Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 Minor League Recaps: FCL Pirates

If you were assessing the Pirates’ overall 2021 performance in the Florida Complex League (stupid name, but it beats “Low A Southeast”), you’d have to grade it “incomplete.”  It was hard enough making much out of performance in the former Gulf Coast League, given the short schedule, which used to be about 60 games.  This year, we had a shorter schedule than ever due to COVID-related cancellations.

And there were plenty of other complicating factors.  All the players missed a 2020 season.  Pitchers seemed to be on tighter workload limits than usual.  The prep pitchers drafted by the Pirates in 2021, along with some of the college pitchers, didn’t pitch at all.  Even the position players got only very brief playing time.

Then there were the odd trends in the low minors this year, which we’ve discussed from time to time, mostly in relation to Bradenton.  The FCL wasn’t exempted.  Walk and strikeout rates were up substantially, although averages and power were up, too.  Errors were way up, for some reason.  Another oddity:  Average ages were up, most likely due both to the one-year hiatus and the elimination of the short season leagues.  For a lot of reasons, “scouting the stat line” for this year’s FCL is even more hazardous than usual.

I’m going to discuss the Pirates’ two FCL affiliates separately, then do some joint ratings.

FCL PIRATES BLACK

This team went 19-23.  Its 42 games were the fewest in the league, far fewer than many teams; some played as many as 58.  To get an idea of the impact, the Pirates Black had 1,483 plate appearances, while the Rays had 2,156.  The weighted average age of the hitters was 19.4 years, tied for second-lowest in the FCL, well below the league average of 19.9.  The pitchers were the league’s youngest at 19.7, far below the league average of 20.8.

On offense, the team was a little below average, mainly due to a lack of power.  The team OPS was .702, compared to the league average of .730.  The hitters struck out at a rate less than the league average and walked more.  The pitching staff had an ERA of 4.88, almost exactly the league average of 4.85.  They walked batters at slightly more than the league average and struck them out a lot less.  The team had the league’s third-worst fielding percentage.

In a lot of ways, the Pirates Black were interesting mainly because of players who joined the team late and saw little playing time.  More on that below.

Catchers

The Pirates Black had a lot of catchers; eight of them caught at least two games.  Top draft pick Henry Davis caught two before moving on.  The team’s main catcher before the draft was Luis Hernandez, then seventh-round pick Wyatt Hendrie joined the team.  Hernandez is a small (5’9″) catcher from Venezuela who hasn’t hit much yet.  He’s a capable receiver and threw out 32% of base stealers.  (League average was 25%.)  Hendrie threw out 29% and was solid offensively, batting 237/348/421, with 7:8 BB:K.  From a college draftee in rookie ball, you’d probably like to see more offense, but Hendrie played in only 15 games.  None of the other catchers got much playing time, behind the plate or elsewhere.  The two who got the most were Darwin Baez and Jhan Polanco.  Neither hit much, but Polanco had a loony walk rate of 36%.

Infielders

The Black team had more or less a regular infield:  from first to third, Franrielis Bastardo, Rayber Romero, Luis Tejeda and Juan Jerez.  Unusually for the current regime, these guys didn’t move around much.

The noteworthy infielder is Jerez.  One of the Pirates’ top July 2 signings in 2018, he may have gotten blocked from Bradenton by numbers.  Jerez hit 296/394/500 and his six home runs tied him for seventh in the league.  He did strike out in almost a third of his ABs.  Jerez stole ten bases, but his defense needs work, as he had an .846 fielding percentage at third.

Of the other regulars, Tejeda was another of the Pirates’ top signings in the same period as Jerez and was highly regarded, at least internally.  He struggled at the plate, with a .603 OPS and a lot of strikeouts, but he played well at short.  Romero is a top-of-the-order hitter who hits for average and draws walks, but has no power at all.  He hit 270/447/324 with a ton of walks, but drawing walks is a low-minors skill that doesn’t often work well at higher levels for hitters with little power.  The first baseman, Bastardo, showed a little power but didn’t hit well overall.  The utility infielder was Francisco Quintero, who hit pretty well at 289/407/422.

The infield got cameos from 3rd round draft pick Bubba Chandler and 18th rounder A.J. Graham.  Chandler, of course, was drafted primarily as a pitcher, but the Pirates informally agreed to develop him as a two-way player.  He didn’t pitch, but he played in three games at short and another eight as DH.  He had a lot of trouble making contact, but got only 37 PAs.  The mysterious Mr. Graham played four times at short.  He went 1-for-10 at the plate and had some trouble in the field, committing errors on nearly a third of his chances.

Outfielders

The Black team’s outfield wasn’t a strength.  The most frequent corner outfielders were Carlos Canache and Angel Basabe, but the outfield went through a lot of changes.  The other most frequent outfielders were Solomon Maguire, signed out of Australia, and Deion Walker.

Maguire started off as the center fielder and seemingly as the best outfield prospect, but he struggled at the plate, batting 146/288/292.  He went long periods without playing, whether as the result of injuries or developmental instruction is uncertain.  Walker, who played well after being drafted in 2019, didn’t join the team until July 8.  He played all three positions, but didn’t hit well at 200/340/300.

Late in the year, the primary center fielders were supplemental 2nd round pick Lonnie White, Jr., and 14th rounder Braylon Bishop.  In very limited playing time, White showed good power while striking out in nearly half his ABs.  Bishop hit .192 with no extra base hits.

Both of the principal corner outfielders were returning to the level after struggling in 2019.  Canache had a solid season, putting up a .737 OPS and stealing ten bases in ten tries.  Basabe was one of the Pirates’ two big signings in the 2017-18 class; the other, Juan Pie, was released earlier, so that class has some problems at the top.  Basabe had a .581 OPS in 2019 and .622 this year.

Pitchers

Pitchers at this level don’t break down evenly into starters and relievers, but you can get an idea of which pitchers the Pirates think could be starting prospects by checking the ones who get the most innings by some combination of starting and long relief.  Typically, there’ll be 6-8 pitchers like that and a handful who take regular turns in relief who may or may not have the potential to become prospects.

The Pirates Black had seven pitchers start four games or more, some of whom served in swing roles.  The seven were Po-Yu Chen, Carlos Jimenez, Cristopher Cruz, Luis Peralta, Wilkin Ramos, Ryan Harbin and Jake Sweeney.  The lefties were Peralta and Sweeney.

The top performers here were Chen and Jimenez.  In 26 innings over six starts, Chen allowed just 18 hits and no walks.  That got him a promotion to Bradenton, where he had three rough starts and one outstanding one.  Chen has great command for a pitcher so young.  The big question is whether his stuff will play as he moves up.  He relies at this point on getting hitters to chase pitches just off the plate.  Full season hitters wouldn’t chase as much, so his BB/9 went from 0.0 in the FCL to 6.8 with Bradenton.  Jimenez had a few bad outings, but dominated most of the time, finishing with a 3.15 ERA and 11.5 K/9.  He won’t turn 20 until next July.

Of the other pitchers, Peralta and Ramos had good years, more so Peralta.  He’s a 5’11” lefty who mixes his pitches, enough so that he had an 11.2 K/9 and 3.41 ERA.  (He had a 2.81 ERA with the Black team, but pitched one game for the Gold team that didn’t go well.)  To give an idea of the weirdness of this season, every one of Peralta’s outings came against the Pirates Gold except the one game he pitched for them.  Ramos is a tall (6’5″), lean righty the Pirates acquired from Oakland for Tanner Anderson.  Ramos is all about projection and so far, his stuff hasn’t taken a step forward.  He pitched in a swing role and had a 3.69 ERA, but his other numbers were just OK.

Cruz, Harbin and Sweeney had tougher seasons.  Cruz for a while was the Pirates’ top international signing, at least in dollar terms, in the 2018-19 period, although Chen later got more.  Thanks to the pandemic, Cruz made his debut this year, skipping the DSL.  It didn’t go well, as Cruz had a 6.44 ERA and walked more than he struck out.  Harbin was an overslot signing in 2019 as a projectable prep pitcher.  He had a bad time in the GCL in 2019, then again in the FCL this year, with a 7.53 ERA in five starts.  He missed the last half of the season with an unknown injury.  Sweeney pitched in a swing role this year.  He’s a tall lefty drafted by the Pirates out of junior college in 2019.  He’s battled control problems through two rookie-level seasons now, including a 7.5 BB/9 this year.  He’s been very hard to hit and had a 12.8 K/9 this year, and his 4.26 ERA was almost entirely the result of two bad games.

The team’s regular relievers were Christian Charle, Yoelvis Reyes, Yunior Thibo, Kelvin Disla, Jorge Ramos and Wander Romero, with Reyes being the only lefty.  Reyes, Thibo, Disla and Romero all put up bad numbers, in most cases with very bad control, so let’s look at the others.

Charle pitched mainly long relief, logging nearly three innings on average.  He throws a change, which probably helped him put up a 10.5 K/9.  He walked only 1.4 per nine.  That got him a late promotion to Bradenton, where he struggled in five outings.  Among these relievers, he’s probably the one to watch going forward.  Ramos was the Pirates’ first signing out of Mexico after MLB lifted the ban it imposed while it looked for solutions to the abusive signing practices there.  He had a 2.25 ERA, although his secondary numbers, especially a 5.0 BB/9, weren’t up to that level.

FCL PIRATES GOLD

The Pirates Gold went 30-14, so they played just two more games than the Pirates Black.  There seemed to be some overriding strategy for player assignments between the two teams.  The Black team got the draftees late in the year, while the Gold team added a bunch of hitters during the season after they struggled at higher levels:  Sergio Campana, Jasiah Dixon, Jack Herman and Deon Stafford.  (I’ll cover Herman with Bradenton and Stafford was released.)  They also tended to get the minor leaguers who needed rehab assignments, and for much of their season they had Claudio Finol, a utility player who’d already played three seasons in the Reds’ system.  The Pirates claimed him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft and kept him in the FCL except when he was filling in with other teams.

Maybe for all the above reasons, the hitters on the Pirates Gold, at 20.2 years, were a little older than the league average of 19.9.  The pitchers were the league’s third-youngest, at 20.0.  The team was fifth in the 18-team league in scoring and 27 points above the average OPS.  They struck out far less often than the league average and walked more often.  The pitchers had the league’s third-best ERA, third-best BB/9 and sixth-best K/9.  They had the league’s best fielding percentage and second-fewest passed balls.

Catchers

In contrast to the Pirates Black, the Gold team had a regular catcher, specifically Geovanny Planchart.  In the DSL in 2019, he hit .368 with no power, so he added some muscle and had a better all-around season at bat this year.  His line was 321/398/464, with pretty good plate discipline.  He threw out only 19% of base stealers.  Planchart was the only catcher of any note on the Gold team, the others being mainly guys who were filling in for a little.  Planchart and Hendrie would make an interesting catching tandem at Bradenton next year.

Infielders

The Pirates Gold didn’t have infield regulars, instead going with the current regime’s everybody-is-a-utility-player approach.  After all, it worked great with Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman.  Oh . . . wait . . . no, it didn’t.  They both made huge leaps forward defensively after they stuck to one position for an extended time.

Well, regardless, the only infielder who resembled a regular was shortstop Deivis Nadal, who played 28 games at short.  He’s the sort of smooth, agile athlete who’s great to watch at short even on routine plays.  Unfortunately, he’s very slight in build and batted just .165 with no extra base hits and a lot of strikeouts.  He’s probably not going very far unless he gets significantly stronger.

The headliner in the infield was Tsung-Che Cheng, who got a slightly late start due to injury and then divided his time more or less evenly among second, short and third.  Cheng is a very advanced hitter, as is obvious from his 30:14 BB:K.  The issue with him will be projectability, but he showed some power this year.  He hit 311/449/492 with four home runs.  He also stole 16 bases.

The infield for most of the year was otherwise handled by utility players.  One was Finol, who hit well, as you’d expect from a player with his experience in rookie ball.  Norkis Marcos played regularly after being sent down from Bradenton, where he struggled.  Marcos is good defensively, but he managed just a .610 OPS, with most of the value coming from walks.  He also struck out a ton.  Eliazer Montero played second and third, and put up the exact same OPS as Marcos.  The Gold team didn’t bother with an actual first baseman, dividing the position among Finol, Marcos and veteran backup catcher Gustavo Polanco, who was ultimately released.

Late in the season the Gold team got some nice contributions from two college draft picks, both of whom hit like you’d expect from college guys in rookie ball.  Sixth-rounder Mike Jarvis played 11 games at second and short, and posted a 1.116 OPS.  He finished the year at Greensboro and did reasonably well in five games.  Jarvis is speedy and, between the two stops, stole 11 bases without being caught.  Brenden Dixon, the Pirates’ 20th round pick, played mostly second.  He had an OPS of 1.082.

Outfielders

The Gold team sort-of had a regular outfield:  Randy Romero in left, Sergio Campana in center and Rodolfo Nolasco in right.  Jasiah Dixon played much of the time, divided mostly between the corners, until he got hurt in mid-August.  Nolasco actually spent most of his time at DH.  Early in the season, Daniel Rivero played right, but he spent most of his time at Bradenton so I’ll deal with him in the next installment.  Late in the year, 9th-round pick Luke Brown played right a lot.

The big guy here was Nolasco.  He improved steadily and finished at 284/409/552.  He tied for second in the league with longballs, with eight.  He had very high walk and strikeout totals, but that’s not exactly unusual now.  Nolasco is probably the Pirates’ top low-level power prospect.

Campana, a prominent 2018-19 signing from the Dominican, and Dixon, a 2019 prep draftee, both got sent down after struggling at Bradenton.  They’d both had promising 2019 seasons, Dixon in the GCL and Campana in the DSL.  They also both have 80-grade speed or close to it, but otherwise aren’t that similar.  Dixon’s issue at Bradenton was taking too many pitches and getting into too many two-strike counts, especially for a guy with limited power.  He drew a lot of walks, but rarely hit anything with authority.  In the FCL, he had a .410 OBP, but still only a .714 OPS.  Campana has some power potential, but chases too many pitches.  He rebounded better than Dixon, putting up a 272/391/424 line in the FCL.  Campana was trying to skip rookie ball, so his struggles at Bradenton may be understandable.

Romero is a speedster who made a run at .400 in the DSL in 2019.  He’s a very good base stealer, but the lack of power means pitchers aren’t afraid to go after him.  He hit 252/307/338 this year and is already 22.  Brown is another speedster and went to the same college as Henry Davis.  He never hit a home run in college and struggled badly in 17 games in the FCL, with an OPS of just .426.

Pitchers

The Pirates Gold got some strong performances from mostly low-profile starting pitchers.  Their five most-frequent starters were Valentin Linarez, Andy Maldonado, Brennan Malone, Bladimir Dotel and Joelvis Del Rosario.  All are right-handed.  In fact, the only two lefties to pitch for the Gold team were Luis Peralta (see above), who came over from the Black team to start one game, and Adrian Mendez, who pitched in relief.

Linarez and Maldonado had impressive seasons.  Linarez is a big guy who seems to be developing slightly on the late side.  He fanned 14.3 per nine innings while putting up a 2.63 ERA.  Opponents batted only .188 against him.  That all earned him a promotion to Greensboro when they had some COVID problems.  He made two decent starts there.  Maldonado would have missed the 2020 season due to a PED suspension if it hadn’t been canceled anyway.  He’s a lean, projectable guy who reaches the mid-90s and has an impressive breaking ball.  He had a 2.45 ERA, .190 opponents’ average and 13.5 K/9, although walks were a serious problem off and on.

Ironically, the one notable name in the above group, at least going into the season, was Malone, and he was the one who struggled.  He missed a lot of time for reasons that were never quite clear, although some reports referred to injury and attitude issues.  Malone made a belated appearance at Bradenton and lasted only three bad outings.  His velocity was way down from the 96-97 mph reported when he was acquired for Starling Marte.  He resurfaced in the FCL in August and, after a bad first start, pitched increasingly well, supposedly with a velocity rebound.

Dotel and Del Rosario pitched in swing roles.  They’re a definite contrast.  Del Rosario is 5’11” and mixes his pitches.  He did that well enough to fan 12.1 per nine, walk just 2.3, and post a 3.26 ERA.  Dotel is a bigger guy who gets to the mid-90s.  He was making his pro debut at 18 without going to the DSL and had a 3.34 ERA and 10.3 K/9.  He had a few control meltdowns, but was impressive most of the time.

Two other pitchers made multiple starts.  The Pirates signed Brandan Bidois out of Australia.  He was well regarded, but got hurt after three starts.  Sebastian Rodriguez made four starts after an uncommon, in-season promotion from the DSL.  He was just OK, with a 4.71 ERA.

The principal relievers were Darvin Garcia, Alessandro Ercolani, Arlinthon De Dios, Listher Sosa, Mendez and Johan Montero.  Mendez and Montero struggled badly.  Mendez is the more noteworthy because he got a large bonus, by Pirate standards, to sign out of Venezuela in 2018.  So far it’s not working out.

Garcia was the most impressive reliever.  He fanned a dozen per nine innings, didn’t walk many, and posted a 2.73 ERA and 0.94 WHIP.  Sosa is a big guy who hopefully will throw harder than his current low-90s.  His ERA of 4.31 was probably misleading, as he had a 1.12 WHIP, 1.4 BB/9 and 9.5 K/9.

Ercolani is the most unusual pitcher here, as the Pirates signed him out of tiny San Marino.  He won’t turn 18 until next April and has good stuff for his age.  He was outstanding for a while, but ran into trouble in his last few appearances.  De Dios was returning to the level after serving as a starter there in 2019.  He finished with a 3.96 ERA after improving rapidly during the season.

TOP TEN PROSPECTS

Bubba Chandler, RHP
Lonnie White, Jr., OF
Rodolfo Nolasco, OF
Po-Yu Chen, RHP
Tsung-Che Cheng, SS
Juan Jerez, 3B
Valentin Linarez, RHP
Braylon Bishop, OF
Andy Maldonado, RHP
Geovanny Planchart, C

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Andy Maldonado

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Cristopher Cruz

Analysis, Analysis
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