As the affiliates of the Pittsburgh Pirates began to roll out their Opening Day Rosters on Friday afternoon, many of the prospect placements were really no surprise to those that follow the organization closely. However, there were several that made me do a bit of a double take; where I had to read over the names just to make sure I was traveling to the right location, to do my amateur scouting of the correct player.
You see, a couple of weeks ago when the Altoona Curve put their tickets for May up for sale, I purchased two tickets for the Saturday afternoon contest with the Bowie Baysox. In my mind, I had an idea of what Pirates Prospects I would likely see on PNG Field, while downing a Curve Burger and a tall boy of my choice. Most notably, not on that list, were Oneil Cruz, Rodolfo Castro and Cody Bolton-especially as a reliever on the depth chart.
For at least the past year, rumblings of Oneil Cruz finding his way way into the outfield at PNC Park , most times as early as this season, have littered Pirates Social Media; in blogs, on podcasts and even in articles written by those who are in the know within Pittsburgh Sports Media, in spite of Ben Cherington’s decision to continually list him as a shortstop first. However, this is a debate for another day. The more pressing issue at hand, or maybe just a general concern, is the fact that Cruz is on the AA-Altoona roster.
After reaching this level during the last Minor League season in 2019, Cruz’s development has suffered what could be seen as several setbacks; not to mention issues experienced in his personal life. During the Arizona Fall League he hit .190 with 21 strikeouts in 42 at bats and followed it up by batting .185 in the Dominican Winter League, while not hitting a single homer during either season. Then came this most recent Winter League and Spring Training, where these difficulties continued. His did raise his average to .245 in the Dominican, but still didn’t demonstrate any power. In the spring he managed only 3 hits in 27 at bats, which ultimately led to this disappointing placement.
With Castro the move is a little curious, especially after he was not only assigned to the Alternate Site during the shorted season, but also was added to the 40-man, invited to Spring Training and added to the Taxi Squad for away games; ultimately making his Major League Debut on April 21st of this season against the Detroit Tigers. After recording an 0 for 3 day, while filing in at third base, he was optioned back to the Alternate Site, and eventually sent to AA to begin a new season; this time in the Minor Leagues.
As far as Bolton is concerned, the starting rotation in AAA-Indianapolis seemed to be the most likely landing spot for the Pirates #10 Prospect according to MLB Pipeline, with an ETA of this year (2021). It should be noted that much of this hype occurred before Cherington acquired a number of pitching options in the Josh Bell, Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon trades; specifically Wil Crowe, Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras, along with several Rule 5 and Free Agent acquisitions. However, he is now apparently the 6th option in a loaded AA rotation.
And this was only in Altoona. When you move to the Low A-Bradenton Marauders Roster, a name that definitely stuck out to myself and Gary, was Brennan Malone. Drafted in the first round of the 2019 MLB June Amateur Amateur Draft, compared to Quinn Priester and snatched up by Cherington as a part of the Starling Marte Trade to Arizona, I originally pictured him and Priester holding down the rotation in High A together to start the year. However, after a season off because of the pandemic, and no real organized ball to speak of, it seems that Malone has fallen further behind Priester than originally anticipated; but not to worry, he has time to catch up.
Following these news drops I anxiously awaited the announcements concerning the rosters in Greensboro and Indianapolis due to a few key names that could have shown up in Altoona. First, was possibly the least likely candidate in the form of 2020 First Round (#7 Overall) Pick, Nick Gonzalez; invited to both the Alternate Site and Spring Training, his assignment was one of the most anticipated in the entire system. Skipping Low A was almost a given, however some had been more bullish regarding his progression and concerning how aggressive Cherington would be with his first Pirates Draft Pick.
Next up was a player that I have not been as high on as some due to struggles with bat early on in his professional career, outfielder Travis Swaggerty. A guy I went to see in 2019 down at then High A Bradenton, I had no concerns about his ability to man centerfield at PNC Park; although his .265 AVG and .116 ISO (.140 is around league average) did give me some pause. Nevertheless, I also haven’t seen him hit, aside from a few Spring Training appearances, since then; so I am willing to trust Cherington and the process with this one.
And finally, the last guy I thought we could see in Altoona to start the year was the other member of the Marte, short stop Liover Pegeuro. Late to the party in spring due to some visa issues, the 20 year old made an immediate splash on the scene with surprising power to all parts of the field, and a .333 AVG with two well struck doubles to his credit. Already dubbed the short stop of the future by many it is possible that the even more surprising assignments of Cruz and Castro to the middle infield of AA had more to do with him starting the season in High A than anything else.
Since this article was first prepared, the AAA and High A Rosters have since been announced. More to come on the rest of the Pirates Minor League System in the coming days.-Craig