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Monday, November 28, 2022

Bristol Pirates Season Recap: A Young Pitching Staff and a Playoff Drought Ended

The Bristol Pirates had a winning record for the first time in six seasons since becoming an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. For the fans of Bristol, this season ended a much longer drought. It was their first playoff appearance in 17 years. That might not sound like a huge stretch of time for not making the playoffs, but you have to remember that the Appalachian League is a 10-team league, where four teams make the playoffs each year. So on average, a club should make the playoffs two times every five seasons.

Here’s a season recap of the team that finished 34-33 and played a hard fought three-game series in the playoffs before being eliminated. Tomorrow we will have a top ten prospects list for the club and it’s the deepest one for the Bristol Pirates yet. In some of the previous five years, it was more like a top 4-5 prospects list, with other players of note. This upcoming one is a legit top ten for this level, with some honorable mentions, who would have been near the middle of those prior lists. If you missed it last week, here’s the GCL season recap and top ten prospects article.

The Pirates were led by a pitching staff that was both young and inexperienced. The biggest highlight this season was the emergence of 20-year-old Tahnaj Thomas as a legit top prospect. He was joined by 19-year-old Santiago Florez, 20-year-old Dante Mendoza and 20-year-old Jose Maldonado. They also had a pair of 20-year-old international signings in Adrian Florencio and Luis Ortiz, who both skipped the lower two levels of minor league ball to make their pro debuts in Bristol. Between them, they made 66 of the team’s 67 starts, with 19-year-old Yoelvis Reyes getting the other start during a doubleheader, making it the first time that the Pirates didn’t fill out the rotation with at least one college draft pick. They combined to help the team to a final club ERA of 4.09, which is the best by far in Bristol since becoming an affiliate of the Pirates.

Thomas had a big season, including his final start, which helped clinch the playoff spot on the last day of the season. He finished with a 3.17 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 48.1 innings, with 59 strikeouts. He also made a name for himself by hitting triple digits while improving his control. He had five walks in his first 1.2 innings, followed by nine walks over his final 46.2 frames. Thomas also established his slider as a legit strikeout pitch this season.

Florez established himself as a top 50 prospect last year when he started hitting 96 MPH as an 18-year-old in the GCL. He showed improvements this year when he went from a loopy curve to a hard slider to give him a better secondary pitch. Florez posted a 3.46 ERA in 41.2 innings, with 36 strikeouts and a 1.34 WHIP.

Ortiz (pictured above) was a bit inconsistent, with a strong start before faltering at the end. He signed for just $25,000 last year and really took off over the fall/winter, which led to him coming to the U.S. this spring and staying. In 11 starts for the Pirates, he had a 4.09 ERA in 50.2 innings, with a 1.42 WHIP and 37 strikeouts.

Florencio is a giant of a human and very strong. He’s listed at 6’6″, 205 pounds, but I’m told that he’s taller and weighs in at 240 pounds, with no bad weight on his large frame. He was inconsistent as well, but it’s important to remember that but Ortiz and Florencio got pushes in their rookie season and they weren’t over-matched in a league that favors hitters. He had a 4.75 ERA in 11 starts, with 38 strikeouts and a 1.58 WHIP in 47.1 innings.

Maldonado pitched briefly in the DSL last year as a rookie and even made a GCL start at the end of the year, which got wiped away due to rain in the fourth inning. So he technically didn’t skip a level, but it looks that way on paper. He had a 4.34 ERA in 45.2 innings, with 40 strikeouts and a 1.42 WHIP. Maldonado had a little rough patch in the middle, which was surrounded by some very strong outings.

Mendoza was all about projection when the Pirates acquired him in a deal with the Cleveland Indians last winter. At 6’5″, he has a frame that is still filling out and he’s slowly making progress. He had the roughest time in the hitter-friendly Appalachian League, but still showed some potential and improvements throughout the year. He had a 5.82 ERA in 11 starts, with two stats that look much better than that ERA. In 43.1 innings, he had 39 strikeouts and a .230 BAA.

The bullpen had some intriguing international arms and late round college picks that turned out to be a strong looking group. On the international side, the two names worth mentioning are Yordi Rosario and the aforementioned Yoelvis Reyes. Rosario was acquired from the White Sox in the Ivan Nova deal and had a very strong season, with a 2.87 ERA in 31.1 innings, with 33 strikeouts, a .227 BAA and an 0.99 WHIP. More important than the results, is that his stuff really picked up during the season. He added about 3-4 MPH to his pitches during the year and didn’t sacrifice any of his control. Reyes didn’t put up big numbers with his 5.28 ERA in 46 innings, but he finished much stronger, posting a 3.67 ERA in his last 27 innings. I’ll also throw in that Saul de la Cruz joined the team late and his scouting report is much better today than it was in June. He was throwing harder and had two new grips on his off-speed pitches that made both much better.

On the college side, Bear Bellomy and Trey McGough did so well, that they lasted a total of 28.1 innings before being moved up to Morgantown. Between them, they gave up two runs. Neither pitched enough to qualify for tomorrow’s top ten list, but they were both extremely impressive in their short run through the league. Samson Abernathy became the team’s closer and finished with a 2.52 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in 25 innings, with 33 strikeouts and eight saves. CJ Dandeneau had a 2.83 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 28.1 innings. Alex Roth had a 3.32 ERA in 19 innings and picked up four saves. Matt Eardensohn, a non-drafted free agent, had a 3.63 ERA in 17.1 innings before moving up to Morgantown. Roth was the highest pick in this group, taken in the 21st round.

On the offensive side, 19-year-old middle infielder Francisco Acuna had a breakout season, which earned him a spot on the league’s end-of-season All-Star team. He hit .293/.362/.431 in 53 games and led the team with 20 doubles and nine stolen bases.

Third baseman Aaron Shackelford, who hit 36 homers in college this year, batted .274/.339/.491 in 53 games, leading the club with eight homers and 36 RBIs.

Jesus Valdez, who was acquired in the David Freese trade last year, skipped from the DSL to Bristol this season and had a strong year at the plate. He hit .292/.377/.431 in 55 games and led the club with 38 runs and 61 hits. He had 12 doubles, five homers and seven stolen bases.

Josh Bissonette didn’t put up huge numbers, but he impressed with his all-around game and baseball IQ, contributing to the team in multiple ways. He hit .266/.343/.356 in 50 games, with 13 doubles, two triples and six steals. As the everyday second baseman, he made one error all season.

Daniel Rivero made the jump from the DSL to Bristol at the age of 18 this season and after a slow start, he finished up strong, including five hits in the three playoff games. A strong defender in center field, his final slash line of .270/.333/.321 in 47 games, hides the progress he made during the season.

Catcher Eli Wilson was one of three catchers drafted this year and sent to Bristol, but he ended up seeing more time than the other three catchers with the team combined. Wilson received huge praise for his work with pitchers, defensive skills, including a 39.1% caught stealing rate, and he was a solid contributor at the plate. He hit just .234, but showed some power and plate patience, which led to a .721 OPS.

The Pirates also received solid contributions from players who saw limited time, with Yoyner Fajardo hitting .348 in 12 games after being promoted from the GCL, Fernando Villegas posting an .844 OPS in 18 games before being promoted to Morgantown, and Jake Snider had an .804 OPS in 21 games, after signing late due to his team making the College World Series. Brendt Citta wasn’t supposed to be with the team this year, but he was held back by a spring injury. He posted an .831 OPS in 18 games before being moved up to Morgantown.

The outfield had a couple of disappointments, with 13th round pick Chase Murray dealing with a back issue, which limited him to a .221 average and .556 OPS in 35 games. Jean Eusebio, who signed at 16 years old in 2017 for $550,000, also played 35 games and he posted a .678 OPS. He wasn’t injured, but the 18-year-old was very passive at the plate, willing to look for the perfect pitch too often, while constantly getting himself in bad counts. It led to 18 walks in his limited time, but not much else. That was an issue in each of his first two seasons as well.

Finally, Ernny Ordonez was a shortstop who covered first base and looked like the best defender on the team, while manning a position that he never played before. He had a .617 OPS through 37 games when a bad hop caused a major thumb injury and ended his season.

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John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.


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