Looking Ahead at the Pirates’ 2022 System: Indianapolis Indians

Guessing the makeup of the 2022 Indians is more complicated than usual, especially at the start of the season.  Normally, there’d be the question of which players will make the major league roster.  But now we have the added confusion of a lockout that appears likely to delay the major league season.  The minor league season will go on, but players on 40-man rosters won’t play at any level.

If the labor dispute drifts on into the season, there’ll be 14 fewer players in the farm system, most of them subtracted from Indianapolis.  Liover Peguero is the one 40-man player who’s probably a lock to be at Altoona, so Indy could lose as many as 13 players who’d otherwise be on their roster.

Of course, even if the labor dispute got settled tomorrow, the Pirates would likely add a few minor league free agents.  They may have to add a bunch instead, although that’s beyond the scope of this article anyway, because they wouldn’t be prospects.  There have been a number of free agent signings since the holidays, although none by the Pirates. They can probably fill some of the openings internally.  For instance, if Oneil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro are unavailable, they could utilize Stephen Alemais and Robbie Glendinning, both of whom I mentioned last week.

Anyway, 40-man players are denoted below by *.

HITTERS

Catchers

No prospects here.  Just Jamie Ritchie, Michael Perez and Jason Delay.  Perez is in line to return as the backup in the majors if the Pirates don’t add somebody else.

Infielders

The Indy infield prospects break down into two groups.  One is the guys who profile as potential major league regulars.  That would be Cruz*, Castro*, Mason Martin and Ji-Hwan Bae.  The catch with Martin, of course, is that he could be lost in the Rule 5 draft, a possibility I don’t think should be dismissed just because he’s a first baseman.  The other group is the raft of potential utility guys the Pirates brought in during the 2021 season.  That’d be Hoy Park*, Tucupita Marcano* and Diego Castillo*.  It’s possible Michael Chavis * could end up at Indy, as he has an option left, but that doesn’t seem likely.

Nick Gonzales

Cruz finally made the jump from high-risk/high-reward guy to top-tier prospect.  That happened partly because the swing-and-miss, which folks thought would be a big problem, hasn’t been.  Apart from that, it’s impossible to discount any longer just how hard he hits the ball.  According to Baseball America, his average exit velocity of 94 mph was three mph above any other prospect on BA’s top 100.  (Nick Gonzales was among a bunch of guys at 91.)  And in his second major league at-bat, he hit a single with the highest exit velocity ever recorded by a Pirate in the Statcast era.  I’m not even going to say that Cruz will be the marquee prospect at Indy, because the Pirates should give him a serious chance to win a major league job.  Among other things, they’re committed to keeping him at short and they have nothing to lose in trying that in the majors right now.

Castro had a dramatic first month in the majors before the pitchers caught up with him.  He probably could use some time in Triple-A, although he hit very well there in eight late-season games.  (Castro’s season provided some evidence of the motivating value of promotions.  After dominating Double-A in the first half, he slumped badly when the Pirates sent him back there from the majors.  Then he put up a .999 OPS in those eight Triple-A games.)  In the near-term, Castro gives the Pirates a shot at a second baseman or utility guy with power, and he has it from both sides of the plate.

Of the other two potential starters, Martin’s 2021 season raised some concerns because his walk and K rates both got worse.  His approach isn’t exactly unique these days, though, and his season may have been better than it looked:  He had a .905 OPS on the road and .709 at home, mainly in the pitchers park in Altoona (he also had a late-season cameo with Indy).  He’s also much better defensively than he used to be.  Bae may be closer to major-league-ready than people think.  He skipped High-A, then after a bad first month with Altoona last year, he batted .302 the rest of the way, with a .389 OBP.  He also started driving the ball more.  After having gone into July with zero pro home runs, he hit one in an FCL rehab game and then seven more back in Double-A.  He does need to become much less erratic defensively.  The Pirates employed Bae some in center last year, but the Indy outfield is going to be pretty crowded.

It seems pretty certain that the Pirates will keep at least one of their new utility infielders in the majors.  Happily, they haven’t yet signed a no-hit, veteran infielder to replace Erik Gonzalez; we can only hope it’ll stay that way.  It wouldn’t be a bad thing if two out of Park, Marcano and Castillo made the roster.  Park spent most of his time in the majors after coming from the Yankees with Castillo for Clay Holmes.  He didn’t hit well, but he wasn’t overmatched.  He drew a lot of walks and hit for decent power.  Marcano, on the other hand, stayed in Triple-A and looked nothing like a guy who was supposedly the main return for Adam Frazier.  He looked more like a budding Mario Mendoza, but the Pirates are going to want to give him much more of a chance.  Castillo may be the best hitter of the three, possibly by a lot.  He continued hitting very well at Altoona after arriving, with one more walk than strikeouts, then had a .914 OPS in 18 games at Indy, with the same number of walks and strikeouts.  He and Park should both get a chance to win at least a part of the Pirates’ second base job.

One holdover from 2021 who could serve a role in 2022, especially if the lockout continues and/or Martin is lost, is Hunter Owen.  He had 20 bombs last year and finished strongly after a bad early season.  He’s 28 now and has serious plate discipline issues, but he can play any corner position.

Outfielders

The Indy outfield should be crowded, too.  Unlike the infield, though, there’s probably less chance of the congestion being alleviated by players making the major league roster.  The lockout, though, is another matter.

Indy could have five legitimate outfield prospects:  Travis Swaggerty*, Canaan Smith-Njigba*, Jack Suwinski*, Matt Fraizer and Cal Mitchell.  Swaggerty, of course, should be returning to Triple-A after missing nearly all of last year with a shoulder injury.  He’s never quite hit like the Pirates hoped, but they thought he was poised for a breakout season in 2021 before the injury happened.  He’s probably the best defensive outfielder in the organization.

Matt Fraizer

The other four spent all or, in Fraizer’s case, part of last year in Double-A.  Fraizer was the only one who had an outstanding season.  The others were all more in the “solid” range, although Smith-Njigba and Mitchell both just turned 22 near the beginning of the season.  Actually, Suwinski was having an outstanding season before arriving in the Adam Frazier trade, but was only OK with Altoona.  It’s hard to say any of these outfielders needs more time in Double-A.  Also, the Pirates moved Smith-Njigba and Mitchell up to Triple-A near the end of the season, which would make it discouraging for one of them to be sent back to Double-A.  And Suwinski will turn 24 next July, so it’d be nice to see him in Triple-A.

Ideally, the Pirates would give all these guys a meaningful chance to compete for roster spots in spring training, particularly the three who were just added to the 40-man roster.  If one proves overmatched in the majors, they could give another one a try.  Blocking them with Greg Allen, or by continuing to play weak-hitting infielders in the outfield, is hard to defend at this stage.

Two other outfielders to keep in mind are Jared Oliva* and Bligh Madris.  Oliva seemed like a candidate to depart the 40-man roster last fall, but he’s still around and has two options.  He offers good speed and defense, but the bat hasn’t come around yet.  He’s been working on his swing and the Pirates may want to see how that has gone.  Still, he’s 26 now.  It’s hard to see him remaining on the 40-man roster if he doesn’t make the major league roster out of spring training.  The Pirates are going to need some more roster spots, for a catcher and some relievers at least.  Madris has a solid bat with some power, and had a very good second half in 2021.  He might make a decent bench bat, strictly against RHPs.

PITCHERS

The Pirates should probably just run a twice-a-week shuttle between Indy and Pittsburgh, because there figure to be frequent changes in the 2022 rotation and bullpen, as there were in 2021.  Other than David Bednar and Chris Stratton, the Pirates don’t have a single pitcher who’s established himself as a major leaguer.  Apart from the question marks surrounding the staff, there’s also the Pirates’ insistence on always being prepared for that 28-inning game where the starter gets knocked out in the first inning.  I’m not going to try to cover pitchers who seem likely to start in the majors.

Starters

The Indy rotation will depend heavily on the Pirates’ rotation.  Unless the Pirates are willing to cut bait on some guys — they already started with Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault — the major league rotation isn’t much in doubt.  J.T. Brubaker, Mitch Keller, Zach Thompson, Bryse Wilson and Jose Quintana all seem close to locks.  The first three can be optioned, but the latter two can’t.  Plus, there’s Dillon Peters, who has no options, and Wil Crowe, who has one.  It’s hard to see any point in sending any of these guys to Triple-A, so it seems like something the Pirates really need to sort out in spring (summer?) training.

It’d be encouraging, though, to see the team move towards a rotation that might actually help the team win at some point.  The two most-ready guys for that are Roansy Contreras* and Miguel Yajure*.  Contreras’ fastball sits around 97 and Baseball America considers his slider one of the two best in the minors.  Pretty sure that’ll play in the majors.  And his command isn’t bad.  Why wait?  Yajure started strongly last year, then missed some time and his velocity was down a bit when he returned.  Maybe a little time in Triple-A to start the season?

Roansy Contreras

The only other starting prospects who spent any time in Pittsburgh were Max Kranick* and Luis Oviedo*.  Kranick’s career has been filled with interruptions of one sort or another, and last year he spent time at three levels.  With the Pirates, he had a really bad time after going once through the order.  Half a season in the Indy rotation might not be a bad thing.  Oviedo remained incognito during his Rule 5 season, but he was spotted several times and photographed once:

He could go to Altoona rather than Indianapolis, but we may not find out until after the season.

Four pitchers who should be in Indy are eligible for the Rule 5 draft:  Cody Bolton, Omar Cruz, Travis MacGregor and Osvaldo Bido.  Bolton impressed the Pirates at the alternate site in 2020, but missed 2021 due to knee surgery.  That sucks, but it beats an arm injury.  Surprisingly, he was slated to start the 2021 season in the Altoona bullpen, but I don’t know whether that was because of the knee.  It wouldn’t be a surprise if he opened 2022 at Altoona, but I’d think the Pirates would want to get him to Indy pretty quickly.  Cruz is a finesse lefty with a good change.  His velocity was down a little bit in 2021, but it may have been a bit too much.  MacGregor got off to a strong start way back in 2018, but got hurt, had Tommy John, and didn’t pitch again until 2021.  He spent the whole season in the Curve’s rotation, pitching well at first.  He had a horrific time in July and August before rebounding in September.  He shouldn’t be written off yet; he had a long layoff and he was skipping a level, and the fact that the Pirates stuck with him as a starter at least tells us something.  Bido signed at a late age (21), then climbed very quickly through the system.  He didn’t have a good season at Altoona last year, with his problems coming entirely with left-handed hitters, but scouts like his stuff.  The Pirates gave him a cameo in Triple-A at the end of the season.

Cody Bolton

The big surprise in the 2021 Altoona rotation was lefty Trey McGough.  Going into 2021 he sure looked like an organizational reliever.  Instead, the Pirates put him in the Double-A rotation about a month into the season and there he stayed.  He didn’t dominate, in fact he had a very low K rate, but he pitched well in nearly all his starts.  He throws strikes and didn’t have gopher ball problems, and he finished the season strongly.

Relievers

The likely shape of the Pirates’ 2022 bullpen is a mystery at this point.  Outside of Bednar and Stratton, it needs a total rebuild.  Bringing in a raft of NRIs seemed a likely off-season project, but so far the only reliever the Pirates have added is Eric Hanhold, who has yet to show he can handle Triple-A, much less the majors.  The Pirates got him off waivers when the Orioles didn’t want him, which says it all.  Anyway, unless some major changes take place if/when a labor deal is reached, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Indy open the season with a better bullpen than the Pirates.

One helpful development toward that end would be not losing Yerry De Los Santos, Cristofer Melendez or Hunter Stratton in the Rule 5 draft.  De Los Santos has been mostly snakebit so far.  He started his career by missing most of three years, mainly due to Tommy John surgery, then he missed the plague year, and then most of last year with a forearm strain.  In spite of all that, he’s been consistently effective and made it to Triple-A at the end of last season.  The decision to leave him off the 40-man roster seems awfully strange considering some of the relievers who are on it.  Melendez can reach triple digits, but had mixed results at Altoona in 2021.  That was partly due to control problems and partly due to a very low strand rate.  Stratton came out of nowhere last year, missing a ton of bats in Double-A and pitching pretty well in Triple-A.  His control needs to get a bit better.

Yerry De Los Santos

Maybe the key reliever at Indy will be Blake Cederlind*, who’s coming back from Tommy John surgery.  Cederlind throws in the upper-90s, but he’s more of a sinkerballer than a huge swing-and-miss guy.  He’s reportedly going to get a chance to start, so I’m just guessing he’ll be throwing a couple innings at a time in relief initially.

Blake Cederlind

Another very interesting guy could be lefty Zach Matson, whom the Pirates picked up from the Rockies in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.  He’s had extremely high K rates, mainly due to a good curve.  He had serious “bad luck” last year in Double-A with his BABIP and strand rate:  his ERA was 5.73 but his xFIP was 3.07.

There should be a group of dark horses in the Indy bullpen.  Blake Weiman always got good results until he got to Triple-A, where he ran into severe gopher ball problems.  Joe Jacques, a lefty like Weiman, is a submariner who’s rough on left-handed hitters.  Yet another lefty, Cam Alldred, is working on boosting his velocity a bit.  Finally, there’s Noe Toribio, who’s moved very quickly through the system; he’s still just 22.  He’s a finesse righty who had difficulty as a starter last year at Altoona.  He missed a month due to injury, then pitched much better in relief after he returned.  Possibly he got a velocity boost, although I haven’t seen anything on the subject.

Joe Jacques

THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

Williams: Build

Quinn Priester: Fastball Command Key To Unlocking Full Potential

Which Pirates Prospects Displayed the Best Hitting Skills in 2021?

Looking Ahead at the Pirates’ 2022 System: Indianapolis Indians

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Promoting From Double-A to the Majors

Cal Mitchell Hoping to Force His Way Into the Pittsburgh Outfield

Cristopher Cruz Works Through Adjustments During a Rocky First Season

PROSPECT WATCH

DAILY VIDEO RUNDOWN

PIRATES DISCUSSION

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