Each year when MLB Pipeline puts out their Top 30 Prospect Lists for each team there are guys that rise up the charts, some with a bullet, and others that fall, not from grace, but more out of favor if you will. As I discussed in one of my latest articles the “fall” can occur due to injury, regression, underperformance or just plain bad luck; I called this “victims of circumstance”. The “rise” on the other hand may be due to the “unlocking” of some great tool or potential, a scout being at one of your best games of the year, friends and family pounding the streets getting the word out; in other words just getting noticed and finally getting the recognition you deserve. I do not see these lists as a slight to one player or another, but they have become the “Holy Grail” to prospect enthusiasts and regular fans alike, so they do hold some weight. Within the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Farm System, as with many others, there were a fair share of “risers” and “fallers”, none of whom were new to the Top 30. They were all just reshuffled in a different order.
The Movers and Shakers
1) Tahnaj Thomas-RHP
As we all know by now Thomas was acquired by Pittsburgh in the Erik Gonzalez-Jordan Luplow Trade between the Pirates and the Indians. Thomas was originally acquired by the Indians via international free agency in December of 2016 as a 17 year old 3rd-baseman/shortstop out of the Bahamas and was signed for $200,000. After recognizing his raw talent the Indians had Thomas begin to focus on pitching. To begin the 2017 season he was sent to the Dominican Summer League to begin his professional baseball career as a pitcher with the DSL Indians. After only 3 games started and 5.1 innings, Thomas was quickly moved up to the Arizona League Indians (Cleveland’s Rookie Level Affiliate). Thomas finished the season with 5.63 ERA, 34K/33BB and a 1.852 WHIP between the two leagues last in 38.1 innings pitched. Because of Thomas’ pitching inexperience and inconsistency he returned to AZL Indians for the 2018 season. Thomas finished the year only appearing in 8 games, 6 of which he started. He did strike out 27 batters while only walking 10 and lowering his WHIP to 1.169 in 19 innings. At this point he was traded to the Pirates. Upon arriving with he assigned to the Bristol Pirates. It would be his 3rd professional season in a row starting out at the Rookie Level, but this time with a new team/organization. This is when Tahnaj Thomas started to put everything together. The raw talent that had been discovered by the Indians had been polished and was starting to shine. In his first season in a Pirates’ uniform Thomas struck out 59 batters while only walking 14 in 48.1 innings. He posted career bests in both ERA (3.17) and WHIP (1.117). It was a coming out party for the young right-hander from the Bahamas. As the 2019 season came to an end, with the 2020 season on the horizon the projected outlook for Thomas, who at time was the Pirates’ seventh best pitching prospect (#18 overall), which became eighth and #20 after the Marte Trade. He possesses a plus fastball (65 grade) that regularly reaches 92-96 mph, with a lot of movement up in the zone. His slider (55 grade) is in the low 80’s and flashes some pretty elusive action. He has recently added a changeup that clearly needs some work, but at only 20 years of age he has time to develop it. In the rankings that are literally “hot of the presses” Thomas comes in at #13, a “rise” in 7 places from his previous spot at #20.
2) Mason Martin-1B
Martin was drafted in the 17 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 an 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 to go along with a .262/.361/.578 slash line and 83 RBI’s. Not too shabby, eh? 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 place in all of MiLB). Since he entered the Pirates Minor League system his power has never been a question. He is rated as a 60 for his raw power. 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. During the off-season he was listed as the Pirates’ #21 prospect, but moved up 6 places, landing at #15 on the current list.
3) Santiago Florez-RHP
On July 2, 2016 the Pittsburgh Pirates signed 16-year-old Santiago Florez to a $150,000 contract. At the time the young man from Barranquilla, Columbia was still growing into what is now a 6’5’’ 222 pound frame, but the Pirates saw potential in his fastball, breaking ball and overall mechanics. After a full year of training and conditioning Florez made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League pitching for the DSL Pirates, starting in 14 of the team’s 71 games that season. In his 14 starts, Florez’s youth showed as he struck out only 30 batters and walked 38 in 53.1 innings. He also posted a less than impressive 4.56 ERA and a 1.519 WHIP. Nevertheless, these less than flashy numbers did not stop the Pirates development arch for Florez, probably due to his inexperience and the fact that he was almost a full 2 years younger than the average player in the league. The next season Florez was sent to the Gulf Coast League to play for the GCL Pirates, where he was almost 2 and half years younger than the average player in the league. Again Florez did not light the world on fire, but he also did not regress either. Instead he continued to progress little by little. In 10 starts and 43.1 innings, Florez lowered his ERA to 4.15, his WHIP to 1.385 and his walks to 23 (down to 4.8 BB/9 from 6.4). He also increased his strikeouts 35 (up to 7.3 SO/9 from 5.1). It should be noted that he did this all in spite of the fact that his season was derailed a little bit by an elbow tweak. For his efforts Florez was rewarded with his first appearance on MLB’s Top 30 Pirates’ Prospects, sneaking in at #30. Last summer Florez continued his steady progression through the system as he was assigned to the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s advanced rookie level associate) of the Appalachian League. And just like he had over the past two seasons, he continued to grow and develop. Florez started 10 games, just like he had the previous year, and pitching a few less innings (42.1). For the season Florez posted a 3.46 ERA, a 1.344 WHIP, struck out 36 batters (7.8 per 9) and walked 21 (4.5 per 9). The highlight of Florez’s season came in his next to last start of the season on August 20 against the Bluefield Blue Jays , when he struck out 7, walked none, didn’t allow a run and gave up only 4 hits in 6 innings. At the end of the year, just as he had steadily progressed through the Pirates system, he also steadily progressed up the MLB’s Top 30 Pirates’ Prospects, landing at #22. This year, thanks to his 60 grade fastball, his 55 grade curveball, his young age, his size and his potential; Florez also moved up 6 places in the rankings to #16.
#13 to #9-Jared Oliva-OF
#15 to #10-Cody Bolton-RHP
#25 to #21-Max Kranick-RHP
1) Cal Mitchell-OF
Mitchell was drafted in the 2nd Round in the MLB June Amateur Draft out of baseball powerhouse Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, California. The Broncos are a staple in the top 50 of high school teams in the United States and have produced current MLB players; such as Cole Hamels of the Atlanta Braves and the Pirates own, Trevor Williams. After being drafted 50th overall, Mitchell began his professional career with the GCL Pirates in the Rookie Level of the Minor Leagues. He started out with a mediocre short season at this level. In 43 games and 185 plate appearances the 18 year old hit .245 with 2 HRs and 20 RBIs. After an off-season to prepare for his first full year of baseball Mitchell came into his own for the Pirates then Low A affiliate, West Virginia Power of the South Atlantic League. He earned a spot on the SAL All-Star Team and started to show off the bat that scouts saw from in his high school days. Cal slashed .280/.344/.427 with 10 HRs and a total of 42 extra base hits. After a season like this it was an easy decision for the Pirates to promote Mitchell to the High A Bradenton Marauder of the Florida State League. This is where I had my first opportunity to see him play this past year. The power that Mitchell displayed during his time in West Virginia stuck around as hit 15 HRs in the pitcher-friendly league. However, his average dropped down to .251 as he found himself slumping in the middle of the season; only hitting .184 in the month of June. In spite of these struggles, the potential shined through, landing Mitchell as the Pirates’ #5 Prospect this off-season. After some acquisitions, etc. Mitchell now finds himself as the #12 Prospect in the system.
2) Kevin Kramer-2B/OF/U
When the second Kevin was drafted in the 2nd Round of the 2015 Draft out of UCLA behind 1st Round Pick Kevin Newman, it seemed as if the Pirates had found their double play combo of the future. And these plans had all but come to fruition toward the end of the 2018 season. Kramer was promoted to the Pirates along with Newman in September of 2018 as rosters expanded. Both players struggled, but the Pirates were banking on Kramer being able to get to the level he had shown in Indianapolis that year. He had a career high .856 OPS, .311 AVG and 15 homeruns. Unfortunately 2019 would not be the type of year that many of us had envisioned for Kramer. While his double play partner was up with the Pirates making a name for himself, Kramer was down in AAA unable to get anything going. His AVG fell to the lowest it had ever been since his first 12 games of in the minors (.260), his OPS dropped to .752 and he hit 5 fewer HRs than he had the year before. Kramer was called up to the Pirates again toward the end of the season and his struggles continued. He had a slash line of .167/.260/.190 with 17 K’s in only 42 at bats and got only one extra base hit. Kramer ended up being listed as the Pirates’ #11 Prospect and came into Spring Training originally list on the depth chart as an outfielder. As the new list was released it was a little disappointing to see that Kramer had dropped to #18 on Pirates’ Top 30 Prospect List.
3) Will Craig-1B
Will Craig is the former 1st-round pick for the Pirates in the 2016 MLB Amateur Draft out of Wake Forest. He has steadily climbed the ranks of the minor leagues, by spending on year at each level (From Low A to AAA) since being drafted. In 2018 he unlocked the power that had been trapped inside his large frame, but unfortunately this came at the cost of his better known attributes of working the count and making regular contact. That year for the AA Altoona Curve, Craig lead the organization in home runs (20) and RBIs (102) while slashing .248/.321/.448) He went on continue his success in the Arizona Fall League that year for the Surprise Saguaros (.304/.378/.570 and 6 HRs in only 21 games. This past season in AAA, while playing for the Indianapolis Indians Craig had some highs and some lows. On the surface it may just look like another year of mashing the ball for Craig (.249/.326/.435 with 23 HRs and 78 RBIs), but if you look deeper into the advanced stats you will see the regression that I previously alluded to and that the Pirates, and all of MLB, may be noticing. His K% has almost double from 13.5% to 26.3%, his BB% haddecreased from 15.0% to 7.9%, his wRC+ had decreased from 142 to 92 and his wOBA had decreased from .382 to .329. You may say I am reaching with my use of analytics and I would tend agree with you if the differences were not so significant. In 4 years he went from a borderline elite hitter to a slightly below average guy in spite of a continuous power increase. It could be argued that Craig was/is “blocked” by all-star Josh Bell at 1B, so the Pirates have no place to put him. Once again I would agree with everyone to a certain degree. Bell was having a historic year through the month of June (pretty much up to the All-Star Break). At the break he was batting .302 with 27 HR’s, 84 RBI’s and 30 Doubles. After the break he slumped to .233 with 10 HRs, 32 RBIs and 7 Doubles. Even after Bell was injured toward the end of the season, Craig was not added to the 40 man roster. For the entire year Bell’s defense left much to be desired. He ranked at or near the bottom of every defensive category for 1st Basemen with a .988 Fielding Percentage, 13 errors and -5 Defensive Runs Saved. Craig on the other hand improved his defense dramatically and was Awarded with an MiLB Gold Glove. He even got some reps in RF. To begin this year Craig was listed as the Pirates’ #12 Prospect and had been ranked even higher in previous years, reaching #9 in 2017 as 1stBasement and #8 in 2016 as a 3rd Basemen (his drafted position). This year Craig comes in at #19.
This reshuffling of players has no real bearing on whether or not a certain person will make the 26 Man Roster to begin the season, if they will end up in MLB at some point, if they are destined to become a career minor leaguer or be listed as the dreaded “AAAA” player (something that doesn’t truly exist in my opinion). Anyone that has had even the shortest interaction with me knows that I see importance in all MiLB players within the Pirates’ Farm System, sometimes to a fault. However, whether a player is #1, #10 or #100 in the organizational “rankings”, the potential is there for them to contribute. So pay attention and stay vigilant because there will always be more “movers and shakers” as the season progresses and the story of each of these players ,along with many others is written.