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Pirates Prospect Primer: Infield of dreams

Bucs looking loaded as Hayes, Cruz, others rise through system
At 6-foot-6, Oneil Cruz is two inches taller than Kyle Seager and Carlos Correa, the tallest shortstops in MLB. (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)
March 28, 2019

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2019 season approaching, takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.Shining star: Ke'Bryan Hayes, 3BA

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2019 season approaching, takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.
Shining star: Ke'Bryan Hayes, 3B
A first-round pick out of high school in 2015, Hayes is the son of Charlie Hayes, who spent 14 years in the Majors. Considered one of the best defensive third basemen in the Minors -- he's won the MiLB Gold Glove at the position the last two seasons -- the younger Hayes took a big step forward offensively in 2018. Hayes earned Eastern League All-Star honors and an invitation to the Futures Game while hitting .293/.375/.444 as a 21-year-old. A right-handed hitter, he struck out 84 times and drew 57 walks in 117 games for Double-A Altoona.

One drawback to his offensive profile is a lack of power -- his seven homers in 2018 was a career best. He still has time to develop a power stroke, of course -- he hit three long balls in Spring Training this year, including a two-homer game in February. But even without ideal corner-infielder slugging numbers, his contact-first approach and outstanding defense projects him as an above-average Major League third baseman. He'll likely start the season with Triple-A Indianapolis.

Major League-ready: Mitch Keller, RHP
Pitching is a strength for the Pirates at the Major League level, and Keller is poised to follow in the footsteps of recent Bucs starters like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. A second-round pick out of high school in 2014, Keller rose to Triple-A last year at age 22 and earned the start in the Futures Game. Keller's fastball sits in the mid-90s but can reach the upper 90s, and it features sinking action that gets him plenty of groundball outs. He also has a plus curveball and has worked hard to develop an average changeup.
Keller struggled initially after his promotion to Indianapolis last season, seeing his ERA rise from 2.72 in the Eastern League to 4.82 in the International League. The problems stemmed from a jump in walk rate and some unfortunate luck on balls in play.
"I think I was trying to please people and not do what I'd been doing my whole career," Keller told's Jonathan Mayo. "Just getting to that Futures Game and letting it rip again, I got back into Triple-A and it was good from there."
He finished the campaign by winning his final three decisions and was added to the Pirates' 40-man roster last fall. While he'll start the season back in Indianapolis and there appears to be no room currently in the Pirates' rotation, baseball's No. 19 overall prospect is ready to contribute in Pittsburgh this year.
Breakout prospect: Oneil Cruz, SS
There has never been a player quite like Cruz, who one Pirates instructor called "a unicorn." He's listed at 6-feet-6 and 175 pounds -- and he plays shortstop. (Kyle Seager and Carlos Correa are the tallest current MLB shortstops at 6-feet-4.) While it remains to be seen if he can remain at the position, it's a definite possibility -- Cruz is freakishly athletic and has a cannon arm.
"Cruz is a fun one to keep watching grow, two steps forward, two steps back," Pirates farm director Larry Broadway told "He's never going to be a straight trajectory, linear growth pattern. It's going to be really exciting sometimes and other times, it's going to be really frustrating."
Cruz made strides at the plate with Class A West Virginia last season, batting .286/.343/.488 with 14 homers and 11 stolen bases, and was named a South Atlantic League All-Star as well as the circuit's most outstanding Major League prospect. Even if he fails to stick at shortstop, his athleticism should translate nicely to the outfield. And as the left-handed hitter figures out the boundaries of his large strike zone, Cruz will become ever more dangerous at the plate.
At the crossroads: Will Craig, 1B
Craig has progressed through the Pittsburgh system along with Hayes, but as a college draftee (out of Wake Forest in 2016's first round), he's three years older. After hitting .271/.373/.371 with six homers for Class A Advanced Bradenton in 2017, Craig changed his approach at the plate with Altoona last season: sacrificing contact, he boosted his power significantly. While seeing his strikeout rate jump from 19.6 percent in 2017 to 23.3 last year, his ISO jumped 100 points and he led the system with 20 homers and 102 RBIs. He also improved in the field to the point where he was named the Eastern League's top defensive first baseman.
So which is the real Craig: the on-base machine of 2017 or the slugger of 2018? A small sample of Grapefruit League games this spring suggests the former -- he's hit .296/.444/.370 with no homers, eight walks and 11 strikeouts in 36 plate appearances. Pittsburgh would no doubt like to see him continue to generate power while keeping up a respectable on-base percentage, and he'll get the chance to do that in Triple-A as a 24-year-old this season.
The Pirates' first base job is currently held by former top prospect Josh Bell, a switch-hitter only two years older than Craig. Bell has been an above-average Major League hitter, if something of a disappointment compared to other first basemen, and is not a strong defender. If Craig can find a happy medium at the plate, there could be an opportunity for him in Pittsburgh.
Loudest tool: 2B Stephen Alemais
A third-round pick out of Tulane in 2016, Alemais has been an adequate hitter with little to no power over three years in the Minors. But his defense is so good that he may carve out a big league role as a middle infielder even without doing much at the plate.
Not long after signing with the Pirates in 2016, Alemais introduced himself to Minor League fans with this incredible play at shortstop:

Though he's since gotten most of his playing time at second base -- not because he can't play short, but because he's been teammates with Pirates No. 5 prospect Cole Tucker -- Alemais has continued to shine in the field and was the Eastern League's best defensive second baseman in 2018 based on plays like this:

While the Pittsburgh system is awfully crowded with infield prospects, Alemais' glove could be enough to get him to the bigs.

Others to keep an eye on: The Pirates took outfielder Travis Swaggerty with the 10th overall pick in last June's Draft, and while he struggled in the South Atlantic League after being promoted from the short-season New York-Penn League, he has the overall tools to rise quickly. ... Part of the return from Andrew McCutchen's trade to San Francisco, outfielder Bryan Reynolds can definitely hit. He owns a career .309/.369/.459 line over three Minor League seasons. ... Righty Braxton Ashcraft is 19 years old, 6-foot-5 and not quite 200 pounds. He already reaches the mid-90s with his fastball and has an intriguing slider. The Texas native is a long way off, but he has the tools to succeed.
2019 organization predictions:
Most home runs:Hunter Owen
Most stolen bases:Cole Tucker
Most strikeouts: Keller
Current prospect to get most Major League playing time:Kevin Newman
Non-Top 100 prospect to end 2019 in the Top 100: Cruz

John Parker is an editor for