January is upon us. This is the time of year when the major league teams are starting to take shape for the next season. The free agent market is in full swing, maybe a few trades take place, as fans start to see how their team is trying to improve. (I’m told major league teams often try to improve in the off-season. Must be nice.)
We could be debating those issues now, wondering which utility player could make a serious run at the Mendoza Line, or which waiver-claim reliever may have the best shot at keeping his ERA under 6.00.
MLB and the MLBPA decided to show COVID-19 a thing or two about shutting down a sport. Instead, we can read about labor negotiations. Oh, wait, no we can’t. They’re not even conducting them.
It does, however, look like the minor league season will go ahead as scheduled, or so we’re told. I thought I’d take a look at what the lineups and rotations could look like for each of the Pirates’ four, full-season affiliates, starting with Bradenton today. This isn’t really a preview, which is better done when we know what the rosters are going to be. I’m just guessing where players likely will be and I’ll undoubtedly be wrong about a bunch of them. I’m not going to try to cover all the players, either, and instead just the ones who seem to fall on the prospect side of the prospect/suspect line. And there are a lot of those.
Arguably the most interesting question about the Marauders’ roster in 2022 will be which hitters, if any, return from 2021. We discussed this a good deal, so I won’t rehash it all except to note the obvious: A lot of the hitters put up numbers that look bad, but actually weren’t so much relative to the league, which had a pretty crazy year. It’s going to be hard for the Pirates to keep many guys back and I don’t get the impression this front office likes doing that much at the lower levels. And the elimination of the short season leagues makes it awfully hard to keep a player at the lowest levels year after year. (Remember Brian Graham?) An additional complication is the plague year, which effectively shortened the Rule 5 time for everybody by a year. So I’m guessing that most, maybe even all, of the hitters who finished 2021 in Bradenton will move up.
In one year, this position went from a black hole to possibly the most interesting in the entire system, except unfortunately for Indianapolis this year. Bradenton shouldn’t be any exception, although there’ll be a bit of unfamiliarity to start off. I suppose Abrahan Gutierrez, if he’s not lost in Rule 5, could get blocked from moving up. That seems like a really bad choice, though, and not like this front office, given that he’s already spent two years in Low-A, with the plague year in between.
So what we hopefully will see is Wyatt Hendrie and Geovanny Planchart. Hendrie was the Bucs’ 2021 seventh round pick after putting up a 1.097 OPS as a junior at San Diego State. He got some limited action in the Florida Complex League after signing. Ordinarily, a second-day pick from a prominent college program might go to High-A for his first full year, but it’s hard to see how he’d fit there. Planchart is a 20-year-old Venezuelan who hit .368 in the DSL in 2019 and .328 in the FCL in 2021. He didn’t hit for any power that first year, but started to show some in his second year after hitting the weight room. Defense will probably be a critical element for him. So the Marauders won’t have the star power behind the plate, but they should have two guys with good track records so far.
One other possibility at catcher for the Marauders is Jakob Goldfarb. He played mostly outfield in college, but the White Sox drafted him as a catcher in 2019. They released him after a year without really giving him a shot, then he tore up the independent Pioneer League in 2021, including 24 longballs. He mostly played center field there. The Pirates signed him as a minor league free agent, which seems like a good flier to take. Position-wise, I don’t know what the plan is.
Even if nobody gets held back from 2021, Bradenton should have two bona fide infield prospects and at least a few other guys with something to prove. Nearly all these guys are ostensibly shortstops, but obviously they aren’t all going to play there. Whichever infielders are on the team, they’ll probably shift all around like the Marauders did in 2021. Whether that’s a good idea, well . . . .
The definite prospects here are Juan Jerez and Tsung-Che Cheng. Jerez, a prominent 2018 signing, had a big year in the FCL, hitting for average and power, albeit with contact issues. I don’t think we’ll see him at short going forward; he mostly played third in 2021 and had pretty bad error problems, although rookie ball is too soon to make any judgments about that. Cheng signed in 2019 out of Taiwan and is very advanced in all phases–at bat (he had over twice as many walks as Ks in the FCL), in the field and on the bases. He’s a small guy (5’7″) so there are going to be questions about projection, but he hit four longballs in 2021. He seems most likely to be a second baseman going forward, but he played second, short and third in 2021, and I imagine he’ll keep moving around. If the system wasn’t so crowded, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Cheng move straight on to Greensboro.
The two most shortstop-y guys who could be at Bradenton are Luis Tejeda and Deivis Nadal. Tejeda was one of the Pirates’ top international signings in 2018. His bat was supposed to be his main asset, but so far he’s mostly struggled. He did start showing a little power in 2021. Nadal is the probably the best defender of all these guys; he’s fun to watch in the field. He’s slightly built and was overmatched at the plate in the FCL, batting .165 with no extra-base hits. Either or both of these two could go back to the FCL, but I’d guess the Pirates would prefer to have at least one of them play short a lot for Bradenton.
Two other infielders who could be at Bradenton are Rayber Romero (as opposed to outfielder Randy Romero) and Brenden Dixon. Romero gets on base a ton — he had a 20% walk rate in the FCL in 2021 — but doesn’t have any power. Dixon was a 20th round pick out of junior college in 2021 and hammered FCL pitching in a brief stint after signing.
The Pirates aren’t big on first base prospects. They often use the position as a way to get playing time for utility guys and catchers. The closest thing to a first base prospect in the FCL in 2021 was Franrielis Bastardo. He has some power but doesn’t make enough contact yet.
This could be a crowded picture. That’s partly due to a couple guys getting demoted from Bradenton to the FCL in 2021; they’re not likely to move up to Greensboro.
Three potential Marauders for 2022 are obviously high-visibility: Lonnie White, Jr., Braylon Bishop, and Rodolfo Nolasco. White and Bishop, of course, are ultra-toolsy prep draftees who signed over-slot deals in 2021. Both made very brief FCL debuts. White showed power, although he had significant contact issues in a very small sample size. Bishop struggled in an even smaller sample size, but is working this offseason on his swing. Nolasco was one of the top power hitters in the FCL and generates some of the best exit velocities in the lower parts of the system. In contrast to White and Bishop, he’s strictly a corner guy.
The two outfielders who got demoted were Sergio Campana and Jasiah Dixon. They’re two of the fastest players in the system; in fact, Dixon probably is the fastest. They have opposite issues at the plate. Campana struggles with slower stuff, and swings and misses a ton. Dixon takes a lot of pitches, gets into bad counts and doesn’t hit the ball with authority. Of the two, Campana did better in the FCL, albeit still with a lot of swing-and-miss. He has some power and was trying to go directly from the DSL to full season ball. I’d be surprised to see the Pirates not continue to try pushing him.
Two other possibilities for the Bradenton outfield are speedsters Randy Romero and Luke Brown. In three pro seasons, Romero is 63-for-70 as a base stealer, including 36-for-37 in 2019. His hitting was just OK in 2021 in the FCL. Brown was the Pirates’ ninth-round pick in 2021, from the same college as Henry Davis. He struggled to hit in his brief FCL trial.
The Pirates figure to have a lot at stake with the 2022 Bradenton pitching staff. High-profile draft picks should be the feature, but there could also be a couple of trade pick-ups and at least one prominent international signee. They also should have a deep group of good arms from Latin America coming up from the FCL.
I doubt there’s going to be much distinction between starters and relievers, at least in any functional sense. As far as I know, there isn’t likely to be anybody who profiles as a short reliever in the Oliver Mateo mold. Most likely, we’ll probably see a lot of pitchers going 2-4 innings at a time, at least for a while, as the Pirates sort through the arms.
The marquee pitchers figure to be the three, above-slot prep draftees from 2021: Bubba Chandler, Anthony Solometo, and Owen Kellington. None of the three pitched in 2021, but it’d be pretty surprising to see any of them assigned to the FCL. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some or all of the trio held back in extended spring training in the early season as a way of managing workloads. Of course, Chandler did play some shortstop in the FCL. He’ll probably see time there and at DH for the Marauders.
The Marauders also could have several pitchers who had more or less lost seasons in 2021. Brennan Malone looked unimpressive in three games for Bradenton, showing nothing of the primo stuff he was expected to bring with him in the Starling Marte trade. He was shut down for quite a while before looking better in brief action in the FCL. I’ve seen various cryptic references to the exact nature of the issues, at least some of which seem to have been injury-related. Drake Fellows, acquired in the Joe Musgrove trade, didn’t pitch in 2020, then threw fewer than a dozen innings in 2021 before being shut down due to injury. Jose Maldonado, signed from the Dominican in 2017, had a strong finish at Bristol in 2019 and started 2021 missing a ton of bats for Bradenton. In his third game, though, he got hurt and didn’t return. I don’t know the status of either Fellows or Maldonado, but hopefully we’ll see them in 2022.
One other higher-profile pitcher is Po-Yu Chen. The Pirates signed him for a big bonus from Taiwan and he was nearly unhittable in the FCL. He had a lot more trouble in four starts with Bradenton. This appeared to be partly because the hitters chased less often and partly because his velocity was down from what it had been in the FCL, due to fatigue.
There’s a group of Latin American pitchers, all of whom have shown potential, who could move up from the FCL. It’s possible some could impress the Pirates enough to go on up to Greensboro, or one or two could go back to the FCL, or some could open in extended Spring Training and move to Bradenton later. So much will depend on what the Pirates are seeing in the off-season and in Spring Training. I’m just going to list them here.
Bladimir Dotel: The Pirates signed Dotel in fall 2020 from Venezuela and sent him straight to the FCL, which probably tells us something. He pitched very well there despite some control problems.
Andy Maldonado: Despite not having pitched a great deal, Maldonado is already Rule 5 eligible. He caught a break when he got a PED suspension prior to the 2020 season, then missed no actual time because the canceled season satisfied the suspension. He has a live arm with a nasty breaking ball that helped him put up a 13.5 K/9 in the FCL in 2021.
Listher Sosa: A big guy who probably has some room to increase his velocity, Sosa had a good year in the FCL. He has much better control than most of these pitchers and still fanned over a batter an inning.
Luis Peralta: A rare lefty in this system, Peralta is 5’11”, but his velocity is pretty good and he fanned 11.2 per nine innings in the FCL. He’s Rule 5 eligible and the Pirates added him to the Triple-A roster to protect him from the minor league phase of the draft, which shows they at least think he has potential.
Carlos Jimenez: Jimenez was arguably the best starter for the Pirates in the FCL in 2021. He fanned 11.5 per nine innings and kept the walks down.
Finally, several of the college pitchers from the Pirates’ 2021 draft — Sean Sullivan, Carlos Lomeli, and Drew Irvine — didn’t take the mound after the draft. It’s hard to guess right now where the Pirates might assign them.