When Pittsburgh Pirates Fans think about spring training their minds almost automatically go to LECOM Park or McKechnie Field as many, including myself, still refer to it as. You have to go approximately 3 miles or so down the road to find many of the players that I mentioned in the previous article and will mention in these next two, to Pirate City. If you are in Bradenton this Spring, do yourselves a favor and spend some time in both places because other than the familiar faces and names on the backs of the majority of the jerseys at LECOM Field, you won’t be able to tell any difference in the work that is being put forth at either facility. So follow me on my journey ,on that short trek across the neighborhood to check out some more players that are putting in the work.
Chris Sharpe - LF
I had my first interaction with Sharpe this past season when he was playing left field for the Altoona Curve and he threw a ball to my nephew after making the final out of the half-inning in a double header at the end of June. Kids remember that kind of stuff and so do the adults in their lives; it leaves a really good impression.
Sharpe was drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. He then began to follow the same path that many in the Pirates organization have trailed over the years by starting in West Virginia with the Black Bears immediately after being drafted, moving to the West Virginia Power from there and then ending up starting the year with the Bradenton Marauders this past season.
Sharpe had decent stats during his time in West Virginia, but nothing that really jumped off the page. Then last year we started seeing something a little different. He started to hit at a higher rate, raising his average to .292 in 64 games. With that higher average, power that he had only flashed in final year in college began to show itself again as he hit 5 home runs and slugged .451. He was also getting on base more and striking out less; his strike rate dropped from 29.4% the previous year to 19.5% in his time with the Marauders. Everyone can already see where this is going, as I tipped my hand at the beginning of this session.
With his new found success in many of the major categories, Sharpe earned a promotion to Altoona approximately a week before I attended the double header with my family. Initially he struggled with the transition only batting .218 for the month of July. However, the power never went away as he hit 11 home runs in 68 games. Following the season Sharpe went on to play 25 games in the Puerto Rican Winter, where it was obvious that he was focusing on working the counts, recognizing pitches, etc. as his strike out rate had also swelled during his transition to AA, back up to 26.0% and his walk rate had dropped from his normal average of around 10% down to 6.6%. This upcoming season I believe that Sharpe has earned the everyday role in LF for the Curve with the potential to end up in Indy by the end of the season, depending on how things shake out in front of him.
Danny Amaral - OF
Amaral was drafted by the Pirates in the 14th Round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft from UCLA. He spent his first year of professional ball with the West Virginia Black Bears, where we learned two things about him; he gets on base (.329 OBP) and he is fast (25 stolen bases in 58 games.
This past year Amaral was assigned to the Bradenton Marauders to begin the season. Unfortunately, his season hit a little bump in the road as he was injured in early June and was on the IL until the end of August. In the 69 games he was able to participate in, Amaral once again showed his uncanny ability to get on base (raising his OBP to .354) and flashed his speed (15 stolen bases). It should also be known that although he is often listed as a left fielder, but has the ability to move all over the outfield due to his range, arm strength, and you guessed it, speed.
Amaral will more than likely begin the season back in Bradenton due to his shortened season last year, but I wouldn’t rule out a call up to Altoona in his future.
Rodolfo Castro - 2B/SS/3B
On October 30, 2015 the Pittsburgh Pirates signed the 16-year-old shortstop during the international amateur free-agency period to a $150,000 contract. His first taste of professional baseball would come the following summer as the Pirates assigned him to the DSL Pirates. For being only 17 years old the 6’, 200 pound, switch-hitting shortstop performed very well.
In 56 games and 230 plate appearances the young Castro posted a slash line of .271/.360/.411, with 2 home runs and 20 extra base hits. The next year in three less games, Castro produced very similar numbers (.277/.344/479 with 6 homers and 22 extra base hits for the GCL Pirates. After his second full winter off in a row, Castro joined the West Virginia Power for the 2018 season. The consistency that he had exhibited in his first two years in the Pirate’s farm system did not continue through his third season. His strike out rate swelled to 26%, his walk rate fell to 6.8%, his batting average dropped to .231 and he only totaled 35 extra base hits in twice as many games as the previous two seasons. Another change was that for the first time in his career he played more games at another position, second base (89 Games) than he did at his drafted position, SS (12 Games).
Following this disappointing season it was not a shock when he was assigned to the Greensboro Grasshoppers, his second year in a row at this level. However, this year was going to be a little different. For the first two months of the season, his strike out rate still hovered between 25 and 30%, but his batting average once again returned to around .263 and his power returned as he hit 13 home runs, accounting for a .901 OPS.
This resurgence led to a promotion to the Bradenton Marauders at the end of June. At this point Castro began to labor and slump more than he had in his entire career thus far, as he batted only .132/.192/.206 in the month of July and hit a only a single home run. It looked like things might not get better for the young Dominican. Luckily for Castro things did get better, a lot better. For the month of August he hit .299/.346/.443, with 2 homers and 10 extra base hits in only 26 games. It should be noted that in his short time in Bradenton he did play third base in 4 games, which has always been the position where he performed the worst. It is possible that this change in position and level threw off the rhythm that he found earlier in the season. In spite of the bumps in the road that he experienced during the past two seasons, Rodolfo’s hard work was rewarded with a spot on the MLB Pipeline Pittsburgh Pirates Top 30 Prospects, landing at #24.
Ryan Haug - C/LF
Haug was drafted by the Pirates in the 27th round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of Arizona. Since signing with the Pirates, Haug has experienced some bad luck, resulting in him only playing in 37 games over a two seasons.
In his first season, he played in a total of 18 games between the GCL Pirates and the Bradenton Marauders (1 game). His second game of the season last year with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Haug fractured his hand and was sent to the West Virginia Black Bears for 17 games to end the season.
In his small sample size thus far, he has played pretty well. His slash line is .284/.402/.359 and he possesses a decent amount of speed and athleticism that allows him to play both catcher and OF. I am hoping that Haug can stay healthy for a full season, so that we can see him attempt to reach his full potential. It is possible that he could start out the year back in Greensboro, but I would like to see him in a Marauders uniform come April.
Samuel Reyes - RP
Reyes was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent out of Bajos de Haina, Dominican Republic at the age of 20 in July of 2016. During his 3 seasons with the organization Reyes has played for four teams across three levels and has been used primarily as reliever. He was utilized as a “starter” 3 times this past year in Bradenton. However, two of these appearances would more than likely be categorized as him being an “opener” as he pitched three innings both times.
In 10 appearances at the beginning of the season with Greensboro Reyes was almost unhittable. He posted a 0.52 ERA, a 0.692 WHIP and had 23 strike outs in 17.1 innings.
In Bradenton his numbers took a little bit of a hit, but were still pretty impressive as he posted a 2.87 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP and 50 strike outs in 53.1 Innings. And actually his numbers were not hindered by his time as a “starter”/”opener” as he had 10 K/2BB and only 1 ER in 11 innings.
Oh, and by the way, he is the younger brother of recently suspended Pirates’ OF/Utility Man Pablo Reyes.
Matt Eckelman - RP
If you got to see the Pirates play the Phillies on Tuesday February 25, you should remember seeing Eckelman on your screen. He is a little bit on an imposing figure. It should also be noted that he pitched 1.1 innings that day and recorded 2 K/0BB, no hits and no earned runs.
Eckelman was drafted in the 21st round of the 2016 June MLB Amateur Draft out of St. Louis University. An imposing figure, Eckelman stands 6’3” tall and weighs in anywhere between 240 and 280 lbs. When the Pirates drafted him Eckelman had just spent his senior season as the #1 starter for the Billikens, where he posted an impressive 8-4 record with 3.12 ERA. He rebounded during his senior season after his junior season was cut short by an elbow injury that limited him to only 14 innings.
The 2018 season was a turning point for Eckelman, as he started the season for Bradenton as the team’s closer. After only 17 appearances for the Marauder’s, he was promoted to the Altoona Curve. For the season, between the two levels, he had a 5-1 record, a 2.05 ERA, a 1.241 WHIP and 17 saves. This earned him some attention from the big league club and a spot in the Arizona Fall League after the season.
Unfortunately for Eckelman, he struggled in his 9.0 innings; posting a 13.00 ERA, walking 11 batters and only striking out 3. This was a disappointing ending to an otherwise successful season for him.
Eckelman started and finished last year in Altoona where he got off to a very slow start in April and May by giving up 16 ER in 16.2 innings and only striking out 13 batters. It should be noted that one of his worst outings was when he was deployed as an “opener” in late May. He gave up 6 ERs on 6 hits, including 2 HRs.
June was a completely different story. He didn’t allow a single run the entire month in 11 games and 11 innings, while striking out 11 batters and earning 8 saves. Eckelman's success continued in July and most of August as he added 10 additional saves in 19 appearances. He ended his season in Altoona with a 3.33 ERA, 23 Saves and 45 Ks in 48.2 Innings.
Due to his performance in Altoona, he earned a late season promotion to the Indianapolis Indians. However he had a 15.34 ERA, a 4.286 WHIP and only 2 Ks in 3 appearances. It is my belief that he will be reunited with his pitching coach from last year, Joel Hanrahan, who was promoted to the Indians during the off-season.
Jase Bowen - 2B/OF
Bowen’s journey to the Pittsburgh Pirates may have flown under a lot of people's radar due to all of the storylines coming out of the organization last year, as well as the fact that he was not drafted until the 11th Round of the MLB June Amateur Draft and most fans stop paying attention after the 1st or 2nd Round; if they pay attention at all.
This young man had the opportunity to attend Michigan State University, on a full ride, as a wide receiver for the Spartans and as a 2B/OF for the baseball team. He had until July 7 to make his decision as to whether to commit to college or take his shot at a professional baseball career, beginning in the Pirates’ farm system.
Bowen didn’t take that long as he committed to playing for the Pirates’ on June 19. He was signed for $392,500 (the slotted bonus for a player picked at his position in the draft was $125,000). Bowen, who had played his high school ball at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, OH immediately reported to Pirate City in Bradenton to play for the GCL Pirates. Drafted as an outfielder, a position that he played for his travel baseball team, while being a 4-year starting shortstop for his high school, Bowen started 21 games in the outfield before moving to second base for the remainder of the season (12 games).
I feel I should take a moment to note that he did not commit a single error at any position. With the bat he slashed .223/.301/.315, with 4 doubles and 4 triples. At only 19 years old, and under a new Pirates’ regime, it is tough to determine exactly where Bowen will begin his second season of professional ball. I would like to see him begin with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, but it could be just as likely that he begins the season in Bristol.
Hai-Cheng Gong - RP
Signed as an international free agent in May of 2017 from Bengbu, China, Cheng did not start he professional career with the Pirates until 2018 in the GCL at the age of 19.
In his first year he only appeared in 11 games, striking out 14 batters in 16.2 innings. His 2019 season was spent between the West Virginia Black Bears, the Bristol Pirates and the GCL Pirates, appearing in 14 games. Across these two levels Cheng posted a 6.66 ERA and a 1.849 WHIP, while striking out 17 batters in 24.1 innings.
An unpolished player or what many would describe as a project, Cheng has shown the potential to get the swing and miss, but leaves too many pitches in the zone. It is most likely that Cheng begins his season back in Bristol, with the hopes of reaching Greensboro or maybe even Bradenton by the end of the season.
There will be one more installment in this series of taking closer look at the Pirates’ Minor League players at Spring Training. I am trying to hit on every player and position that I can, but once again if I miss anyone or you would like to hear more about a specific player; please let me know!
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement