw walks, and it shouldn’t stun anyone if this is a .400 OBP guy in his best years. He needs to get on base at a high rate, because there’s almost no power to speak of thanks to his lack of upper body strength and minimal weight transfer. He does help compensate for that with above-average speed and the ability to read pitchers, so he can turn the single into a “double” 25-30 times a year via the stolen base.
While there are questions about Newman’s long-term viability as a shortstop, he’ll at least stick there in the short-term He has outstanding instincts, reads contact well, and his average arm plays up because he can get rid of the ball quickly. If he moves to second base the value drops substantially, but as a potential .300/.400 hitter, he’s got a chance to be an everyday player anywhere on the field. If it’s at shortstop, it’ll be a major coup for the Pirates.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Newman hits, and that’s likely his major fantasy contribution as well. Whether that’s enough to carry him as a top-10 shortstop or second baseman (wherever he ends up) will depend just how elite the average is and how much the speed plays up. Right now, there just wasn’t enough fantasy upside for him to make the 101, but as he gets closer to the majors, he has a much better chance.
Major League ETA: 2018
5. Josh Bell, 1B
Josh Bell, professional hitter. Bell has excellent feel for the barrel from both sides of the plate, and he’ll make hard contact to every part of the field on pitches in every part of the zone. There are moments when his aggressive approach gets the best of him, but he drew a career-high 65 walks last year and appears to be improving his pitch recognition. The big power he displays in BP hasn’t shown up in games, but the addition of a slight leg kick had him driving the ball into the gaps and out of the park at a higher rate during the second half of the season. The uptick in power production resulting from this slight mechanical adjustment instills confidence that 25-homer seasons aren’t out of the question. Until he shows he can do it on a more consistent basis though, it’s safer to project slightly above-average pop.
Bell didn’t remind anyone of Ichiro Suzuki in the outfield, but the move to first base was more of an organizational thing than it was a reflection on his talent. His above-average arm and athleticism should play well at the cold corner, but his footwork and hands both need a lot of work if he’s going to be even average there. With all due respect to Ron Washington, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
Bell would have been more valuable had he remained an outfielder, but even at first he profiles as an everyday player, and if he can tap into that plus pop on a more consistent basis he could hit in the middle of the order.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: With his floor and proximity, there’s an argument to make for Bell to be the top fantasy prospect in this system. That said, he’s not at the top of my list, but he’s also not very far off. A .290 hitter with 20 homers is very useful at first base, but if he reclaims that outfield eligibility, he becomes an even more interesting dynasty asset.
Major League ETA: 2016
6. Harold Ramirez, OF
Ramirez certainly has his share of fans, with one front-office member dead set that he is the best offensive prospect in the system. We won’t go that far, but it’s easy to understand why so many are optimistic. He makes consistent, hard contact with a line-drive swing that stays in the zone, and features above-average bat speed. There is very little swing-and-miss, but there’s also very little power, which puts a lot of pressure on his hit tool. He’s made large gains in his ability to use the whole field. Several scouts I spoke with believe he’ll get stronger, so average to solid-average power is not completely out of the question. His aggressiveness carries over to the bases, and while he has the speed to be a weapon, that weapon misfires too often.
Right now Ramirez plays center field, but it seems unlikely that will be his ultimate home. Despite his speed, he likely ends up in left field, as he doesn’t have the requisite arm strength to play in the other corner. That puts even more pressure on his hit tool, but everything written so far suggests he’s up to it, and he should hit at or near the top of a major-league lineup.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: With or without power, there’s always room on a roster for a near .300 hitting outfielder with 25-30 steal potential—just ask the Ender Inciarte enthusiasts out there. If he can add 10-15 homers to that, we’re talking about a potential OF2 in the mold of Lorenzo Cain.
Major League ETA: 2017
7. Reese McGuire, C
Simply put, McGuire regressed offensively, and it put a relatively significant dent in his status as an elite catching prospect. The swing you see in batting practice is not the one you’ll see in games. During BP it’s fluid with above-average bat speed and it stays in the zone, producing bullets to every part of the field. In game, the bat speed remains, but the swing becomes much more contact-oriented, and much of that contact is weak. He does show a quality approach and is willing to take walks, although that can only carry a player so far. He has shown the athleticism and jumps to steal bases at the minor-league level, and he could be a Jason Kendall type who steals 10-15 bases a year if he’s playing every day.
While the offensive profile may suggest a backup backstop, McGuire has a good chance to play every day because he’s one of the best defensive prospects in the game. He’s an outstanding receiver who gets rave reviews for his framing ability, and very little gets by him. His arm strength has actually deteriorated slightly since high school, but his ability to get rid of the ball quickly and accurately, helps it grade up. The defense alone makes him a big leaguer, and if the hit tool can be even fringe-average, he’ll be a starter for a really long time. If it can’t, he’ll still start.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Unless you’re in a two-catcher league or an NL-only dynasty, McGuire is best left for the sim leaguers out there.
Major League ETA: 2017
8. Cole Tucker, SS
Several scouts believe that Tucker is the best shortstop prospect in the system, and at least defensively, they’re not wrong. Despite being on the taller side for the position, his plus speed and what has been an above-average arm (more on that later) make him an above-average defender, although he does have a tendency to rush throws and make the occasional gaffe. If he were to slide over to third he’d be plus there, but there’s no reason to make that move anytime soon.
Tucker is not devoid of offensive ability, but it isn’t what will carry him to an everyday role. His approach leaves a lot to be desired, and although he does have quality hand-eye coordination that limits strikeouts, it’s tough to project more than a fringe-average hit tool. He does have average raw power due to his bat speed and some loft, and if he can tap into that raw pop in games, it’ll help compensate for the 45 hit grade.
Tucker will miss a large portion of the season after tearing his right labrum, and there’s a strong chance he’ll miss the entire year. That’s obviously a major factor in his development, but scouts rave about his feel for the game, so the lost season shouldn’t be a disqualifying hindrance. He projects as an average starting shortstop with just enough tools on offense and defense to be a valuable bench player if he doesn’t show enough to play everyday.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: There’s more fantasy potential here than it seems, especially given his injury and new timeframe for impact. If someone has given up on Tucker being a potential five-category contributor at shortstop, now might be a good time to grab him and stash.
Major League ETA: 2018
9. Ke'Bryan Hayes, 3B
Hayes is the son of former Pirate (among several other teams) Charlie Hayes, and like his dad, he shows a solid feel for the barrel. He had one of the best approaches of any hitter in the 2015 prep class, and his selectivity and ability to keep his hands in give him an above-average hit tool, with the chance for more. There’s also plus power potential thanks to his natural strength, but his swing is geared toward line-drive contact, and he doesn’t clear his hips when making contact on a consistent basis.
Also like his dad, Hayes has battled weight issues, though his body composition has improved of late. He should be able to stay at the hot corner. His arm is strong and accurate, and his hands are soft. This is not Scott Rolen in terms of range, but it’s not Dean Palmer, either.
Don’t be surprised if Hayes shoots up this list with a strong 2016, as his hit/power combination is the best of any right-handed hitter in the system. He’ll have to show more in-game power, and the weight is something the Pirates will have to pay close attention to.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: It’s an awful long lead time for someone without impact offensive upside, which is why Hayes is best left for other owners before the fourth round or so of a dynasty draft this offseason. If he maxes out, it’s a profile similar to what we’ve seen from Pablo Sandoval over the past few season (sans 2015).
Major League ETA: 2019
10. Mitch Keller, RHP
If you see Keller on the right day, you’ll understand why so many are high on arm. His fastball is plus not only because of the 90-93 mph velocity, but also because he works downhill and generates big sink. That movement can sometimes get the best of him, as his fastball command is below average at this point. His curveball has 11-to-5 break and quality spin, and when he stays on top of his delivery he can throw it for strikes. There’s also a fringe-average changeup—one that he doesn’t throw enough but should be a competent third pitch as he moves through the system. Throwing strikes has been a serious issue in his limited professional experience, as he has struggled to find a consistent arm slot and repeat even the basic aspects of his delivery.
There’s a lot of volatility, but if Keller can throw enough strikes to justify slotting into a rotation, his ability to miss bats with two plus pitches will make him an asset. If he doesn’t show that ability in the next few seasons, pitching out of the bullpen might be the best way to put his arsenal to use.
Bret Sayre’s Fantasy Take: Keller was a much more interesting name in dynasty circles at this time last year, but as we know, statistical failure can be a good opportunity for arbitrage. In this case, however, there’s enough concern to knock him out of a roster spot in most leagues that roster 250 prospects or fewer.
Major League ETA: 2018
Stephen Tarpley, LHP – Tarpley was outstanding in 2015 (2.43 ERA, 111 strikeouts and 25 walks in 116 innings) and there’s reason to believe it’s relatively sustainable. His fastball is plus at 90-94 mph with good life, and he complements it with an above-average curveball and an average slider. He also will show a fringe-average changeup, and he throws strikes with all four pitches. It’s a back-end profile—and there have been questions about how well he takes to coaching ever since he transferred from USC after his freshman year—but he’s definitely an arm to keep an eye on in 2016.
Willy Garcia, OF – Some of the shine has started to wear off, but Garcia is only 23, so you can’t write him off just yet. There’s plus power potential in his right-handed bat, but in order to tap into it, he’ll need to have a semblance of patience at the plate. He is a competent outfielder despite below-average speed, and the arm is a legitimate 70. If he ever realizes taking pitches isn’t against the law he could become a regular, but betting on it would be pretty foolish. He’s probably just a competent bench bat.
Elias Diaz, C – There are scouts who believe Diaz, not McGuire, is the Pirates’ catcher of the future. They’re wrong, but let’s humor them. Diaz is the better offensive player with an average hit tool, and he also possesses a cannon. He’s nowhere near the receiver McGuire is and there’s very little power, so it’s tough to see him usurping McGuire as the everyday guy, but he might be the perfect complement to him on the roster in a couple of years.
Yeudy Garcia, RHP – First of all, the name Yeudy. Second, a plus-plus fastball that can touch 99 mph with late life. Garcia also has a solid-average curveball and a so-so change, and his feel for throwing those pitches for strikes got better in 2015. Long-term he’ll likely end up in the bullpen, and that fastball/curve combination could make him a high-leverage reliever in the coming seasons.
Casey Hughston, OF – The former Alabama standout and Pirates third-round pick has above-average power from the left side to go with plus speed but, like Garcia, his lack of patience is an issue, and so is his ability to get jumps in the outfield. This is not your typical college bat who moves quickly through a system, but there’s more ceiling here than you get from that guy. Hughston, we don’t have a problem, but do we have a starting outfielder? My column:
The Pirates have a ton of young talent on their 40-man roster—notice how you haven’t seen three-time top-10 prospect Alen Hanson’s name yet—but few of their top 25U’s have graduated to Pittsburgh. Only Cole, Polanco, and Diaz have debuted, the latter of whom has only two big league at-bats. Phrased differently, the big league club leans old, but there’s plenty of help on the way.
Let’s start with the easy one here. The Pirates nabbed their ace of the future with the no. 1 overall pick back in 2011. With three potential plus-plus offerings and other tools to work with, Cole stood out even in the deepest crop of amateurs the league had seen in years. Blessed with a 100 MPH fastball, a knee-buckling slider, and a devastating changeup, Cole breezed through the minor leagues, seamlessly joining the Bucs rotation midway through 2013. Given his aforementioned arsenal though, and the abrupt success Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez, and a few other rookie flamethrowers had enjoyed in recent years, Cole’s comparatively modest start left some fans wanting more. In a way, the combined quality of his stuff and his relatively small strikeout totals made Dudley Dursley’s of us all. “Make him miss!” we implored Cole, banging imaginary glass for emphasis. “This guy’s boring,” we muttered after yet another broken-bat ground ball.
But after two good-not-great seasons, Cole turned in a dominant 2015. He missed plenty of bats, striking out nearly a batter per inning while trimming his walk and home run rates and posting the highest groundball percentage of his career. Critically, he also tossed over 200 innings for the first time, firmly establishing himself as one of the league’s best workhorses. By the stingiest interpretation of the term, a pitcher can’t be an “ace” until he’s pitched like an ace two years in a row; consider Cole halfway home.
Polanco hasn’t enjoyed his breakthrough moment yet. He’s hit well in stretches—including a torrid .330/.380/.500 clip last August—but with a .258 career TAv in nearly a thousand plate appearances, it’s fair to say that neither his hit tool nor his power have matured quickly. There’s plenty of time, of course: Polanco is just 24, and after hitting the ball harder and bashing far more doubles last year than he did as a rookie, he could be primed to take a big step forward this season. Even if he’s still roughly a league-average hitter, he’s a good defender in right and will be an asset in Pittsburgh’s lineup for years to come.
Many would prefer to see Glasnow ranked as the no. 2 talent here, and there’s certainly a case to be made for the tall righty, particularly if you think Polanco is done developing. There are a few reasons, however, to be bullish on Polanco going forward. He’ll only hit for more power as he fills out, and as a relatively patient hitter who earned praise for his knowledge of the strike zone as a minor leaguer, he stands to benefit from increased exposure to MLB’s inflated imaginary box. Given the concerns surrounding Glasnow’s command profile, and the whole TINSTAAPP thing, I’m inclined to bet on the big league right fielder with some potential growth ahead of him. —Brendan Gawlowski
General Manager: Neal Huntington
You might notice player development is missing from the executive section, and that’s because as of print, there is no head of player development. Tyrone Brooks—one of the most talented (and friendly) people in the industry—took a job with the commissioner’s office, and their gain is Pittsburgh’s loss.
On a more positive note—for fans of the Pirates, anyway—the rest of Pittsburgh’s front office is outstanding. Let’s keep in mind that the situation Huntington inherited when he took over in 2007 was a borderline disaster after years of terrible picks (Daniel Moskos, anyone?) and nothing on the international front. To go from that to a group that is set up to contend for several years is really impressive. DelliCarri and assistant scouting director Mike Mangan are very good at their jobs, and you’d be hard pressed to find a team that’s done a better job in the draft the past five years. The same can be said of of Director of Latin Scouting Rene Gayo, and outside of the Miguel Sano snafu (watch Pelotero if you don’t know what I’m talking about), they’ve done a solid job of acquiring quality prospects without spending much money.
The Pirates haven’t—and likely never will—spend a ton of money at the big league level, but the farm system is still in great shape, which is good, as it’s the only way Pittsburgh is going to remain relevant in the loaded NL Central over the next few years.