Prior to a little after 12 PM EST the 2020 Winter Meetings had been fairly quiet for General Manager Ben Cherington and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sure there were some trade rumors, as Gary wrote about yesterday , but those are to be expected during this time of year; even when they involve potentially unexpected pieces, Josh Bell and Jameson Taillon. To me this is just Cherington doing his due diligence, which is exactly what he said he was going to do. After a 19-41 last place season, almost no one should be untouchable. However, that seems like another article in itself. For today the focus needs to be on the Rule 5 Draft, and more importantly Cherington’s selections and overall approach to the process.
Coming into yesterday many experts and amateurs, myself included, had made some predictions as to how Cherington should proceed in at least the Major League Portion of the Rule 5. Most of the focus was on pitching prospects, but there was also time taken to explore the options in the outfield and infield as well. Some pointed toward the catchers left unprotected by their respective teams, but as I held firm the entire time, I never really saw this a realistic possibility. In the end Cherington stayed true to his course, just as he had in the 2020 MLB June Amateur Draft, by selecting 4 pitchers and one position player in the Major and Minor League Portions; although he technically selected 5 back in June.
To Cherington, since arriving in Pittsburgh, pitching depth has always been a primary focus of the majority of his acquisitions for the organization. In his identification of talent high ceiling prospects, overlooked players and those they believe they can get the most out of or unlock have taken priority. The first overall pick of the Rule 5 checks most, if not all of these boxes.
Jose Soriano had been ranked as the Angels #9 Prospect by MLB Pipeline as recent as the preseason 2020 rankings and still sits as the 14th best prospect in the system, with a 40+ Future Value according to Fangraphs. Having undergone Tommy John surgery in February of 2020, this was actually a pretty savvy selection on the part of Cherington. He will eventually be able to move Soriano to the IL, which will clear a spot on the team’s 40-Man. However, this is not a place he can stay for the entirety of the season, as a player has to be listed on the team’s active roster for a portion of the season he is drafted, just not the entire 90 days. For example if he only makes it to the active roster for 65 days, he has to be held on the active roster for 35 days in his second season.
I have seen many people mention the Pirates December 2017 acquisition of Nick Burdi during the Rule 5 as to how they can handle Soriano’s situation; and to a degree there reasoning is correct. But most forget about Burdi’s rehab assignments at Bradenton, Altoona and Indianapolis from June to August of 2018, followed by his 1.1 innings and accompanying 20.35 ERA from September of that year. Almost all skip past this to the agonizing day when his injury occurred in April of the following year.
Taking all of this into consideration, it is still an extremely smart move on Cherington’s part. Prior to the TJ surgery that took away Soriano’s 2020 season he had earned a 2.51 ERA and 1.324 WHIP, while striking out 92 batters in 82.1 innings, across Rookie and Low A levels. He posses an above average (55/60 grade) fastball that averages 96 mph and had top out in the triple digits and a curveball (50/55 grade) that he can really spin. He also started to lean on his changeup (30/40 grade) more beginning in 2018. His major concern has been his command as he walked 51 batters in 2019, at a rate of 5.6 per 9 innings.
After the Pirates passed on their second round pick in the MLB Portion, I was slightly confused, due to the fact that Soriano would not be available for at least the beginning of 2021. My perplexed state didn’t last long as it was announced that the Pirates would be acquiring the Mets first round selection, Luis Oviedo, in a trade for cash considerations. In an apparent gentlemen’s agreement New York selected, Oviedo, who the Pirates were more than likely targeting; possibly with their second round pick.
Oviedo had been a Rule 5 target listed by many a year ago, but a back injury, sporadic velocity on his pitches and a disappointing 2019 campaign caused him to be passed over. After entering the season looking to take a step forward, checking in as the Cleveland Indians #14 Prospect; Oviedo posted a 5.38 ERA and 1.379 WHIP, with 7.1 K/9, as compared to 11.4 the year before. In addition, he also saw his W/9 rise from 1.9 to 4.1. When he is at his best, a 60 grade fastball sits in the mid-90’s; peaking at 98 mph with deceptive natural sink. He pairs this with three average to above pitches in his curveball, slider and curveball; projecting as a solid #3 in any rotation.
Following two solid acquisitions for the current roster, I was curious as to how Cherington would approach the Minor League Portion of the Rule 5; and believe me I wasn’t disappointed, I was actually impressed. The Pirates kicked off the first round by selecting Shea Spitzbarth from the Dodgers organization. Back in 2019 Spitzbarth had reached AAA, but struggled to adjust. After starting the year in AA-Tulsa with a 2.05 ERA, a 1.023 and 60 strike outs in 44 innings for the Drillers, he saw his ERA rise to 8.18 and his WHIP balloon to 1.727, but his K/9 only fall from 12.3 to 11.9. However, Spitzbarth didn’t let this or even the shutdown stop his drive for the majors as he spent the summer pitching for Butchy’s Heat in the Mid-Island Men’s League, located close to home in Staten Island, New York.
The Pirates next pick would be a break from the pitchers in the form of Cincinnati Reds Utility Infielder, Shortstop by trade, Claudio Finol. Finol had impressed at Advanced Rookie in 2018 at the age of only 18 by batting .294. Patient at the plate his K% has topped out at 16.8%, while he has steadily raised his walk rate to 6.6%. At only 20 years old he has plenty of time to hone his skills even further, but is not expected to gain an exorbitant amount of power; projected as a defense first player moving forward.
The subsequent choice by Cherington of Jeffrey Passantino from the rival Cubs got them right back on the pitching path in an attempt to further build the minors with depth at the position. Passantino is another player that climbed the ranks of the Minor Leagues in 2019, landing at AAA-Iowa for 2 starts and 9 innings; striking out 11 and walking only 1. The self described “bulldog” in an interview with Scott Davidson of the Southbend Tribune stated that, “I’m not 6-4 and I don’t throw 97, but I go after every hitter. I don’t care who they are.” This exactly what the 5’9” 225 pound righty did across all four levels that year. As a part-time starter/reliever/Swiss Army Knife, Passantino struck out 104, while walking only 14; good for a 3.13 ERA and 1.101 WHIP.
And with that the 2020 Winter Meetings came to end for the Pirates. Looking back, beyond the Rule 5 Draft and the ever churning rumor mill, everything was status quo; which is what most of us, including myself, Gary and Chris expected. But that’s not to say it wasn’t productive as depth was added to the pitching ranks and hopefully some groundwork was laid for some potential trades in the future. Nevertheless, for now it is back to “hurry up and wait” as the 2020-21 MLB off-season moves right along.