When teams sign nondrafted free agents, they don’t expect those players to become major leaguers.
Yet that’s exactly what could happen for 23-year-old righthander Nick Mears, a 6-foot-3 reliever who reached Double-A Altoona this season, a year after signing a free agent deal with the Pirates. He finished the season in the Arizona Fall League.
The Pirates signed Mears in August 2018 to cover for injuries at short-season West Virginia. He was a complete unknown, having pitched only one year at Sacramento JC and missing his second year because of a personal issues.
Mears weighed 185 pounds when he signed but took it upon himself to add 30 pounds to his frame over the offseason. That added weight boosted his velocity. He now sits 96-98 mph on most nights and touches as high as 101.
Mears began the season at low Class Greensboro but was quickly promoted to high Class A Bradenton, where he pitched well enough to finish the year at Double-A. Combined, he had a 3.28 ERA and 69 strikeouts and 18 walks in 46.2 innings.
Given his advanced age and lack of draft pedigree, Mears knew that he needed to stand out to make up ground in the organization.
“I was giving it my all and doing everything I could to force the hand of management,” Mears said, “so I could put myself in a place where they couldn’t not promote me.”
Mears concluded his season in the AFL, where he continued to have success. Through 5.2 shutout innings he had struck out seven and walked two.
Most of Mears’ strikeouts result from a fastball he likes to throw high in the zone. He has focused on developing his curveball, aiming to get it more vertical with 1-to-7 movement, allowing it to play off his high fastball so that he can work north-south.
Mears will need that breaking pitch to have a shot at reaching the majors. For now, he has advanced farther than anyone could have imagined at this time last year.
— Center fielder Jared Oliva also was playing in the AFL. Through 16 games he hit .393/.493/.625 with nine doubles.
— The Pirates handed out organizational awards to first baseman Mason Martin as player of the year and righthander James Marvel as pitcher of the year. Martin hit .254/.351/.558 with 35 homers between two Class A levels. Marvel combined for a 2.94 ERA in 162.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and was called up to Pittsburgh by the end of the year to make four starts.