A total of 24 current Pittsburgh Pirates played winter ball this off-season, ranging from Randy Romero, who won the Dominican Summer League MVP award, to Major League players Richard Rodriguez, Erik Gonzalez and Pablo Reyes. Here’s a brief summary of the winter performance for each player. I’ve grouped them by leagues and noted the approximate equivalent level of play for each league.
The Dominican has the highest level of play year-to-year. It’s about the same as Triple-A play, but once the playoffs start, and the best players from the teams that missed the postseason are available, they join the teams that made the postseason. So then you’re talking about a strong Triple-A team, or a very weak MLB club. I’ve seen teams with nine players who have MLB experience in the lineup, with some of them being big league regulars. This league favors pitchers every year.
The most interesting name in the Dominican was shortstop Oneil Cruz. He went to winter ball after playing in the Arizona Fall League. Cruz didn’t do much at the plate in either league. The AFL was more his speed, but his stats were similar in both leagues and he struck out a lot. He had a .526 OPS in eight winter games (.520 in fall ball), before the Pirates shut him down two weeks early.
Pablo Reyes planned to play winter ball for a month and he did, though it took a little longer to play that much because he injured his ankle on wet grass, then re-injured it by coming back too early. He hit .186/.247/.343 in 19 games and mostly played third base. The Pirates dropped him from the 40-man roster shortly after his winter season ended.
Richard Rodriguez had a strong winter in limited use. The Pirates likely had restrictions on how often he could pitch and how long each game. He allowed just one run over five regular season appearances and a handful of playoff outings, with his total winter lasting about six weeks.
Erik Gonzalez hit .250/.326/.425 in 11 games before his season ended early due to a ball he fouled off of his left foot. He had surgery in mid-November, but should be ready to go for the start of Spring Training.
Pedro Vasquez made seven relief appearances and had a 4.91 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP in 11 innings. As a player with minimal Triple-A experience, this league is a nice small step up in talent. He could probably see more time in the league this upcoming winter.
Reliever Joel Cesar made six appearances and posted a 3.60 ERA, though it came with a 2.00 WHIP and limited use. This league was a little advanced for him, which is what ultimately limited his mound time. If he plays next winter, he should see more action.
Williams Jerez was dropped from the 40-man roster and had the opportunity to become a minor league free agent, but he stayed around and got an invite to Spring Training. He pitched 12.1 innings over 16 appearances and had a 4.38 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP, while striking out 14 batters.
Adrian Valerio hasn’t been able to crack the lineup in the Dominican other than one start last year and two games off the bench this year. He went 0-for-3 each season. That’s about the amount of time a player with minimal Double-A experience sees in this league.
Christian Kelley was brought in to catch after his team lost an American-born player returning home to sign a contract. Kelley wasn’t there long, getting into four games and going 2-for-12 with two walks.
The Pirates signed some minor league free agents who were already playing winter ball. Socrates Brito had a full off-season, playing 49 regular season games and then another 26 playoff games. He did well all season in a league that is perfect for his talent level. Brito was one of the best regular season hitters in the league, finishing with a .296/.374/.425 slash line. He did well in the playoffs too, consistently driving in runs with big hits.
Pitcher Hector Noesi made three starts in winter ball, the first two before he signed with the Pirates. The 33-year-old right-hander is a bit advanced for this league due to six seasons in the majors. He had a 3.00 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP in 12 innings. Christian Kelley caught his last start.
The league in Mexico is second to the Dominican as far as talent now. It used to be a toss-up between Mexico and Venezuela, but the league in Venezuela was watered down this year, with very few players with MLB experience, and no Pirates played there. Mexico is like a weak Triple-A/strong Double-A league.
The Pirates had three interesting young outfielders playing in Mexico, all of them in their home country and all of them very young/inexperienced for this level of play. Fabricio Macias led the way, hitting .257/.303/.347 in 35 games. That’s extremely impressive for the 21-year-old, considering that he played in Low-A this past season.
Fernando Villegas hit .286/.318/.429 in 16 games. Most of his time was off the bench, which is what you would expect from someone who hasn’t reached Low-A yet. Villegas had just 22 plate appearances. He will likely play winter ball again later this year, but probably won’t see regular time there until at least 2021.
Randy Romero was in the Dominican Summer League in 2019. If we consider Mexico to be high quality Double-A, he would have been moving up six levels from summer to winter. So expectations should be low, despite the fact that he was the MVP of the DSL. Including playoffs, he had 37 plate appearances in 41 games. Romero hit .176/.200/.206 with two stolen bases.
Phillip Evans sort of qualifies for this article. I say that because his season was already done before he signed as a minor league free agent with the Pirates. The 27-year-old infielder, who has two seasons in the majors, hit .204/.298/.245 in 14 games.
This league is about the same as Double-A, though I’d rate it above Australia. When Puerto Rico played with four teams, the level of competition went up because the best players weren’t as spread out. They had five clubs in 2019-20, so it was back down to normal.
Pitcher Ike Schlabach made 12 relief appearances, giving up two runs over 13.1 innings, with a 1.05 WHIP, a .212 BAA and 12 strikeouts. For someone who was in High-A in 2019, he had a really good showing this winter.
Chris Sharpe had a solid winter, batting .261/.391/.406 in 25 games. He also got in a few extra games when his team made the playoffs. He spent half of the 2019 season with Altoona, where he had a .707 OPS, so this was a nice level for him to get more experience.
Dylan Busby didn’t last long in winter ball due to performance. He batted .100/.182/.100 in seven games. Foreign players to these leagues usually don’t last long if they get off to a slow start. That’s typical for every league. Busby was playing a level above his experience, but it still has to be considered disappointing that his season was so short.
Yacksel Rios is from Puerto Rico, the only player in the Pirates system right now from there. He made nine relief appearances and had a 3.72 ERA and a 1.66 WHIP in 13.2 innings, with seven strikeouts and a .333 BAA. With his MLB experience, he should do better at this level, and he has done just that twice in the past.
Australia had just two Pirates this winter, but it was an interesting pair who grabbed a bunch of headlines. This league is about the same as Double-A. It has a wide range of players, from current Triple-A/MLB guys, to retired players, to players who only play in Australia, to guys with lower level experience only. On average, I’d say it’s a weak Double-A and it favors hitters.
Ji-Hwan Bae spent five weeks in Australia and hit .297/.416/.469 in 19 games, with two homers and a perfect 6-for-6 in steals. He mostly played shortstop and committed four errors, all of them coming in the same game. Bae showed some power that we haven’t seen during the regular season yet with those two homers. He’s still looking for his first home run with the Pirates. Considering his age and experience level, he put up very impressive stats.
Robbie Glendinning had a terrific season, playing in all 40 of his team’s regular season games and their one playoff contest. He was making up time lost due to an ankle injury in August that cost him the last month of the season. He has hit well in Australia each of the last three years, but this would be his best overall season when you factor in playing time. He hit .335/.405/.548 in 174 plate appearances. Glendinning basically split his time evenly between second base and shortstop, though he did make three starts at third base as well. This level of competition was perfect for where he is right now in his pro career.
Luis Escobar is the big name here, but you can’t take much from his performance. He pitched in the majors in 2019 and the league in Colombia is about the same as High-A ball at best. They have occasional players with big league time, but not many. If guys are better than Double-A, they will go to other leagues for the competition. So Escobar was one of the biggest names in the league. He made eight appearances, allowed seven runs in 13 innings and had 13 strikeouts. He really just had one bad inning, but his season is such a small sample size that it skewed the overall results.
Francisco Acuna had an outstanding season, especially considering he was in Bristol this season. The 20-year-old infielder finished third in the league with a .342 average and second with a .463 OBP. He ranked fourth in the league in steals, going a perfect 9-for-9 in attempts. He played well in the playoffs, then batted lead-off and played shortstop for Colombia in the Caribbean Series, which was well above his team’s competition level. He struggled in the short series, but it gave him some great added experience.
Infielder Edgar Barrios had a rough season, but this league was a little too advanced for him anyway, and his playing time mostly was earned through his defense. He missed a lot of 2019 with an injury, and when he was healthy, he was only playing in the GCL. He batted .113 in 29 games, with six walks and no extra-base hits.
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.