Prior to the start of the 2019 season the Pittsburgh Pirates had a solid list of prospects that were thought to be on the verge of breaking their way onto the big league roster. Some of those guys, like Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds, got their shot and made the most of it. Others, like Mitch Kellers, struggled at times and were bounced up and down from the Pirates to the Indianapolis Indians. A third group of players like, Will Craig and Ke'Bryan Hayes, never managed to sniff the majors even when it was time to expand the rosters in September.
Many have focused on the first two categories. We all know that Newman (.308/.353/.446 and 12 HRs) and Reynolds (.314/.377/.503 and 16 HRs), especially the latter, put themselves in position to be in the conversation for NL Rookie of the Year. We also know that Keller’s call ups and demotions were possibly mismanaged by the previous regime and that his K/9 Rate (12.2) and FIP (3.19) give hope for our young “ace’s” future. I want to take a look at the guys that were left behind and the possible reasons, much of which can be lumped into something I call “Triple-A Regression."
Will Craig (1B/OF)
Will Craig is the former 1st-round pick for the Pirates in the 2016 MLB Amateur Draft out of Wake Forest. He has steadily climbed the ranks of the minor leagues, by spending on year at each level (From Low A to AAA) since being drafted. In 2018 he unlocked the power that had been trapped inside his large frame, but unfortunately this came at the cost of his better known attributes of working the count and making regular contact. That year for the AA Altoona Curve, Craig lead the organization in home runs (20) and RBIs (102) while slashing .248/.321/.448) He went on continue his success in the Arizona Fall League that year for the Surprise Saguaros (.304/.378/.570 and 6 HRs in only 21 games.
Then came this past season in AAA for the Indianapolis Indians. On the surface it may just look like another year of mashing the ball for Craig (.249/.326/.435 with 23 HRs and 78 RBIs), but if you look deeper into the advanced stats you will see the regression that I previously alluded to and that the Pirates, and all of MLB, may be noticing. His K% has almost double from 13.5% to 26.3%, his BB% has decreased from 15.0% to 7.9%, his wRC+ has decreased from 142 to 92 and his wOBA has decreased from .382 to .329. You may say I am reaching with my use of analytics and I would tend agree with you if the differences were not so significant. In 4 years he went from a borderline elite hitter to a slightly below average guy in spite of a continuous power increase.
Many of you would then argue that Craig was/is “blocked” by all-star Josh Bell at 1B, so the Pirates have no place to put him. Once again I would agree with everyone to a certain degree. Bell was having a historic year through the month of June (pretty much up to the All-Star Break). At the break he was batting .302 with 27 HR’s, 84 RBI’s and 30 Doubles. After the break he slumped to .233 with 10 HRs, 32 RBIs and 7 Doubles. Even after Bell was injured toward the end of the season, Craig was not added to the 40 man roster.
For the entire year Bell’s defense left much to be desired. He ranked at or near the bottom of every defensive category for 1st Basemen with a .988 Fielding Percentage, 13 errors, -5 Defensive Runs Saved and -7 Rtot (Or Total Zone). Craig on the other hand improved his defense dramatically and was Awarded with an MiLB Gold Glove. He even got some reps in RF. I have always been of the mindset that a player is never truly blocked; if he is good enough they will find a spot for him on the roster. With all this being said all of the arguments for and/or against Craig’s lack of promotion may be a moot point if Bell is traded or moved back to RF OR if the Pirates decide to give Craig a chance in RF.
Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B)
Hayes is another 1st-round pick. He was the 32nd pick by the Pirates in the 2015 Amateur Draft out of Concordia Lutheran High School in Texas. From the moment he was drafted it was apparent that the defensive skills were there. His agility, hands, arm, and instincts are almost unparalleled in the minors at 3rd base. The one thing that has always been questioned to some degree is his bat.
In 2018 everything started to come together when Hayes was with the AA Altoona Curve. He hit for average (.293) and a little bit of power (.444 SLG and 10 HRs), to go along with elite defense. This earned him a spot as a non-roster invitee to Pirates Spring Training in 2019, where he continued to impress. In 36 plate appearances he slashed .353/.361/.794 with 3 HRs and a total of 8 extra base hits. Everyone, myself included, was jumping on the Hayes Hype Train. After the spring was over and Hayes was sent down to AAA, many thought it was only a matter of time until young Hayes fought his way back up to the big league club and claimed his position from Colin Moran and Jung Ho Kang. However, as we all know now it was not meant to be.
While Kang was striking out in 32.4% of his plate appearances and Moran was on his way to committing 14 errors and sporting a .938 Fielding Percentage, Hayes was experiencing some struggles of his own. As could be expected, it was nothing to do with his glove; he was well on his way to winning a MiLB Gold Glove. He once again began to struggle at the plate. For the season he batted .265, his slugging percentage slumped back down to .745, his walk rate dropped to 9% and his strike out rate swelled to 18.8% (the highest of his career). He did hit 10 HRs, the highest of his career, but with all his other regressions he never got the call up that many of us expected at the beginning of the season. Now with Jung Ho gone, it is only Moran that stands in Hayes’ way and, as we have seen, it would only take a little of that spring training magic to claim the position that is pretty much his if he wants it.
Kevin Kramer (2B/3B/OF
When the second Kevin was drafted in the 2nd Round of the 2015 Draft out of UCLA behind 1st Round Pick Kevin Newman, it seemed as if the Pirates had found their double play combo of the future. And these plans had all but come to fruition toward the end of the 2018 season. Kramer was promoted to the Pirates along with Newman in September of 2018 as rosters expanded. Both players struggled, but the Pirates were banking on Kramer being able to get to the level he had shown in Indianapolis that year. He had a career high .856 OPS, .311 AVG and 15 HRs.
Then came 2019. While his double play partner was up with the Pirates making a name for himself, Kramer was down in AAA unable to get anything going. His AVG fell to the lowest it had ever been since his first 12 games of in the minors (.260), his OPS dropped to .752 and he hit 5 fewer HRs than he had the year before. Kramer was called up to the Pirates again toward the end of the season and his struggles continued. He had a slash line of .167/.260/.190 with 17 K’s in only 42 at bats and got only one extra base hit. I am unsure as to what the future holds for Kevin Kramer. Hopefully last year was just an outlier and he can get back to the production of 2018. If not it may be the end of the line for a once promising, young prospect and a person that was supposed to be part of our double play combo of the future.
These are obviously not the only players in the system that had a regression or are “blocked” from being promoted to the next level. In a decimated farm system we all know that there are many more. However, I believe they are the ones that are the most notable because they are all players that are currently in the Pirates Top 10 Prospects and they were drafted to be difference makers for the team’s future success.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement