Offensive help in the team’s future
While players like Kevin Newman, Will Craig and Cole Tucker have been playing very well lately for the Pirates minor league teams, it is the lesser known players that have been producing at a high rate for Bradenton, Altoona and Indianapolis lately. Jordan Luplow and Jerrick Suiter have put together their breakout seasons with Altoona, while Logan Hill put together his breakout campaign at Bradenton before his promotion to the double-A level. Eric Wood has put together his breakout season at the Triple-A level with the Indianapolis Indians, but still remains under the radar after recovering from a slow start to the season. These four players have all given themselves the opportunity to compete for a role at the MLB level in the near future. With further analysis of their breakout seasons, along with breakdowns of how they are handling their recent promotions, will help to determine what the future holds for each of these 2017 minor league breakout stars.
Luplow has made a smooth transition to playing outfield everyday, after 21 errors in 2015 at third base forced him to vacate that defensive position. Luplow had shown flashes of being an offensive asset throughout each of the past three seasons, ever since being drafted in the third round of the 2014 MLB draft. This season it has been all about the home runs for Luplow, as he hit 16 of them for Altoona before his promotion to Triple-A. In just a few games he has already collected three home runs at the Triple-A level, while hitting the ball out of ballparks that do not rank among the most hitter-friendly around the country in minor league baseball. To go along with his 19 home runs to this point in the season, Luplow has also hit 16 doubles to give him a grand total of 39 extra-base hits in 289 at-bats. All of this production has resulted in Jordan Luplow becoming the most noteworthy prospect in the Pirates farm system this year. How is he doing it though?
His success has come from swinging hard and being extremely selective at the plate. While this may seem like an over-simplification of his approach, it is not far from the truth. His advanced approach, combined with his raw strength and hand-eye coordination, has combined to produce lethal results against even the best pitching in both the Eastern and International Leagues. One of his Triple-A teammates, Tyler Eppler, tweeted a picture of Luplow following through on a home run swing with his eye closed. He captioned the photo by saying, “I think he lives by this quote, ‘Swing hard in case you hit it’ #CloseEyesSwingHard”. Even though most Pirate fans have never heard of Jordan Luplow, the team’s 2014 third round pick is a significant player for them down on the farm. With more heavy-hitting and slick catches in the outfield, the converted third basemen is in position to make an impact for the Pirates offensively as soon as 2018.
Some fans may know his name, after he started for Team Canada at third base in the World Baseball Classic this past spring. Wood went on to start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis in the Pirates organization, but a slow start prevented him from being a factor at third base for the Pirates in the absence of Jung-Ho Kang. After seeing his batting average sit in the low .200s for most of the season, Wood has seen his batting average climb to nearly .260 recently. That is not the only area where Wood is excelling however, as he is approaching a new career high in home runs, needing only four more to match his previous career high. Wood’s 10.6% walk rate shows that he is being quite selective at the plate, even though his 36 extra-base hits in 287 at-bats have him striking out at a 24.2% rate. The only poor number across the board for him, is his strike out rate which in turn has effected his batting average some. Overall, Eric Wood has stuck at third base and is showing the offensive prowess that could put him in the mix for the starting third base job sometime next season.
While Wood may not have the star potential that Luplow has, the Pirates 2012 sixth round pick has the talent to be an at least average everyday starter at third base for the team. With Wood keeping his error totals under control, and overall showing a good glove at third base, his bat could earn him the look he needs to win the Pirates starting third base job. With a .258/.336/.481 batting line in 81 games played this season, Wood is hitting the ball well enough to soon earn a look at the next level. The Pirates current third base situation has David Freese getting more rest days in the second half of the season, so the fans may get to see Wood play some third base for the team in August and September. The Pirates having the opportunity to see Wood play third base at the MLB level before the 2018 season, will be key as they decide whether or not they want this minor league breakout offensive star to be a part of their future.
Coming into the 2017 season, Jerrick Suiter had hit some throughout his parts of three seasons in the minor leagues, but he had never shown much power. All of that changed after an early season promotion to Double-A Altoona. The 2014 26th round pick of the Pirates, hit the ground running upon being promoted to Double-A. Not only has he continued his trend of being selective at the plate, but now the big outfielder is driving the ball with the regularity that could earn him a look at the MLB level in the near future. With 11 doubles and seven home runs in just 171 plate appearances, Suiter has driven the ball with regularity this season to put himself among the minor league’s elite hitters. Pitchers have taken notice of this recent surge by Suiter as well, and his walk rates have started what should be a steady climb for the rest of the season. His walk rate currently sits at 13.5% after 53 games played at the Double-A level.
Like Luplow, Suiter is a big athletic outfielder with a noteworthy throwing arm. At some point his size may be a detriment to his outfield range, but to this point in his professional baseball career, he has shown good mobility while playing either corner outfield position. With five stolen bases in five attempts this season, Suiter has proven that he has good instincts on the base paths to accompany his slightly above average speed. While the fans should not expect him to cover ground in the outfield the way Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen did immediately following their promotions to the MLB level, Suiter is capable of defense similar to what Randall Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty provide to the St. Louis Cardinals. Provided that Suiter is able to continue this offensive surge, he may be developing into an everyday MLB outfielder that has the developed skills in each area of his game, to provide the Pirates with an impact middle of the order hitter in the future.
Hill started his breakout before Luplow, Suiter or Wood got their breakout seasons going, but his breakout came at the lowest level of the minor leagues among these four players. After coming off a 2016 campaign where he did not show a selective eye at the plate, Hill improved enough in this area of his game to break out for the Bradenton Marauders in his second full season in the Pirates minor league system. With a 10.2% walk rate and an improved 23.9% strikeout rate, Hill was able to pick his pitch to drive with regularity for the Pirates High-ball club. Fourteen doubles, two triples and 16 home runs gave Logan Hill 32 extra-base hits in 267 at-bats for Bradenton. This rate of barreling up the baseball, puts him in the conversation with the other three breakout minor league stars on this list. Hill did not just crush the ball for Bradenton this year though, as he is starting to put together another impressive performance upon being promoted to Altoona.
So far at the double-A level, Hill has improved both his walk rate and his strikeout rate. With a 17.2% walk rate, and a 22.4% strikeout rate, Hill may be on his way to mastering the Double-A level early, as he is similar in age to the other 24 year old players on this list. Hill doesn’t possess the pure athleticism that Suiter and Luplow have in the outfield, but to this point he has done a nice job while playing some on both corners with the two teams he has played for in the Pirates minor leagues this season. Continued development from Hill in all aspects of his game, could allow the Pirates to turn out a third straight corner outfielder with power. Having Hill show selectivity at the plate, will continue to help his minor league production as the Pirates 2015 25th round pick tries to earn a promotion to the highest level of minor league baseball with the Pirates next season.
Which of these guys will make it to the MLB level?
All four of these players should earn a look at the MLB level sometime in the near future for the Pirates. With three of them being corner outfielders however, one of the outfielders could be moved in a trade before reaching the MLB level. Right now with the uncertainty surrounding Andrew McCutchen’s future in Pittsburgh, Luplow appears the most likely of these players to benefit from the current state of the MLB roster. Luplow has the athleticism to play left field at PNC Park everyday, and he brings middle of the order type power to the team. Wood is the next most likely to make an MLB debut in the near future, even though Suiter is probably more likely to stick as an everyday player for the Pirates. Wood appears to be in line to compete with Jose Osuna for the Pirates starting third base position next spring. With Osuna scheduled to make the transition to third base in the Venezuelan Winter League, Wood will have the opportunity to head to camp for an open competition with a player who has already proven that he can hit MLB pitching. With this kind of depth in the outfield and at third base, the Pirates are in a great position to continue a high level of competitive baseball heading into 2018 and beyond, because of the breakout minor league stars listed above.