A Minor Review of 2018: Pittsburgh Pirates

Welcome back to my annual off-season series that has a quick-and-dirty review of all 30 minor league systems around baseball. This feature began way back in 2008.

The Pittsburgh Pirates

If you perused the series last year, this is what you would have read:

The Stud: Mitch Keller, RHP: Easily the Pirates’ best pitching prospect, Keller has above-average control, a mid-90s fastball and the makings of developing into an innings-eater. In his prime, he should offer three better-than-average offerings, which will play up even more with his ability to consistently throw strikes. Keller, 21, also induces an above-average number of ground ball outs and allowed just seven home runs in 116 innings in 2017. The right-handed hurler just needs more experience and injuries have cost him valuable innings. After throwing 34.2 innings at the double-A level last year, he’ll return to that level but should see triple-A in the second half. He has the makings of a No. 2 or 3 starter.

Now onto the new stuff:

First Taste of The Show: Nick Kingham, RHP: Kingham missed some valuable development time in 2015-16 due to injuries so he made his MLB debut at the age of 26. And he gave us a valuable lesson on the value of fastball command. The right-handed pitching prospect struggled in that area and ended up giving up 18 homers in just 76 innings of work (2.13 HR/9). Now it’s not all doom-and-gloom for Kingham. He missed some bats and generally showed OK control (highlighting the difference between command and control)… while also looking like a potential innings-eater as a No. 4 starter — if he can solve the homer issues.

The Draft Pick: Travis Swaggerty, OF: Selected 10th overall in 2018, Swaggerty is a little more raw than your typical first rounder — but he’s also loaded with tools. The speedy outfielder swings and misses a fair bit — as witnessed by 58 Ks in 52 games during his debut — but he’ll also take his fair share of walks, which is a nice skill to have when you have the wheels to make things happen on the base paths. He has some raw power and can probably develop into a guy that can hit at least 15 homers a year but he needs to stay focused on contact over power right now and avoid the allure of the home run.

The Riser: Calvin Mitchell, OF: Playing full-season ball at the age of 19 in 2018, Mitchell didn’t have eye-popping numbers but they were good considering his age — and look even better if you adjust for the league. He went deep just 10 times but his swing is more geared to line drives right now and he had an impressive 28% line drive rate in 2018. If he gets a little more loft to his swing and a little more muscle in his upper body, look out. Mitchell has shown a patient approach and could eventually hit for average, power and have strong on-base numbers. On the down side, he doesn’t offer much in the field and will likely be relegated to left field.

The Fallen: Kevin Newman, SS: Listen you Crazy Canuck, Newman made his MLB debut in 2018… How can his value be sliding?! Well, I’ve expressed concerns in the past that the middle infielder has more of a utility profile and nothing really changed my mind in 2018. He was overpowered by big league pitching and struck out 23 times in 31 games. He also had just two extra base hits and only 19% of his batted balls were hit hard. Now, I do expect him to get better but just now much remains to be seen. He needs to use his speed more and focus on using the whole field to avoid opposing defences from shifting on him given his ground-ball heavy approach.

The 2019 Contributor: Cole Tucker, SS: The Pirates could have a couple of rookies on the left side of the infield at some point in 2019 with Tucker and Ke’Bryan Hayes. But with Colin Moran and even Lonnie Chisenhall around, there isn’t as clear a path at third as there is at shortstop. I’m just not a believer in Kevin Newman. Tucker, on the other hand, has an intriguing power-and-speed mix that could turn him into an impact player if he can continue to polish his contact rate. Yes, I know he’s never hit more than six homers but he has the frame/body for more power if he adds more muscle and he’s starting to hit more balls in the air; his swing in the Arizona Fall League definitely was geared to more fly balls . With further tweaks, this athletic player can be at least a 15-homer guy with 20-30 steals.

The 2019 Lottery Ticket: Tahnaj Thomas, RHP: The Bahamas is becoming more and more of a baseball hotbed and Thomas is the latest intriguing player to hail from the islands. He has an ideal pitcher’s frame and is all legs. He uses his 6-4 frame and athleticism to get excellent downward plane on his heater and he induces almost two ground balls for every fly ball in 2018. He also used his inconsistent-but-promising curveball to strike out 27 batters in 19.2 innings. Thomas is a long way from the Majors but he’s an absolute stud.

Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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3 years ago

I don’t know if it’s necessarily fair to call Newman “fallen.” At the time he was drafted, it was really only Keith Law and a few others who saw him as an above-average regular. The consensus seemed to be high-floor, medium-ceiling for him based on his good contact and low power. Developing real power always seemed like a long shot, and his ISO was pretty consistent in the minors. For me, he’s basically right about what I expected and he’ll probably turn in something like a .265/.315/.330 line next year with SS and 2B eligibility before losing the job to Tucker in 2020.

3 years ago
Reply to  dcweber99

And the time he was drafted, sure, but then later people jumped on the bandwagon and Law did an early (too early) victory lap.