The Pittsburgh Pirates have signed a total of 39 players since last July 2nd who will be making their pro debuts this year. It is a group of players that includes at least 15 players who received six-figure bonuses. Out of those 39 players, 35 will be making their debut in the Dominican Summer League this year, which begins a 72-game schedule on Saturday. The Pirates have two affiliates in the league, with 35-man rosters for each team. While those new players won’t all be on the same team, it looks like the Pirates will have an even mix of new and returning players this year.

The 2018 DSL Pirates were made up of mostly 2017-18 international signings. The Pirates had a large bonus pool to deal with for the first time since bonus pools were put in place in 2012, but they were also expanding to a second club. They gave $1.25M of their bonus pool dollars to South Korean shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae, who went right to the U.S. The rest of the group was a mix of early six-figure bonus players and a lot of scouting to find the right players to fit into their remaining budget, while also making sure they had enough players for two teams.

After talking to people down in the Dominican and looking over stats, reports, etc., I put together a top ten list of prospects for the two 2018 DSL affiliates. That list can be found here. All ten of those players are in the U.S. this year, leaving the returning squad light on potential upside. There are some players of note returning though.

Catcher Jommer Hernandez was the highest bonus player from 2017-18 not to be promoted. The Pirates seem to be slow on promoting some of their better young catchers, so it’s not a total surprise that he returns after putting mediocre hitting stats, albeit with some nice reports about his defense, especially controlling the running game.

After Hernandez, lefty pitchers Yeison Santos and Luis Peralta are the only other six-figure bonus players returning to the DSL from the 2018 clubs. I’ll note that there could always be late changes to the roster, and unlike previous years, the Pirates were very willing to move up players mid-season last year. Santos pitched very well in extended relief outings last year, though he had a low strikeout rate. Peralta did not pitch well last year, yet he had a very high strikeout rate (62 K’s in 48 innings).

Other players of note include power-hitting first baseman Shendrik Apostel, the younger brother of former Pirates prospect Sherten Apostel. The younger is a mountain of a young man at 6’5″, 240+ pounds and it’s a lot of muscle. I did a player feature on him over the winter. I also did a feature on speedy outfielder Randy Romero, who returns for a second season. As you will see below (or sooner if you click this link) the Pirates spent a good portion of their 2018-19 bonus money on top outfielders, so Romero, and any other returning outfielders, are in a tough spot in the system.

Infielder Carlos Arroyo is a bit of surprise being left behind for a second season. He was part of our winter ball coverage this year, seeing regular playing time in Colombia among a much older group of players. What holds him back likely is his lack of strength, as he’s a small, very young infielder, who really hasn’t started to fill out yet. He has the skills to move up, but he could stand to bulk up a little before being challenged.

After Jommer Hernandez, the rest of the catching group, which is eight players deep between the two teams, doesn’t have much to be excited about. Not one of the players was a six-figure signing, and the 2018-19 signings were all later targets in the year, with none of them signing before October.

The pitching side is where there could be real trouble for the 2019 DSL Pirates. Last year I asked around a lot for the pitchers and got reports on a total of 16 pitchers out of a much bigger group. Out of those players, 12 are in the U.S. already. I mentioned Luis Peralta and Yeison Santos above. They were joined by Jordy Ortega, a hard-throwing right-hander with a strong track record before signing, and Mario Garcia, a 19-year-old who put up some of the best pitching stats for either affiliate.

Ortega had very poor results in 2018, but he’s a big arm worth keeping an eye on for now. As for Garcia returning, when an older (for the DSL) player returns after putting up big stats, that’s usually not a good sign. Past examples have been guys who could either command pitches, relied heavily on breaking balls, or they were just lefties who threw strikes and young hitters don’t see that often. They all lacked projection though, which means they could probably handle a jump to Bristol the next year, but there isn’t much of a chance that they get out of A-ball down the line.

As I mentioned, it’s not an exciting group of returning players. Sure some young pitchers could really break out in their second season. If you’ve followed the draft coverage at all over the years, you know high school pitchers take huge leaps all of the time during the spring of their senior year, so having a group of 15-20 young pitchers in the Dominican is bound to find at least one late bloomer. The real excitement this year in the DSL is the group of incoming players. There’s a good chance that our postseason top ten prospect list will all be 2018-19 signings.

As I mentioned, 35 of those 39 new players will be in the DSL this year. One of the four missing is an unfortunate one. Infielder Dariel Lopez, who signed for $400,000, had Tommy John surgery. Position players only miss 6-8 months recovering, but he won’t be ready before the season ends. (UPDATE: This appears to be bad information given to Baseball America for their international signing recap for the Pirates. Lopez is healthy now and played on Opening Day. So while it’s bad info, it’s very good news.)

The other three missing players includes two older pitchers, Adrian Florencio and Luis Ortiz, who are already advanced beyond DSL players, so putting them in the lowest level would be holding them back. The fourth is 18-year-old outfielder Carlos Canache, who was one of the top prospects out of Venezuela, but not one of the top outfield prospects signed by the Pirates. Him moving up might be a dual purpose move, due to both playing time concerns and him being a little older than the other incoming players.

As for the highlights from the 35 currently slated for the DSL, you have outfielders Sergio Campana ($500,000) and Osvaldo Gavilan ($700,000) leading the way. The Pirates also gave $260,000 to Franrielis Bastardo, $235,000 to Roldolfo Nolasco and $230,000 to Jose Berroa. They signed Luis Tello, who was one of the top prospects in Panama for the 2018-19 signing period. That’s a group of six young (all 16/17 years old) outfield prospects to split between the two teams. That’s likely why Carlos Canache moved up already and returning players like Randy Romero will have a tough time standing out.

When I asked which of the new position players were looking the best early on this year, I was hoping for some hidden gems. The answer I got was probably better for fans to hear. Campana and Gavilan were getting high marks for their play, along with middle infielder Juan Jerez and third baseman Alexander Mojica. At $380,000 (Jerez) and either $350,000 or $390,000 for Mojica, depending on the source, they were part of a group of eight players who received at least $350,000 on July 2nd, which has never happened in that quantity for the Pirates before this year.

While it would have been nice to be able to mention a hidden gem before they played a game, you would rather probably hear that the main targets for the Pirates were looking like the top four new position players.

They didn’t get mentioned by name when I asked for the best looking players early, but shortstops Luis Tejada ($500,000) and Orlando Chivilli ($350,000) each received excellent scouting reports prior to July 2nd and have improved in areas since being signing. Teams sign a lot of shortstops because trainers put their best players at the best positions on the field. That sometimes means that you’re signing a player with an advanced bat, who really has no chance of sticking at shortstop. However, both Tejada and Chivilli have the defensive skills to stay at the spot.

The Pirates also gave $185,000 to shortstop Deivis Nadal, who isn’t as advanced as the other two shortstops, but looks like he could handle the position. So there will be some moving around among these players, especially since (if they play well) they will be funneling from two teams into one team next year, and there will be a need for them to be able to play other positions.

As I mentioned above, the pitching side might cause a problem. It didn’t help that the Pirates pushed two of the current best pitchers up to the U.S., but you wouldn’t hold them back to make sure your DSL pitching staff is strong. The group from last year lost 12 of their best arms and then only four 2018-19 signings received six-figure bonuses. Lefty Adrian Mendez ($355,000) received the highest bonus handed out by the Pirates to a pitcher since Luis Heredia. The problem here is that he is a lot of projection and not current results.

They also added three Dominican right-handers in Miguel Toribio ($175,000), Andy Maldonado ($170,000) and Listher Sosa ($150,000). Sosa and Maldonado are each 6’4″ and still filling out their big frames. Toribio is 6’1″ and according to Ben Badler from Baseball America, he throws high-80s with a feel for a slider. All three are projectable pitchers, who probably aren’t going to dominate right away in the DSL, either due to current control issues and/or a lack of strong secondary pitches.

The most interesting pitcher short-term might be 20-year-old righty Enmanuel Mejia, who is the definition of a late bloomer. He throws 93-95 MPH and has a very strong curve that has been labeled as a plus pitch. He’s not big at 5’11”, so we are talking less about projection and this is current results in action. The problem here for the DSL team, and only for them, is that he might not last long in the league at his age. He is a strong possibility to move up.

Another low profile name to remember is Wilkin Valdez, a 6’4″, 17-year-old, who throws low-90s with a slider and a changeup. He was signed late for a lower bonus, but has better current stuff than the four six-figure signings and his frame still has projection.

One final name to watch is 17-year-old right-hander Wilbur Martinez from Panama. He throws low-90s with a slider and a strong changeup. He has pitched well this spring and the Pirates were very high on him, despite being a later pickup.

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