Pittsburgh already had the look of a system on the rise.
And that was before the Pirates employed an aggressive 2021 draft strategy that netted four high-profile prospects over the first two days, including No. 1 overall pick Henry Davis.
The Ben Cherington regime has replenished Pittsburgh’s lower levels with high-risk, high-reward type returns via trades while also using its top picks on college players with proven track records. The result is a system teeming with talent at multiple levels, ranging from an exciting lineup in Altoona all the way to an international program that has caught the attention of other teams as well.
Pittsburgh’s system is suddenly pitching rich, too, highlighted by rises made by RHPs Roansy Contreras, Carmen Mlodzinski and Michael Burrows. Their rise also speaks to the volatile nature of both pitching prospects and the risk of the Pirates’ full-scale rebuild: All three arms are currently on the injured list after experiencing breakout starts to the season.
Cherington kept on adding at the deadline, acquiring a total of nine prospects by shipping out 2B Adam Frazier, RHP Richard Rodriguez and others. Seven of those players ranked on their previous organization’s midseason top 30: INF Tucupita Marcano, C Carter Bins, LF Jack Suwinski, RHP Ricky DeVito, 2B/SS Diego Castillo, C Abrahan Gutierrez and SS Hoy Park.
It speaks to the depth of the system that only Marcano and Bins cracked Pittsburgh’s midseason list.
1. Oneil Cruz, SS
Age: 22. Team: Double-A Altoona
Cruz continued to tease gaudy power-speed potential, posting a 137 wRC+ with Double-A Altoona through 43 games before a forearm strain shelved him in late June. His long-term defensive home remains in question. Pittsburgh continues to deploy the 6-foot-7 Cruz at shortstop and he has the athleticism and actions to play the position, but needs to tighten up the throwing accuracy from his plus arm. There has long been speculation that Cruz’s combination of size, plus arm and plus speed would eventually necessitate a move to the outfield, and the Pirates dabbled with him in center field in spring training, but he’s yet to move to the outfield in a game this season.
2. Henry Davis, C
Age: 21. Team: Florida Complex League Pirates
NEW Pittsburgh’s decision to take Davis No. 1 overall accomplished two things: It landed the clear-cut top college bat in the 2021 draft, and it saved nearly $2 million, freeing the team up to aggressively pursue a trio of talented high schoolers on Day Two of the draft and land four of the 32 best prospects in the class. Davis, No. 4 in the BA 500, was remarkably consistent this year, a rarity among the top college position players. His strength-based swing allows for plus power potential and he has enough bat-to-ball skills to suggest a future as an above-average hitter as well. His loudest tool is his 70-grade arm behind the plate. Scouts are split on whether he can stick at catcher long term, but some of the receiving concerns could be mitigated in a few years if automated balls and strikes are implemented.
3. Quinn Priester, RHP
Age: 20. Team: High-A Greensboro
Priester was one of the stars of the fall instructional league, sitting in the mid 90s and touching 98-99 mph to pair with his hammer of a 12-6 curveball. Those velocity gains mostly held up in his first year at High-A Greensboro, where he cemented his curveball as his best pitch. Priester hadn’t generated as many whiffs as perhaps expected (21% strikeout rate) but his fastball continued to play well in the strike zone. Improvement to his work-in-progress slider and average changeup will aid Priester’s progression.
4. Nick Gonzales, 2B
Age: 22. Team: High-A Greensboro
Gonzales opened the year showing enviable hitter-ish qualities, spraying baseball’s line-to-line using his strong hands and quick, inside-out swing. He also impressed the Pirates with improved range defensively at second base. But Gonzales missed a month after breaking his right pinky finger in late May during a collision at first base, and he showed a surprising amount of swing and miss (38% strikeout rate) in his first 18 games back. Gonzales’ bugaboo so far has been slider recognition. And while the lost season in 2020 plus an injury this year have thrown a wrench in his development, it’s still mildly surprising he’s one of just two college hitters taken among the first 10 picks in last year’s draft to not reach Double-A. The other is Heston Kjerstad, who hasn’t played this year.
5. Liover Peguero, SS
Age: 20. Team: High-A Greensboro
Peguero continued to show impressive bat speed and a knack for finding the barrel. That combination resulted in ample loud contact for the 20-year-old at High-A Greensboro and left open the potential for a 20-plus homer hitter one day. Further refinement is needed, though, as Peguero struggles with breaking ball recognition at times and there are continued questions about his feel and instincts for playing shortstop.
6. Roansy Contreras, RHP
Age: 21. Team: Double-A Altoona
Contreras arguably raised his stock as much as any pitcher through the first half of the minor league season. Contreras’ strength-based training during baseball’s shutdown a year ago contributed to a velo spike in his fastball, which he now throws in the 95-97 mph range. The four-seamer has impressive ride and the Pirates also like the angle of the pitch out of his hand. Contreras also added a slider to his arsenal to pair with a top-to-bottom curveball and a nasty changeup. Baseball America’s Josh Norris went in-depth on Contreras’ rise earlier this year. Contreras was placed on the IL in early July with a forearm injury, clouding his immediate future.
7. Tucupita Marcano, UTIL
Age: 21. Team: Triple-A Indianapolis
NEW Added to the Padres’ 40-man roster over the offseason, Marcano hit his way into a bench role this spring after injuries opened up an opportunity in San Diego. He then settled into a full-time role in El Paso, where he continued to show off the strength he added to his game while beginning to see regular action in the outfield corners. Marcano was the centerpiece of the Padres-Pirates Adam Frazier deal at the deadline, and he’s a plug-and-play type who could soon find his way to Pittsburgh.
8. Carmen Mlodzinski, RHP
Age: 22. Team: High-A Greensboro
Buzz for Mlodzinski began building in minor league spring training and he surged at the start of the season, striking out 54 batters in his first 41 innings for High-A Greensboro. Mlodzinski works with a heavy mid-90s sinker that has a penchant for missing barrels. His slider and changeup both project to be average as well, and he’s adept at moving the ball around the strike zone. There’s some concern about Mlodzinski’s high-effort delivery, and he was pulled from a July 10 start with right shoulder stiffness that landed him on the IL.
9. Hudson Head, OF
Age: 20. Team: Low-A Bradenton
Head arrived via the Padres in the Joe Musgrove trade and brought with him a reputation as an athletic, aggressive outfielder who would likely need to make mechanical adjustments to his swing as he faced more advanced pitching. So far those concerns have persisted in his first taste against Low-A pitching, as Head hit .205/.378/.390 through his first 59 games with a 32.1% strikeout rate. Head has above-average raw power and can get to it—his nine homers were tied for fourth most in the Low-A Southeast and his 121 wRC+ as of August 3 ranked among the top 20. But Head has showcased ample swing and miss, especially against velocity. Rival evaluators say Head looks a bit less physical than expected this year after he battled nagging injuries throughout much of 2020.
10. Michael Burrows, RHP
Age: 21. Team: High-A Greensboro
Priester commands plenty of attention in Greensboro’s loaded rotation, but Burrows emerged as the staff’s top performer this year, seeing his strikeout rate surge to 36.4% while bullying opposing lineups. Burrows pitches from a shortened arm path similar to Lucas Giolito and his velocity has gradually trended upward over the last two years. He now sits in the mid 90s with his fastball, touching 96-97 mph. He snaps off a high-spin curveball with considerable drop that is a nightmare for hitters. Burrows throws his changeup infrequently but its late fade tails away from lefthanded hitters. The development of his changeup could affect whether Burrows is ultimately a starter or more of a multi-inning reliever, and he’s the latest Pirates pitching prospect to hit the injured list, leaving his most recent start after just one inning.
11. Tahnaj Thomas, RHP
12. Jared Jones, RHP
13. Bubba Chandler, RHP
NEW Chandler combines elite athleticism with a loud tool set, far and away ranking as the top two-way prospect in the draft with a legitimate shot to hit. The Pirates say they will give Chandler reps as a hitter, but they primarily view the 6-foot-3, 200-pound prepster as a high-upside pitching prospect. Chandler works with a three-pitch mix headlined by a fastball that sits in the low 90s and touched 97 this spring, as well as a mid-70s curveball with a decent spin rate. Chandler’s changeup lags behind his other two offerings, and he has experimented a bit with both a slider and a cutter. Pittsburgh views Chandler, who was a Clemson quarterback commit and three-sport star in high school, as a candidate to take significant strides now that he can focus on baseball full-time.
14. Travis Swaggerty, OF
15. Cody Bolton, RHP
16. Miguel Yajure, RHP
17. Endy Rodriguez, C
NEW The Pirates are excited about Rodriguez, the switch-hitting catcher they acquired from the Mets in the three-team Joe Musgrove deal. Rodriguez can spray line drives all over the yard thanks to an innate knack for finding the barrel and a mature approach capable of handling fastballs and recognizing spin. Rodriguez is an agile defender behind the plate with an average arm and he showed no issues receiving high-end velocity. Rodriguez hasn’t tapped into his power consistently—his average exit velocity is just north of 85 mph—but the Pirates believe it’s coming.
18. Maikol Escotto, SS
NEW Escotto is another teenager trending up on a Bradenton roster teeming with them. Acquired via the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon trade, Escotto has the chance for above-average hit and power tools while sticking at shortstop. He controls the strike zone well—especially against sliders this year—and his 121 wRC+ was tops among all Bradenton hitters as of July 19. Escotto hits too many balls on the ground (52% groundball rate) but he shows more raw power in batting practice. Some wonder if his muscular frame may ultimately push him toward becoming an offensive-minded second baseman in the big leagues, but he’s handled shortstop adequately so far.
19. Ji-Hwan Bae, SS
20. Cal Mitchell, OF
21. Anthony Solometo, LHP
NEW Solometo’s operation is memorable and makes for uncomfortable at-bats. The lefty combines a leg kick with a long, sweeping arm action reminiscent of Madison Bumgarner to create deception, then attacks hitters with a low-90s fastball with arm side run. He pairs it with a low-80s slider that flushes plus, and demonstrates some feel for a changeup despite not using it much. Solometo offers an exciting combination of stuff and pitchability and is yet another intriguing arm in a system flush with pitching.
22. Lonnie White Jr., OF
NEW The Pirates’ new regime hasn’t shied away from players with a history of two-sport success and it hopes White Jr. will eschew a Penn State football and baseball commitment to become the next player to fit its mold. White combines an explosive skill set with a track record of performance as a high schooler. He has plus raw power and his strength, bat speed and feel for hitting suggest he can eventually tap into it consistently. He’s a plus runner now with an average to above-average arm and he has the instincts to play center field, although his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame may push him to a corner if he continues to fill out.
23. Rodolfo Castro, 2B
24. Carter Bins, C
NEW Bins was an arrow-up name in the Mariners system prior to a deadline deal with Pittsburgh thanks to above-average defensive tools across the board and burgeoning power. He was hitting .284/.422/.493 at High-A Everett prior to a promotion to Double-A and impressed with his on-base ability, although there are longstanding questions about his tool that weren’t exactly tempered by his 29% strikeout rate at Everett, either.
25. Max Kranick, RHP
26. Matt Fraizer, OF
NEW Few High-A hitters have done as much damage as Fraizer, who is top 10 in average, home runs, OPS and wRC+. The power surge is particularly notable considering he hit .221/.287/.266 with zero homers as a 21-year-old in Low-A in 2019 after Pittsburgh drafted him in the third round out of Arizona. Fraizer re-tooled his swing during the 2020 shutdown, focusing on his balance and impacting the baseball in front of the strike zone to tap more into his above-average raw power. The mechanical changes coupled with renewed plate discipline have helped unlock a breakout year and should result in a promotion to Double-A before long. Defensively, Fraizer has the speed to handle center field but his fringy arm may be better suited for left field.
27. Eddy Yean, RHP
28. Brennan Malone, RHP
29. Canaan Smith, OF
30. Rodolfo Nolasco, OF
NEW A minor injury during spring training slowed Nolasco’s start to the season, but there’s still plenty of excitement within the Pirates organization for Nolasco’s plus power potential, even if he doesn’t get to it as frequently in games yet. He’s shown quality pitch recognition and plate discipline for a teenager, too. Nolasco is one of several recent international signings trending in the right direction for Pittsburgh and has a shot to reach Low-A Bradenton by the end of the season.
RHP Logan Hofmann may not immediately stand out as a 5-foot-10 fifth-rounder out of Northwestern State who signed for just $125,000 a year ago. But a look under the hood shows why Hofmann is picking up momentum within Pittsburgh’s organization. Hofmann operates with a four-pitch mix, throwing his low-90s four-seamer roughly half the time and at the top of the strike zone frequently. He also has a menacing curveball that averages north of 2700 rpm spin, putting it on par with the likes of Yu Darvish, Rich Hill and Jacob deGrom. The 21-year-old righty has mostly dominated Low-A, posting a 30.9% strikeout rate and a 1.06 WHIP, and is a candidate to keep an eye on, especially if he exhibits a velo bump that other arms in the organization have benefitted from.
3B Dariel Lopez hits the ball hard, especially for a 19-year-old. His average exit velocity was 89 mph as of mid July and his hard-hit percentage clocked in just shy of 50%. While there’s some swing and miss as well, Lopez does exhibit some semblance of an approach at the plate. There’s plenty of thunder in Lopez’s 6-foot-1 frame, but it hasn’t translated into as much production as you might expect so far. The reason? He’s hitting the ball on the ground at a 62% clip. If Lopez can learn to elevate more often, watch out.
OF Lolo Sanchez’s prospect path is an arduous one, and his stock appeared to have bottomed out over the last two years after the Pirates didn’t include him at either their alternate site or instructional league in 2020. Part of the struggle is Sanchez has a confounding profile: He’s speedy, he doesn’t strike out a ton, but he also hasn’t impacted the ball consistently and struggled with his approach. There are signs he’s making strides in 2021 while repeating the High-A level. Sanchez is walking nearly as much as he’s striking out, his 11 homers are a season high and the speed is still there, having swiped 24 bags. It’s easy to forget Sanchez is still just 22 years old.
OF Jack Suwinski was another riser acquired at the deadline via the Padres in the Adam Frazier deal. He showed big power gains, posting a 151 wRC+ through 66 games for Double-A San Antonio prior to being traded, and that included a nearly 17% walk rate.
RHP Brennan Malone’s strike-throwing has fluctuated since joining the Pirates organization via the D-backs in the Starling Marte deal. Pittsburgh sent Malone back to its complex in Florida after he walked five batters in 3.2 innings for Bradenton. Despite possessing a projectable starter’s frame, Malone has struggled to repeat his delivery. His fastball, while sitting at 93-94 mph, is relatively straight, and Malone is in the process of transforming his curveball. He still possesses the traits of a potential mid-rotation starter, but he’s a long way from that right now.
1B Mason Martin’s massive power remains evident by his 19 homers and 134 wRC+ for Double-A Altoona through 72 games. That tool alone is good enough to get him ranked on most other organization’s Top 30s. But the Pirates have one of the deepest systems in the game and Martin’s profile is a tough one as a first base only option who strikes out a lot (33.6 percent) and doesn’t take many walks. He’ll need to continue mashing, and he certainly could, but he checks in at No. 31 in the midseason update following a slew of additions.
Similar to Martin, RHP Nick Garcia’s omission from the Top 30 speaks more to the strength of Pittsburgh’s system than a change in his profile. The 22-year-old is throwing his low-90s sinker nearly 70% of the time for Low-A Bradenton while also throwing a slider and a curveball. Garcia’s 12.1% walk rate is a bit high, but as a conversion Division III arm some refinement is needed and he still has plenty of upside.
Even despite an Opening Day injury, Ke’Bryan Hayes graduated from his spot as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 prospect and is entrenched as a cornerstone piece for the Pirates moving forward.
J.T. Brubaker (preseason No. 16) has settled into the Pirates’ rotation.
Wil Crowe (preseason No. 20) is getting an opportunity in Pittsburgh’s rotation—albeit without much success, pitching to a 6.12 ERA through 14 games so far this year.
David Bednar has taken his role in the Pirates’ bullpen and run with it, already finding himself in the mix for high-leverage opportunities.
RHP Cody Bolton had right knee surgery in May and was projected to return to baseball activities in 4-6 months.
RHP Miguel Yajure (forearm) was initially placed on the IL in early June with a forearm injury. Pittsburgh transferred him to the 60-day IL three weeks later, and he resumed throwing off a mound in early July.
OF Travis Swaggerty had surgery in early June after dislocating his right shoulder and will likely miss the rest of the season.
RHP Carmen Mlodzinski was placed on the IL in mid July with right shoulder stiffness.
RHP Jose Soriano had Tommy John revision surgery in mid June. Pittsburgh selected Soriano in the Rule 5 draft via the Angels while he was in the midst of recovering from his initial Tommy John surgery in 2020.
RHP Michael Burrows was pulled from his July 13 start after one inning and placed on the IL three days later.