This is the first of an eight-part series on the minor league rosters we might see if the minor league season actually happened. We’ll cover the four full-season affiliates, hitters and pitchers.
Indianapolis could have prospects — how good they are is something of a question — at most positions. At the same time, the new front office has brought in a number of veterans of no particular accomplishment who may force some of the erstwhile prospects down to Altoona.
The Pirates have no fewer than five catchers who are somewhat qualified to play in AAA. Three are ostensibly prospects: Christian Kelley (who played for Indy in 2019), Arden Pabst and Jason Delay. They also added three veterans, one of whom — Luke Maile — will almost certainly be the backup in the majors to start the (at this point hypothetical) season. That leaves John Ryan Murphy and Andrew Susac in AAA.
Murphy and Susac are at least mildly interesting. Unlike Maile (and the three prospects), they both have a little offensive upside. Susac may have a little more upside with the bat, but he’s been plagued by injuries and Murphy seems to be a bit better defensively. The Pirates aren’t likely to get through our hypothetical season with just Jacob Stallings and Maile, and they clearly don’t see Kelley as a major league option, so the best course for them is to have Murphy and Susac split time at indy. What Kelley ends up doing, I dunno.
The Indy infield seemingly should be pretty set: Will Craig at first, Kevin Kramer at second, Cole Tucker at short and Ke’Bryan Hayes at third. At least for a while . . . we’re all hoping Hayes and Tucker, at least, play their way to the majors quickly.
The Pirates, however, also brought in several minor league veterans who presumably will play a good deal. Kramer, in particular, will probably see a lot of time in the outfield, for one thing. Jake Elmore returns from last year. He’s primarily a second baseman, but he could see a lot of time in the outfield, too. Playing weak-hitting infielders in the outfield was a pattern with the old front office and it may continue. The Pirates also brought in Phillip Evans, who can play second or third. He can actually hit some, unlike Erik Gonzalez and J.T. Riddle, so it’d be nice to see him get a real shot at the major league roster. Finally, the Pirates signed Sherman Johnson, a minor league veteran who’s an especially weak hitter and who could end up at Altoona.
The Pirates also have several infielders who played all or part of last year at Altoona. Hunter Owen, normally a third baseman, struggled badly late in the season at AAA and probably will play more in the outfield if he returns there. Mitchell Tolman and Robbie Glendinning are also possibilities, but I’d guess they’re returning to Altoona. And, finally, there’s Pablo Reyes, who’s serving an 80-game PED suspension.
The two most significant outfielders will be Jared Oliva (pictured above) and Jason Martin. Of the two, Oliva probably has more of a long-term future in center, but the Pirates no doubt will give Martin time there as well. Martin has had the equivalent of a full season in AAA now and hasn’t hit well, so he needs to pick it up. Oliva needs to show he can put together a whole season like the second half he had in 2019. It’d be nice to see both of these guys get some time in the majors.
There are borderline prospects who could fill out the outfield: Chris Sharpe and Bligh Madris. Sharpe had a strong first half last year at Bradenton and hit for some power in an uneven second half at Altoona. Madris had a mediocre season at Altoona. I’m guessing they’ll both return there initially, because . . .
The Pirates added a couple of veterans who’re likely to be at Indy: Socrates Brito and Charlie Tilson. Brito can hit some, at least at the AAA level. Tilson not so much, but he’s speedy. There’s also Logan Hill, who struggled after a late-season promotion to AAA.
A possible lineup for our hypothetical minor league season:
- Cole Tucker, SS
- Jared Oliva, CF
- Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B
- Will Craig, 1B
- Phillip Evans, DH
- Kevin Kramer, 2B
- Socrates Brito, RF
- John Ryan Murphy, C
- Jason Martin, LF
And a possible bench:
C: Andrew Susac, Christian Kelley
IF: Jake Elmore
OF: Charlie Tilson, Logan Hill/Hunter Owen
SONG OF THE DAY
Here’s something eclectic:
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
By John Dreker
Only two former Pittsburgh Pirates player born on this date. We also have some transactions of note.
On this date in 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed both Gregory Polanco and Joely Rodriguez as amateur free agents. That was an impressive day, considering that the best players are signed in July and the players signed in March have been eligible to sign for quite some time. Rodriguez has pitched parts of two seasons in the majors. He played in Japan last year and pitched well, earning himself a multi-year deal with the Texas Rangers. Polanco will be in his seventh season with the Pirates in 2020.
On this date in 1953, the Pirates signed third baseman Gene Freese as an amateur free agent. He would go on to play 12 seasons in the majors, hitting .254 over 1,115 games. He spent his first four seasons with the Pirates, then came back during the 1964 season and stayed around until late in 1965. In 472 games with the Pirates, he had a .247 average with 33 homers and 139 RBIs. His brother George Freese was a teammate on the 1955 Pirates.
Lee Mazzilli, outfielder for the 1983-86 Pirates. He was a first round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1973 out of high school, going 14th overall. He worked his way quickly through the minors earning a September, 1976 promotion. He became their regular center fielder immediately and earned a full-time job in the majors in 1977. Mazzilli played 159 games his first full season in the majors. He hit .273 with 16 homers and 69 walks in 1978, then followed that up with his only all-star season. He hit .303 in 1979, drove in 79 runs and drew 93 walks, setting career highs in each category. He also added 15 homers and 34 stolen bases. In 1980, Mazzilli mostly played first base and hit .280 with 82 walks, 16 homers and a career high 41 stolen bases. The 1981 season was shortened by the strike and he hit just .228 with six homers. Prior to the 1982 season, the Mets traded him to the Texas Rangers for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. His stay in Texas was short. He was dealt to the Yankees mid-season in exchange for Bucky Dent.
Mazzilli batted .251 with ten homers and 13 steals in 1982. His time with the Yankees organization was just as short as his time in Texas. Before the calendar year was over, they sent him to Pittsburgh in exchange for four minor leaguers, only one of which ever made the majors. Mazzilli started each of the first 52 games of the 1983 season in center field for the Pirates, and despite the fact he was batting .284 at the time, he was sent to the bench to serve in a pinch-hitter role. He would receive only five more starts the rest of the season, all at first base. In 1984 he platooned in left field, getting 70 starts. In 309 plate appearances that year, he hit .237 with four homers, 21 RBIs and 40 walks.
By 1985, Mazzilli was mostly being used as a pinch-hitter. He batted .282 that season and he had a .425 OBP in 147 plate appearances. He lasted with the Pirates through late July of 1986 before he was released. He signed quickly with the Mets and played there until the trading deadline in 1989 when he went to the Blue Jays to play the last two months of his career. Mazzilli later managed three seasons in the minors and two seasons in the majors for the Baltimore Orioles. In 1,475 career games, he hit .259 with 460 RBIs, 571 runs scored and 197 stolen bases. With the Pirates, he hit .244/.369/.337 in 373 games.
Jimmy Sebring, outfielder for the 1902-04 Pirates. He played just 363 career games over five seasons, but Sebring was a big part of the 1903 Pirates team that went to the first World Series. He was also later involved in a trade for one of the best hitters of the day. He had hit .327 in 103 games for Worcester of the Eastern League when the Pirates decided to sign him to his first big league contract in September of 1902. He stepped right into the right field job and hit .325 over the last 19 games of the season. Sebring was the starting right fielder for all of 1903, hitting .277 with 13 triples, 20 stolen bases, 64 RBIs and 71 runs scored. In the World Series, he would hit .333 in 30 at-bats, collecting ten hits, including the first home run in modern WS history. In 1904 he was hitting .269 through 80 games when the Pirates pulled off a three-team trade involving the Reds and Giants. Sebring went to the Reds, while the Pirates got Moose McCormick and the Giants got Mike Donlin, a 26-year-old outfielder with a .356 average at the time, and he was coming off a 1903 season in which he hit .351, trailing only Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke for the league lead.
Sebring struggled with his new team, although he did end up leading the league with 27 outfield assists during the 1904 season. He played just 58 games for the Reds in 1905 before leaving the team to go to the side of his wife who was ill. He began to play ball for a local team and was eventually blacklisted from the majors when he failed to return to the Reds or accept a trade to the Cubs later that season. He was eventually reinstated in 1909 and signed with the Brooklyn Superbas. Sebring would play just 25 games for Brooklyn, hitting .099 in 81 at-bats. He was released in June and signed with the Washington Senators, but got into just one game off the bench before he left the team. He had planned to play in 1910, claiming he would be ready for Spring Training, but in December of 1909 he fell ill and passed away at just 27 years old.
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.