Sunday, the Pittsburgh Pirates honored outfielder Jordan Luplow and pitcher Steven Brault as their top minor leaguers of 2017. What is next for these two in 2018?
For teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates in the lower tier of MLB’s payroll rankings, minor league development is crucial. Naturally, their annual winners of the Minor League Player of the Year and Minor League Pitcher of the Year awards become recognizable names to the fanbase. These players are put in the spotlight and expected to contribute sooner rather than later to the big-league club.
This year, Jordan Luplow and Steven Brault are tossed into that spotlight as the player and pitcher of the year, respectively. Both put together very impressive seasons and made for obvious picks for their respective awards.
Full-season for Brault and Luplow, minors and #MLB
• Brault 2.40 ERA, .215/.292/.312, 127 SO, 150 IP
• Luplow 25 HR, 65 RBI, .289/.365/.502
— Joe Block (@joe_block) September 23, 2017
Previous Pirates top prospect award winners have not always gone on to major roles in the majors the next season. Often this is because one or both of them is not in the upper levels of the minors. That is not the case this year, as both Lupulow and Brault ended their respective minor league season in Triple-A before garnering September call-ups.
Now, the question is, what’s next for both players in 2018?
Entering 2017, Jordan Luplow was not a household name among Pittsburgh Pirates fans. He still may not be now, but he’s a recognizable name. That’s because he put together a heck of a season split between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis before some solid work with the Pirates.
Luplow, a 2014 third-round draft pick by the Pirates, had never played above High-A before this season. He only needed 73 games to make the jump to Triple-A. After slashing .287/.368/.535 with 16 home runs in 288 plate appearances, Luplow was sent to Indianapolis, where he only improved, slashing .325/.410/.513 with seven home runs in 182 plate appearances.
The combined slash line of .302/.381/.527 across two levels was Luplow’s best in any of his four seasons. In the majors, his .221/.270/.426 slash line doesn’t look great, but it’s only been over 70 plate appearances. In September, he’s started in 14 of 22 games and has homered three times.
This month, Luplow was not only rewarded for his minor league work but also given a chance as a starter. Part of it was due to Gregory Polanco‘s hamstring injury, but part was also to get an extended look at Luplow. He had his ups and downs but deserves more opportunities in 2018.
Now, that won’t come as a starting outfielder. Starling Marte (despite his suspension), Andrew McCutchen (despite his near free agency) and Polanco (despite his injuries) are locked in as the Opening Day starters, barring the unforeseen. That said, Luplow should be in the running for the bench shot.
In Spring Training, expect Luplow to battle for a backup outfield spot. However, he will most likely start 2018 in Triple-A.
Unlike Luplow, Brault was a familiar name to Pirates fans and management before the 2017 season began. He battled with Tyler Glasnow for the fifth rotation spot and ultimately lost.
If Brault was upset about the decision, he did an excellent job at channeling that into his performance. Brault went 10-5 with a 1.94 ERA, 3.29 FIP and 8.15 K/9 rate in 120.1 innings. He not only won the Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award, but also the International League Most Valuable Pitcher Award.
Brault, acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles for Travis Snider prior to the 2016 season, eventually got a chance in the big league rotation. After making seven starts in 2016, Brault made six relief appearances before finally starting on Sept. 5. Though he won’t get any more starts this season, Brault looked solid, posting a 2.81 ERA and went at least five innings in all three starts. His finest start came Sept. 11 against the Milwaukee Brewers.
A.J. Schugel now pitching. Brault's line: 6 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, MLB career-high 6 K; 92 pitches, 60 strikes. Plus a double and a two-run single.
— Adam Berry (@adamdberry) September 12, 2017
Until Brault finally got some starts this month, it was hard to see what the Pirates plan was for him. He shut down hitters all season long in the minors, yet didn’t get any starts until the final month of the season.
When Glasnow was demoted in May, it was Trevor Williams, not Brault, who jumped into the rotation. Those three all battled for the fifth rotation spot in Spring Training and Brault seemed the frontrunner because he started the most games in 2016. Instead, he was the last of the three to finally make a start in 2017.
Now, things have changed. Williams impressed in 2017 and seems to have a spot locked up, as do the rest of the starters. Expect to see Brault competing for a bullpen spot in Spring Training.
Looking to the future
Luplow and Brault exceeded expectations in 2017, but will be expected to take steps forward in 2018. Both had limited time in the majors in 2017 for varying reasons. Luplow didn’t get as much until late in the season because he had never been up before. Manager Clint Hurdle probably was not interested in giving a rookie regular playing time while his team was still in playoff contention. Brault never got opportunities because of the remarkable health of the starting rotation.
Next year, both players will have to mimic their 2017 performances to expect a regular role with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Brault is more likely to break in because he could be the top fill-in for the rotation if the Pirates part ways with Glasnow. Luplow could get chances, but Jose Osuna and Adam Frazier are also backup outfield options under contract for next season.
Even if both start the season in the minors, it’s a testament to the Pirates organizational talent. Having both of its farm players of the year as call-up options is fantastic. It means that it has immediate plug-ins with upside and a track record of success.
How Luplow and Brault will be used in 2018 remains to be seen, but both deserve extended opportunities thanks to a superb 2017.