Who’s Got The Tools?

Each prospect gets a grade for their “tools” and the Pittsburgh Pirates Top 30 are no different.

Anyone that has ever studied MLB prospects, even for a second, sees the tool grades front and center. It gives you a snapshot of skills that each player possesses; a guideline to judge them by if you will. Some are elite, some are not so great and all are based on human judgements/assessments, but at least it gives you an idea of how each player stacks up compared to “average”. For project junkies like myself, this will be a nice little recap or refresher, but for any newbies this will be crucial information when examining the intricacies of prospect rankings and player evaluations.

So where did the grading system for prospects come from? The credit as far as history sees it goes to Branch Rickey and for all intents and purposes the general idea is there; an average grade of 50 and standard deviations in increments of 10, with 80 being the highest/best and 20 being the lowest/worst. As it pertains to position players there are “five tools” that are graded; 1) Hitting 2) Power 3) Running 4) Fielding 5) Throwing/Arm. A player is then given an overall grade; a projection for the player’s potential future value. With Pitchers there can be less (or more) than five “tools” graded due to the number of different pitches that one throws. The tools and/or pitches generally graded are, 1) Fastball 2) Changeup 3) Best Breaking Ball 4) Command/Control. As with the hitters, pitchers are also given a overall grade, which utilizes all of the pitches they throw along with their command/control to assist the scout in making a final decision.

All prospects at all levels are graded to some degree and as it is with most of my prospect articles, this could turn into an novel, instead of a simple and compact column if I chose to tackle all of them. For the purpose of this article I have decided to only focus on the Pittsburgh Pirates Top 30 Prospects according to MLB Pipeline; looking at each individual tool and discussing the top of the class for each, starting with Pitchers and moving on to top position players. Unfortunately the Pirates do not have any Catchers in their Top 30 at the moment, so that is going to have to be its own article at some point.


1) Fastball-#28 Blake Cederlind (70)

For anyone that has seen Cederlind pitch, which should be almost of you by now, it is apparent that his fastball is electric. A two seamer with sinking action, it has already fooled many a major league hitter. He was recently optioned to the AAA Indianapolis Indians, much to the disappointment of the “Baby Thor” Fan Club. Not to worry though, I expect his flowing locks, his fastball and his K-strut back up in the majors sooner rather than later.

2) Changeup-5 Tied (50)

The good news is that 5 pitchers and all 4 in the top 10 have at least an average changeup. This includes #1 Mitch Keller , #4 Quinn Priester, #7 Brennan Malone, #10 Cody Bolton and #26 Travis MacGregor. It is also pretty nice that there are only two pitchers (#13 Tahnaj Thomas and #28 Blake Cederlind) who have a grade of 40, the lowest of any Pirates’ Pitching Prospect. For Thomas it is a newer pitcher and one that he doesn’t use as much. Cederlind uses his primarily as an “off pitch” to keep batters on their toes. Some bad news is that Stephen Strasburg change up that has batters guessing, swinging, missing and freezing.

3) Curveball-#4 Quinn Priester (60)

Priester’s curveball is no joke and just so everyone remembers, this kid taught himself how to pitch. With the combination of spin rate, movement and drop in speed (low-80’s) this secondary pitch projects to miss a lot of bats. Esp when paired with a low-90’s two-seamer and a rising four-seamer that tops out at 97 mph. This young man had the possibility to be something special.

4) Slider-#7 Brennan Malone (60)

Acquired as part of the Starling Marte trade with Arizona, this young man was ranked just one spot behind new teammate, Priester, at #19 in the MLB Pipeline Draft Prospect Rankings prior time them both being drafted in the 1st Round last year at #18 and #33 respectively. It should be noted that his slider (60) has a lower grade than his fastball (65), but still has the “stuff” to get the swing and miss from many opposing batters.

5) Control-3 Tied (55)

#17 Steven Jennings, #21 Max Kranick and # 27 Aaron Shortridge have all exhibited the ability to be fluid and repetitive in their deliveries; leading to precision with each pitch and every pitch type. Jenning’s is far from flashy, with the slider (55) being his only above average pitch. However, he doesn’t throw anything graded below a 50; the vision of consistency. Kranick has show the ability to pepper the strike zone with regularity, reducing the chance for giving up walks. His fastball is now rated above average at 55 due to an increase in velocity, reaching 97 mph at times. Shortridge uses changes in his delivery to mask pitches without compromising command and control; a very difficult task that he completes with easy. He has made improvements to his fastball (55) and slider (50) by dropping his curveball in order to provide clearer focus on these two pitches.

6) Overall-#1 Mitch Keller (55)

It’s not really surprising that the Pirates’ Top Prospect has the highest overall grade of all the pitchers on the list. He has shown the potential; just look at the 12.19 K/9 and a 3.19 FIP. These statistics give us hope for the 2020 season and beyond. However, then you see the .475 BABIP and 7.13 ERA and that hope begins to sink. It’s hard to tell what direction this young man is going to go after small sample size. 48 innings does not make or break a career. I lean much closer to the former numbers and the 55 future value being a better representation of Keller and what we can expect from him moving forward.

Position Players

1) Hit-#2 Ke’Bryan Hayes (60)

For the most part Hayes has shown his ability to put the bat on the ball; plain and simple. Last year in AAA-Indianapolis was the first time in the past three seasons that he has struggled to hit consistently. This could easily be explained away as the result of an injury early on in the year. He started off fairly strong, had two months where he struggled and then finished on a high note. The .291 AVG and 7 homers in July and August seems to be more indicative of the type of hitter that Hayes is, rather than the .207 AVG and 3 homers that accumulated the rest of the season.

2) Run-Ji-Hwan Bae (70)

This guy is lighting quick. There’s no arguing that. This past season with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Bae swiped 31 bases, legged out 5 triples and turned quite a few singles into doubles with his aggressive approach on the base paths. Add in the fact that his On Base Percentage was .403 for the season and you have the making of a legit lead off hitter for years to come.

3) Field-Ke’Bryan Hayes (65)

Hayes has won the MiLB Gold Glove at 3rd base three years in a row. He is the best fielding 3rd basemen in the minors and is in the conversation for the best overall defender in the league. His glove can play at the MLB level immediately. For a club looking to upgrade from one of the worst defensive teams in the majors last year, Hayes’ presence at the hot corner would be a shot in the arm to move in a positive direction.

4) Power-Oneil Cruz and Mason Martin (60)

Cruz is a batting practice monster. When he is in the box/cage players, fans and coaches alike are in awe of the sheer strength that this young man possesses. We have even seen this power on display thus far in spring training games. When he gets a hold of a ball, it is gone in an instant and even when he doesn’t, it ends up being an opposite field double over the left fielders head. He has experienced some difficulties with the off speed pitches, but not enough to effect his bottom line production.

Martin’s power was on display across two levels (Low A and High A Advanced) this past season. In 82 games with the Greensboro Grasshoppers Martin crushed 23 home runs and 45 total extra base hits, with a .935 OPS; earning a mid-season promotion to the Bradenton Marauders. With the Marauders his strength was in the forefront again. He hit 12 homers and 26 extra base hits, with a .862 OPS in 49 games. A true power hitter, Martin sometimes sacrifices his OBP and AVG for strikeouts and thus far it has worked out for him to the tune of a 160 wRC+.

5) Arm-Oneil Cruz (70)

When it comes to arm strength, not many in any team’s Top 30 prospect lists comes close to touching Cruz. Currently a short stop, it has probably been his arm that had prevented the Pirates from making a position change as of yet. I have seen many people online and heard them on podcasts speak about moving Cruz to 1st base because of his size. I can’t even think about “hiding” a arm like that at 1st. Right field has been laid out as a possibility. This makes a little more sense, but I lean toward keeping him in the position he is comfortable with and has played his entire professional career.

6) Overall-Ke’Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz (55)

As it was Mitch Keller, it is really no surprise that Hayes and Cruz lead all Pirates’ Prospects in overall projected future value for position players. As we discovered earlier in this article Hayes also leads in Hit (60) and Field (65) and is now far behind as it pertains to Run (55), Power (50) and Arm (60). He is clearly the closest thing the Pirates have to a “five tool” player. Cruz is the co-leader in Power (60) and leader in Arm (70). He has an average grade (50) in Hit and Field and is has above average Speed (55), which is not surprising as he can probably round the bases in 10 strides or less. Both of these young men have very high ceilings and high floors. This makes it an almost certainty that they will be contributing members in a Pirates’ uniform for years to come.

The Pittsburgh Pirates may not have a Top 10 Farm System as it stands right now, they are currently ranked #15 by MLB Pipeline. However, as you can clearly see, there is talent in the minors and a variety of players with fairly high potential; along with a few that have ceilings, where the sky is the limit.

Published by Craig W. Toth

Former Contributing Author at InsidethePirates.com, Co-Host of the Bucs in the Basement Podcast and life-long/diehard Pittsburgh Pirates Fan!

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