Top 5 Pirates Prospects: Dropping The Hammer

2-18-22 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)

With the amount of curling that has been ingested in my home over the past week or so, accompanied by my family’s regular viewings of Marvel movies featuring Thor wielding his trusty Mjölnir, it’s no wonder I have hammers on the brain.

Eventually, as the circuits started to really fire and began converging on one another, my thoughts-as they almost always do-drifted back to baseball; which in this case led me straight to a pondering of sorts concerning the evolution of my all-time favorite pitch, the curveball.

Over the years, the curveball has been given many nicknames; from the bender, the hook and the yakker to the deuce, the number two and the often used Uncle Charlie. However, it has always been my preference to refer to it as the Yellow Hammer because of the man who coined this specific label, former Pirates slugger Bill Madlock.

It’s the battle between pitcher and hitter being settled by a simply pulling the string instead of using brute force. It’s also a thing of beauty. But most importantly, when looking at the Pirates Farm System, the curveball is something that several prospects in the have come close to perfecting as a way keep the opposing team on their heals and constantly guessing.

Nowadays the fastball seems to be the popular choice as far as put-away or payoff pitches are judged due to the sheer velocity that is exhibited in their execution. Still, for me, nothing compares to seeing a batter’s knees bending and ankles buckling as the bat stays frozen on their shoulders; or in other cases, when the hitter swings so hard that he nearly comes out of his shoes, while twists himself around and falls off balance because he must have been thinking fastball.

Currently in the Pirates System there are many players that deploy the Hammer, yet there are about 5 that spin it better than anyone else I can think of.

1) Michael Burrows

Selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 11th Round of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Waterford High School in Connecticut, Burrows benefited from the Pirates inability to sign their Comp Round A Pick Gunner Hogland by receiving a $500,000 bonus ($375,000 over slot); resulting in him forgoing his original commitment to UCONN, and immediately beginning his professional career in the Gulf Coast League. In minimal work, only 4 appearances and 14.2 innings, the 18 year old right-hander didn’t allow a single earned run.

He then followed this up with a full season in the New York-Penn League with the West Virginia Black Bears, where he earned a 4.33 in 43.2 innings and across 11 starts. At the time, the main-and really only knock on Burrows-was the lack of a third pitch. With a fastball, that sat between 90 to 94 and a high 70’s to low 80’s curveball, he could easily make hitters swing and miss due to his unbelievably high spin rate; yet, there was still some concern at the time as to whether or not this would translate as he made his way up through the system in a starting role.

Now it’s possible, after watching Burrows perform this past season in Greensboro and the Arizona Fall League, that we have what could be a clearer answer relating to these concerns; however, before we get to that, let’s dig into the numbers behind that curveball for a minute.

For reference, the league average spin rate on a curveball sits somewhere in between 2430 and 2530 RPMs, while Burrows comfortably rested at 3000 over the summer. Also, tied into this is the vertical movement of -20 that almost unfairly pairs with a 25 on his ever rising fastball. Combine the two and you will probably be able to discover why Fangraphs currently rates the former as a 70 grade offering.

As we move back to take a closer look at the the 2021 season-one in which he missed almost two months with an oblique injury-it’s easy to see the progress he has made in his development by a merely looking at the results. In 49 innings on the mound for High-A Greensboro, Burrows posted a 2.20 ERA, a .898 WHIP and a career high 12.1 strike outs per 9. Then for an encore, he put up a 3.52 ERA and a 1.174 WHIP in the hitter dominated Arizona Fall League; finishing off the year on a high note with a scoreless, six strikeout performance.

Also it should be noted that his fastball ticked up slightly from 90-94 to 94-96-topping out at 97 mph-for all those fastball junkies; with what is still considered to be a below average change up mixed in.

Needless to say I am pretty excited to see what this young man can do in Altoona this Spring and Summer.

2) Omar Cruz

Originally inked to a deal by the Padres at the beginning of the 2017-18 International Signing Period for $100,000 out of Hermosillo, Mexico, Cruz began his professional career with San Diego’s Rookie Ball Affiliate in the Arizona League in 2018, before earning a mid-season promotion to the Class A Short Season, Tri-City Dust Devils. Between the two leagues he posted a 1.96 ERA, a 1.323 WHIP and 59 strikeouts in 42.1 innings.

To begin 2019, he once again found himself with the Dust Devils, but only for two starts and seven innings, ultimately being promoted to the Class A Fort Wayne TinCaps; where he started to display more command/control as his walk rate dropped from 5.62 per 9 innings over his previous three placements to 2.39 for the remainder of the year. His ERA did see a bump to 2.76, yet, his WHIP fell to 1.122, as his strikeout rate remained at a solid 11.39 batters per 9 inning pace.

Set to continue the strides he had made during his 20 year old season, Cruz instead had to settle for an impressive Instructional League performance, without a regular Minor League Baseball Season in 2020; and eventually a trade to the Pirates in the off-season, where he would be assigned to the High A Greensboro Grasshoppers.

Unfortunately for Cruz, his first start in the Pirates Organization didn’t go quite as planned, as he gave up four runs, walked five and struck out four in two innings of work; good for a 18.00 ERA. However, over his next six starts he sported a 2.36 ERA, while striking out 34 batters in 26.2 innings.

It was at this exact moment that Double-A Altoona needed a spot start. Inevitably it would be Cruz that would have his number called for what was intended to be a Curve cup of coffee. Be that as it may, Cruz obviously had other ideas, as he tossed six strong innings, did not allow an earned run or a free pass and struck out two; forcing Cherington’s hand into keeping him in Altoona for the remainder of the season. Over a total of 14 starts and 70.2 innings Cruz would put together a fairly steady line; consisting of a 3.44 ERA and a 1.300 WHIP.

The prototypical crafty lefty, Cruz’s pitches don’t necessarily jump off the page; often causing conflicting scouting reports from many reputable sources. Both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline see his curveball as a plus pitch, while Fangraphs rates it as below average; coming in at only 2300 RPM.

Ultimately not protected from the MLB portion of the Rule 5 Draft-which may or may not eventually happen-Cruz could see immediate action with the Indians in place of many of the Triple-A caliber arms currently on the 40-Man.

If this turns out to be the case, just remember what he did with his last opportunity.

3) Santiago Florez

On July 2, 2016 the Pittsburgh Pirates signed 16-year-old Santiago Florez to a $150,000 contract. At the time the young man from Barranquilla, Columbia was still growing into what is now a 6’5’’ 222 pound frame, but the Pirates obviously saw some potential in his fastball, breaking ball and overall mechanics.

After a full year of training and conditioning Florez made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League pitching for the DSL Pirates, starting in 14 of the team’s 71 games that season. In his 14 starts, Florez’s youth showed as he struck out only 30 batters and walked 38 in 53.1 innings. He also posted a less than impressive 4.56 ERA and a 1.519 WHIP. Nevertheless, these less than flashy numbers did not stop the Pirates development arch for Florez, probably due to his inexperience and the fact that he was almost a full 2 years younger than the average player in the league.

To begin 2018 Florez was assigned to the Gulf Coast League (now the Florida Complex League), where he was almost 2 and half years younger than the average player in the league. Again Florez did not light the world on fire, but he also did not regress either. Instead he continued to progress little by little. In 10 starts and 43.1 innings, Florez lowered his ERA to 4.15, his WHIP to 1.385 and his walks to 23 (down to 4.8 BB/9 from 6.4). He also increased his strikeouts, up to 7.3 SO/9 from 5.1; doing all this in spite of the fact that his season was derailed slightly by an elbow tweak. For his efforts Florez was rewarded with his first appearance on MLB’s Top 30 Pirates Prospects, sneaking in at #30.

As 2019 began, Florez continued his steady progression through the system as he was assigned to the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Advanced Rookie Level Affiliate) of the Appalachian League. And just like he had over the past two seasons, he continued to grow and develop. Florez started 10 games, just like he had the previous year, while pitching a few less innings (42.1). For the season Florez posted a 3.46 ERA, a 1.344 WHIP, struck out 36 batters (7.8 per 9) and walked 21 (4.5 per 9). The highlight of Florez’s season came in his next to last start of the season on August 20th against the Bluefield Blue Jays when he struck out 7, walked none, didn’t allow a run and gave up only 4 hits in 6 innings. At the end of the year, just as he had steadily progressed through the Pirates system, he also steadily progressed up the MLB’s Top 30 Pirates Prospects, landing at #22.

When Minor League Baseball finally resumed this past summer, Florez would continue his steady march up the Pirates Farm System with the Low-A Marauders. For Bradenton, the young Columbian would appear in 10 games (9 of them as a starter) to begin the season; and, to say he was dominant would be a pretty big understatement. Not only would he toss two complete games, but he also threw up a 1.71 ERA and a .858 WHIP during the time he struck out batters at a 12.1 per 9 inning clip; earning a bump to High-A Greensboro in the pro.

Unfortunately, this promotion did not come without its struggles. Over his final 43 innings of season, Florez saw his ERA and WHIP balloon up to 7.53 and 1.814, while his K rate fell to 7.5 batters per 9.

Luckily for him the one thing that remained consistent was the ridiculous break on his curveball. With a rate of 2800 RPMs he has regularly been able to lean on it as his finishing pitch, or really anytime he absolutely needs a strike.

For as long as Florez has already been in the Pirates Organization, it’s hard believe that he won’t turn 22 years-old until after the season starts. Although sadly, his youth won’t really matter much longer if he can’t put everything together.

4) Roansy Contreras

When Contreras was first acquired from the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon deal back in January of 2021, most were unsure as to exactly what the Pirates were going to get from the 21 year-old, 19th ranked prospect in New York’s Farm System. This was especially true due to the fact that much like many other Minor League players, Contreras had not taken the mound in almost a year and half; making many of the scouting reports on the young Dominican out of date.

During his time split between Staten Island and Charleston in 2018 and 2019, Contreras had performed pretty well; posting a 3.04 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP with 176 strike outs across 195.2 innings. However, it was a fairly unanimous consensus that he projected as a back of the rotation starter. All of his offerings-a fastball, slider and changeup-were seen topping out at average to slightly above average in the future. Sure he had the command as evidenced by a lower than average walk rate of 7.3%, still none of pitches really jumped off the page; not even his 92-95 mph fastball. Also, you’ll notice the lack of any sort of curveball whatsoever.

After taking all of this into consideration, it shouldn’t come as much of surprise that when Contreras first took the mound for the Curve this past season the results were a little bit unexpected at the very least. From his electric fastball that easily sat between 94-97 mph and topped out at 99 to a wipeout slider and finally a 2700 RPM curveball that played perfectly off the other two.

In his first start of the season Contreras struck out 11, walked none and didn’t allow a single run across 5 innings of work. Then a week later he went 6, struck out 11 again and only walked 2; still not letting a single runner cross home plate. Of course it would foolish to believe that this level of dominance could continue for the rest of the season. However, up until the point he hit the IL with a forearm strain at the beginning of July he came pretty close; posting a 2.35 ERA, a .091 WHIP and 12.72 K/9.

When he returned, Contreras was eased back into the mound, never throwing more than 59 pitches; even in his MLB Debut on September 29th. Over his last 5 starts he tossed a total of 15 innings, while maintaining a 3.00 ERA, a 1.067 WHIP and 12.6 K/9 despite a couple of bumps in the road.

Immediately following the season-and primary to get more innings due to two month IL stint-Contreras started another 5 games in the Arizona Fall League; ending the year with an eight strikeout, one walk performance across 4 innings for the Peoria Javelinas.

Now thanks to the MLB Lockout his immediate future could be on hold. After being added to the 40-Man back in November, Contreras is currently among the Minor League Players in the Pirates System-several of whom are on the cusp of regular MLB action-that would be unable to start the season as long as the CBA remains unresolved.

So for now, it’s possible that a Carmen Mlodzinski, Kyle Nicolas, or Noe Toribio could be called upon to fill out the Indianapolis rotation in the interim.

5) Quinn Priester

This young from Cary-Grove, Illinois is obviously a student of the game; and in beginning he was also his own pitching coach. Sitting in front of the computer for hours, Priester would watch endless videos of Walker Buehler, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, along with all instructional videos in an attempt to hone his craft; which is highlighted in part by his 78-82 mph, 70 grade curve that he spins at 2500 RPM.

Drafted by Neil Huntington as his final first round pick in 2019, Priester caught the eye of scouts during the lost MiLB season with his brief work at the Alternate Site in Altoona, as well as his performance in the Instructional League that fall. Touted as a potentially being the best pitcher in the Minor Leagues headed into last year, the bar was set extremely high. Almost too high to actually be reached.

Due to these higher than high expectations some may look at Priester’s overall numbers and be a little bit disappointed, but seeing as it was his first full year in professional ball-and possibly playing a level up-it’s hard to hold very much against him; especially as a high school arm that usually takes longer to develop-its hard to feel that way. 

On the season Priester posted a 3.04 ERA and a 1.239 WHIP, while remaining fairly consistent for the entire season. His 4.26 ERA over his final three starts of the season was less than ideal, but we have to remember that he was fast approaching 100 innings after a season off the previous year. It’s totally possible that his young arm was just starting to tire; albeit at times, he was completely unhittable.

Conclusion

Obviously a dominant curveball isn’t the only tool in any of these pitchers’ repertoires; and, clearly it can’t be if they if they eventually want to succeed at the highest level. However to me, it’s the offering I look forward to seeing the most; as each of them channels their inner “Candy” Cummings across Greensboro, Altoona, Indianapolis and hopefully Pittsburgh.

Published by Craig W. Toth

Former Contributing Author at InsidethePirates.com, Co-Host of the Bucs in the Basement Podcast and life-long/diehard Pittsburgh Pirates Fan!

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