12-23-21 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)
Recently, the chatter on Pittsburgh Pirates Social Media has been filled with discussions concerning the development of the team’s players; especially when it comes to prospects in the Minor Leagues. Obviously one main reason for this trend is that with the MLB Lockout in place all transactions, and realistically any news beyond staffing changes at 115 Federal Street have been put on hold. However, it was a quote-but more accurately a single word-uttered by Manager Derek Shelton during a lunch and learn presser with the media members on the Pirates Beat that honestly put things into motion. That word was expedite.
“The one thing we’ve always asked is for everybody we hire, regardless of whether it’s at the major league level or the PD [player development] level, you have to be willing to learn and grow and challenge ideas,” Shelton said. “Our group has done that. We’re not going to apologize for doing things differently. The game is changing. We’re trying to figure out ways to expedite development and make sure development is done in the right way.”
Almost immediately there was a drive to determine exactly what this could mean for the Current Prospects; particularly as far as promotions were concerned within the Pirates Farm System.
In the past there has been this overarching theme of decisions made pertaining the movement of prospects throughout the Pirates Farm System in a fashion that is often perceived as holding players back, most notably at the Triple-A Level, in order to maintain control of the player for a longer period of time; also know as good old fashioned service manipulation. Clearly this isn’t an issue tied solely to the Pirates and their modus operandi. Just look at the grievance Kris Bryant filed-and subsequently lost-against the Cubs following his rookie season. However, it is one that has come up on a fairly regular basis over the years when it comes to how Pittsburgh’s Management Teams have done business; most recently with Ke’Bryan Hayes during the truncated 2020 Season when he was called up for the final month, or nearly half of the scheduled games.
As far as prospects that have been deemed as potentially less than MLB ready, in addition to those with limited professional experience, the new regime led by General Manager Ben Cherington has been a little more aggressive with Minor League Assignments, as well as cups of coffee handed out at PNC Park. Simply look at Travis Swaggerty showing up in Indianapolis after finishing up the 2019 Season in then High-A Bradenton, Liover Pegeuro being assigned to now High-A Greensboro at the age of 20, First Overall Pick Henry Davis skipping straight over the Marauders on his way to the Grasshoppers, Roansy Contreras getting a start with the Pirates at the end of year in-spite of spending almost the entire year with the Curve and Rodolfo Castro bouncing back and forth between Altoona and Pittsburgh in 2021.
I have no doubt that Cherington fully intends to continue to this process on an individual basis in their player centric organization, whether you agree with or not.
Truth be told I am on the fence about the whole idea, however, it doesn’t just come down to my feelings about if it will be effective. At this point I am more apt to focus on how practical it will be to implement with the logjam forming on the 40-Man between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis; including how this could potentially cause prospects-two in particular-to be stuck waiting their turn in Altoona, with some high end talent nipping at their heals.
In the forefront of my mind when thinking about all of this was the Pirates Minor League Honus Wagner Player of the Year, Matthew Fraizer. As the 40-Man stands currently, there are eight outfielders that would technically be considered in Fraizer’s path to MLB, with a few others-like Cal Mitchell-that aren’t even included in this number.
At the start of this past season he found himself at High-A Greensboro, where in 75 games and 350 plate appearances, Fraizer slashed .314/.401/.578 with a ridiculous 20 homers; but more importantly for me his K rate sat around 21%, while his BB rose to 12.3% from 8.2% in 2019.
Ultimately for Fraizer this slightly surprising breakout would lead to him being promoted to Altoona at the beginning of August. Over the final month and half of the season Fraizer would tail off slightly as he slashed .288/.356/.492, while putting only three more balls over the fence. He did however manage to hit three triples and twelve doubles, which nearly matched his total for the Grasshoppers in less than half the at bats.
Lumped into this train of thought is Ji-Hwan Bae; and although he has started to play some centerfield, I would consider Bae an infielder first, an outfield option for now and most likely a super utility in the end. Because of that Bae is not only blocked by the eight or more outfielders already mentioned, but also the nine infielders-some of whom that can play both in the grass and on the dirt-scheduled to be in either Indianapolis or Pittsburgh to start the season.
For Bae 2021 was pretty much a repeat of every previous year of professional ball, except for the fact that he tapped into some unexpected power in Altoona. Over the course of his Minor League Career with Pittsburgh, Bae did not have a single home run. Yeah he hit two in the Australian Baseball League a couple years ago, but never in the states. That changed this year when he launched seven homers for the Curve and one while rehabbing in the FCL; which was a welcomed addition for a player who has always hit for average-.297 in three years, with a South Atlantic League Batting in 2019.
Following his time with the Curve, and mostly because of the missed time due to injury, Bae found himself on the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League. At first he excelled, but then he struggled; ending the approximately 30 game season with a .250/.343/.380 slash line, thanks in part to his speed and infield singles.
Now, all of this doesn’t mean that one or both of these guys isn’t going to get the promotion at some point in 2022. However, the moving parts of the situation sure could make it a little bit more difficult.
At times Bae was bumped to centerfield because of Rodolfo Castro and Oneil Cruz being on the Altoona Roster. Well, the same thing could happen with Liover Pegeuro and Nick Gonzales in 2022. For Fraizer this concern may not be as prominent because any pressure coming from behind seems to be at least a year behind him. Unless, there happens to be a change in position on the higher end of the talent pool.
So far all the talk has been about Cruz being bumped to the outfield to make way for Pegeuro. But, what if Cruz sticks at shortstop? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities. Neither is Pegeuro not performing at the expected level if or when he reaches MLB for that matter. Nevertheless, let’s just say for arguments sake they both continue to perform at a fairly high level. Who’s to say that it isn’t Pegeuro that ends up being moved? Mookie Betts came up through the Red Sox Farm System as a middle infielder before making the full-time transition to the outfield across the upper Minors and MLB during his rookie season. Clearly I am not directly comparing Pegeuro to Betts. It’s a simple example to illustrate that this type of move is possible; and more common than some of you might realize.
Best case scenario is that everyone, or at least several players in this cluster of outfielders and infielders work out in order to entice another team into trading one of their MLB players for prospects once the Pirates are ready to take the next step forward; whenever that might be.
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