Pirates’ Roansy Contreras Raises His Ceiling, Plus Notes On Several Intriguing Arms

RICHMOND, Va. — All season long, Roansy Contreras has been on the attack. When the lights turn on and he takes the rubber, he wants everybody in the ballpark to know that he’s in control. If they don’t know then, they’ll figure it out as soon as his first fastball sizzles into the catcher’s glove.

Contreras is one of the newest additions to Pittsburgh’s suddenly pitching-rich system, having come over from the Yankees in the deal that sent Jameson Taillon to New York. The Contreras who showed up in black and yellow for the first time looked quite a bit different than the version who spent 2019 at Low-A among a host of other talented prospects. 

For one, Contreras, still just 21 years old, is noticeably bigger and stronger than he was two seasons ago. From his thighs through his torso and arms, he’s added plenty of muscle. That added strength, plus a delivery tweaked to eliminate any side-to-side movement, has led to a much crisper, more powerful arsenal.

“A lot has happened in the last two years, and I’ve been able to do a lot of work to try to figure out the things that I needed to do,” Contreras said, with the help of translator Orlando Crance, the strength and conditioning coach at Double-A Altoona. “While I was in the Dominican Republic during the pandemic, I really did a lot of work to develop in things related to the game and also physically.”

Before the 2020 season was shut down because of the pandemic, Contreras was starting to hint at what was to come. In the small bit of minor league spring training, his fastball had averaged 95 mph, a tick or two up from the low-90s velocity he’d shown the year prior. 

“I’m not surprised (at the velocity) because I put in a lot of work in the Dominican before and during all of last year,” he said. “I put in a lot of hard work, a lot of training, so I’m not really surprised. It’s paying off.”

Between 2019 and 2021, Contreras also added a slider to his mix. The change was suggested by Yankees pitching coordinator Sam Briend during instructional league in the Dominican Republic before Contreras was added to the 40-man roster and thus ineligible to participate in the camp any longer. 

Contreras himself describes the slider as a work in progress, and the version right now is a short-breaker with more horizontal break and less depth. Once he can refine the pitch, it will give him another option against righthanders, and will add a pitch that breaks toward his glove side in addition to his changeup, which fades away from lefties, and his curveball, which has top-to-bottom break.
“There’s good separation between the pitches, which are two distinctly different pitches with different velocity and shape and spin,” Altoona pitching coach Drew Benes said. “For a lot of guys, especially young guys, it’s hard to have two breaking balls that you can get that type of separation with. so It’s impressive that they’re two truly different breaking balls that he can use in-zone and he can use them strike-to-ball to put guys away with, and he’s also got a pretty good changeup as well.”

Aside from one start, Contreras has been exceptionally effective this season. At times, he’s been downright dominant. Through five starts, he’d pitched 27.2 innings and whiffed 42 hitters. In 2019, he struck out 113 hitters in 132.1 innings. In other words, Contreras has pitched nearly 21% of his total innings from 2019, and struck out roughly 37% of his total from two seasons ago.

In his most recent turn, on the road against Richmond on June 1, Contreras also showed the ability to recover from an inauspicious start and finish strong. A single from Heliot Ramos and a double from Shane Matheny put runners on second and third with one out. After a strikeout, Contreras clipped the next man, Vince Fernandez, with a pitch, loading the bases and moving his pitch count for the inning to 23. Three pitches later he induced a grounder from Jacob Heyward that ended the inning and kept Richmond off the board.

From there, Contreras coasted. He needed just 59 pitches over the next five innings to silence the Squirrels and put another stellar outing on his ledger. It wasn’t the domination of his first two starts, in which he’d struck out 22 hitters in 11 innings. 

“He faced some traffic today but it was very early and he was able to make the adjustment, and then the rest is history,” Altoona manager Miguel Rojas said. “This guy, he’s so smart. He knows what he’s doing on the mound. It just takes one little thing to make an adjustment and just be himself on the mound.”

Between innings, Contreras realized he needed to continue to rely on his strength, which is a powerful, lively pitch thrown in the 95-97 mph range with occasional hints of 98. 

“He wasn’t using (the fastball) as much as he used to, so he went back to his fastball—his strength—and started getting back to challenging batters with it,” Rojas said. “That was the one adjustment and it allowed him to be efficient from that point on.”

Beyond the readings on the radar gun, Contreras’ fastball is accentuated because of the way it comes out of his hand and moves through the strike zone. 

“It just explodes out of his hand. Obviously the velo is high, but he’s got some good ride to it and I believe his approach angle is pretty good as well,” Benes said. “That is, it’s coming in at a different angle than the majority of the fastballs that hitters are used to seeing. So, the angle is a little bit different and that helps it play up as well.”

After a full season spent mostly away from the game, Contreras has emerged near the top of a pack of high-impact Pirates pitching prospects, which also includes Top 100 righthander Quinn Priester, sinkerballer extraordinaire Carmen Mlodzinski, Bahamian fireballer Tahnaj Thomas and fellow trade acquisitions Eddy Yean and Miguel Yajure

When he was with the Yankees, the book on Contreras was that he had a high floor but a low ceiling. Now, after a year away from the game spent learning, growing and training, he’s upped nearly every facet of his game. In doing so, he’s raised expectations as well.

Over the first month of the season, Baseball America has seen plenty of prospects throughout the minor leagues. Here are notes on a few who have caught my eye.

Cade Cavalli, RHP, Nationals
Washington’s first-rounder from 2020 has been outstanding to start the season. His 56 strikeouts top the minors, and he doesn’t come by them through trickery. His arsenal is complete with four pitches which each grade as above-average or better, including a potentially double-plus fastball thrown with shocking ease. He whiffed 11 against Greensboro on the night I saw him, and it almost seemed as if he could have racked up even more Ks if he’d so chosen. He backed up the fastball with an excellent slider in the high 80s, a fading changeup in the same range and a curveball he could flip in for a strike or use to freeze hitters sitting on something else. There were moments when he’d lose his mechanics and command for a batter or two, but otherwise this was the most dominant performance I’ve seen this season.

Carmen Mlodzinski, RHP, Pirates
Taken out of South Carolina in the supplemental first round in 2020, Mlodzinski drew plenty of buzz during minor league spring training and has backed it up during the regular year. In 16.1 innings he’s allowed just seven hits and whiffed 25. He has a high-effort, lower-slot delivery and uses it to generate excellent life on his 93-95 mph fastballs, which cut and run away from hitters’ barrels. He also sports a pair offspeeds he can move in either direction, including a slider and a changeup each in the mid 80s. Each offspeed flashes the potential to be better than average and elicits swings and misses from hitters throughout the High-A East. In a rotation stocked with high-end prospects, Mlodzinski has had one of the loudest starts.

Matthew Thompson, RHP, White Sox
Thompson was the White Sox’s second-round pick in 2019, taken from high school in Texas. He earned plaudits as the system’s most athletic player regardless of position, which is certainly a desirable trait to have in a starting pitcher. Thompson drew two starts in a recent series with Carolina, and his second turn was far better than his first, when he allowed seven runs (all earned) while getting just four outs. Though his stuff has reportedly vacillated from start to start, what he showed in this turn was promising. He ran his fastball up to 95 mph and got it past hitters’ bats when he drove it down through the zone. He backed it with a downer curveball with slightly more tilt than a true 12-to-6 breaker. He also mixed in a changeup which showed average fade at its best but would flatten when left up in the zone, and a slider thrown a tick harder than his curve. One of the biggest keys for Thompson’s future will be his ability to repeat a complex, high-effort delivery with a long arm action that will require impeccable timing to maintain. When everything synched up, his stuff showed the signs of promise that got him drafted as high as he did in 2019. Right now, though, he’s showing the inconsistency that could be expected of a pitcher in his first full taste of pro ball. 

KEEP AN EYE ON: Brewers outfield prospect Joe Gray is beginning to show the promise Milwaukee saw when it drafted him with its second-round pick in 2018 out of high school in Hattiesburg, Miss. He’s exhibited tremendous power in his first month at Low-A Carolina, including home runs in five of seven games between May 30 and June 6. He will swing through offspeed pitches, but his overall swinging-strike percentage of 15% is certainly acceptable. He’s a strong runner and thrower too, and takes solid routes in center field. For a player who entered 2021 with just 55 games, Gray is making up for lost time … Speaking of the Mudcats, righthanded reliever Abner Uribe has run his fastball up to 103 mph on multiple occasions this season … Yankees righthander Hayden Wesneski is making waves with High-A Hudson Valley. New York’s 2019 sixth-rounder out of Sam Houston State has exhibited excellent angle on his fastball and couples it with a curveball with two-plane break, a short-breaking, early-count slider and a changeup which blends with his fastball’s shape to create excellent effect.

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