12-11-21 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)
When Minor League Baseball finally returned following the cancellation of the 2020 season, the landscape was extremely different from the last time each affiliate took the field. Most noticeably was the fact that some of these teams ceased to exist in their previous forms as the Advanced Rookie and Short Season A Levels of were completely eliminated; returning in the form of the MLB Draft League, a Collegiate Wood Bat League and MLB Partner Leagues. There were also realignments, which caused many organizations to move up or down the ladder within the Farm System of their parent Major League Ball Club.
For the Pirates this meant the end of their association with the West Virginia Black Bears and the Bristol Pirates, as well as a flip flop of the A Level Greensboro Grasshoppers and Bradenton Marauders; with the Marauders being set up in a simpler fashion to transition players back and forth with the Black and Gold Teams of the newly named Florida Complex League.
As a fan of Major League Baseball it was a difficult transition to know that I wouldn’t be able to drive an hour south to Morgantown to see potential future Pirates on display at Monongalia County Ballpark. For Ben Cherington and Company this transformation brought about some pretty challenging decisions concerning prospects; many who hadn’t stepped on a ball field for any meaningful game action in over a year and a half.
Ultimately, this change in the process of assessments and assignments led to several Pirates Prospects continuing their professional careers at levels beyond where they would have in the past; which turns out to be the eventual reason why the Bradenton Marauders Roster had an average of 21.1 years old in 2021, as compared to 22.4 in 2019 or 23.4 in 2018.
One such player, that brought down this average was Dariel Lopez from the Dominican Republic; along with his fellow 19 year-olds Sergio Campana, Jasiah Dixon, Maikol Escotto, Po-Yu Chen and Jared Jones, with 18 year-old Alexander Mojica thrown in for good measure.
In previous years, Lopez and his fellow youngsters would more than likely have found themselves with Bristol in Advanced Rookie Ball, hoping to perform well enough to get a shot in Bradenton at some point during the season; but, not in 2021.
After only appearing in 46 games for the DSL Pirates 2 in 2019 at the age of 17-where he batted .324, with an .889 OPS and 4 homers-Lopez found himself thrown into the fire with the Marauders this past season; a challenge he accepted head on.
Of the youngsters mentioned-who play the field-Lopez had the highest batting average (.258), OPS (.735), number of extra base hits (28) and home run total (10); which was also good enough for 5th best on the team.
Now, in spite of what was mostly a strong introduction to the States, it almost goes without saying that there were bound to be some areas of concern as well due to his age and overall lack of experience; mostly caused by his control of the zone and mobility in the field. Although, once you break it all down and attach some context to it, some of the apprehension should clearly dissipate.
In 435 plate appearances, the young man struck out 108 times; good for a 24.8% K rate. Even though this could be seen as less than ideal, it was also better than anyone his age or younger; plus a couple of older ones-Hudson Head and Jase Bowen. On top of his strike out rate, splits versus LHP and RHP might also cause one to worry due to the significant difference of 1.037 compared to .665.
As far as his defensive is concerned, there truly is no sugarcoating it; even if there is a way of potentially explaining the reason for his overall poor performance. A shortstop by trade ever since he signed for $400,000 back in July of 2018, Lopez has also spent time at second, third and first base; experiencing minimal success at any position other than his 39 innings at first back in 2019. At shortstop he committed 18 errors in each of his two seasons, while boasting a meager .855 fielding percentage. His production was slightly better at third (.867) and somewhat presentable at first (.944).
Listed at 6’1” and 183 pounds it is clear that he has grown beyond that, and into his frame; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just cuts down on mobility and position flexibility. On a positive note, it should also allow him to add power as he matures.
Simply look at an exhibition game he played in after being drafted by Gigantes del Ciabo of the Dominican Winter League to see his size and effortless power on full display.
So, what does the future hold for one of the many young guns-or in this case bat-in the Pirates Farm System? Well, as with any prospect, there are obviously no guarantees. However, if I were forced to take a guess, I would have to say that Lopez is destined for an eventual move to first base or a full time designated hitter; maybe in a platoon situation if he can’t get his splits under control. And truthfully, it is almost inevitable-in the short term at least-that he starts out the season on a repeat tour of Bradenton to see if he can build upon his successes, while more importantly, working out any flaws in his game.