By Jason Shetler
While the Pirates farm system has been ranked in the Top 10 each of the last four years, it did not produce much in the way of breakout prospects last season. The Pirates only had a couple that broke out, with Mitch Keller and Tito Polo. Keller was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2016, while Polo was traded to the New York Yankees as part of the Ivan Nova deal. In the early going of 2017, there have already been more prospects who are on their way to having big seasons. Here is a look at the prospects that have been off to hot starts.
Clay Holmes – After being taken by the Pirates in the ninth round of the 2011 MLB Draft, Clay Holmes was quietly becoming one of the better pitchers in the organization. He hit a huge bump in the road, as Tommy John surgery wiped away his 2014 season. Holmes has the reputation of being a groundball pitcher, and while he is posting a 61% groundball rate in his first season with AAA Indianapolis this year, the fastball velocity has increased into the upper-90’s, and has led to a 10.4 K/9. His ERA currently is at 3.08.
Cole Tucker – In the 2014 MLB Draft, the Pirates did something that they had not done in quite sometime, and that was selecting a shortstop in the first round. That shortstop was Cole Tucker. During his first couple seasons, Tucker had battled through injuries, but appears to be putting it altogether this year for High A Bradenton. He has posted an .807 OPS, along with 26 stolen bases, which is not only tops in the Florida State League, but also, the most of any minor league player in general.
Connor Joe – Following the Cole Tucker selection in 2014, the Pirates then drafted Connor Joe with their competitive balance pick. Joe was a catcher/outfielder at the University of San Diego, but has now been playing mostly third base in the Pirates system. He has been off to great start for AA Altoona, posting an OPS of .873.
Edwin Espinal – The Pirates signed Edwin Espinal out of the Dominican Republic back in 2011. The 23-year-old had showed signs of being a decent hitter, but nothing that really opened the eyes. Espinal appears to have finally broke out this season with Altoona, as he’s batting .306, while displaying very good power, with a .472 slugging percentage. He could become another Jose Osuna type.
Kevin Kramer – A few weeks ago, I did a post on Kevin Kramer dominating the Eastern League for the Altoona Curve. The Pirates second round pick from 2015 is not just owning the AA pitching, but is also having his best season by far. Kramer currently has a .972 OPS, the fourth best mark in the EL. He also has 81 total bases, which are seventh most in the league.
Max Moroff – Since being drafted by the Pirates in 2012 as a 16th round selection, Max Moroff has been one the top on base guys in the organization. In 2016, he posted a .367 OBP for the Indianapolis Indians, thanks in part to drawing the most walks in the International League with 90. While Moroff’s on base ability has remained strong this season with Indianapolis at .370, the power is now starting to show, as his 12 home runs are tied for most in the IL, while his .928 OPS is good for third best. Moroff has had brief big league time with the Pirates, but is very much a factor to be on their bench moving forward.