The Pittsburgh Pirates had a total of seven players reach minor league free agency yesterday. Their original list of upcoming free agents had eight names, but I was able to verify the report that outfielder Lolo Sanchez re-signed with the team before reaching free agency. The new free agents are pitchers Travis MacGregor, Matt Eckelman, Zach Matson and Oliver Garcia, as well as infielders Kevin Padlo, Hunter Owen and Drew Maggi.
Sanchez was the top signing for the Pirates during the 2015-16 international signing period. He made it to Altoona this year and had a .231/.343/.330 slash line in 66 games, while twice missing time due to injuries. He has 118 career stolen bases and a .713 OPS in 498 games. He’s a solid defender in the outfield, who has played all three spots. His speed helps make up for some questionable routes.
MacGregor is another big name, as a second round pick in 2016 out of high school. He was having a breakout season in 2018 with Low-A West Virginia before he completely got sidetracked by Tommy John surgery and then the lost 2020 season. The Pirates bumped him up two levels in 2021, despite missing 2 1/2 seasons, and he struggled as a starter for Altoona. He took a relief role in Altoona this year and had an outstanding run of strong pitching that led to a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis. He had his share of problems after the promotion, posting a 7.25 ERA in 36 innings, though he did manage to collect 43 strikeouts, for a total of 103 strikeouts in 81 innings this year.
The rest of the group included Eckelman, who switched to a knuckleball this year as a last ditch effort to make it. The pitch had some effectiveness, so he might be able to make something of it with more experience. Before that he was a reliever who topped out around 90 MPH most nights and didn’t have any plus pitches, so this seems like a better possible route.
Owen was injured for most of his time with the Pirates, suffering various injuries over the years. He showed good power, but poor BB/SO numbers. He made terrific improvements at third base during the 2019 season after looking out of place there early in his career, but then he got pushed into more of a utility role. He got a cup of coffee in 2021 with the Pirates, but he was injured for almost all of 2022.
Matson was a Rule 5 pick who split 2022 between Altoona and Indianapolis. He did well as a crafty lefty against mainly younger players in Double-A, then had some major issues in Triple-A. His intrigue came from a huge strikeout rate in 2021, but his rate was sliced in half this year, going from 15.5 per nine innings, down to 7.4 per nine.
Padlo was picked up during the 2022 season and saw brief big league time with three different teams, but he was sent to the minors after going 0-for-11 for the Pirates and didn’t return. He has a .315 OPS in 23 big league games over 2021-22.
Garcia pitched a total of 219 innings over the last seven years, including two years as a starter. He’s had solid/decent results, but the missed time really stunted his progress. He missed most of 2022 due to injury.
Maggi has played 13 seasons of pro ball, with one trip to the majors with the Minnesota Twins that included him sitting on the bench for two days before being sent back down. He was picked up mid-season this year to help fill out the roster. He has put up some solid stats over the years, while also showing versatility and speed, but he struggled with his average this year.
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.