3-12-22 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement On Twitter)
It’s amazing how much things can change from one moment to the next based simply on a singular event or decision.
Earlier this week-and for the previous three plus months-the news surrounding Major League Baseball focused mostly on the continuous CBA Negotiations, the MLB Lockout and the possibility of a shortened season; or maybe no season at all. Because of these circumstances the majority of stories and/or blog post ideas that swirled around inside my mind had to do with how the Minor League Season-and the prospects more specifically-could be affected by the absence of players from the 40-Man Roster in the Pittsburgh Pirates Farm System; even leading me to write about this topic just five days ago. In fact, the draft of this particular blog post was originally titled Opportunity Knocks, based on the idea that some Pirates prospects could have a chance to put their names back in the conversation for roles on the Major League Roster given the players-who were at the time-forced off the diamond.
Then at 3pm on Thursday all of this was flipped upside down when the MLBPA voted to approve the most recent MLB proposal 26-12, with the owners eventually following suit in unanimous fashion.
The initial thought of who could get another chance, quickly turned those that could find themselves on the outside looking in; including a few off the 40-man, but also others that might be out of the Pirates Organization all together.
Now, before I get started it must be made known, that this gives me no pleasure-actually the opposite-to talk about players that could end up having their dreams crushed to one degree or another. These are guys that have followed throughout their careers, seen play in person on multiple occasions and cheered for at every turn.
Nevertheless, as Michael Corleone famously said, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business”. And, as we should all know by now, baseball is most certainly a business.
1) Bligh Madris
The first time I ever wrote about Madris was way back in February of 2020 for the somewhat defunct Inside The Pirates Sports Illustrated website. At the time the Mesa State College product was likely set to begin the season in Double-A Altoona, with his sights set on a quick bump up to Triple-A Indianapolis if he was able to build upon his .260/.324/.379 slash line and 36 extra base hits-8 homers-from the previous season.
Unfortunately 2020 never happened, and when 2021 finally rolled around Madris was still in Altoona; but only for a short time. After 10 games with the Curve he found himself in an Indians uniform for the remainder of the year. In 385 Triple-A plate appearances Madris blasted 9 homers while batting .273 with a professional high .786 OPS.
So, why may you ask could the now 26 year-old outfielder be on his way out? Well, it really has nothing to do with how he has performed. Instead, it might simply be a numbers game. With Canaan Smith-Njiba, Travis Swaggerty and Travis Suwinski being added to the 40-Man back in November, Cal Mitchell in the mix and Matthew Fraizer on all of their heals, there simply may not be room on the Indianapolis Indians roster when the season begins on April 5th.
2) Jared Olivia
As some of you may know, Jared Olivia is my 10 year-old son’s favorite baseball player; ever since Olivia threw him a ball, and later signed it at a Bradenton Marauders game in 2018. Over the next couple of years we would travel to Altoona to see him play, sit around the television to watch his MLB Debut on September 21, 2000 and check on his progress fairly regularly in between and after.
During the 2019 season in Altoona Olivia literally turned the page; ending the year as both an Eastern League All-Star and the team’s MVP by batting .277, with 36 extra base hits and 36 stolen bases. Following the season he would go on to slash .312/.413/.473 in the Arizona Fall League; earning another All-Star nod.
Sadly, things would only go down hill for the former Arizona Wildcat over the next two seasons. In 2020 he appeared in 6 Major League games, while batting .188. Then in 2021 he began the year by staying behind in Bradenton for some individual work with hitting coach Jon Nunnally, before tweaking an oblique when he was assigned to Indianapolis. After a little over a month delay to the season, Olivia hit .249 with the Indians and .175 with Pirates; never really looking like himself at any point during the season.
Currently Olivia finds himself on the 40-Man, but in a pretty similar situation to Madris; as the numbers begin to stack up against them. Although, in Olivia’s case, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that could challenge Anthony Alford and Greg Allen for the 4th Outfielder Spot. Yet, if he doesn’t win, it’s right back to the same predicament.
3) Hunter Owen
Originally selected in 25th round of the 2016 draft out of Indiana State University, Owen excelled at Double-A Altoona during 2019. A super utility player (3B/OF/1B) by trade, he batted a career high .295 and crushed 15 homers in 68 games. Unfortunately this success did not transfer to Triple-A Indianapolis as he struggled to hit .192 with 5 homers.
However, when he returned to the Indians this past season Owen did see an uptick in some of his offensive numbers, which was promising; I’m just not sure it will be enough. His average rose to .235, he had a solid OPS of .757 and lead the entire team with 20 homers, but-and it’s a big but-he continued to strike out at a rate over 30% and only walked 7.9% of the time.
Owen did get an extremely brief look with the Pirates last year; striking out in 3 of his 4 plate appearances.
Listed as an outfielder and pinch hitter by trade, Owen has played the majority of time at third base; so he has shown position flexibility. This is clearly something that Cherington has been known to favor; still, at 28 years old it’s hard to ignore the fact that time could be running out.
4) Cam Vieaux
Over the past two seasons, Vieaux has tried to make the jump from Double-A Altoona to Triple-A Indianapolis. In his time with the Curve-including 2018-he posted a combined 3.11 ERA and a 1.104 WHIP. In direct contrast his ERA sits at 5.89 and his WHIP has landed at 1.647 with the Indians.
Seen as a starter for almost all of his Minor League Career, Vieaux was used out of the bullpen at times in Altoona with minimal success. In twelve appearances and across 21 innings he put up a 4.29 ERA and a 1.476 WHIP.
I only mention this because when a starting pitcher is struggling, the knee jerk reaction is often to make a case for him to be a reliever. Yes, this can work at times, but it’s not always the easy answer.
5) Blake Weiman
Unlike Vieaux, Weiman has been viewed-and used-as a reliever from the moment he joined the Pirates Organization. Nevertheless, they find themselves in nearly the same situation.
After splitting time between Altoona and Indianapolis in 2019, Weiman became a full-time Indian in 2021; bouncing between a set up role and being the defacto closer, yet never finding consistency in either.
If you look at Weiman’s numbers for the entire season it looks as if he had a fairly solid season. His 1.081 WHIP put him near the threshold you would be be looking for from an elite reliever. However, when you go month by month this number regularly fluctuates between .667 and 2.727 throughout the year.
On the plus side he did finish the season with his best month as he struck out 21 batters in 12 innings, so it’s possible he was finally able to put thing together after being sidelined in 2020.
Yesterday the Pirates released their list of Non-Roster Invitees for Major League Spring Training. Each of the players discussed-aside from Oliva, who would already be there due to his spot on the 40-Man-can be found among the 28 names. This keeps them in the conversation for now. Plus, they also have a little bit of an upper hand because they have been able to prepare at Pirate City for the past few weeks.
Regardless, as Ben Cherington continues to acquire and develop prospects for Pittsburgh’s Farm System, some players will push through while others will be passed over; eventually becoming the odd men out.