The Bradenton Marauders have become a bit more of a proving ground than Low Class A teams used to be. The elimination of the short season leagues, leaving nothing between the now-Single-A Florida State League and the imaginatively named Florida Complex League means more players getting thrown into the deep end.
In the first year of the new regime, 2021, the Marauders were loaded with raw but (seemingly) high-upside players, particularly among their position players. A lot of those players probably would have gone to the New York-Penn League, had it still existed. Instead, they got a chance to put things together in the FSL. It didn’t work out especially well, as nearly everybody but Endy Rodriguez struggled to one degree or another. Hopefully, the Marauders will see more players step forward next year. It should help that they aren’t coming off a missed season, unlike the 2021 guys.
There are some obvious candidates, which isn’t what I want to focus on. We’ve discussed Javier Rivas a lot in the wake of a promising FCL season. Lonnie White Jr., is certainly a possibility if he could get on the field for more than a couple games. Alessandro Ercolani (of San Marino, pop. 33,000) had a very good FCL season; I’m not sure you can “break out” from a 1.19 ERA.
As an aside, it’d be nice to have a catcher here. The FCL catching was a dreary scene in 2022, so the question is whether the Pirates jump somebody up from the DSL. Miguel Sosa seems like a possibility. He had a .980 OPS in 2022, but the Pirates played him mostly in the outfield. Axiel Plaz would be nice, but he’ll play almost all of next season at age 17. Eybert Escalona and Samuel Escudero both hit well in the DSL this year, but Escalona hasn’t played much in two years. Two stars if you remember that Escudero came from the Brewers for Troy Stokes, Jr., and Jandel Gustave. It’d be pretty funny if that trade produced some value.
Among the infielders, Jesus Castillo is a guy to watch. He represents a demographic that always has to be viewed with suspicion at the lower levels, which is players who hit for high average with no power. He won the FCL batting title (.352) and had a 17:18 BB:K, but had just a .031 ISO, based on four extra base hits, all doubles, in 128 ABs. He still has room to fill out, though, so it’s certainly possible he could start driving the ball more. He’s a very reliable defender who’s played second, third and short so far, although second might be the best spot.
The outfield generally will be interesting. Apart from White, there’s Braylon Bishop, Enmanuel Terrero, Shalin Polanco, Jauri Custodio and Esmerlyn Valdez, although I could see the Pirates relieving the congestion a bit by sending Custodio to Greensboro. I’m pretty leery now of Bishop, as he struggled increasingly this year to pick up pitches in the FCL. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he went back there, although it’d be hard to consider him a prospect at all if that happened.
Terrero and Custodio are fun to watch because they’re rarities for the low levels of the system: They make a lot of hard contact without chasing. Both had big seasons in the FCL, although Custodio got into only 21 games there due to injury, which has been an ongoing problem for him. He put up a 1.078 OPS with good power and 6:8 BB:K in 58 ABs. Despite the fact that he’s lost a lot of time due to injury, he struck me as an advanced enough hitter that a significant challenge would be a good idea. Terrero isn’t far behind, but hasn’t shown as much power yet. He hit 330/446/443 this year, with 23:17 BB:K. He had only one home run and it was inside the park. (In fact, that’s him rounding third on that play below.) He’s a line drive hitter who, I’m hoping, just needs to get a bit more loft.
Of all the outfielders except White, Shalin Polanco is probably the most talented. He presents the more standard issue for Pirates’ low-level hitters, which is chasing bendy stuff out of the zone. Both this year in the FCL and last in the DSL, he’s made progress over the course of the season, and he improved overall this year, but the numbers still aren’t quite there. If he improves his swing decisions, he has solid power now with potentially more, along with plus speed, and I’ve seen him make some outstanding plays in center.
Valdez is the power hitter here, again apart from White. From just looking at the stats, you’d probably think he’s a prime candidate to break out. He drew a ton of walks, struck out a lot but not at a frightening rate (K rates that used to seem like deal-breakers a few years ago are unremarkable now), and his OPS went from .407 in June to .976 in July and .892 in August. He also seems like a candidate to move to first, given the logjam in the outfield.
The pitching scene is going to be quite a mystery until the season starts. The Pirates spent most of their 2022 draft on college pitchers, most of whom didn’t pitch afterward (and the few who did were mostly awful). Probably most of these guys will be in Bradenton, but some could go to Greensboro and, I suppose, some could go to the FCL.
The really interesting ones, at least to me, are Thomas Harrington and a bunch of lefties. (Draft rounds are in parentheses.) As a supplemental first round pick, I don’t consider Harrington a breakout candidate, at least not if he’s in Single-A. The same goes for second round lefty Hunter Barco, who’s going to miss most or all of the season anyway due to Tommy John.
That still leaves some interesting lefties (imagine that, the Pirates with lefties!). Dominic Perachi (11) comes from Division III, where he dominated. He also pitched well in summer ball, which probably means more. He has solid velocity and two different, high-spin curves. Miguel Fulgencio (13) got to the Pirates via a strange path. He’s from the Dominican and initially tried college football, but that never got off the ground. He then tried JC ball as an outfielder, but the plague stopped that, and he re-emerged as a closer. Anyway, he brings mid-90s velocity, a potentially good slider and a good record in summer ball. We probably should hope that these guys impress the Pirates enough to go to Greensboro, but I’m guessing, with the DIII and JC backgrounds, they’ll start off in Single-A.
In the sense of how far they could go from where they are, the two pitchers I think could be the most interesting at Bradenton, assuming that’s where they end up, are Antwone Kelly and Hung-Leng Chang. Kelly signed out of Aruba in 2021 and his velocity jumped to the mid-90s shortly after that. He had a strong season in the FCL this year. He only threw 23.1 IP, but over the last 16 in particular he dominated. He won’t turn 20 until September next year. Kelly is a short (5’10”) stocky guy, so he could get ticketed for the bullpen, but for now hopefully the Pirates will want to get the innings up significantly.
Chang is a tall, very skinny righty from Taiwan who has good velocity already and considerable projection. He had a strange season in the FCL. He’d either strike everybody out or get pummeled. I didn’t see the really bad outings, so I’m not sure what happened, but he still showed good control and missed a lot of bats.
One last pitcher I’d like to mention is Enmanuel De Los Santos. He signed way back in 2018, but injuries and the plague-lost season have left him little time for pitching. He threw just 32 innings in 2018-19, then none in 2020-21. He got in 22.1 IP in the FCL this year, with a 12.5 K/9 and .183 opponents’ average. He had trouble throwing strikes, which isn’t surprising given how little he’s pitched. De Los Santos reminded me a bit of Carlos Jimenez, with solid but not overwhelming velocity and good movement, and swing-and-miss secondary stuff. I’ll be very curious to see what sort of role the Pirates have him playing next year.
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.