Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 Minor League Recaps: Greensboro Grasshoppers

Greensboro fell just short of duplicating Bradenton’s success.  Like the Marauders, the Grasshoppers finished with their league’s second-best record.  They went 74-46, but fell one win short of a title, losing to Bowling Green, which probably had the best team anywhere in the minors.

The caveat that hangs over all the Greensboro stats is the home park, which played as one of the most extreme home run parks in the minors.  Some, but not all, of the team’s hitters had strong home/road splits.  This was mostly just due to home runs; the primary effect of the park seems to be turning doubles into homers.  There aren’t really any power alleys in left-center and right-center, as the fence just cuts straight across from each corner to straightaway center.  Whether it helped a particular hitter probably depended mainly on where he tended to hit the ball on long drives.  Most of the pitchers had strong splits.

Greensboro’s hitters were tied for the league’s youngest, a little below the league average age.  They tied Bowling Green for the league lead in runs, although they played two more games, so they were effectively second in scoring.  They were third in BA, fourth in OBP, third in slugging and second in home runs.  They walked at a little above the league average rate and struck out at a little below average.  (Like the Low-A Southeast, strikeout rates in the High-A East were very high, but walk rates were only a little high.)  The Hoppers easily led the league in steals and were successful at a good 78% rate.

The pitchers were easily the league’s youngest, over a year below the league average.  They were 8th in the 12-team league in ERA, largely a product of allowing by far the most home runs.  They were 10th in walk rate and 8th in strikeout rate, but allowed the fourth-fewest hits.  The defense led the league in fielding percentage.

Catchers

The Hoppers’ catching was a mixed bag.  For much of the year, the starter was Grant Koch, the Pirates’ 2018 fifth-round draft pick.  Being a Neal Huntington catching draftee, Koch continued to struggle at the plate.  What power he showed was park-influenced; he hit eight home runs and slugged .515 at home, one homer and .215 on the road.  Koch did improve defensively.  In mid-August, he moved up to Altoona to make way for Henry Davis, who looked impressive for six games and then got hurt.

The backup catcher for part of the season was organizational guy Dylan Shockley, who played good defense and didn’t hit at all.  Eventually, Eli Wilson moved up from Bradenton.  As I wrote last time, he didn’t hit the way he had before the promotion.  Kyle Wilkie, another organizational guy, also filled in a little.

With Davis hurt, the most interesting catching development was Blake Sabol.  He started his season late, then moved up after blasting the ball for a short spell at Bradenton.  Sabol seems to have  made the conversion from the outfield (he caught a good bit in college), as he caught 25 games for the Hoppers and started only nine in the outfield.  He seemed fine on defense, with two passed balls and a 24% caught stealing rate.  At the plate, he hit 296/380/553, finding the power that had been the weakness in his game.  He had a huge platoon split, so lefties may be a problem.  The one thing I’m puzzled about is the fact that Sabol never really played ever day; between the two levels he got into only 66 games.  I don’t know why that was.  He may have been getting over an injury or the Pirates may have been working with him on his catching.  As a catcher-outfielder he could give the Pirates some interesting options if he keeps hitting.

Infielders

Unlike Bradenton, Greensboro actually had something very close to a regular infield.  The highlight, of course, was second baseman Nick Gonzales and shortstop Liover Peguero.  They both missed some time with injuries, but they actually stayed at their positions, which we don’t see much with the Swiss Army Pirates.  Third baseman Jared Triolo was also a mainstay.  First base started off as a sharing arrangement with Aaron Shackelford and Jesus Valdez, but Valdez was promoted early on to Altoona and released not long after that.  When Gonzales fractured a finger, Shackelford moved to second and Will Matthiessen arrived from Bradenton to play first.  Once Gonzales returned, Shackelford and Matthiessen both were usually in the lineup, with one as DH or Matthiessen in right.

Gonzales ended the season about where we all probably hoped he would (302/385/565), but he got there by an odd path.  A fast start halted by the injury, then a month-long slump after he returned, including a disturbing swing-and-miss tendency.  And then he went bonkers in August, including five bombs and 15 RBIs over two games.  It’s clear that the injury still bothered him for a while.  Still unclear is the impact of the home park.  Gonzales’ H/R split was huge, but thanks to the pandemic scheduling of week-long series, the distribution of his home and road games over the different segments of his season wasn’t even.  Specifically, nearly all his games before the injury, while he was hot, were at home, and a large majority during the slump were on the road.  Plus, his total sample size was only two-thirds of a season.  The home park undoubtedly helped Gonzales’ numbers, but it’s not a good idea to draw any sweeping conclusions from the raw splits.

Peguero had a solid season, batting 270/332/444 with 14 dingerz.  The plate discipline wasn’t terrible but is still a work in progress.  The home park helped him some, but not radically; he slugged just under .400 on the road.  He did very well stealing bases, going 28-for-34.  Some of the team’s top prospects — Oneil Cruz and Travis Swaggerty are others, for instance — could bump up that element of the Pirates’ offense quite a bit.  I don’t think a major league offense needs tons of steals, but I think it helps a lot if the threat is there throughout as much of the lineup as possible.

The infielder who really stepped forward was Triolo.  He was already a plus defender and can play short if needed, but he showed the ability to make it with the bat, hitting 304/369/480 with 15 homers.  The over-the-fence power was the element he especially needed to develop, and it was Greensboro, as he put up better numbers on the road.  The biggest surprise was 25-for-31 in steals.  At 23, Triolo was a bit old for the level, so AA will be key for him.

Shackelford and Matthiessen had immensely entertaining seasons.  Shackelford hit for a lot of power early, but the excessive swing-and-miss and dead-pull approach caught up with him and he slumped in July and August.  He finished at 210/290/438 with 22 home runs.  Matthiessen had periods when he did little except strike out, but now and then he’d go on a power spree.  He was also an RBI machine, driving in 79 in 94 games.  In August he put up a .941 OPS with eight home runs and 32 RBIs in 23 games.  He finished with a .756 OPS and 13 homers for Greensboro.

The utility infielder at the start of the season was Francisco Acuna.  He was moved down to Bradenton at mid-season when he didn’t hit.  Andres Alvarez replaced him.  Alvarez hit very little in the GCL in 2019 as a college senior draftee.  His first month he hit poorly as expected, but he went wild in August and September, even hitting for power (most of it at home).  He finished at 288/367/482.  The Hoppers also added Yoyner Fajardo and Mike Jarvis late in the season.  Fajardo didn’t hit much after posting an .868 OPS at Bradenton.  Jarvis, a 2021 sixth-rounder, got into five games and did fine.

Outfielders

The Greensboro outfield at the start of the season was mainly a five-man rotation, including Matt Gorski, Lolo Sanchez, Matt Fraizer, Jack Herman and Fabricio Macias.  Herman flamed out quickly and spent most of the year at Bradenton.  Macias had what seemed like a breakout season, batting 316/364/497 before being promoted to Indianapolis.  He did not have much of a H/R split.  For some reason, he didn’t play a whole lot at Indy; more on that in the Indy installment.

Fraizer you may have heard a little about.  He was one of the best hitters in the minors and was named the MVP in this league, even though he moved up to Altoona after 75 games.  He hit 314/401/578 with the Hoppers, with 20 homers and good plate discipline.  Fraizer had only a modest H/R split.  At Greensboro, he shared center field with Gorski, moving to left the rest of the time.

Sanchez is one of the most puzzling players in the system.  He has plus-plus speed and is a legitimate center fielder, but scouts have never liked his swing because he tries to pull everything and doesn’t hit the ball hard.  Or at least not until this year.  He hit 264/372/453 with 17 home runs, and actually hit much better on the road.  He also had a 55:72 BB:K and went 30-for-39 in steals.  And he’s still only 22.  He spent nearly all his time in the outfield corners, though, which considering his speed suggests the Pirates may no longer believe in his prospect-ness.  He’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft for the third time.

Gorski got a big bonus as a second-rounder in 2019 despite coming with contact issues.  He struggled in short season ball that year, but had a wrist injury that may have affected him.  The Pirates were impressed with him at their alternate site in 2020, but this year he put up the exact same season as in 2019 except for an increased strikeout rate and more home runs.  The latter resulted partly from the home park, as he had a modest H/R split.  He finished at 223/294/416 with 17 homers.  You can see the attraction, as he’s a very good defender in center, which is where he spent about half his time in 2021.  He also stole 18 bases in 19 tries.

When Fraizer moved up to Altoona, Jonah Davis went the other way.  I’ll cover Davis later, except to say he played exclusively in center for the Hoppers even though Gorski is the better defender.  Greensboro also had a brief visit from Chase Murray, who spent a little time at Altoona as well.  He’s a 2019 13th-round draft pick who has some upside as a hitter.  He was hampered by injuries in 2019 and ran into the bug again this year, as he was only able to play 23 games.

Pitchers

Along with the double play combo, the Greensboro rotation was the team’s focus, prospect-wise.  Not everybody worked out, but some did.  The bullpen seemed to have some upside when the season started, but the home park wrought havoc with many of the relievers.

The rotation at the start of the season was entirely comprised of well regarded prospects:  Quinn Priester, Carmen Mlodzinski, Tahnaj Thomas, Michael Burrows, Omar Cruz and Braxton Ashcraft.  Cruz, the only lefty, moved up to Altoona after seven good starts.  I’ll discuss him in the next chapter.  (Oddly, the only other lefty who pitched for the Hoppers also moved up early in the year.)  The results from the others ran the gamut.

Priester and Burrows were the big performers.  Priester started off a little slowly, not pitching badly but walking more than you’d expect and not missing a lot of bats.  He improved as the season went along, though, and had a number of dominant games from mid-July onward.  The best was probably a six-inning start in which he allowed one hit and no walks, and fanned 13.  He also had a great playoff game against a very high-scoring opponent.  Priester was named the league’s top pitcher.  Burrows in some ways was more dominant, but his season got cut short by an oblique injury.  He ended up starting only 13 games.  He had a 2.20 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 12.1 K/9, and opponents batted .143 against him.

Mlodzinski, Thomas and Ashcraft all ran into different sorts of problems.  Mlodzinski was almost unhittable early, with a 1.72 ERA and 13.2 K/9 in his first seven starts.  He started struggling after that and eventually went on the injured list with a sore shoulder.  He was ineffective when he came back.  Thomas struggled to throw strikes and got shut down to do some work.  His control was better when he returned but he wasn’t as dominant as a guy with his stuff should be.  None of this should be a huge shock; Thomas isn’t that experienced and always figured to be a project, and he was making the jump to High A from advanced rookie ball.  Ashcraft got off to a good start, but began struggling and ultimately had Tommy John surgery.  Oddly, although he had a 5.35 ERA, his other numbers were good except he gave up too many longballs.

With so many pitchers going out of commission, the Grasshoppers brought in reinforcements from Bradenton.  Two such were highly regarded prospects Santiago Florez and J.C. Flowers.  Florez made nine starts at each stop and the results couldn’t have been a bigger contrast.  At Bradenton, he had a 1.37 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 12.1 K/9.  FanGraphs expressed some concern, though, that he was succeeding by throwing tons of breaking balls, which he was in fact doing.  Whether he continued with that approach or not, he got torched with Greensboro.  His ERA was 7.53 and his other numbers were what you’d expect with an ERA like that.  And it wasn’t the home park.  Flowers’ season was similar but not as extreme.  He only threw 17 innings at Bradenton and had little trouble.  He mostly pitched very well after moving up, but had a few bad games, leaving him with a 4.23 ERA for the Hoppers.

One other pitcher promoted from the Marauders was Domingo Gonzalez.  He struggled for a while at Bradenton, but had five outstanding starts beginning at the end of June.  That got him a promotion and he pitched in eight games for the Hoppers.  Gonzalez had a seriously crazy home/road split after that.  He gave up a dozen bombs and had an 8.53 ERA at home.  On the road, he allowed no homers and had an ERA of 4.03.

The Hoppers got a couple of late-season starts from Valentin Linarez, who had a strong season in the FCL.  They also got ten starts from Grant Ford, who otherwise pitched in relief.  Ford struggled, with a 6.04 ERA due to walks and lots of gopher balls.  Two-thirds of the latter came at home, but his ERA was higher on the road so the ballpark doesn’t explain it.

The Greensboro bullpen was . . . interesting.  It was commonly noted in the minor league threads that the relievers couldn’t be trusted with a lead of any size.  An awful lot of the problem was the Hoppers’ ballpark, though; some of these guys actually had good, or encouraging, years.  Most of them were college guys drafted in 2018 or 2019:  Colin Selby, Will Kobos, Austin Roberts, Bear Bellomy and Garrett Leonard.

Kobos was the most successful of the group, although he went out with an unknown injury in late August and didn’t return.  Kobos walked a lot of hitters, but nobody could hit the ball much against him.  He had a 14.7 K/9 and opponents batted just .130 against him.  And he wasn’t troubled by the home park.

Selby, Roberts and Bellomy also had promising seasons, once you filter through the splits.  Selby was coming back from Tommy John and struggled badly the first two months.  Over the last three months his ERA was 2.43.  His home ERA was more than double his road ERA.  Roberts is a big slider guy, which probably explains his 13.6 K/9 and huge platoon split.  He also had serious gopher ball problems and a big home/road split, allowing 11 of his 15 homers at home.  Roberts got into one game in AAA and fanned all four batters he faced.  Bellomy also had a big H/R split.  He held opponents to a .509 OPS on the road but allowed an .870 figure at home, along with nine of the 13 homers he allowed.

In contrast to the pitchers listed above, Leonard struggled wherever he was, partly due to poor control.  A couple other pitchers who struggled were Alex Manasa and Michell Miliano.  Manasa was the designated take-one-for-the-team guy.  Miliano came in the Adam Frazier trade and walked 26 in 20 innings with the Hoppers, which is . . . bad.

Oliver Garcia had another one of the extreme H/R splits.  He had a 6.58 ERA at home and 2.33 on the road.  His walk and strikeout rates, though, were mediocre regardless of where he pitched.  Finally, Enmanuel Mejia, who was named the best reliever in the Low A Southeast League, came up for 11 games after allowing no earned runs at Bradenton.  He had a 1.10 ERA for the Hoppers, but he walked a lot of batters and gave up a bunch of unearned runs.

Several relievers moved up after pitching briefly for Greensboro:  Cristofer Melendez, Steven Jennings and Trey McGough, who switched to starting.  We’ll meet them next time.

Analysis
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