In his short time as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Ben Cherington has made it clear that stockpiling talent in the farm system is a top priority. In recent years, the organization has owned a middling-at-best swath of prospects. So it makes sense for the team’s new general manager to look to build value in the minor leagues. The best 10 prospects in the organization include some familiar faces from previous years. However, the 2019 campaign brought a few new names to the forefront of scouts’ minds. Any scouting grades included in the following list are based on a scale of 20-80.
10. Ji-Hwan Bae, SS
Ji-Hwan Bae’s story is a controversial one. Originally signed by the Atlanta Braves in 2017, Bae’s name made national headlines when his contract was voided due to violations committed by the Braves. The Pittsburgh Pirates took advantage, signing the South Korean prospect for $1.2 million in 2018. Since his signing, he was involved in a domestic violence incident, adding risk and notoriety to his profile, baseball acumen aside.
Personal issues notwithstanding, Bae quietly put together one of the more intriguing seasons by anyone in the Pirates organization in 2019. Spending the entire season in Single-A ball with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Bae slashed .323/.403/.430 putting up 31 stolen bases and 25 doubles in 86 games. While he does not profile as a power hitter (0 home runs in 2019), his impressive speed helps him leg out extra-base hits to pad his slugging. Add to that an 11.3% walk rate and a 145 WRC+ and there is reason to be encouraged by his ability. Watch for him to start his age-20 season with the High-A Bradenton Marauders.
9. Jared Oliva, CF
Jared Oliva is an interesting case. At 24 years old, he will likely begin 2020 with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and try to solidify himself as the Pirates’ center fielder of the future. Despite a slow start to 2019, which MLB.com attributes to a concussion, he put together a solid campaign with Double-A Altoona Curve. He hit .277 and got on base at a solid .352 clip. He saw his slugging drop off from .424 in 2018 to .398. Per MLB.com, he maintained the ability to hit the ball hard consistently but had trouble elevating the ball. Oliva followed up the 2019 regular season with a solid stint in the Arizona Fall League, but the true test lies in the upcoming season. His performance at Triple-A will go a long way in determining whether he is that center fielder of the future or just a fourth outfielder.
8. Tahnaj Thomas, RHP
Tahnaj Thomas was not widely recognized as a top prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system until his 2019 performance proved that he belonged in the conversation. Acquired in the trade that sent Max Moroff and Jordan Luplow to the Cleveland Indians and brought Erik Gonzalez to Pittsburgh, Thomas showed off a power fastball and a plus slider in 2019 with the short-season Bristol Pirates. He improved his command, dropping his BB/9 to 2.61 from 4.58 in 2018 and an even higher mark in 2017. Thomas is still only 20 years old and a long way from the majors. There is so much is yet to be known about the prospect, but, with a fastball that sits around 96 MPH, he is an exciting name to watch.
7. Brennan Malone, LHP
Brennan Malone is the first example on this list of Ben Cherington’s desire to revamp the farm system in Pittsburgh. Malone, a 2019 first-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, was acquired as part of the deal that sent Starling Marte to the desert. A product of the IMG Academy, Malone struggled in his first taste of pro ball but showed the ability to strike batters out, ringing up seven in seven innings pitched. He has a strong fastball and slider and mixes in a curveball and changeup. Going into 2020, it will be interesting to see how he does in his first full season and to see how one of the first Ben Cherington additions fares.
6. Quinn Priester, RHP
Quinn Priester is another 2019 first round pick, the last first round selection made in the Neal Huntington era. An Illinois high school product, Priester turned heads with a 3.03 ERA and a 2.92 FIP in 32 innings pitched in rookie ball during 2019. Like Malone, he touts a strong fastball, sitting around 93 MPH and topping out around 97 MPH, according to MLB.com. His strongest secondary pitch is a plus curveball, and he has a solid command of his pitches. Only 19 years old, Priester is a down-the-liner with a small professional sample size, but his ceiling seems to be high.
5. Travis Swaggerty, OF
The first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018, Travis Swaggerty brought plus power and impressive speed from the University of South Alabama. His speed should help him be a strong defensive centerfielder in addition to helping him swipe some bases. In 2019, at High-A Bradenton, he stole 23 bases while walking at a solid 10.9 percent. His power numbers were disappointing, posting only a .381 slugging percentage but he still managed a strong WRC+ of 120. According to MLB.com, he made swing adjustments to cut down on his swings and misses and as a result began to hit the ball harder on a more consistent basis as the season progressed. At 22, the next season will be an important one in determining Swaggerty’s progress and timeline toward the big leagues.
4. Liover Peguero, SS
Acquired with Brennan Malone for Starling Marte, Liover Peguero was signed by the Diamondbacks at age 16 out of the Dominican Republic. In 38 games at rookie ball, he slashed .364/.410/.559 with five home runs. Peguero also played in 22 games at Low-A, where he’ll likely start the 2020 season. He brings plus speed and contact and solid defense. He also showed that he is capable of some pop in 2019. At 19, he has been successful in the short season each year of his professional career. He has shown that he could be the Pirates’ shortstop of the future.
3. Oneil Cruz, SS
Oneil Cruz is entering his age 21 season and is arguably the most exciting prospect on this list. Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a trade that sent Tony Watson to the west coast, Cruz has what can only be described as easy power. He is 6-foot 7-inches tall and has a projected raw power of 80 per FanGraphs. He is unusually large for a shortstop and has a cannon of an arm. This projects him as more of a right fielder. But the Pirates seem intent on keeping him at shortstop for the time being. In 2019, he was sidelined for part of the season with a fractured foot. Cruz still managed a slash line of .298/.356/.475 in time with High-A Bradenton and the Double-A Altoona Curve, where he will most likely start the 2020 season.
2. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
The 2015 first round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Ke’Bryan Hayes has been an absolute force defensively in the minor leagues. Hayes is expected to make his MLB debut in 2020. He has won the minor league Gold Glove three years in a row and is expected to make an immediate defensive impact at the major league level. His offensive prowess, however, is a bit more of a question mark. In 2019, he hit .265 with ten home runs and saw his walk rate drop from 2018, but managed a pretty solid ISO of .150. He has plus contact and speed and could wander up around 20 home runs. Out of all the prospects on this list, his floor is likely the highest.
1. Mitch Keller, RHP
Selected out of the Iowa high school ranks in the second round in 2014, Mitch Keller has the makings of an ace. He made his MLB debut in 2019 and was preposterously unlucky, sporting a 7.13 ERA despite a 3.19 FIP. A 4.75 BABIP did not aide in lowering his ERA figure. He struck out 28.6 percent of the batters he faced, good for 12.19 strikeouts per nine innings. Keller was also a victim of misuse. He was throwing his fastball the vast majority of the time. Even when his slider and curveball are his most effective pitches. He has been working to further develop his slider. It will be interesting to see how the new staff deploys his arsenal.
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