I thought I’d find something to do besides follow the Pirates while they finish playing out the string, so I decided to take a look at their potential class A rotations. The idea actually occurred to me a while ago when I was updating our depth chart. When I do this after the minor league season ends, I put each player at the highest level where I think he has a realistic chance of winning a spot to open the next season. This can mean having too many players for a position at a particular level, but I’ll adjust things in the spring when assignments get made. In the case of the Bradenton and Greensboro rotations, there are a lot of players who could win spots, which you can see if you check the chart.
The truth is, I’m always way off with this exercise, mainly with pitchers. I don’t feel too bad about that, because these assignments are heavily influenced by what the coaches are seeing in fall instructionals and spring training. Pitchers will suddenly add velocity or develop a new pitch, or see their command improve. Some guys just come out of nowhere, as we saw this year with Bristol, which had two starters (Luis Ortiz and Adrian Florencio) who were in the first pro seasons.
It’s going to be an especially interesting process next year with the Pirates’ class A affiliates, especially Greensboro, which is where I’m starting in Part 1. For a variety of reasons, which you’ll see below, there seem to be a large number of pitchers for whom the Greensboro rotation would perhaps be the optimal assignment. A couple of basic principles to keep in mind. First, a high-priority pitcher like Quinn Priester, will be assigned to whatever level the Pirates think is optimal and everybody else will have to make way. Second, most of the starters at Greensboro will have limits on their workloads because they’ll have had low innings totals in short-season ball. That means the Pirates will almost certainly use some form of piggybacking arrangement, with possibly several pitchers throwing 3-4 innings at a time in relief. Of course, there’s a limit to how much of that the Pirates can do, because (as you can see from the depth chart) there are also quite a few relievers who could be at Greensboro.
(* = LHP)
Quinn Priester: Might as well start with the first rounder. Priester is pretty advanced for a prep draftee, although he scuffled a bit in his one start at West Virginia. If the Pirates think his command is good enough, he’ll definitely go to Greensboro, although probably not until May. That’s what they did with Jameson Taillon and Cody Bolton in their first full seasons. They didn’t do that with Shane Baz because he had command issues in spring training. (The Rays apparently fixed that, of course.)
Tahnaj Thomas: Thomas pitched a level above Priester this year and showed premium stuff with surprisingly good control, so it’s hard to imagine him just going to West Virginia. He only logged 48.1 IP, so the Pirates might hold him back at the start of the season as well. (Priester threw 36.2, but you also have to take into account the high school season and extended spring training, along with whatever they do in the fall.)
Braxton Ashcraft and Michael Burrows: Both of these guys got an aggressive push to West Virginia this year and both struggled a bit. Burrows got better results, while Ashcraft was afflicted by One Big Inning Syndrome, which resulted from him struggling badly with runners on base. That ought to be fixable. It’s hard to see the Pirates sending either of them back to short season ball, unless they see something in the spring they don’t like. Ashcraft threw slightly more innings than Thomas and Burrows slightly fewer.
J.C. Flowers: The Pirates’ fourth round pick this year, Flowers is transitioning from relief to starting. Even though he was drafted from a major college, he seems to be something of a project and didn’t pitch that well at West Virginia. He doesn’t seem like a candidate to make the jump to Bradenton, which the Pirates often do with early-round college draftees.
The five guys above strike me as the ones who’ll get top priority for the Greensboro rotation. Any or all of them, though, could open the season in extended spring training, and none is likely to throw a huge number of innings. So some other pitchers are going to be starting and/or pitching in long relief. Like . . . .
Santiago Florez: A big guy with mid-90s velocity, Florez has one of the higher ceilings among the Pirates’ lower-level pitchers and had a solid season at Bristol. Whether he moves up to Greensboro might depend on how the Pirates think his command and secondary stuff are progressing.
Luis Nova: Nova surprisingly got inserted into the rotation at Greensboro this year, which was his second as a pro. At 19, he was a little on the old side when he signed. He made nine decent starts and then got shut down for unknown reasons, although he was rehabbing recently. He’s more of a finesse guy than anything. I’m guessing he isn’t likely to move up yet.
Luis Ortiz: The Pirates signed Ortiz less than a year ago at age 19 and sent him straight to Bristol. He has good stuff, getting up to 95 mph, and pitched very well this year until a weak month of August. The Pirates evidently are pushing Ortiz aggressively, so he seems likely to move up to Greensboro.
Domingo Gonzalez: Gonzalez had a big year, starting off in the DSL before moving up to join the GCL rotation, then finishing with one outstanding start at West Virginia. He may not have great projection (he’s 6’1″), but he has better command than a lot of the lower level pitchers and also logged more innings (69) than most of these guys. The Pirates could push him up to full season ball.
Bear Bellomy: Bellomy was a 28th round pick, but after pitching very well in relief at Bristol the Pirates moved him up to join the West Virginia rotation. As a 6’4″ pitch-to-contact righty, he fits the Pirates’ favored template for RHPs, so they could move him up to Greensboro as a starter or long reliever. Plus . . . Bear.
Michael Flynn: A 6th round draft pick in 2018, Flynn was limited by back problems last year and missed most of this year with a sprained UCL, for which he had PRP injections. As an earlier-round college draftee, the Pirates will probably want to get him to full season ball at some point in 2020 if he’s healthy enough.
Zach Spears*: An 8th round pick in 2018, Spears is a very big lefty (the only lefty listed here) who had a rough debut at West Virginia last year. He was slated to join the Greensboro rotation this year, though, but missed the whole year due to a weightlifting injury that required shoulder surgery. I’m not sure of his current status.
Jesus Valles: A finesse righty, Valles spent most of this year as a starter for West Virginia and generally pitched well. At one point, the Pirates moved him to relief, which probably reflects their assessment of his ceiling, but then he moved back to the rotation. Whether he starts or relieves will probably depend on the rest of the staff.