Development Update: Pirates Prospects Ready to Move Up

From just about the second week of the season you could regularly see people say “He’s Ready” after just about every positive performance from anyone in the system. This would be just about the same as seeing Ben Gamel hit two homeruns in a game and saying he’s ready for the All Star Game.

Player development is not a fast process for the majority of athletes so reacting to every event game in and out sometimes belies the actual targeted area of development. For instance, seeing Oneil Cruz hitting homeruns isn’t a surprise, everyone knew he had game changing power from the time he was scouted on the international scene. In other words, when he hits 3 or 4 in a week but strikes out 10 times in that span of time and the Pirates were specifically looking to get that aspect under control, he may not warrant a promotion.

Now before you freak out and tell me he’s ready and I’m an idiot, I’m just making a point with a familiar name, so calm down.

The mid way point of the MLB season is a very popular time to promote players in the minors. It gives developing players a chance to settle in and hopefully grab a hand hold in the new level and if we’re honest it provides room for drafted players too.

I’m also not going to get deep into who these players are blocked by, but rest assured it factors in to the decisions being made by the franchise.

Enough of me babbling about the why, let’s focus on the who.

From the Bradenton Marauders

Maikol Escotto (SS) – Recently acquired in the Jameson Taillon deal, Maikol is a borderline top 30 prospect in the system and is only 19 years old. In 138 at bats he’s hitting .290 with an .827 OPS. More importantly he has worked on something identified early, taking more professional at bats. He’s gone from 2.1 pitchers per at bat to 4.1, quite a dramatic increase for such a young player and it hasn’t hurt his numbers which is very encouraging.

Endy Rodriguez (C) – Brought in as part of the Joe Musgrove deal from the New York Mets much weight is placed on the Pirates top Catching Prospect and 25th ranked prospect overall. He’s only batting .269 but he’s doing a great job handling the pitching staff and they’ve also tossed him in at first base a bit too. He’s had a bit of trouble with passed balls (4) but at that level both the pitchers and official scorers tend to be suspect a bit. 10 doubles and 7 homeruns lead the charge for the Marauders and at 21 years old he’s hitting for more power than he ever has.

Santiago Florez (P) – In 10 games and 51.1 innings pitched the 21 year old has posted a WHIP of 0.854, with 71 strike outs and 14 walks. The 6′ 5″, 222 pound youngster has really emerged from a group of much bigger names. His control is striking but the pitch mix has very clearly evolved.

Notables – In these sections I’ll be referencing some names who many assumed would move quickly but have struggled a bit or flatly not played enough yet. Not playing enough yet is really going to be the case for most of these, especially the pitchers. Eddy Yean, Nick Garcia, Jared Jones, and Logan Hofmann have all pitched well, just not quite enough. The other players I’d like to mention here are Hudson Head, Sammi Siani and Jase Bowen, all three have hit homeruns, but the average is underwhelming. I like to see a young player get their OPS up over .850 or so before I consider promotion and Head is the only one close at .804.

From the Greensboro Grasshoppers

Michael Burrows – I’m not going to say Burrows came out of nowhere, but let’s just say he wasn’t my top pick for crushing this level. The 21 year old has been simply dominant. Posting a 0.88 WHIP and 62 strike outs in only 43 innings. He’s the Pirates 27th ranked prospect and doesn’t look poised to stay there.

Carmen Mlodzinski – We’re from Pittsburgh so we probably shouldn’t struggle with his name, but I have a feeling we’ll be saying it more and more so let’s learn to pronounce it. Mo-jin-ski phonetically speaking, learn it, because the 22 year old 2020 draft pick has put together a sincerely solid first season of pro ball so far. A WHIP of 0.96 with 51 strike outs in 37.1 innings pitched. More importantly, his pitch mix is simply evolved.

Quinn Priester – The 20 year old is the Pirates number 2 overall prospect and could end this season as Baseball America’s number one overall pitching prospect. His strikeout numbers aren’t as high as you’d assume with 40 in 43 innings pitched and his WHIP sits at 1.35. This is where numbers don’t tell the entire story, most of this season has been about refining pitches, especially his changeup and curveball. It’s easy to forget he’s primarily self taught, so the fact he’s taking to hands on pro instruction is encouraging. I think it would be wise to get him to AA this season, but I could just as easily see them leave him in High A to finish strong and start fresh in 2022.

Matthew Frazier – The 23 year old outfielder has always hit, but not like this. In 220 at bats this season he’s hitting .327 with 14 home runs and an OPS of .990. I’d like to see him draw a few more walks but it’s hard to pick him apart. His performance and age make a strong case for promotion and yes the Altoona Roller Coaster will meet a new enemy very soon.

Notables – There are a bunch here, and some have been held back by injury, others still not totally ready and could use a little more soak time. I’m going to stick with guys you probably hear about a ton. Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales, Aaron Shackelford, Tanaj Thomas, Lolo Sanchez and Cameron Junker. The most notable of, well, the notables is obviously Nick Gonzales, his injury really ate into the progress he could make this season. None of these guys have underperformed, just maybe not done enough or had enough playing time to warrant promotions in season. Peguero has played excellent defense and shown flashes at the plate, but consistency has been elusive.

From the Altoona Curve

Roansy Contreras – This of course has to mean he isn’t injured badly. His non-ligament forearm soreness should it not be serious won’t prevent a promotion and the All Star Futures selection has earned all the accolades he’s received thus far. He’s simply not being challenged in AA. A WHIP of 0.91 with 65 strikeouts in 46 innings pitched. At 21 years old, Roansy is actually ahead of schedule a bit and the much increased velocity while maintaining control of his entire arsenal has impressed scouts all around the country.

Mason Martin – In 194 at bats Mason has crushed the ball, bashing 16 home runs and 14 doubles with a .273 average. If there is reason for concern it has to do with his very out of whack SO to BB ratio. 71 Ks and 14 walks will only get worse as he moves up. Now the good news is this is a relatively new issue for Mason, he’s usually kept that ratio much closer and I just can’t see that one factor alone preventing him from moving up.

Oneil Cruz – He was borderline AAA placement heading into the season but they wanted him to work on some aspects of his swing. Hitting a robust .289 with 9 home runs and 10 doubles, Cruz has done everything the team has asked minus cutting down on strike outs.

Cal Mitchell – The 22 year old 2017 draft pick might just be the Pirates best outfield prospect anywhere near the show, and yes I’ve heard of Travis Swaggerty. In 184 at bats he’s only struck out 37 times while hitting 9 homeruns and 11 doubles. Cal has gone from wishful thinking to someone who has to be in the plans for the Pirates in the near term.

Travis MacGregor – The 23 year old pitcher has started most games for the Pirates but I see him as a potential mainstay in the bullpen when he reaches MLB, it’s in that spirit I see him earning a promotion this year. His stuff plays and if they allow him to transition fully to the bullpen his ascension will only speed up.

Notables – Canaan Smith-Njigba is promising but he fell into a deep slump, one that he recently started emerging from, but in these leagues it’s always more about consistency than any other factor, and I can’t make a case he’s been that. Omar Cruz has been impressive, but he was already arguably promoted quickly to this point, I see them giving him the season before moving him forward. A lefty starter is just too important to rush. Yerry De Los Santos was well on his way before falling to injury, but look for his name as we head into 2022. Ji-hwan Bae just simply hasn’t played enough. He does have nearly 600 MiLB at bats under his belt so you could see him get a promotion on a cumulative basis but it won’t be because of what he’s done this season. The last one I’ll mention here is Brendt Citta, the outfielder has put up some nice numbers and at 24 it’s kind of time to go or get off the pot.

From the Indianapolis Indians

Before I dig into this one, let’s focus on players I think could earn a promotion and stick because obviously they will shuffle players up and down all season. I’m also not going to reference players like Dee Strange Gordon or Shelby Miller, those players aren’t in the spirit of what we’re discussing here.

Braeden Ogle – The 23 year old lefty reliever has really come along. Posting a WHIP of 1.48 with 36 strike outs in 26.1 innings pitched he’s gained control of some of his breaking stuff to compliment his plus fastball.

Shea Spitzbarth – My partner Craig has loved him from the moment the Pirates picked him up, and he’s done nothing to convince me Craig was nuts. In 23.1 innings this season he’s posted a WHIP of 0.99 and a 0.77 ERA. There is every reason to expect Shea will be a part of the Pirates bullpen later this season and if not next year for sure.

Notables – Travis Swaggerty lost his entire season save a few contests early on, but he’s worth mentioning because I see no way he wouldn’t have been in MLB by now should he have remained on the field. Arguably the most notable thing about this group is how few actual impact players are here. This is typical of a rebuild as young players are often acquired and it takes some time to get them a step away from MLB.

In Closing

Help is coming, it just takes some time. I have no problem with people taking a stab at who will play where in whatever year you want to target, but to use a phrase from my youth, sh** happens. AAA is filled with retreads, failed prospects, other teams failed prospects and guys looking for a last shot at the show. That’s not atypical as I’ve just mentioned, but you can expect it to start to change. When and if Rodolfo Castro is sent back down, I hope it’s to AAA rather than AA because he was in line for a promotion by at least a level anyway.

I think what I’ve learned from this study of the system is that so far the development system is bearing fruit. There is no shortage of players pushing for promotion and that isn’t something I could say every season.

If I missed someone you’re keeping your eye on, it doesn’t mean I think they stink or have no future, it just means I don’t see them moving up a level at this time. The journey from draft to MLB is unlike any other sport in this way. Guys can play the equivalent to an entire career before actually making the show.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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