There has been a lot of talk the last few years about the depth that the Pittsburgh Pirates have collected in their minor league system.
“Depth” in a farm system is typically where you have a lot of future potential MLB players. The depth mostly comes from guys who aren’t MLB starting prospects now, but who could each see improvements in their game. The benefit of depth is that you’re more likely to see a 40-grade prospect break out when you’ve got so many of them.
It seems like the Pirates have been taking an approach the last few years where they’ve thrown 40-grade MLB players into starting roles in the majors, hoping that some of those guys would develop into starters. The results haven’t been good.
This offseason feels different. The Pirates have added several free agents, giving the team a boost of veteran leadership and legitimate MLB starters. Those starters might not be more than average starters at best, but they are an upgrade over the plans heading into the previous years.
As a result, all of those 40-grade MLB guys are starting to shift down into actual bench or depth roles. There’s still the chance for these players to emerge as 50-grade or better options. If that happens, it will now be a bonus, rather than the hopes that the Pirates are being built upon.
Here are two areas where the Pirates have made moves to shift their depth options into actual depth roles, along with one spot where they could still use an addition.
The Pirates right now have the makings of two interesting rotations.
At the MLB level, they’ve brought in Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez on one-year deals. They’ve had success the last few years with left-handed free agent options. Hill looks like he could be another solid lefty addition. Velasquez is a wild card, and looks better with the addition of Hill.
Those two join the trio of Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, and JT Brubaker. There will be less pressure on these three to produce with the addition of the two veteran starters. You could imagine a rotation of average starters, with the chance for Keller, Contreras, and/or Brubaker to take a step forward.
At the Triple-A level, the Pirates have a loaded prospect rotation. They’ve got Johan Oviedo and Luis Ortiz, who both showed some potential in 2022. If Velasquez doesn’t work, or if one of the other starters struggles, these two look like they could already be MLB-ready.
There are also starters who the Pirates have given opportunities to in the past. Zach Thompson might be the top candidate to serve as early-season rotation depth. Bryse Wilson, who was just designated for assignment today, could be a depth option if he sticks around — though I’d imagine he ends up elsewhere.
The Pirates also have top prospects in Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows, with both of these right-handers likely to be up in the second half.
Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, JT Brubaker, Johan Oviedo, Luis Ortiz, Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows, Zach Thompson.
That’s a deep group. It wasn’t long ago that Thompson was the fifth best option. Now, he’s the fifth guy in Indianapolis, surrounded by talented young pitchers, and might only be an early-season depth option with the competition.
First Base/Designated Hitter
The Pirates didn’t get bad production in 2022 at first base from Daniel Vogelbach. The problem was that they didn’t get help from anyone else, and had no replacement when Vogelbach was dealt.
This year, they’ve added Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi to fill out first base and the designated hitter position. They’ve also brought in Connor Joe and Miguel Andujar to add depth to the position.
When Vogelbach was traded last year, the entire first base position collapsed. The designated hitter spot didn’t have much help.
This year, the Pirates have two people who could put up Vogelbach’s production or better, with contingency plans behind Santana and Choi.
There’s also the possibility of a prospect arriving from the minors. Malcom Nunez seems like the leader of the pack, but I think it’s more likely the long-term first base role in Pittsburgh will be filled by someone currently not at first base.
This is an area where the Pirates have a lot of depth, although they could still use help.
The starters here are Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski. If the season started today, I think that Connor Joe would be in the mix for a starting role, with Miguel Andujar on the bench. I also think Ji-Hwan Bae has a good chance at being a super-utility guy who can get time in the outfield.
The Pirates have Tucupita Marcano, Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Travis Swaggerty, and Ryan Vilade as depth options on the 40-man roster. They also have Matt Gorski and a few other prospects to provide second-half depth from the upper levels of the minors.
If you look at the rotation and 1B/DH, the Pirates have their starters in place. Those starters might not be more than average starters, but that’s better than where the Pirates were last year, and there’s better depth behind those positions.
The Pirates don’t have this yet in the outfield. At best, they have a starter in Reynolds, and another spot where a platoon of Suwinski and Joe would look good. They could use a third outfielder, pushing everyone else down into a depth role, and strengthening the entire group.
There is depth in the outfield, but right now this feels like the type of depth we’ve seen in previous years. That type of depth is the “throw a bunch of guys at a position and hope one of them sticks”. It seems like the Pirates are moving away from that approach this year at the other positions. I wouldn’t be surprised if they add an outfielder to match how they’ve stabilized those other spots.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.