Age is an important factor when looking at the prospect status of players. It’s not the most important factor, but for the most part, we know it’s better to be a 20-year-old prospect in Double-A than it is being 24 years old in High-A.
There are always exceptions, usually due to major injuries, but age is important most of the time. With that in mind, we are going to take a look at the best prospects for each age throughout the Pittsburgh Pirates system. The method here I’m using is Baseball-Reference’s season ages, which gives a player’s age as of July 1st each year. The work is done and we are taking advantage of their great website.
This week the focus is on the top hitting prospects in the system. Next week we will look at the pitchers.
We are using the player ages from the 2021 season. I’m going to look at both the best performance and name the best prospect (just one name if both are the same player). The level of player is taken into account for the top prospect. A guy with an .800 OPS in the Dominican Summer League isn’t a better performer for his age than someone who puts up a .700 OPS in Low-A, but if there’s a bigger difference then I’ll make the judgement call. I was going to start with age 16, but I saw the only qualified player in the system is Andres Silvera, a pitcher. No spoilers for next week, but I see him being named as the top 16-year-old in the system.
Here’s a look at every other age from 17-24, and then one category for 25+.
17 Years Old
Top Prospect: Shalin Polanco is the top player from this group. He signed the biggest (by far) deal for the Pirates during the 2020-21 international signing period. He did not do well in his debut, posting a .622 OPS in 47 games, but all of the tools are there for future success.
Top Performance: Only 13 players qualified for this and all of them were in the DSL in 2021, and two missed time due to injury. There was actually a close call here between outfielders Esmerlyn Valdez (.786 OPS) and Eddy Rodriguez (.782), but I went with the latter because of a much better strikeout rate. Both did well in the league that is known for being pitcher-friendly.
18 Years Old
Top Prospect: The Pirates drafted both Bubba Chandler and Lonnie White Jr. high in 2021 and gave them bonuses big enough to convince them to go pro. Both got in a little action in the FCL this year, but not enough to get a good read on their abilities, so neither qualified for the Top Performance spot. If we are going just on hitting, then White Jr. gets the nod, but Chandler could very likely end up as a better pitcher than hitter in the future.
Top Performance: I mentioned up top about players at different levels and it was with this spot in mind. Alexander Mojica was the only 18-year-old in full-season ball for the Pirates, but he didn’t exactly tear up the former Florida State League with his .663 OPS. That being said, I still have to give him the top spot here because no one really played enough AND performed well to knock him off.
19 Years Old
Top Prospect: This isn’t a big group, with 16 qualified hitters. The top prospect from this group in my mind is Tsung-Che Cheng. More on him below…
Top Performance: There were three players here to consider. Dariel Lopez put up solid numbers with Bradenton, posting a .735 OPS. Cheng and Rodolfo Nolasco put up strong numbers in the FCL, posting a .941 and .961 OPS, respectively. After thinking about it, I went with Cheng here, but I won’t argue with either of the other two players. Besides the strong hitting, he’s also a better defender and faster runner than either of the other two gentlemen, so that factors into the better performance.
20 Years Old
Top Prospect: This is a very small group, but somewhat surprisingly, 14 of the 16 players are position players (pitching is going to be easy at this age next week). The best prospect is Liover Peguero, who is one of the best prospects in the entire system. There are other good prospects in this group, but none challenge him for the top spot…
Top Performance: Peguero is also the best performer. He was the only one in this group in High-A, and he did well, hitting .270/.332/.444 in 90 games, with 14 homers and 28 steals.
21 Years Old
Top Prospect: The age 21 group is small but mighty. It includes Henry Davis, who I have as the top prospect in the system, so of course he leads his own age group. He barely played in 2021, so the first overall pick is not the top performer.
Top Performance: Ji-Hwan Bae takes the best performance spot with his .281/.360/.422 slash line in 85 games for Double-A Altoona. The group included Tucupita Marcano, who played in the majors this year (that has to count for something), but he really struggled in Triple-A after being acquired from the Padres.
22 Years Old
Top Prospect: This group is really loaded with talent on the hitting side, and it includes both Oneil Cruz and Nick Gonzales. I have Cruz slotted right behind Davis in the system, and it’s more like 1A/1B, so Cruz gets the nod here.
Top Performance: Cruz gets the honors here as well, for his .970 OPS during the minor league season, and his brief stint in the majors. Gonzales wasn’t far behind in performance (could easily go either way), but he was doing it in a hitter-friendly park in High-A, so raise the arm of Cruz.
23 Years Old
Top Prospect: Here’s another double for the top prospect/top performer, but I will say that Travis Swaggerty ranks close to Matt Fraizer in the prospect rankings, so you could go either way here. I choose Fraizer, but I won’t argue if you think Swaggerty.
Top Performance: Fraizer tore up Greensboro early in the year and did very well for Altoona in the second half. He combined to hit .306/.388/.552 in 112 games, with 23 homers and 15 steals. We had him as the best hitter in the entire system for 2021, so of course he wins his age group as well.
24 Years Old
Top Prospect: There are only 20 players total in this group, six are pitchers and two are hitters who already lost their prospect status. There isn’t a top 50 prospect in the group, so I really don’t have a strong opinion of who is the best from those 12 hitters, but it could be…
Top Performance: Aaron Shackelford gets the win here with his 22 homers for Greensboro helping his case. The hitter ballpark helps obviously, but Shackelford is a strong human, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary with that home run total. His average was low, strikeouts high, which keeps him right now from being a top prospect.
25+ Years Old
Top Prospect: Take your pick for best prospect here between Jared Oliva and Hoy Park. I’ll go with Park because he looked better at times in the majors than his numbers indicate, plus Oliva had some issues in Mexico this winter, where he should have put up decent numbers.
Top Performance: Bligh Madris put up a .769 OPS in 114 games in 2021, mostly playing with Indianapolis. It was a solid season, and one that he continued this winter in Puerto Rico, where he also had decent results.
This Week on Pirates Prospects
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.