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Thursday, December 05 2019 @ 10:15 pm UTC
The Minors: Who's Hot and Who's Not   
By Wilbur Miller

With the calendar shortly to turn to May, it’s been a mixed bag for the Pirates’ farm system so far. Here are the players who’ve been doing especially well or poorly. I’m just looking at performances here, rather than at who’s a prospect and who’s not.

Indianapolis – Hot

As every Pirate fan knows by now, Andrew McCutchen has been red hot. After a slow start, he’s now at 275/377/538. He has more walks (13) than Ks (12), 56% of his hits have gone for extra bases, and he’s making strides against RHPs, although he still needs improvement there (233/324/467).

Nyjer Morgan probably should be looking over his shoulder for Kevin Thompson. So far he’s hitting 348/392/594, although with mediocre plate discipline (11 Ks, 4 BBs). With the Pirates’ bench offering little offense from the right side, Thompson might be a better fit than the struggling Morgan, and he offers a broader base of skills since he has some power. Of course, Thompson’s 28, but he’s only ten months older than Morgan.

One of three veteran catchers at Indy, Raul Chavez has been solid with the bat, hitting 269/333/462. He’s a good defender and should be the callup in the event of, ahem, an unanticipated need.

The bullpen at Indy has been very strong. Marino Salas (0.86 WHIP, 16:4 K:BB in 16.1 IP, 0.55 ERA), Jesse Chavez (0.79 WHIP, 18:2 K:BB in 14 IP, 1.93 ERA) and Sean Burnett (1.13 WHIP, 13:8 K:BB, 1.35 ERA) have all been outstanding. T.J. Beam and Romulo Sanchez have been more erratic but not bad. Only Jonah Bayliss has pitched poorly, with the result that he’s given way to Burnett as closer. Burnett is rumored to be likely to replace John Van Benschoten in the majors.

Indianapolis – Not

Neil Walker has struggled badly. He’s currently hitting 189/265/365. On the positive side, over half his hits have gone for extra bases and his plate discipline (17 Ks, 7 BBs), while not good, at least hasn’t been horrible. He also has only one error, so he may be getting more consistent defensively.

One time Pirate prospect Jorge Cortes may need to head to AA; so far he has just two singles in 28 at-bats. With Jason Delaney and James Boone tearing up the Eastern League, it’s hard to justify Cortes staying in AAA.

Several players--Steve Pearce, Josh Wilson, and Craig Wilson--aren’t doing terribly, but just aren’t doing well. Pearce is batting only .242 with two HRs, but he has eight doubles and is striking out just once every seven and a half at-bats, so there’s good reason to believe he’ll come around. Josh Wilson is hitting only .203, but his plate discipline—previously an issue with him—has been very good (10 BBs, 11 Ks in 59 ABs, leading to a .347 OBP) and half of his hits have gone for extra bases. He could still be an alternative to the execrable Luis Rivas. Craig Wilson started very slowly, no doubt due to the layoff and the continuing recovery from shoulder surgery, but he has eight hits in his last nineteen at-bats, with only three whiffs.

Other than Van Benschoten, the Indy rotation has been poor. Bryan Bullington, Ty Taubenheim, Luis Munoz, Jason Davis and spot starter Mike Thompson have combined to go 4-9, 5.79. The first three have been especially bad, while Davis has been mediocre. It’s a good thing Dave Littlefield spent all those years stockpiling pitchers.

Altoona – Hot

For some odd reason, the offenses at Altoona, Lynchburg and Hickory have largely been carried by three players. Altoona’s big three has been the best. After a bad start, James Boone has been on fire, raising his numbers to 301/416/542. He’s drawn a lot of walks, with 15 in just 23 games, but he’s also fanning a lot: once every four at-bats. One other negative has been a tendency to get picked off base. Like many switch-hitters, he’s much better against RHPs. Jason Delaney is hitting 338/453/494 with terrific plate discipline: 16 BBs, 11 Ks. He’ll have to face the difficulty, though, of being a slow runner and weak fielder who’s limited to 1B and LF, and who has only modest power. Jonel Pacheco hasn’t been as good as the others and is especially weaker with the strike zone, but he’s been solid at 321/367/457. All three, especially Boone and Delaney, are old for AA, so the Pirates need to face the question of promoting them sooner rather than later.

Two of the Curve starters, Derek Hankins and Josh Hill, have been solid, Hankins posting a 1.21 WHIP and 2.18 ERA through four starts and Hill a 1.15 WHIP and 2.91 ERA. For Hankins that’s a big improvement over his mediocre showing during two seasons at Lynchburg, but unfortunately he’s now on the DL.

Several relievers have pitched well. Pat Bresnehan has allowed only eight hits while striking out eleven in 12.1 IP, although he’s walked six. Chris Hernandez has a 1.05 WHIP and 15 Ks, with only 3 BBs, in 14.1 IP. Brian Rogers posted a 0.80 WHIP and 0.60 ERA before getting promoted to AAA.

Altoona – Not

After a hot start, Brad Corley has struggled to a 270/280/360 mark. Incredibly, in 32 games at the AA level, he has zero walks and zero homers. He’s obviously suffering from a very fundamental unwillingness to make adjustments.

Anthony Webster isn’t doing much to reclaim his former prospect status, batting 230/284/361. Oddly, he has five walks and only three strikeouts in 61 at-bats.

After being pressed into rotation duty, first due to the trade of Todd Redmond and then due to Hankins’ injury, Kyle Bloom has struggled badly. He’s walked 14 in 17 IP, to go with an ERA of 8.47. Waiver pickup Jimmy Barthmaier has also struggled, walking 13 in 25 IP and posting an ERA of 5.04, although his WHIP is actually pretty good at 1.24.

Several relievers are struggling, including 40-man roster members Dave Davidson and Ronald Belisario. Davidson has an unsightly WHIP of 1.88 and has allowed an opponents’ BA of .333. Belisario has an ERA of 12.54 and all the other nasty numbers you’d expect to go with it. Kevin Roberts, acquired in the Salomon Torres deal, has walked 11 in 9.1 IP.

Lynchburg – Hot

The big three at Lynchburg aren’t that impressive, but it doesn’t take much to be the highlights of the Hillcats’ anemic offense. Actually, Jim Negrych has an impressive BA, at .386, and he’s drawing enough walks to sport a .452 OBP. His power is limited to doubles and he’s a defensive liability, but with an OPS of .958 it's easy to see him reaching the majors as a bat off the bench. In fact, as a LH hitter, it’s easy to see him as a pinch-hitter deluxe in the tradition of John Vander Wal, Mark Sweeney and Dave Hansen. Brian Friday has cooled off considerably from his strong start, hitting only .167 in his last nine games, but he still has an OBP of .385 thanks to a high walk rate. Steve Lerud has overcome a bad start to get nine hits in his last 31 at-bats and is second on the team in slugging, behind Negrych, at .444.

Backup outfielder James Barksdale is 11-for-22, leaving him at 500/560/636.

It’s hard to know what to say about the Hillcats’ starters, as none have been particularly bad or good. Dan Moskos has a 1.11 WHIP and 3.48 ERA, but he’s fanning only 5.7 batters per nine innings, far below the league average of 7.6.

Among the relievers, Kyle Pearson got through ten innings with eleven Ks and no runs allowed, earning him a promotion to Altoona. Blair Johnson and Jeff Sues have emerged from the doctor’s office to post WHIPs of 0.86 and 0.81, respectively. Neither, especially Sues, is fanning many hitters, but the fact that both have stayed healthy an entire month is a near-miracle. Eric Krebs is fanning a batter an inning, but has had some control problems.

Lynchburg – Not

The Hillcats’ “offense” stands as a fitting memorial to the Pirates’ drafting and Latin American scouting under Dave Littlefield. Some OPS figures tell the story:

Angel Gonzalez: .552
Anthony Mansolino: .485
Albert Laboy: .495
Alex Presley: .318
Jared Keel: .511

This quintet has combined for 24 walks (18 of them by Keel and Laboy), 78 strikeouts, and two HRs. If you go deeper it just gets worse. Backup catchers Chris Jones and Kris Watts and utility infielder Greg Picart have combined to go 2-for-46. In case you’re counting, that’s a BA of .043.

Except for Charles Benoit, there haven’t been any significant disappointments on the pitching staff so far. Benoit has struggled, with a 1.75 WHIP and 7.88 ERA. He’s only walked two while fanning seven in 8 IP, so his struggles aren’t overwhelming.

Hickory – Hot

The Crawdads’ big three has been Jose de los Santos, Miles Durham, and Erik Huber. De los Santos has improved dramatically with the bat over his dismal showing last year, now hitting 338/376/400, but his plate discipline remains poor at 17 Ks and only five walks. Durham has been the Crawdads’ primary power source, slugging .494 and leading the team easily with 19 RBIs. His plate discipline, however, is even worse: he has no walks and 19 Ks. Huber is probably the most promising of the three. Unlike the others, he’s in his first full year as a pro. He’s currently hitting 279/326/477, with mediocre plate discipline.

Most recently, Hickory’s two best hitters have been Andrew Walker and Bobby Spain. Walker has returned from the DL to hit 303/361/636 in his first nine games. Spain had a miserable start, but is now 12 for his last 29 with five doubles and a HR, to put him at 271/323/407.

The Crawdads’ most reliable starters have been Dustin Molleken (1.17 WHIP, 3.13 ERA) and Dionis Rodriguez (1.10, WHIP, 2.25 ERA). Duke Welker and Jose Diaz both pitched well in their first two starts but then went on the DL.

The most pleasant surprise by far on the Hickory staff has been Mike Felix, who imploded last year due to severe control problems. In five games, three of them starts, he’s thrown 15.1 IP with 21 Ks, a 1.24 WHIP and 1.17 ERA. His control still leaves something to be desired, as he’s walked eight, six of them in his last 6.1 IP, but he’s obviously made some progress. Ron Uviedo has mostly pitched well in relief, with 17 Ks and five walks in 16.1 IP.

Hickory – Not

Going into the season, the two most promising position players on the Crawdads’ roster (with Andrew Walker on the DL) were the very raw outfielders Austin McClune and Marcus Davis. Although it’s early, neither is doing well so far. McClune is hitting 235/311/296, Davis 208/250/375. There have been some positive signs. McClune’s plate discipline has improved a great deal, as he’s got nine walks and 17 Ks. Davis has three HRs, but they’re accompanied by 24 Ks and only two walks.

Starting secondbaseman Matt Cavagnaro is struggling at 188/222/246.

It’s hard to tag any Hickory pitchers as being “not hot,” because the Pirates are rotating pitchers between Hickory and extended spring training. Any pitcher who struggles is quickly gone. One minor disappointment so far has been promising reliever Tom Boleska, who has a 6.43 ERA in four appearances. One of the replacements for the injured starters, Emilis Guerrero, has been whacked around some in three starts.

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