Over the past week the Pirates have lost their starting first baseman Colin Moran, once again; this time to a broken Pisiform bone in his left wrist/hand, as well as his immediate replacements Erik Gonzalez-right oblique strain-and Phillip Evans-concussion. Currently Moran and Gonzalez are on the 10-Day IL, while Evans is on the 7-Day; although we know these assignments are just a guideline to the minimum amount of that must be spent on the injured list, and could last slightly longer or eventually result in a transfer to the 60-Day IL.
Due to this unfortunate string of incidents, an obvious issue with first base depth was created; causing the need for an immediate transaction by General Manager Ben Cherington, which actually took place before the third man-Evan-found himself headed to IL. Of course, by now we all know that the exact move that Cherington chose to make was the acquisition of John Nogowski from the St. Louis Cardinals for cash considerations. At the time this seemed like a little bit of perplexing decision on Cherington’s part because of Nogowski’s .195/.304/.297 slash line in 36 games in AAA this year, and it still could be in spite of the inflated-.583/.643/.583-numbers in only 12 at bats with the Pirates; nonetheless, it clearly brings up some questions about a particular former top prospect, and in turn a current one that both play the same position, just at different levels in the Farm System-at least for now.
First in line-for the moment at least-is the man who is currently infamous for one of the biggest defensive blunders in Pittsburgh Pirates History, and throughout the annals of MLB according to some; which unfortunately will stick with him to some degree no matter what he does in the rest of his baseball career. However, for what it’s worth, I am not of the opinion that this one play should define Will Craig. There are plenty of other statistics to judge the former Top 10 Pirates Prospect; and it’s also not like this is the only mind boggling decision I have seen a fielder, or at times a runner make during the current season.
In his Minor League Career, ever since he was drafted in the First Round-22nd Overall-in the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft, Craig has been seen by many as underperforming; based mostly on the power potential that he had displayed during his time at Wake Forest. Even so, if you look at even some of the most advanced analytics the only below average year-one where he had a 92 wRC+-was in AAA-Indianapolis in 2019 when he belted a career high 23 homers, while remaining fairly steady with his walk rate (7.9%) and only slightly increasing his strike out rate (26.3%) by 3 points from the previous year.
Then came 2020, when he received a total of four Major League at bats during the shorted season and was DFA’d at the end of November. After making it through waivers, not being selected in the Rule 5 Draft and being invited to Spring Training, Craig would once again find himself back in AAA; but only for a short time as he was called up after hitting three homers in two games at the beginning of May. In his time with the Pirates, outside of when he he didn’t just tag first base, Craig slashed .217/.277/.300, before being DFA’d again at the beginning of June.
So what has he done since he was DFA’d for the second time in seven month? Well, he has done nothing but hit; putting up a .295/.392/.523 slash line with 5 homers, on the way to his best wRC+ (137) since Short Season A Ball in 2016. Alas, this wasn’t enough for him to even sniff the Majors again, and now some Pirates Fans are ready to show him the door.
The primary reasoning for this decision, to send Craig packing for good, currently stands at first base in Altoona-or wherever they are traveling to-most nights in the form of current 14th ranked Pirates Prospect, Mason Martin. Now, Martin isn’t new to the scene by any means, and neither is his power; especially following his 35 homer and MiLB Leading 129 RBI season back in 2019, along with the legends of him attacking the coaster during his time at the Alternate Site in Altoona during 2020. Hell, I even wrote about the kid for my first article at the now defunct SI/Maven InsideThePirates site back in November of 2019, and traveled to see him the summer prior when I was on vacation the summer prior to this.
The young man has power for days. That is something that has never been in doubt, especially with him on his most recent tear of 6 home runs in four games; bringing his total to 15 on the season-49 games. Yet, not surprisingly, the focus of this year’s development, laid out prior to his assignment in AA-Altoona, had nothing to do with what happened to the ball when connected with it-he has a 70 raw power grade. Instead his consistency in making contact, along with showing a more patient approach at the plate-as evident by an increased walk rate-was where Martin, and the Pirates, wanted to see improvement.
So far in this season, with 60+ games remaining, Martin has a career worst 6.7% walk rate and a strike out rate of 32.4%; nearly equal to that of his time in High A, two years ago. There is certainly room, and a need, for improvement. There is also plenty of time because Martin just turned 22 years old a month ago, and is still a full two years younger than the average AA player.
Now, as a amateur prospect junkie, I am pretty convinced that Martin could make the jump to AAA without too much trouble, and could potentially succeed right away. Still, there is no guarantee that this would happen. Just like there is no guarantee Nojowski won’t end up as a part of Pirates Popular Folklore, as a player we remember, years from now, as a random guy that played for the team when they possibly lost 100 games in 2021; along with players like Ka’ai Tom, Anthony Alford, Dustin Fowler and maybe Phillip Evans.
Remember when some Pirates Fans were over the moon about a few of these guys? And remember when Will Craig made that ridiculous play?
Yeah we’ll remember.