Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 Top MLB Prospects Chat

Image credit: Quinn Priester (Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam)

Steve (PA):

     How would you evaluate Cherington’s first year?

Tim Williams: I don’t know how to grade this season, but I’ll say that Cherington did a good job of adding to the farm system and working to modernize a player development system that wasn’t effective and had fallen behind a lot of the latest successful trends. He has a lot of important questions remaining, and still needs to show that he can catch the Pirates up on the trends where they’ve fallen behind at the big league level. Cherington added a lot of talent to the farm system, considering the effects pandemic that started shortly after he took over. He landed Liover Peguero, Brennan Malone, and the international pool space to sign Solomon Maguire for Starling Marte. Their 2020 draft was headlined by Nick Gonzales, with two other picks in my top 20, including Jared Jones, who is a sleeper of mine. He was creative at the trade deadlines to get extra international bonus pool space, and was aggressive in spending that pool space. He even landed two guys in the Rule 5 draft who you could envision as 40+ FV guys. The common trend here is that he has been targeting higher upsides, which is a departure over some of the safer floors that Neal Huntington had targeted the last few years. But that big league team has so many question marks. And none of the above will matter if Cherington can’t improve the player development results the Pirates have seen in recent years. Thanks for joining me today everyone! We’ve got about 74 Oneil Cruz questions in the queue, so let’s knock that out of the way…

Alex (Pitt):

     Hi Tim, what is the latest you’ve heard on Oneil Cruz’s legal issues? The accident was extremely tragic, especially given the circumstances around potential driving under the influence. It was a bit surprising that Ben Cherington sounded fairly confident he’ll be able to continue playing. Has there been any updates on what will happen come spring? Will he be at spring training and playing in the minors in 2021?

Tim Williams: He’s expected to undergo a trial, but my guess is that nothing will come of it. The reports are that no breathalyzer test was taken at the crash, so there’s no actual evidence of drinking and driving. I don’t want to speculate on legal proceedings. I’ll just point out that Cruz is now playing winter ball, and with what we know right now I wouldn’t expect him to miss Spring Training.

Jonathan (OH):

     What’s Oneil Cruz ceiling? Assuming he does not get in legal trouble, is he a future all start 25+ home run potential? How about Quinn Priester? How impressed are the Pirates with him? Thanks for your time!

Tim Williams: Cruz still has one of the highest ceilings in the entire system. I can easily see 25+ homer potential, and could see him approaching 35-40. When I first saw him, shortly after the Tony Watson trade, I was told he had Pedro Alvarez power, with the way he impacts the ball. I’ve seen a lot of that in the time since that trade. There’s a lot of risk with Cruz, but a ton of upside with a bat that could sit comfortably in the middle of the lineup. I’ll cover Priester next…

Tim (Mi):

     Sweet list! I would assume Hayes, Cruz and Gonzales are top 100 prospects. Would you say Priester or Peguero are? Are they borderline top 100? Thanks! Looking forward to your future work!

Tim Williams: I’m not involved in the top 100 process, so I’m waiting to see who makes the cut along with you. I was very impressed with the changes Quinn Priester made this year, along with continued admiration to his approach and ability to self-coach. He took a massive step forward in his development, and at one point early in the rankings I was arguing that he be placed over Nick Gonzales. The guys at BA checked with their high-level sources around the league, and found many agreeing that Priester had taken a nice step forward and was at least close to Gonzales. He’s got a plus fastball, plus curveball, and plus control, with the chance for two more average or better pitches. I wouldn’t be surprised if Priester makes the top 100 cut. That’s all of the inside info I’ve got for you!

Karl of Delaware (Georgetown, Delaware):

     One of Greensboro’s better batters in 2019, and still a young guy – thoughts on Fabricio Macias? He might be a little easier to evaluate than most as he played in 2020 for a Mexican league team.

Tim Williams: Macias isn’t having a good offseason in Mexico, although it’s hard to take any stats seriously this year. Over at Pirates Prospects we’ve got him as a 30 FV guy with high risk and a ceiling of a backup outfielder. He wasn’t in consideration for the top 30 list here at BA. Macias is a solid defensive center fielder, but questions about his bat have him more likely ending up as upper level outfield depth.

Chamaco (Mexico):

     Any insight into why the Pirates opted not to have an affiliate in West Virginia? Seems like either the Power or the Black Bears (both former affiliates) could have been a good fit geographically, and the state has a lot of Pirates fans.

Tim Williams: There’s so much going on with the restructuring in MiLB that I don’t think it was an active choice to leave the state. Of course, they did leave Charleston, WV (former West Virginia Power) for Greensboro a few years ago, and now the Charleston team has no affiliation. That’s a shame, as it was my favorite spot to catch a game in the system. Mostly because of The Toast Man, but also that whole park and city just screamed minor league baseball.

drew (GR, MI):

     So what is keeping Swaggerty off the list? Is he a low OBP guy with some power that can play a good CF? Or is he less than that?

Tim Williams: He’s not far off the list, and was very close to making the cut. My question is whether Swaggerty will hit enough to be more than a fringe-average starter. He can certainly play a good center field, and has average or better power potential. The big concern is his tendency for swing and miss, which led to a 22.1% strikeout rate in High-A in 2019. That’s not too alarming, but also not what you want to see from a college hitter. I see Swaggerty’s ceiling as an above-average center fielder like you describe, fueled by power, speed, and defense in center. I just think there’s some risk that he could be closer to a fringe-average starter. He’ll have some questions to answer about the bat in Double-A this year.

Sleepers (Pittsburgh):

     I’m sure you were ready for this question, so I’ll put a little bit of a spin on it. Who was the one sleeper/riser over the last 1-2 years that you weren’t expecting? Ie. a guy you were surprised made a leap or got more feedback on than you anticipated.

Tim Williams: I really liked the reports we were getting on Tahnaj Thomas at the end of 2019. His velocity and control were much improved in the times we saw him live at Pirates Prospects. Not seeing his follow-up, due to the lost 2020, was disappointing, but he’ll be a guy to follow closely next year. I also have liked watching Cody Bolton emerging as a sleeper middle of the rotation option. Basically, I’m a sucker for pitchers adding velocity.

Karl of Delaware (Georgetown, Delaware):

     Lots of homer, lots of k’s, and he plays 1st base. Will the abundance of balls over the fence be enough to get him to Pittsburgh at some point in the future? I’m talking about Mason Martin.


Ballsandgutters (Altoona):

     PBN and BA subscriber here. Sounds like Mason Martin made real strides this year on offense and defense. Think he has supplanted Cal Mitchell as 1B of the future.

Tim Williams: I’ve got Mitchell more likely to end up corner outfield, and Martin has definitely moved into my first base of the future spot. His defensive work has improved to the point where he doesn’t project to be much of a liability. His bat is more of a three-true-outcomes profile, but he’s got some of the best raw power in the system, and a great eye. His issue is that he can be too selective, and he’s worked the last two years to improve on that. I think the swing and miss tendencies that come from this will hold him back some, but he could be an average or better big league starter at first.

Murray (Carlsbad, CA):

     Since there wasn’t a minor league season this year, is there a way to know how Cody Bolton did in Altoona? Was he even in Altoona? He was my favorite rising pitcher. I know he got roughed up a little in AA in ’19, but do we know how he’s progressing?

Tim Williams: The reports I got on Bolton matched up with what we saw from him in Altoona in 2019. His velocity was up, touching 98 frequently, and his secondary stuff was much improved. He should return to Double-A when games return, but could move to Triple-A by the end of 2021. He might not have the lofty ceiling that some of the other pitchers in the top ten have, but he’s a sleeper middle of the rotation candidate with the way he’s progressed, and maintained that progression from 2019 to 2020.

Chris (West Virginia):

     What have you heard about the new structure for Class AAA?? hearing the divisions will be different and overall your thoughts on the catching depth in the minors

Tim Williams: I’m hearing absolutely nothing. As for the Triple-A structure…

Dwayne (PA):

     What can you tell me about Po-Yu Chen? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Would he rank on the top 30 list and where?

Tim Williams: I can tell you that he’s got a four pitch mix and the potential for above-average command and control, with multiple average or better pitches. He just turned 19, received a $1.25 million bonus from the Pirates out of Taiwan, and you may just find him in the top 30 in the BA Prospect Handbook.

Dwayne (PA):

     Where would Kumar Rocker land on the Pirates top 10 list if they are to draft him number 1 overall next year?

Tim Williams: I’m assuming Hayes isn’t on the list by that point, so I’d probably have him battling with Cruz for the top spot in the system, with Gonzales trailing close behind, and the potential for Priester to continue surging up the ranks to make it a four-man discussion.

Justin (Tucson, AZ):

     Are low exit velocities the reasoning for Gonzales’ 45 grade power? He mashed at NM. Despite the higher elevation there I still thought he’d be closer to a 55

Tim Williams: I think there are some legitimate questions about how much the environment at New Mexico State helped him. He still projects for a chance at 15-20 homers a year, but I wouldn’t assume average or better power until he shows what he can do in pro ball, in a more neutral environment.

Jake (PA):

     What kept Malone from being cleared for on field activity at camp? He was healthy enough to pitch at instructs so it doesn’t appear to be due to typical baseball health issues at least. Do his secondaries project well enough to get strikeouts needed in the modern game? His profile reads a bit old school innings eater.

Tim Williams: Malone has the potential for a plus curveball to go with a fastball that gets up to 99 MPH. He’s a guy with very little pitching experience. He had eight innings last year after being drafted, was traded to the Pirates pre-season, spent about a week in minor league camp before the shutdown, and was at home pitching and working on remote development. When I talked to Malone in September, he knew he would be going to instructs. He didn’t even know the names of any coaches at that point, and had barely worked with anyone in a one-on-one fashion since coming to the system. My guess is that instructs for him was an introduction to the system that he would have otherwise gotten during Spring Training.

Jonathan (NJ):

     I realize he’s still very young, but what are your thoughts on Alexander Mojica? My gut says that he’s Pittsburg #1 prospect two to three years from now.

Tim Williams: He’s got an outstanding hit tool, grading as one of the best pure hitters in the system behind Gonzales. His conditioning and speed will keep him at first base, but he projects to hit enough, and with enough power to justify the spot. He’s very far from the majors, with some concerns about his work ethic that stem from the conditioning. I wouldn’t give him strong chances of contending for number one in the system over the next 2-3 years, but I don’t think top ten is out of the question.

David (SK):

     What were reports from instructs on Logan Hofmann?

Tim Williams: Didn’t hear anything new on Hofmann. He’s a four pitch guy now, throwing a fastball that gets up to 94, along with a solid curveball and the makings of a slider and changeup. He’s seen better command of his pitches this year. Hofmann originally looked to me like a reliever, but it seems like he could at least get a shot at being developed as a starter to begin his career.

Mila (Atlanta, GA):

     Thanks for your Q/A!! I know it’s way early, but what kind of potential (#1-5 starter) or comps do you see for Jared Jones and Nick Garcia? I thought the Pirates did well to draft these two hard throwing pitchers (who also played other positions- Jones has some pop).

Tim Williams: It’s hard to put a meaningful upside on Jones, due to how far away he is from the big leagues. I’ll say that I at least think he’s got a good chance to reach the majors at least in a relief role, and a chance to be better than a #4-5 starter. Garcia is interesting. Lacks a changeup, but has a plus fastball and the chance for two above-average breaking pitches. He could remain in the rotation as a back of the rotation guy, but I think he’s more likely to end up a multi-inning, hard-throwing reliever. I’d really like to see the Pirates attempt to develop a two-way player.

Jonathan (NJ):

     Hey Tim. I am a huge Cody Bolton fan and I was just wondering if you could provide any details regarding his 2020 performance. What are some of the reports saying about how he’s progressed? Judging by the stat sheet it seemed like he lost a little confidence in his stuff when getting the promotion to Altoona in 2019. Knowing how he faired this year at the alternate site would be super helpful in projecting what the future might hold.

Tim Williams: Last one! Thanks so much for the chat, everyone! Thanks especially to Baseball America for having me back this year. Bolton was over-throwing when he got to Altoona in 2019. His stuff was still good, sitting 93-96 and getting up to 98, along with a hard cutter. He saw worse control with the approach. I’d expect him to calm down his next run through the level. The fastball took a huge step forward in 2019, and he maintained that in 2020. The slider has two versions, one an 88-90 MPH cutter with late bite, and a sweeping 83-85 MPH version. He was generating strikeouts, and the pitch continues to look good. I think it’s only a matter of time for Bolton to make the Pirates’ rotation. We won’t really know how players developed until we see real game action and see the results. A conservative projection for Bolton has him going AA/AAA in 2021, and AAA/MLB in 2022. If he took a surprising step forward at the alternate site, he could speed that timeline up. But again, we won’t know for sure until we see the results.

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