All too often baseball fans casually glance through each teams’ Top 30 Prospect List and assume that these are the only guys that matter; that these are the only ones that are going to make it. Pittsburgh Pirates Fans are no different. And if we are being totally honest, I used to be no different. However, we need to start to understand that not everyone that makes it to the major league team is some highly touted prospect from the moment that he was drafted or some guy that splashes on to the scene and flies up these lists with reckless abandon. Sometimes the guys that end up contributing to your favorite team, in my case the Pirates, are the guys that never make this list, that fly under the radar or that just flat out work hard behind the top prospect curtain to make it.
For many players of this ilk, 2020 brought on some very unique challenges. Without a Minor League Season, no invites to the Alternate Site or aging out of the ability to participate in the Instructional League, there was really nowhere to turn, except inward to their own drive and motivation of continuing to fight for the dream of one day becoming a Major Leaguer.
Some trained at home, others had the opportunity to work out at facilities and a few lived close enough to one another to get in some bullpen sessions and live at bats. In one particular situation Shea Spitzbarth , who the Pirates selected in the Minor League portion of this year’s Rule 5 Draft, signed a waiver to play for Butchy’s Heat in the Mid-Island Men’s League, located close to home in Staten Island, New York; proving that if you love the game, there isn’t anywhere you won’t play.
Now, when you take a quick glance at Jason Martinez’s Depth Chart on Fangraphs, it shows that there are currently at least five Pirates that fit the description of forgotten prospects, with four of them currently slated to begin the year at AAA-Indianapolis; including some who haven’t seen any real life game action since the 2019 baseball season ended.
In 2019, the former 2017 21st Round Draft Pick from the University of Missouri began the year with the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A Affiliate) of the Florida State League. Through the first 43 games of the season Robbie slashed .298/.368/.488 with 8 HRs and 16 doubles, which made the decision easy for the Pirates as he was promoted to the Altoona Curve (Pittsburgh’s AA Affiliate) of the Eastern League on June 14th. He celebrated his promotion by going 2 for 5, with a home run and 2 RBI. The rest of June went very well for Glendinning as he was able to maintain his hot streak. July was another story, as he began to slump. For the entire month he only batted .198 with a .530 OPS. Luckily he was able to rebound in the last month of the season to a more solid, but still below average, .261 with a .737 OPS and 5 HRs in AA. Since the end of the season Glendinning has once again returned to his native Australia and the AUBL, where he once again found success; slashing .335/.405/.548 with 7 HRs, 12 doubles and 31 RBIs.
As 2020 began I saw Altoona as the most likely landing spot for Glendinning, but we all know now that conditions around the world had another idea for him; as well as other players in a similar situation. Once the shutdown began he remained at Pirate City, waiting to see how everything would play out. Eventually, as it was with most others, Glendinning returned home to continue the holding pattern; which would end up lasting until December when the AUBL Season finally got under way. However, once it did Glendinning didn’t miss a beat. Through 20 games he has batted .343 with 3 homers, all while maintaining an impressive 15 Ks to 10 BB ratio.
As I have written before, my first interaction with Sharpe came during the 2019 MiLB season when he was playing left field for the Altoona Curve. After making the final out of the half-inning in a double header at the end of June, he threw the ball to my nephew and believe me he couldn’t have been happier. Kids remember that kind of stuff and so do the adults in their lives; it leaves a really good impression.
For those who don’t know, Sharpe was drafted by the Pirates in the 14th round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. He began his professional career with two years in West Virginia between Short Season A and Low A ball, where had decent stats, but nothing that really jumped off the page. Then in 2019 we appeared to be seeing something a little different. He started to hit at a higher rate, raising his average to .292 in 64 games. With that higher average, power he had only flashed in final year in college began to show itself again as he hit 5 home runs and slugged .451. He was also getting on base more and striking out less; his strike rate dropped from 29.4% the previous year to 19.5% in his time with the Marauders.
Along with his new found success in many of the major batting categories, Sharpe earned a promotion to Altoona approximately a week before I attended the double header with my family. Initially he struggled with the transition only batting .218 for the month of July. However, the power never went away as he hit 11 home runs in 68 games. Following the season Sharpe went on to play 25 games in the Puerto Rican Winter, where it was obvious that he was focusing on working the counts, recognizing pitches, etc. as his strike out rate had also swelled during his transition to AA back up to 26.0, while his walk rate had dropped from his normal average of around 10% down to 6.6%. Little did he know this would be his last experience in a meaningful baseball in what has now been over a year.
Madris, another 2017 Draft Pick, earned a promotion to begin the 2019 season to the Altoona Curve (Pittsburgh’s AA Affiliate) of the Eastern League. As he has during this previous years, Madris got off to a pretty hot start. He slashed .309/.323/.415 for the month of April, but then the decline started again as he slashed .176/.293/.212 for the month of May. Through the first two months of the season he only had 1 HR and 11 Extra Base Hits. It looked like he was in for another long year at the plate. However, this time Madris did something that he hadn’t done before; he got himself back on track. Over the remainder of the season his batting hovered around .270, he hit 7 HRs and 25 Extra Base Hits. His strike out rate decreased and his walk rate increased and one thing never changed, his defense. In 118 games and across 1009.1 innings he committed only 3 errors, while his RF/9 rose to 2.26.
In 2020 after a long layoff, Madris joined some of his friends from the Pirates Organization in the AUBL. Through 22 games in his new environment, he is currently slashing .271/.363/.414 with 2 home runs; including the absolute blast you see below.
Owen is the only one of the players being discussed who has reached AAA, and wasn’t drafted in 2017. Selected in 25th round of the 2016 draft out of Indiana State University, he excelled at AA-Altoona during 2019. A super utility player (3B/OF/1B) by trade, Owen batted career high .295 and crushed 15 homers in 68 games. Unfortunately this success did not transfer to AAA as he struggled to hit .192 with 5 homers. However, at the time he was also adjusting to a new position due to the fact that there was already a pretty good player at the hot corner.
Much like Sharpe, Owen was left without place to play in 2020, which led to him taking a part time job at a local golf course as he continued to prepare for the next step; that and hitting bombs with the King of Juco, Eric Sim.
As the 2019 season began Sulser joined his personal professional pitching coach, Joel Hanrahan, in Altoona, which continued to pay off for yet another 2017 Draft Pick. Halfway through the season he was sporting a 1.99 ERA, had 33 Ks and had a 6-0 record in 19 appearances as a reliever. He even earned a spot in the mid-season Eastern League All-Star Game, where he retired both batters he faced. For Sulser, July was when he was quickly transitioned back into a starting role, which was not the smooth for him at all. I mean it could have been worse, but it didn’t make any sense to make a change to something that was going so well and put him back into a role that he hadn’t filled since his first taste of the pro’s back in 2017 with the Black Bears on Short Season A ball. As a reliever Sulser was 7-1, with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.176 WHIP. As a starter he was 1-2, with a 3.86 ERA and a 1.393 WHIP. When the 2019 baseball season came to an end things didn’t get any better for Sulser after he earned an invitation to the Arizona Fall League, but posted a 3.14 ERA, a 1.605 WHIP and had 13Ks to 9BBs across 14.1 Innings.
After the Minor League Season was cancelled Sulser would ultimately follow Glendinning and Madris to Australia, where he is currently teammates with Glendinning on the Perth Heat as a member of the starting rotation. In 5 starts and 24 innings he has earned a 2.63 ERA and a .917 WHIP, while striking out 23 and only walking 2.
So, where does this leave these five Pirates Prospects, and possibly a few others, heading into 2021? Well, unfortunately none of them found their way onto the Pirates list of 26 Non-Roster Invitees to Major League Spring Training, but that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually be there.
If I had to guess, Jason Martinez is probably spot on with his Minor League assignment projections, although I would hope that Glendinning would join the other four in Indianapolis. Nevertheless, supposing that he ends up in Altoona, I will just have to make more than one trip to see all of them play.