Keller, Hayes anchor ship for Pirates

Hurler gets big league experience; infielder wins third Gold Glove

A second-round pick in 2014, Mitch Keller has racked up 566 strikeouts in 539 1/3 Minor League innings. (Austin Friedline/Indianapolis Indians)

By Andrew Battifarano / MiLB.com | December 2, 2019 11:00 AM

Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.

There's plenty of change coming to Pittsburgh, starting at the top with new general manager Ben Cherington as well as new field manager Derek Shelton. After a promising start to the 2019 season, the Pirates' fortunes took a turn in the second half as the big club ended with 69 wins and a last-place finish in the competitive NL Central. 

But part of the positive change coming to Pittsburgh can also be found internally with a strong crop of prospects on the horizon. It starts with Top-100 mainstays Mitch Keller, Ke'Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz, but there's depth that helped four of the organization's domestic clubs finish over the .500 mark and two -- Class A Advanced Bradenton and Class A Greensboro -- close out with 70-plus victories. 

Pirates Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Eli Wilson, Bristol (44 games): A product of the University of Minnesota, Wilson came to the Pirates in the 16th round of June's Draft and showed off a little bit of everything in his Minor League bow. 

The right-handed hitter posted an .835 OPS during his final go-around with the Gophers before batting .244/.356/.366 in 44 games in the Appy League with four long balls and 20 RBIs. What stood out from his offensive campaign was his ability to reach base consistently (23 walks to 30 strikeouts) and his propensity to hit left-handers with a .293 average and .806 OPS against southpaws. 

Wilson also did this while backstopping 42 games for Bristol, which finished with a 4.06 team ERA. On a personal level, Wilson threw out 39 percent of basestealers and maintained a .993 fielding percentage in 360 1/3 innings behind the dish. 

First baseman -- Mason Martin, Greensboro (82 games), Bradenton (49 games): With sights set on making the most of his full-season debut in 2018, Martin had an up-and-down year that saw him head to the Appy League to make some corrections. In 2019, though, he left all that behind and showed the best he had to offer as a promising young slugger at first base. 

Video: Greensboro's Martin hits two walk-offs

Back in the South Atlantic League, the 20-year-old clubbed six homers in the first month and never slowed down. In fact, Martin seemed to improve as the year went on, hitting a team-best 23 long balls and adding 12 more after a promotion to the Florida State League in July. 

"I think that's always been my philosophy -- to drive the ball as best I can," he told MiLB.com in June. "The perfect swing, for me, isn't a ball up the middle. The perfect swing is one I can get under and drive, hopefully to a gap or even over the wall. Now, I have the strength behind that swing too, so I can get away with that approach, too."

With 35 homers overall, a .558 slugging percentage and .908 OPS to end the year, Martin racked up plenty of accolades across the board. Along with his organization-leading home run total, he finished as a midseason and postseason All-Star in the South Atlantic League and was named a player of the week in the FSL in late July.


MiLB.com Organization All-Stars: Team by Team


Second baseman -- Kevin Kramer, Indianapolis (113 games), Pittsburgh (22 games): You'd be hard-pressed to label Kramer as just a middle infielder, as he's seemingly been a Swiss Army knife that can man just about any position (five in Triple-A). But the 26-year-old spent 50 games holding down the fort at second, where he maintained a .981 fielding percentage at the position. 

Video: Indianapolis' Kramer ranges, throws out Peterson

With his defensive versatility on full display in Indianapolis, Kramer was strong enough with the bat -- .260/.335/.417 -- to warrant a spot in the lineup just about every night. He belted 10 long balls and totaled 41 extra-base hits in the International League, making him a valuable piece for the Indians, something manager Brian Esposito did not take for granted. 

"When you have a guy who can play anywhere, it makes the game a lot easier," Esposito said. "He's a left-handed bat, and you can use him in the outfield. I think he'll get better as he goes out and gets confident. ... I really look for him to keep doing what he does and solidify the day-to-day and for him to be the best defensive player he can be and just solidify the bat. I look for him to move the needle forward in all those aspects."

Third baseman -- Ke'Bryan Hayes, Indianapolis (110 games), West Virginia (three games): When you're a two-time Gold Glove winner as a Minor Leaguer, how can you continue to grow and get better? That's something Esposito and his staff wrestled with this year when it came to Hayes, a hot corner stalwart.

"He's a silent assassin and he shows up and does his business," Esposito said. "What do you do with a guy who wins three Gold Gloves? He's a guy we search for different drills, different tactics, not the usual, 'Hey, we're going to hit you some ground balls and throw 'em across the diamond.' We looked to challenge him every day. Hitting balls off the tee or drop balls, some sort of crazy drill that was going to challenge him." 

Whatever it was, Hayes only seemed to become even more sure-handed, winning his third consecutive Gold Glove. His .989 fielding percentage was his best full-year mark since he was taken in the first round of the 2015 Draft. 

Video: Hayes makes diving play for Indianapolis

At the plate, Hayes saw more of his 50-grade power come to fruition with a career-high 10 dingers and 42 extra-base hits in Indy. Esposito noted there could be more "seasoning" needed for the 22-year-old, but the skipper said the son of former Major Leaguer Charlie Hayes is just about ready to carve his own path as a big leaguer. 

"When you talk about a guy who can swing the bat, play Gold Glove defense and run the bases, these are the kinds of guys you want on your club, Esposito said. "These are the guys down the road who are the high-impact players that impact the game and everyone around them. … I think this guy is as close to ready -- if not for sure ready -- to be a Major League player."

Shortstop -- Oneil Cruz, Altoona (35 games), Bradenton (35 games), GCL Pirates (three games): It was a tumultuous start to the year for the budding middle infielder, who missed time in April and then all of May and most of June with a right foot fracture. But once he regained full strength, Cruz showed why he keeps rising up MLB's Top-100 rankings. 

In July, when things finally settled, Cruz mashed his way through 23 games with six homers, a .326 average and .957 OPS en route to earning FSL Player of the Month honors. By the end of the month, the then-20-year-old got a promotion to Double-A and stayed there for the remainder of the season. 

Video: Curve's Cruz races to triple

Although he might have hit only one homer the rest of the way with the Curve, Cruz still shined with his plate discipline (.346 on-base percentage) and 12 extra-base hits during the last leg of the season. 

While his 6-foot-7 frame makes him uniquely tall for the shortstop position, the Dominican Republic native held his own with a .951 fielding percentage across the board in 2019. There's a question whether he can stick there when he eventually becomes a big leaguer, but for now, Cruz is showing he can handle the spot while also bringing premium power. 

Utility -- Will Craig, Indianapolis (131 games): A first-round pick out of Wake Forest in 2016, Craig has blossomed into a model of consistency with the bat over the last two seasons. His 2019 stats mirror his 2018 numbers (215 total bases each year), but this year's came at the highest level of the Minors.

Video: Indianapolis' Craig makes diving snag

Craig continued to showcase his power and upped his previous campaign's total with a career-best 23 long balls with Indianapolis. His ascension through the system garnered him a spot in the All-Star Futures Game, and much like Hayes, the 25-year-old continued to be nearly immaculate with the glove, holding a .993 fielding percentage at first base on the way to his first Gold Glove. He also logged 13 games in the outfield and chipped in an assist. 

"When you have a first baseman who plays Gold Glove-quality defense, not only is it an accolade for [Craig] but if you look around the infield, the infielders know they don't have to be perfect with a throw, it can be a little off line, it can be in the dirt. As long as they get it there, it has a chance," Esposito said. "When you have a guy who can play first base as good as he does, it's a different dynamic for all the infielders on the dirt. ... While we were doing our first base stuff he was getting work in right field and got a bunch of games under his belt.

"Offensively he's got some big power. He's one guy who I will say he dominated the league early and then the league punched back a little bit. There's going to be some adjustments that he needs to make in his game. He's not going to be able to hit every pitch a pitcher throws."

Outfielders

Travis Swaggerty, Bradenton (121 games): The 2018 first-rounder got off to a rocky start in his first taste of the Florida State League, but by year's end, he turned things around in a big way and looked much more like the player who's ranked fourth in the Pirates system. After a June that saw him hit .172, Swaggerty batted .319 in July and .337 with a .906 OPS in August -- both season highs. 

The outfielder also put his 60-grade speed to good use, swiping a team-high 23 bases.

Video: Marauders' Swaggerty singles for fourth hit

Jonah Davis, Greensboro (80 games), West Virginia (five games): A 15th-round pick in 2018, Davis flexed his muscles during his first year in the Appalachian League and showed more of the same in his follow-up with the Grasshoppers in 2019. 

The start of the year was not kind to Davis, who had an .080 average over his first 13 games. But as the weather started to heat up, so did Davis. Over the final 58 contests, the New York native blasted 17 home runs with a .943 OPS. 

He saved his best performance for August, when he went deep 10 times and hit .318/.383/.654, which looked a lot closer to his Rookie Advanced numbers and earned him the South Atlantic League's Player of the Month. 

Jared Oliva, Altoona (123 games): While three true outcomes has become ubiquitous over the last decade, Oliva plays a brand of baseball that relies on speed and contact. In his third season with the Pirates, Oliva continued to follow that pattern and even improve upon it. 

He stole a career-high 36 bases in 46 attempts while hitting .277/.352/.398 over 123 games in the Eastern League. Keeping with the theme as the rest of the outfielders on this list, Oliva improved as the season went on. He suffered a concussion as the season opened but held a .325 average and .833 OPS in 69 games during the second half. This uptick got him an Eastern League postseason All-Star nod. And after the regular year was over, he went to the Arizona Fall League and participated in the Rising Stars Game. 

Offseason MiLB include

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Mitch Keller, Indianapolis (19 starts), Pittsburgh (11 starts): The club's top prospect lived up to the billing yet again with another dominant season on the hill. 

Keller was inconsistent in his first cup of coffee in the International League in 2018 but returned in 2019 and flourished. He finished third in the league with 123 strikeouts, ending the year with three double-digit strikeout performances. His 3.56 ERA was third in the IL among pitchers with at least 100 innings. In a year that saw the ball fly out of the yard in Triple-A, Keller yielded only nine long balls. 

Video: Indians' Keller's 13th K

The metrics backed up the eye test as Keller finished with a 3.60 ERA and an impressive 28.2 percent strikeout rate while only walking 8 percent of the batters he faced in Triple-A. After all was said and done, he was tabbed as the IL's Pitcher of the Year. He also gained his first Major League experience, making 11 starts with the Pirates. Getting strong with his cutter and slider helped Keller, but Esposito said the hurler also learned things on the fly.

"I believe there was an evolution to Mitch's success this year," Esposito said. "If you look at the stat line and some of the games he pitched this year, he had some really good numbers. But there were a lot of moments in these games where he was learning valuable lessons, whether it be running up his pitch count, his ability to get the ball to certain spots. He continued to evolve and learn how to pitch with his arsenal. ... There were a lot of learning moments for him, some were in Triple-A, some were in the big leagues. He was able to come back and use Triple-A as his platform to make those adjustments." 

Honorable mention -- James Marvel, Altoona (17 starts), Indianapolis (11 starts), Pittsburgh (four starts): A 36th-round pick in 2015, Marvel has worked his way through the system and made a case to be a big league starter. He was at his best in 2019, finishing the campaign with a 2.94 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 162 1/3 innings between Altoona and Indy. In the IL Marvel was even stronger with a 7-0 mark, 2.67 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings. 

"If you look up in the dictionary 'work ethic,' you'll see a picture of Marvel right there," Esposito said. "That's why he had the success that he had because not only does he know what he needs to do and how he needs to improve, but he's always looking for ways to attack the opposition. He studies and knows what their tendencies are. He dives in and goes above and beyond."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Domingo Robles, Altoona (18 starts), Bradenton (10 starts): The southpaw proved to be an innings eater and finished the year with three complete games (two shutouts) to lead the Pittsburgh system. 

Video: Altoona's Robles completes shutout

In the Florida State League, Robles kept a 2.61 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while holding hitters to a .203 average in 10 outings. After moving up to the Eastern League for the first time, he recorded six starts with at least six innings pitched. His breakout culminated in his finest start of the year on Aug. 26 when he blanked Akron over nine innings, yielding five hits and whiffing five on 95 pitches. 

Relief pitcher -- Yerry De Los Santos, Greensboro (37 games): De Los Santos began his season in the Sally League in May and dominated out of the bullpen with 13.14 strikeouts per nine innings while keeping a 0.88 WHIP. Overall, he whiffed 73 hitters (38 percent) in 50 innings for the Grasshoppers. 

In games where he got the chance to close, the right-hander was perfect, going 13-for-13 in save opportunities. He walked just 12 and yielded three homers, becoming a dominant force as a back-end reliever for Greensboro. 

Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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