Sometimes when you’re covering a rebuilding team, your eyes glaze over a bit. At least mine do, at the end of the day, I’m a fan, a plugged in fan, a fan with resources and contacts, but a fan nonetheless.
So, what I’m saying more than anything is I sometimes look at the players everyone is talking about and dream about all of them getting to Pittsburgh together and taking control of the Pirates ship to finally steer it in the right direction.
I talk about Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales patrolling the middle of the infield for the next playoff team and it’s too easy to forget there are other players who will get a shot first.
I call them Bridge Prospects.
These are guys who maybe don’t have the pedigree of the two guys I mentioned earlier, but the fact is they’ll be here first. It’s a long trip from Bradenton, Greensboro or even Altoona to MLB. Today I’d like to take a look at some of those players, because every once in a while, these players turn out like Adam Frazier, or Josh Harrison. In other words, the team didn’t necessarily plan on them being part of the team that gets the job done, but when given the opportunity, they grabbed it and didn’t let go.
Let’s take a look at players from Indianapolis and Altoona and name some names shall we? And I should note, this is just my evaluation, in no way is this a list of the only guys who can help. I’m also skipping right past the guys I think SHOULD help. To be clear, I’m not going to mention Nick Mears or Braeden Ogle because I fully expect them to be part of the solution, purely highlighting some guys who might be under the radar a bit.
Matt Eckelman (RP) – Matt was drafted in 2016 in the 21st round, and he’s done well for himself. Used as a starter in his first couple years he quickly transitioned to a bullpen role and gravitated toward the back end collecting 41 saves primarily in Altoona and Bradenton. He probably won’t wind up a closer for the Pirates, but he has a nice mix of pitches and could have a role in the late innings for the big club. At 27 years old, it’s likely that the 6’3″ 281 pound right hander will get a shot in Spring Training next season, he’s just got too many people to jump this year.
Hunter Owen (3B, Utl) – Also drafted in 2016 Hunter has some pop and a versatile glove. Primarily a Third Baseman he can also play First and some corner outfield. We saw him get a premature cup of coffee with the Pirates this season as a taxi squad call up but he was hit by a pitch on his hand really stunting any chance he had to show what he can do. Again, it was premature, but when you’re looking for utility guys who can play multiple positions he fits the profile.
Jared Oliva (OF) – Jared is a guy most of you have heard about, and some of you masochists out there who kept watching all 60 games saw a little from him last year. He was probably going to struggle to make the club out of Spring since the Pirates were fairly locked in to seeing what Dustin Fowler and Anthony Alford could do but once they were DFA’d I’m sure if he wasn’t on the IL Oliva would as we speak be patrolling CF for the Pirates. I still wouldn’t rule out seeing him this season. The Pirates desperation in the outfield so far in 2021 is only going to increase when they cut Polanco loose, so guys like Jared are going to get a good long look.
Yerry De Los Santos (RP) – The big right hander from the Dominican Republic signed with the Pirates back in 2014. Prior to the flurry of moves made by Ben Cherington this off season he was ranked as high as 29th on the Pirates top prospect list. In 74 games he’s posted an ERA of 2.88 with a WHIP of 1.25. He’s progressing nicely and the 23 year old is on track to help the big club as a power arm. The most impressive thing about Yerry is his K/BB Ratio. 44 Walks and 141 Strike outs in his career shouts control and MLB scouts love that for advancement.
Rodolfo Castro (Utl) – Rodolfo isn’t a secret anymore. He made his MLB debut earlier this season as he was on the taxi squad. It wasn’t meant to be long term, and it surely wasn’t but when Castro was assigned to AA rather than AAA I can’t have been the only one to have some questions. He showed some of his power this Spring and his versatility plays right into the types of players Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton seem to really want. I have no doubt he will advance this year, I won’t even rule out a return to MLB in 2021. On top of everything else, he’s a switch hitter adding to his versatility. He’s only 22 years old, of everyone on this list today, this is probably my top target to be a solid contributor for a while.
Cal Mitchell (OF) – Cal is on the radar, less for how great he’s been than the fact the MLB club has sent just about everyone digging into the outfield talent headed our way. He was selected in the 2nd round in 2017 and was a bit of a coup for the Pirates to get because he was fairly committed to going to college, but the pick worked and at 22 years old, he has a real shot to be a factor. The power tool is there, but he has yet to turn it into a bunch of homeruns, that said, as we just learned with Ke’Bryan Hayes, the tool is almost more important than the stats. Doubles turn into dingers in MLB and I honestly think Mitchell has a terrific shot of getting here and sticking.
Canaan Smith-Njigba (OF) – Canaan was acquired from the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon deal and I’m not going to say he was a throw in because that’s just not knowable, but it’s fair to say he was the least heralded of the group returned to Pittsburgh. He’s a lefty hitter with power and if you remember seeing him in Spring Training, he’s a physical specimen. 6’0″ 240 pounds of pure muscle, and still just 22, Canaan has a real chance to be a mainstay in the Pirates outfield by as early as mid next season. If there is a position where players could really rocket through this system it might just be in the outfield. If he continues to develop his power tool and adds it into his career .280 average he could just be a guy nobody wants to face.
That’s a short list. I could probably list 5 or 6 more, and probably have a good shot at being right, but as you look at the top prospect boards and salivate over visions of many of them getting to Pittsburgh to bring the franchise back to relevancy keep in mind, they’re going to have to go through guys like this.
These players have careers too, and MLB is chalk full of guys nobody talked about before they got here and made themselves irreplaceable.