It’s an interesting time on the Pittsburgh Pirates farm. Just a few years removed from turning some nice prospects into a contender at the big league level, the team seems to be back to square one. The same system touted for once having incredible pitching depth, seems to lack that superstar talent after Mitch Keller.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some players with big league potential. Some may just be further away from their chance. Here are three prospects to keep an eye on come 2018.
Jordan Luplow, OF
If you like power, Luplow is your man. Drafted in the third round out of Fresno State in 2014, the right hander slugger had a steady climb up the ladder. Luplow advanced one level in each of his three seasons, until he put it all together in 2017, and climbed from Double-A to the bigs.
Already 24 years old and having nearly 30 big league games under his belt, how much of a “prospect” Luplow remains is a question. What is not a question is that he put together his best year as a pro at his most advanced levels of the minor leagues. Between Double and Triple-A, Luplow slashed .302/.381/.527 with 22 doubles and 23 home runs.
His power is almost all pull, but he generates a lot of it on his fly ball power. What’s impressive is that Luplow seems to understand the strike zone. He’s never posted a strikeout rate higher than 20 percent, and often walks well over 10 percent of his plate appearances.
Luplow could break spring training as the opening day fourth outfielder. The Pirates could also start him in Triple-A for a little bit to see if he rounds out into a full-timer. If his improvements continue, he very well may.
Stephen Alemais, SS
Alemais is his name and defense is his game. The 21-year-old shortstop prospect is about as fundamentally sound as it gets at the position. The Pirates knew what they were getting when they drafted him in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of Tulane.
The right-hander has a big arm, and his instincts and range may be the best in a farm system littered with promising infield prospects. There is no denying that he can be a big league infielder from a fielding perspective.
The questions were surrounding his ability to hit at the advanced levels. Alemais makes his living on contact, with little, if no over-the-fence power. No matter the sample size, Alemais had never hit above .263 at any stop until his Florida State League debut this season. Sure, it was only 30 games, but against the most advanced pitching, in a very pitcher-friendly league, Alemais was at his best. He slashed .317/.393/.406 walking just as many times as he struck out (14:14).
He hits a ton of ground balls and seems to like center field the most, but shows an ability to possibly make contact to all fields regularly. It will be interesting to not only see how well Alemais adjusts to more mature pitching up the ladder, but how quickly the Pirates move him with the depth in the system.
Luis Escobar, RHP
Escobar is the classic, “he can throw, but needs to learn how to pitch guy.” He has two quality pitches, but whether or not he can land them is another question.
Now 21, the Colombian is coming off his first year of full-season ball. It showed promise, but also concern. He made 25 starts in 26 appearances in the South Atlantic League posting a respectable ERA (3.83), a nice WHIP (1.19) which equated to a sound FIP (3.52).
He also led the circuit in strikeouts, punching out 168 in 131.2 innings, a dazzling 11.48 per nine. The problem is, he walked 60 over the same span, a too-high 4.10 per nine.
Escobar has two pitches ready to climb the ladder. His fastball hits the upper-90s, but is in the mid-90s most of the time. His curveball has spin and bite, but he struggles commanding it. His changeup is well behind in both command and quality. Searching for the right words to explain his command issues, I found our friends at MLB Pipeline summed it up best:
Escobar can get too amped up on the mound and needs to learn to manage his effort level, with an understanding that his stuff will still be there when he does so.
The Pirates used to have a bunch of live arms in the system, destined to be All Star big leaguers. Now, after Keller, names like Shane Baz, Taylor Hearns and Escobar are amongst the best, but have big question marks. Is Escobar more suited for relief with two plus-pitches already at 21? The Pirates have the luxury of time to find out, and it will be interesting to see how he progresses.