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Pirates' Minor Leaguers in Spring Training Part 3

There is a void in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organizational depth at catcher. As we finish our look at minor leaguers in spring training, here are six young catchers who are working towards being the Pirate's answer.

If you've been following along with me, you would know that I've been highlighting Pittsburgh minor league players in spring training. Two installments are out already. This will be the third and final.

As I was prepping to write my third and final part in a series of Minor League Spring Players I came to the realization that six out of the last eight players I would be covering are catchers. I probably should have thought it out better and moved Deon Stafford and Ryan Haug into this last one and called it something like the All Catchers Edition, but alas that opportunity has passed. So I press on with six catchers and two pitchers to round it all out. 

Ethan Goforth - C

Goforth was drafted by the Pirates in the 25th round of the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft from Carson-Newman College, a NCAA Division II school, in Jefferson City, TN. In his final year of college he hit 11 home runs and 30 extra base hits, with an outlandishly high 1.155 OPS. After being signed Goforth was assigned to the Bristol Pirates, where he was unable to duplicate the success he experienced in college; which would be extremely unfair to expect. 

Over 20 games and 68 plate appearances, Goforth batted .226 with 2 home runs. He did show his defensive ability by committing only one error in 148 innings. He also posted a RF/9 (Range Factor Per 9 Innings) of 9.30. To give you some perspective the all-time leader in RF/9 for a Catcher is 8.89. Due his defensive performance and offensive potential it is possible he reaches Bradenton by the end of the year, after starting the season in Greensboro. 

Grant Koch - C 

Koch was drafted by the Pirates in the 5th round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Arkansas. He began his professional career as the primary backstop of the West Virginia Black Bears and continued his duties with the Greensboro Grasshoppers this past year. After two seasons in the Pirates' farm system, he has slashed .198/.282/.302 with 10 home runs. As it has been with Goforth, Koch’s real strength is his defense. As a catcher he has posted a .992 Fielding Percentage and a 9.76 RF/9. Koch will most like start in Bradenton and be one of the main catchers there for the entire season. 

Raul Hernandez - C/1B

Hernandez was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in July of 2014 from Maturin, Venezuela. He played for the DSL Pirates in his first professional season in 2015, batting .304 with a .350 OPS while catching in 32 games. For the next 3 years Hernandez spent his time bouncing between teams in the Pirates’ farm system; including two stints in the GCL, a few stops in West Virginia with the Black Bears and the Power, a brief layover in Bristol and one game in Bradenton. 

There was some success along the way (.325 AVG with 12 Doubles in Charleston in 2018) and some potholes that he couldn’t avoid (combined .225 AVG across 3 levels and in 4 different Leagues in 2017). He finally landed in one spot, Bradenton, for the entire year last season, appearing in 76 games; 6 times as a first baseman. 

In 2019 he batted .247 with 14 doubles, but was unable to hit an balls over the fence; something he has only accomplished 4 times in his professional career. Due to his age and years of experience, Hernandez’s options are becoming limited. It is imperative that he makes a solid impression during spring training this year to earn a promotion to the Altoona Curve to begin the 2020 season.

Nicholas Economos - P

Economos, a 6’6” hurler, was drafted by the Pirates in the 21st round of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft from Mercer County Community College in New Jersey. Used as both a starter and a reliever throughout his time with the Pirates’ Organization, Economos finally found his footing this past season with a talented Greensboro Grasshoppers team. 

In 14 games, all as a starter, he was able to flash his swing and miss potential to the tune of 13.78 K/9. This earned him a promotion to the Marauders and eventually the Curve at the end of the season. If you look at the basic numbers; ERA and wins and losses it would seem that everything was clicking in Bradenton and it all fell apart when he got to Altoona, but this was not the case at all. 

During his time in A+ his K/9 dropped to 6.72, only to rebound to 8.83 in AA and his xFIP remained almost constant at 4.09 and 4.29 respectively. He was essentially the same pitcher across both levels, with improved swing and miss. Take into account that it was his third level in one year and there is hope for a rebound in Altoona in 2020. I am just not sure if he will be on the mound to begin the game or will be coming out of the bullpen. 

Jason Delay - C

Delay was drafted in the 11th round of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft by the San Francisco Giants, but chose to return to Vanderbilt University and was ultimately drafted by the Pirates in the 4th round the following year. 

My first interaction with Delay was at a minor league game, as it is with almost all of these players. He was pulling bullpen duty that day and my now 8-year-old asked him to throw up a ball to give to his cousin (one of the only kiddos that hadn’t gotten a souvenir at a game yet). Delay happily obliged. 

That year in Bradenton he had a solid year; batting .247, committing only 4 errors and throwing out 38% of runners attempting to steal a base on him. 

Then, at the beginning of last year, he exploded. In May alone he batted .339, with a 1.078 OPS and 4 HRs; earning him a spot on the Eastern League mid-season All-Star team in the process. Unfortunately for Delay the rest of the season would not be nearly as productive, as he hit only 4 HRs the rest of the season. However, he did show his potential, which allowed him the opportunity to play in the Arizona Fall League after the season, as well as a non-roster invitation to spring training after that. Delay will be starting the season in AAA with the Indians, with hopes of recapturing at least some of the magic from a few months during his time in Altoona. 

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Luis Escobar - P

The 17-year-old infielder Luis Escobar was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in July of 2019. He quickly made the transition from fielder to take his place on the rubber before his debut in the DSL in 2014. 

Over the next few years Escobar made his way up the Pirates’ farm system, until he hit a bump in the road in 2018 after his promotion to AA Altoona. Prior to this he had landed on the Pirates Top 30 Prospects of 2017, according to MLB Pipeline, at #18 and even reached as high as #11. Currently he sits at #16. 

In Altoona that year, he just couldn't seem to find his bearings. He walked almost as many players as he struck out (25K/21BB), which was completely out of character for him. His walk rate had never been the best, hovering between 10 and 12%, but his strike out rate usually made up for that as the lowest it had been since his early years was 21.6%. In Altoona, he had a 13.4% walk rate and 15.9% K rate. 

Due to these struggles he was sent back down to Bradenton to begin 2019 and made the full transition to a reliever; appearing in 10 games, pitching 13.1 innings, striking out 15 and not allowing a singe run. He was immediately promoted to AAA Indianapolis and began switching back and forth between starter 5 games) and reliever (19 games). His K rate stayed solid at 23.7%, but his walk rate rose back up to 13.3%. 

Due to injuries and struggles in the Pirates' bullpen he was called up to the big league club and made his debut on July 13, 2019 against the Cubs and gave up 0 earned runs over two innings. His last appearance for the Pirates came on July 24 against the Cardinals, where he gave up 5 runs on 5 hits and walked 4 batters in 2 innings. He finished up the year in Indy. 

During the off-season he was a non-roster invitee to spring training. He has the “stuff” as his fastball is a 60 grade and his curveball is 55; even his changeup is a 50. It is the command and control where he falters, coming in at a 40. If he can get this moving in the right direction he has the potential of being a solid part of the Pirates' bullpen or a rotation moving forward. 

Arden Pabst - C

Pabst was drafted by the Pirates in the 12th round of the MLB June Amateur Draft in 2016 out of Georgia Tech. Known mostly for his defensive prowess behind the dish, Pabst broke onto the scene in 2018 in Bradenton with the Marauders. That year he batted .281 with an .832 OPS and 8 home runs, which earned him an in-season promotion to the AA Altoona Curve and a game in AAA Indianapolis. He went 2 for 3 by the way. 

Things were definitely looking up for this young man, then he hit a slump. Last season in Altoona, he just couldn’t seem to put things together offensively and ended the year with a career low .192 AVG, but did keep some his power by hitting 4 HRs in 73 games. Based on previous performance, last season was an outlier for Pabst, not the norm. 

In February Pabst earned his second straight non-roster invitation to spring training. As of right now it seems that Pabst would once again start his season in Altoona, but has himself clearly in the mix to fight for a spot on the Indians' roster with fellow catchers Jason Delay and Christian Kelley. 

Christian Kelley - C 

Kelley, drafted by the Pirates in the 11th round of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft from Cal Poly Tech, is much like the aforementioned Pabst in being know for his work behind the plate rather than at it. Up until last season Kelley had always been a plus defensive catcher with solid offensive output. 

In every year previous to 2019 he had been around a .240 hitter, with some pop in the bat (8 HRs in Altoona in 2018). Last season his offensive production took a hit as he only batted .179 for the season, but did still manage 5 HRs. After the season Kelley did go to the Dominican Winter League to get himself back on track, with limited success. As it was with Pabst, I am going to treat this season as an outlier because Kelley’s track record speaks for itself. 

This off-season, Kelley was once again a non-roster invitee to Pirates' spring training. He also lost his main competition in Indianapolis when Steve Baron elected free agency rather than accepting his outright assignment to AAA. Kelley will more than likely go into 2020 with the inside track to be the starting catcher for the Indians, but Delay and Pabst are right at his heals. And if one of the Pirates current catchers or other non-roster invitees end up in Indianapolis, he could have even more competition. 

For now this is the end of my look into the minor leaguers in spring training, but this is far from the end of my journey of writing about Pirates' prospects; that journey has just begun. I hope to see you all out in Altoona, Morgantown, Indianapolis, Bradenton, Greensboro, Bristol or really any other MiLB ballpark near you. 

 Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement