Through The Prospect Porthole: Eye On The Future

In the shortened 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates Season we have seen quite a few prospects given the opportunity to perform. Some of been given longer leashes than others and at least one in particular looks like he is here to stay. In only 24 games and 85 at bats Hayes launched 5 home runs and 14 extra base hits while boasting a .376 AVG and a 1.124 OPS. I will be the first to admit that I wasn’t extremely high on Hayes coming into the year and for now I will eat crow based on my previous assessments of the how the bat would play in the majors. What I saw in Hayes was the .279 career Minor League hitter, who’s highest OPS of .819 came in AA Altoona two years ago. He was a “glove first”, three time gold glove winner and any offense he would provide beyond this was seen as a bonus. I put some credence in discussions that he was working on a change to his swing, but wasn’t sure how much this could improve upon the overall numbers. Like I said before, thus far Hayes has proven me wrong; his work in the off-season, the changes to his swing and time with Jon Nunnally at the alternate site in Altoona have really paid off. My hope is that this young Pirates Prospect continues to show me I was mistaken for many years to come.

With all of the excitement surrounding Hayes it has gotten many, including myself, trying to predict who will be the next Pirates Prospects to make an impact on the future and when they will arrive at PNC Park. This task has been made even more difficult than it had been in previous years due to the cancellation of the Minor League Baseball season and a limited amount of information leaking out of the alternate site in Altoona. However, this won’t stop me from trying to figure it out and giving you my impressions because it’s something I enjoy doing and it creates some degree of hope for the future of the General Manager Ben Cherington led Pittsburgh Pirates.

In order to keep this as an article rather than a full prospect guide, I am going to keep the number at only ten and limit it to players that we have yet to see at the Major League Level. However, I am positive that I will providing more coverage on these prospects and many others throughout the off-season, so continue reading and stay tuned.

1) Braeden Ogle

Ogle was drafted by Pittsburgh in the 4th Round of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft from Jensen Beach High School in Florida. Immediately after being picked by the Pirates the 6’2” 170 lb left handed pitcher was assigned to the Gulf Coast League Pirates where he had a solid start to his professional career. At over two years younger than the rest of the competition, Ogle posted a 2.60 ERA, a 1.048 WHIP and a lowly .210 BABIP in 8 starts and 27.2 innings. He did struggle at times with a walk rate of 3.58 BB/9 and didn’t produce much of a swing and miss to the tune of 6.51 K/9. However, I consider this production a result of youth and need for further development, so I wouldn’t look to deep into it.

After an entire offseason to prepare for his first full year of professional ball, Ogle was ultimately promoted to the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Advanced Rookie League Affiliate) of the Appalachian League. He continued to grow as far as command and control by increasing his K/9 to 7.33 and slightly reducing his BB/9 to 3.35. However, he fell victim to an ever rising BABIP, which soared from .210 to .300 resulting in a less than optimal 1.302 in his 10 starts and 43 innings. It’s is possible that a lingering knee injury was responsible for a decline in production, as his season was cut short by surgery due a right knee meniscus tear.

After an intense rehab and plenty of hard work Ogle started 2018 with the West Virginia Power (Pittsburgh’s Low-A Affiliate through 2018). His first start was a struggle. He fought through 3 innings, giving up 3 runs while walking 4 batters and striking out 4. The next two games he hit his stride pitching 6 innings each game striking out 12 and allowing 2 runs. The fourth game of season he struck out 5 batters in 2 innings, only to be removed with shoulder inflammation. He did not return the remainder of the the season.

Due to concerns about his ability to maintain health as well as the fact that he was able to increase his K/9 to 11.12 the Pirates made the decision to move him to the bullpen. In an attempt to adjust Ogle to a reliever role he began the season with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s Low-A Affiliate) for the second season in a row, appearing in 20 games and starting 2. In those 20 appearances Ogle was able to live up to his potential, increasing his command and reduced his BB/9 to a career low 2.84. He also maintained a K/9 above 1 per inning. This resulted in Ogle being promoted midsession to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A-Advanced Affiliate) of the Florida State League. In 11 innings, a small sample size, he reduced his WHIP from 1.200 to .971, his ERA from 3.69 to 3.18 and continued his decline in BB/9, landing at 2.4.

2) Aaron Shortridge

In the 4th round (114 overall) of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft the Pirates drafted right-handed pitcher, Aaron Shortridge out of the University of California, Berkeley. The then 20-year-old had just spent his first year as a majority of the time starter for the Golden Bears after spending the first two years in the bullpen, mostly due to the fact that he was working toward becoming a pitcher after being a shortstop for the majority of his baseball life. In his final year at CAL, the 6’3’’ 196 lb. righty posted a 2.77 ERA, a 1.132 WHIP, had 74 strike outs, 2 saves and only 14 walks across 91 innings, 17 appearances and 12 starts. Much of the success that Shortridge experienced during his last year in college could be credited to all of the hard work that he put in while playing in the Northwoods Collegiate Summer League as a starter for 11 games over two seasons for the Eau Claire Express.

Immediately after being drafted, the Pirates sent Shortridge to the West Virginia Black Bears (Pittsburgh’s Short Season/ Low A Affiliate) of the New York-Pennsylvania League. In his first taste of professional baseball, the success that he experienced in his season at CAL continued throughout the entire season. In 8 games and 8 starts he had a 2.67 ERA, a 1.121 WHIP, 38 Strike Outs and Only 7 Walks in 30.1 innings. Due to his accomplishments and clear command of his pitches it was an easy decision of the Pirates to bypass Low A and promote Shortridge Straight to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A Affiliate) of the Florida State League, where he participated in extended Spring Training prior to beginning the season.

In his first full year in the minors, Shortridge was the same consistent and solid pitcher he has been since converting from a position player. He started 24 games for the Marauders and pitched 135.2 innings, averaging a little over 5 and 1/3 innings per start. His ERA rose slightly to 3.25, but his WHIP remained consistent at 1.14, mostly due to his extremely low walk rate of 1.66 per 9 innings. The only area in which he struggled was with the swing and miss. His K/9 rate was almost cut in half; going from 11.27 the previous year to 6.90 in 2019. After I saw these numbers I had to “nerd-out“ for just a moment to attempt to discover if there was any reasoning for this or if his numbers changed drastically in any other areas. I will save you the pain of reading through all of the advanced metrics I dove into by letting you know that I couldn’t find anything. His BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) decreased from the previous year, he didn’t have a “bad” month or slump and his LOB% (Left On Base Percentage) actually rose. Whatever happened, it is something that I will definitely be keeping an eye on as he progresses through the system.

3) Max Kranick

For years the Pittsburgh Pirates’ have gone heavy on young RHP in the MLB June amateur draft every year and 2016 was no different. That year the Pirates drafted 17 young RHP out of their 40 available picks. The fifth of his kind, Max Kranick was drafted in the 11th Round (340 overall) out of Valley View High School in Archbald, PA, a small suburb outside Scranton. It should be noted that the Pirates liked this young man so much that they paid him triple the slot value at the time for a player selected after the 10th round, $300,000.

Immediately after being drafted, Kranick a 6’3” 175 lb heater-throwing right hander was sent to the GCL Pirates of the Gulf Coast Rookie League, were he performed extremely well for being a full 2 and half years younger than average in that league. Kranick appeared in 9 games, starting 6 of them, while posting a 2.43 ERA, a 1.050 WHIP and 21K/4BB in 33.1 innings. In spite of this strong start to his professional career he was once again sent to the GCL Pirates to begin his first full season of pro-ball. This time around he improved in every area except for WHIP (1.263) as he did not allow any earned runs and struck out 9 batters in 12.1 innings.

After only 3 games, all of which he started, he was sent to play for the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Rookie League affiliate) of the Appalachian League. Due to ongoing issues with shoulder fatigue, Kranick would only go on to appear in 2 games the remainder of the 2017 season. However, he was impressive in both of his appearances; striking out 9 batters in 11.2 innings, while sporting a 2.30 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. 

After resting, rehabbing and conditioning in between the 2017 and 2018 Kranick came out for his second full season, with something to prove; granted he was held back from reporting to the team until late May. The Pirates assigned him to the West Virginia Power (Pittsburgh’s Low A/Full Season Affiliate up through 2018) of the South Atlantic League. Kranick had similar success to what he had experienced the previous years, but this year was different as he appeared in almost as many games (17) as he had the previous 2 years combined (19). His ERA rose a little to 3.81, his strike out numbers continued to improve by sitting down 77 batters in 78 innings (a rate of 8.9 per 9 innings) and his WHIP (1.154) leveled out to where it had been in previous years.

To begin the 2019 season it was originally believed that the Pirates would continue to manage his workload and kept him down in Low A for the second season in a row with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s New Low A/Full Season Affiliate) of the South Atlantic League. Just prior to the season a decision was made to send Kranick to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A/Advanced Affiliate) of the Florida State League, so that he could attend extended spring training with the team. Kranick once again participated in a full season, this time starting all 20 games he appeared in and pitching a career high 109.1 innings. All in all his season was a little like a rollercoaster as he came out on fire in April, cooled off in May, got things back together in June and fell off again in July. He did finish the season on a high note as he allowed only 2 hits and struck out 4 batters in 5.1 innings against the St. Lucie Mets on July 26. He ended the year sporting a 3.79 ERA and a 1.189 WHIP, but his strike out rate dropped a full 2.5 batters per nine innings to 6.4.

4) Travis Swaggerty

Swaggerty was drafted in the 1st Round (10th Overall) in the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of South Alabama. During his junior year with the Jaguars he had shown an increase in power by belting 13 home runs, which paired very nicely with his defensive prowess and overall athleticism. In his first assignment, with the West Virginia Black Bears he was able to put all of this on display as he hit 4 homers and 14 total extra base hits in 36 games. He was quickly bumped up to Low A, also in West Virginia at the time for the final 16 games. He struggled mightily in his time with Power; batting only .129 and adding a single home run to his yearly total. Nevertheless, he was shuffled up the ranks and began 2019 in Bradenton.

While playing with the Marauders some of his power did return as he belted 9 home runs, but his batting average fell to .265. Another set of positives was a slight increase in his BB% to 10.9 and a decrease in his K% to 22.1. This would insinuate a better approach at the plate, in spite of it not really showing up in all the statistical categories.

According to most, if not all of the major sites, have Swaggerty’s potential being very high; nearing what could be a five-tool player. With 2021 approaching, Pirates Fans have to be anxious to see if he can finally breakout.

5) Rodolfo Castro

After speaking with Garett Mansfield from the Altoona Curve at length about the notable performances of Jason Martin and Jared Oliva at the alternative site, he brought up the somewhat unexpected play of Pirates Infield Prospect Rodolfo Castro. Mansfield noted that Castro has executed well at the plate, making regular hard contact, as well as looking comfortable at multiple positions in the field.

On October 30, 2015 the Pittsburgh Pirates signed the 16-year-old shortstop during the international amateur free-agency period to a $150,000 contract. His first taste of professional baseball would come the following summer as the Pirates assigned him to the DSL Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Foreign Rookie Level Affiliate) of the Dominican Summer League. For being only 17 years old the 6’, 200 pound, switch-hitting shortstop performed very well.

In 56 games and 230 plate appearances the young Castro posted a slash line of .271/.360/.411, with 2 home runs and 20 extra base hits. The next year in three less games, Castro produced very similar numbers (.277/.344/479 with 6 homers and 22 extra base hits for the GCL Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Rookie Level Affiliate) in the Gulf Coast League. During this season Castro began to split his time defensively almost exactly three ways, between second base (15), third base (17) and shortstop (19). It was clear that his best positions were his natural SS and his adopted second base, but he performed well at third as well.

 After his second full winter off in a row, Castro joined the West Virginia Power (Pittsburgh’s former Low A Affiliate) in the South Atlantic League for the 2018 season. The consistency that he had exhibited in his first two years in the Pirate’s farm system did not continue through his third season. His strike out rate swelled to 26%, his walk rate fell to 6.8%, his batting average dropped to .231 and he only totaled 35 extra base hits in twice as many games as the previous two seasons. Another change was that for the first time in his career he played more games at another position, second base (89 Games) than he did at his drafted position, SS (12 Games). 

Due to his struggles during this season, as well as an stint on the IL at the end of July, with the Power it was determined that Castro would be assigned to Gigantes de Carolina of the Puerto Rican Winter League during the 2018-2019 off-season. Castro would only go on to appear in 8 games for Carolina that off-season and get 27 plate appearances. Unsurprisingly his numbers were not that impressive as he batted .269, with a .672 OPS and 12 strike outs. 

Following this disappointing season it was not a shock when he was assigned to the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s Low A Affiliate beginning in 2019) of the South Atlantic League, his second year in a row at this level. However, this year was going to be a little different. For the first two months of the season, his strike out rate still hovered between 25% and 30%, but his batting average once again returned to around .263 and his power rebounded as he hit 13 home runs, accounting for a .901 OPS. 

This resurgence led to a promotion to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A/Advanced Affiliate) of the Florida State League at the end of June. At this point Castro began to labor and slump more than he had in his entire career thus far, as he batted only .132/.192/.206 in the month of July and hit a only a single home run. It looked like things might not get better for the young Dominican. Luckily for Castro things did get better, a lot better. For the month of August he hit .299/.346/.443, with 2 homers and 10 extra base hits in only 26 games. It should be noted that in his short time in Bradenton he did play third base in 4 games, which has always been the position where he performed the worst. It is possible that this change in position and level threw off the rhythm that he found earlier in the season.

6) Matt Eckelman

If you can think back to the Pirates Spring Training game with the Phillies on Tuesday February 25, you should remember seeing Eckelman on your screen. He is a little bit on an imposing figure. It should also be noted that he pitched 1.1 innings that day and recorded 2 K/0BB, no hits and no earned runs.

Eckelman was drafted in the 21st round of the 2016 June MLB Amateur Draft out of St. Louis University. An imposing figure, Eckelman stands 6’3” tall and weighs in anywhere between 240 and 280 lbs. When the Pirates drafted him Eckelman had just spent his senior season as the #1 starter for the Billikens, where he posted an impressive 8-4 record with 3.12 ERA. He rebounded during his senior season after his junior season was cut short by an elbow injury that limited him to only 14 innings.

The 2018 season was a turning point for Eckelman, as he started the season for Bradenton as the team’s closer. After only 17 appearances for the Marauder’s, he was promoted to the Altoona Curve. For the season, between the two levels, he had a 5-1 record, a 2.05 ERA, a 1.241 WHIP and 17 saves. This earned him some attention from the big league club and a spot in the Arizona Fall League after the season. 

Unfortunately for Eckelman, he struggled in his 9.0 innings; posting a 13.00 ERA, walking 11 batters and only striking out 3. This was a disappointing ending to an otherwise successful season for him. 

Eckelman started and finished last year in Altoona where he got off to a very slow start in April and May by giving up 16 ER in 16.2 innings and only striking out 13 batters. It should be noted that one of his worst outings was when he was deployed as an “opener” in late May. He gave up 6 ERs on 6 hits, including 2 HRs.

June was a completely different story. He didn’t allow a single run the entire month in 11 games and 11 innings, while striking out 11 batters and earning 8 saves. Eckelman’s success continued in July and most of August as he added 10 additional saves in 19 appearances. He ended his season in Altoona with a 3.33 ERA, 23 Saves and 45 Ks in 48.2 Innings. 

Due to his performance in Altoona, he earned a late season promotion to the Indianapolis Indians. However he had a 15.34 ERA, a 4.286 WHIP and only 2 Ks in 3 appearances. Prior to the season it was my belief that he would be reunited with his pitching coach from last year, Joel Hanrahan, who was promoted to the Indians during the off-season. However, we all know now that this reunion would take place, but in at a different time and in a different, yet familiar place.

7) Cody Bolton

Bolton was drafted by the Pirates in the 6th Round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft from Tracy High School in California. As it has been with many high school draftees his professional baseball career with Pittsburgh began in the Gulf Coast League, where he started 9 games; posting a 3.16 ERA and 1.208 WHIP in 25 innings, relying mostly on soft contact and command to get him through.

Bolton would go on to spend the entire 2018 season, the first full one of his career, with the West Virginia Power in Low A. He once again started only 9 games due to being placed on the IL with a forearm strain in late July of that year. This decision was noted to be a precaution at the time, based on the amount of innings he had already thrown in Extended Spring Training. Over 44.1 innings with the Power, Bolton’s ERA rose slightly to 3.65, but so did his K/9 (7.71 to 9.14).

In the end the choice to shut him down turned out to be a favorable one, as evident by Bolton’s electric start to the 2019 season. In 12 starts for the Bradenton Marauders he earned an exceptionally low ERA (1.61) to go along with his ever declining WHIP (.859). His K/9 also continued to rise, just as it had over the previous season, reaching a career high 10.1. Due to such his breakout performance he was promoted to Altoona mid-season. Unfortunately this jump in levels would not come without its hiccups. Bolton’s ERA ballooned to 5.85, his WHIP rose to 1.325 and his K/9 dropped for the first time; back down to 7.4.

However, the Pirates new regime clearly saw the potential in his two-seam/four-seam fastball combination (60 grade) with a strong and firm slider (55 grade) mixed in by inviting him to join the taxi squad; without an invitation to the first round of Spring Training.

8) Mason Martin

Martin was drafted in the 17th round (508 overall) of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Southridge High School in Kennewick, Washington. Upon being drafted he started his professional career in the Gulf Coast League where he split his time between 1st Base and each of the outfield positions. After hitting .309 with a 1.087 OPS and 11 home runs he was promoted to the West Virginia Black Bears and ultimately the Bristol Pirates by the end of the 2018 season. His power continued throughout this season as he hit 11 home runs, but his batting average sank to .220. Because of these 2018 struggles Mason started this past season with the Pirates Low A team, the Greensboro Grasshoppers instead of beginning the year in High A. It was apparent from the beginning of the season that Mason was ready to move up to the next level. 

He hit 23 home runs in 82 games for the Grasshoppers, to go along with a .262/.361/.578 slash line and 83 RBI’s. After earning the promotion to the Bradenton Marauders of the Florida State League, Martin went on to hit 12 additional home runs and drive in 46 more RBI’s for a total of 35 home runs (tied for 4 in all of MILB) and 129 RBI’s (#1 in all of MILB). 

Since he entered the Pirates Minor League system his power has never been a question. He is rated as a 65 for his raw power on a scale from 20-80, with 50 being the average. His two main issues thus far has been his strike-out rate and his speed, which at times limits his defensive ability . This past summer he posted a 29% Strike-Out Percentage in Greensboro and a 32.3% Strike-Out Percentage in Bradenton. Both a lack of speed and a high strike out rate are common among hitters with Martin’s power, but we’ve seen guys become successful at the Major League level with very similar tools. 

Currently his Major League options are limited to playing 1st Base and DH, which could ultimately be a benefit to him if the designated hitter remains in the National League beyond the 2020 season. Other potential good news for Mason is that the only people I really see as obstacles to playing time for the Pirates are Will Craig and Josh Bell. Craig has seen very limited action thus far for the Pirates and Bell will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023, if he remains on the Pirates through his entire contract. Prior to the 2020 season most experts were of the opinion Martin was set to reach the major league club in 2023, which would put him right in line to take over the starting role from the word go.

9) Chris Sharpe

I had my first interaction with Sharpe during the 2019 MiLB season when he was playing left field for the Altoona Curve and he threw a ball to my nephew after making the final out of the half-inning in a double header at the end of June. Kids remember that kind of stuff and so do the adults in their lives; it leaves a really good impression.

Sharpe was drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. He then began to follow the same path that many in the Pirates organization have trailed over the years by starting in West Virginia with the Black Bears immediately after being drafted, moving to the West Virginia Power from there and then ending up starting the year with the Bradenton Marauders this past season.

Sharpe had decent stats during his time in West Virginia, but nothing that really jumped off the page. Then last year we started seeing something a little different. He started to hit at a higher rate, raising his average to .292 in 64 games. With that higher average, power that he had only flashed in final year in college began to show itself again as he hit 5 home runs and slugged .451. He was also getting on base more and striking out less; his strike rate dropped from 29.4% the previous year to 19.5% in his time with the Marauders. Everyone can already see where this is going, as I tipped my hand at the beginning of this evaluation.

With his new found success in many of the major categories, Sharpe earned a promotion to Altoona approximately a week before I attended the double header with my family. Initially he struggled with the transition only batting .218 for the month of July. However, the power never went away as he hit 11 home runs in 68 games. Following the season Sharpe went on to play 25 games in the Puerto Rican Winter, where it was obvious that he was focusing on working the counts, recognizing pitches, etc. as his strike out rate had also swelled during his transition to AA, back up to 26.0% and his walk rate had dropped from his normal average of around 10% down to 6.6%.

10) Quinn Priester

Priester was drafted in the first round (18th Overall) in the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft from Cary-Grove High School in Illinois. A self taught 6’3” 195 lb hurler, he is an enigma in a world of pitching clubs; settling for YouTube videos in his back yard and at the local high school field. Through hard work and repetition he developed an arsenal of two above average fastballs (60 grades), a curveball (60 grade) with spin and movement and strong out pitch, a change up (50 grade) that he has started to deploy on a more consistent basis.

Since being selected by the Pirates, Priester pitches at two levels in the Gulf Coast League and for the Black Bears in Short Season A ball. In nine appearances, eight of them starts, he posted a 3.19 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP with 41 strikeouts in 36.2 innings.

During the shutdown Priester continued to work on his craft, eventually getting to put it on full display at the alternate site in Altoona. It was reported that in 3 innings of work in a sim game, he struck out 6 and allowed only one hit; touching 98 with the fastball.

This is in no way a Top 10 Pirates Prospects or a ETA guide from one to ten in order of when the could and/or should arrive in Pittsburgh. It is more more of a free flowing process of those Minor League Players that could have an impact in the upcoming years; each of them to varying degrees because not many players will burst onto the scene like Hayes has and others will never reach any top prospect list, but still contribute to the big league club.

It should be noted that Braeden Ogle, Aaron Shortridge, Max Kranick, Travis Swaggerty, Rodolfo Castro, Cody Bolton and Mason Martin were all on the original Taxi Squad in Altoona, Quinn Priester was brought in toward the end on September 2nd and neither Matt Eckelman nor Chris Sharpe made it beyond the Spring Training invites back in February and March.

For the purpose of research in compiling data and assisting me drawing conclusions for this article many different sites were used; including MLB Pipleline, FanGraphs, Pirates Prospects, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant.

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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