I think I get what the Pittsburgh Pirates are trying to do.
I think I understand the difference between “Build” and “Rebuild.”
I think the “Build” really begins with that group in Altoona this year.
And I don’t think it matters one bit what we call it if the Pirates can’t turn enough of these guys into productive MLB players.
As we all await the MLB arrivals of Roansy Contreras and Oneil Cruz this year to give the Pirates a boost, the real part of this build can be found in Altoona. There, you will now find:
**Number one overall pick in 2022, Henry Davis, who is currently dealing with a minor bone bruise in his wrist, though we’ve been told by multiple people it’s not serious.
**Three more of the top 100 prospects in the game in Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales, and Quinn Priester, who is currently on the IL with an oblique injury.
**Some of the best breakout potential guys in the mid-range of the system rankings, including Mike Burrows, who might already belong in the above group.
**In fact, this team has an excessive amount of those players: Kyle Nicolas, Matt Fraizer, Connor Scott, and Tucupita Marcano highlight a roster that has at least 15 players who could grade as a 40 Future Value or higher.
If I’m honest, I don’t recall covering a team this loaded in my 14 seasons covering this franchise.
If I’m honest, the Pirates are going to require help from this team in order to win in the future. This is “The Build.”
This team has both of Ben Cherington’s first round picks. It has the first prospect he traded for in Peguero, and the two most recent big prospects he traded for in Nicolas and Scott from the Jacob Stallings deal.
With so much talent at this level, it’s imperative that the Pirates see more good results than bad. So far, it’s been mostly solid results, with a few red flags.
The Pirates have seen some great starts to this season from Liover Peguero (.877 OPS) and Mike Burrows (2.35 ERA, 30.2 IP, 40 K, 9 BB). I profiled each this week as I was picking my top position player and pitcher on the team to feature.
Kyle Nicolas (3.65, 24.2, 27:8) has emerged as a very promising starting prospect, who might be the third best pitcher on the team behind Burrows and Priester. I could even see Nicolas finishing the season on the same tier with Priester, and getting top 100 consideration.
There has been a lot of success on the pitching side. Omar Cruz (3.67, 27, 32:11) is standing out with a starter workload, while J.C. Flowers (3.63, 22.1, 15:10) and Noe Toribio (2.66, 20.1, 26:8) have looked good in long relief roles.
The offense has seen some struggles.
2020 first round pick Nick Gonzales is hitting for a .212/.341/.308 line, with a 36.5% strikeout rate. Those numbers are a far departure from expectations for a guy graded with elite contact skills.
Last year’s breakout prospect Matt Fraizer has also struggled this year, opening the season with a .176/.212/.278 line. He’s picked up his hitting over the last week, and hopefully that’s a sign that things are turning around.
The Pirates don’t mind if their players struggle early, as long as they learn from those struggles.
“All of these guys work hard,” said Altoona manager Kieran Mattison. “They go and put in the work in the offseason, and put in the work every day. No matter how you start, it’s how you finish.”
Double-A is that level where prospects start getting graded more on their results, and less on their potential. The Pirates have some players whose early numbers haven’t matched their values.
Jared Triolo has a .667 OPS, but has done well to reach base out of the leadoff spot, and can play strong defense at premium positions. Luis Ortiz has a lot of strikeouts, but has struggled with his control against lefties, leading to a 4.85 ERA
You’ll find a lot of those stories at this level right now, with the Pirates hoping some of those players figure things out this year. Kieran Mattison has been the manager of this group for two seasons now, across High-A and Double-A, and elaborated on the different approach between the levels.
“The main thing is the consistency with what goes on between the ears,” said Mattison. “At this level, everyone has talent. Main thing is just a consistent focus. Being able to move on to the next pitch after a mistake happens, or even be able to move on to the next pitch after a good play happens. The guys that do it more consistently have the most success.”
So far, only a few have shown that consistency, though the season is still early. Peguero, Burrows, and Nicolas should be joined by several others who step up by the end of the season.
“For me, it’s all about growth,” said Mattison. “We’re in a game of failure, man. Guys are going to make mistakes. It’s all about failing forward and profiting from those mistakes. That’s what we do as an organization. We fail forward and learn.”
The Pirates have a lot of their Build riding on the success from this group in Altoona. It’s not a problem that any player on this roster is struggling with any aspect of their game to this point. In fact, those struggles from this group will give us our first real view at how effective this new player development system can be.
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS+ posts
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.