The Pittsburgh Pirates have a deep farm system.
The system is getting deep at the top, where you could have fun picking between the best prospects in the system. We will be doing that next week, with our prospect rankings. We’ve also got our season previews rolling out over the next two days.
Beyond those prospects at the top, this system has depth in the form of guys who could take a step forward and emerge from the sea of 40-45 grade options. Here are five sleeper prospects to follow in the system, if you’re looking for a breakout candidate to follow.
The Pirates sent Kyle Nicolas to Altoona, where he will remain in the rotation as a starter. His path to the majors might not require a stop in Indianapolis, as the Pirates have called players up from Altoona if they’re performing well.
“Kyle’s way forward is being in the strike zone all the time,” said Pirates’ farm director John Baker. “And if he is, it’s not going to be too long until he’s a major league starter for us.”
Nicolas made 22 starts in Altoona last year, posting a 3.97 ERA in 90.2 innings on the season. He had a 25.9% strikeout rate, but a 12.1% walk rate in his first year in the organization — following being acquired in the Jacob Stallings trade. Cutting down on the walks seems to be the big thing holding him back from the big leagues.
“He carries his velocity late into the game, works as hard as anybody out there, has three arguably four major league pitches right now,” said Baker. “And if they’re in the zone at a 65% rate, that’s a very good major league starter.”
Nicolas spent all offseason in Bradenton focusing on his training. He’s got a workhorse frame that allows him to carry his velocity into later innings. The fastball sits 93-94, topping out at 97. His slider and curveball can both be above-average to plus offerings, and the changeup is fringe-average.
All eyes will be on Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows in Indianapolis for prospect depth. Luis Ortiz will also get his opportunities. Don’t count out Nicolas, especially if he’s effective in the zone.
The infield in Bradenton will get a lot of attention this year due to 2022 first round pick Termarr Johnson at second base. To his right is a shortstop prospect who has a familiar story.
Six-foot-seven Javier Rivas got a lot of praise for his bat in the FCL last year. Even more impressive was that he could play well defensively at shortstop. He hit for a .265/.337/.419 line with five homers in the pitcher friendly league.
A key difference between the two middle infielders is that Johnson was taken in the first round for his pure hitting skills, while Rivas is still learning to control the strike zone. If he can learn to do that in his age-20 season, and start to tap into his power more, then the Pirates will have another freakishly tall shortstop prospect to develop.
I think a good outcome this year would be similar results from the FCL, at the highest level, with some positive developments in the swing and miss department. I’d expect Rivas to spend the entire year in Bradenton, giving a lot of flashes of future potential. It might be difficult for him to break out this year, but he could put himself on the radar like this next guy did.
The Pirates signed Cheng out of Taiwan in 2019, and he’s quickly become one of the best pure hitters in the system. He hit .270/.376/.418 in Bradenton last year, not really matching his .312/.449/.492 in the FCL the year prior.
Cheng had a busy offseason. He went to Puerto Rico, where he hit .182 with a .513 OPS against higher level competition. He then played in the World Baseball Classic for his home country, getting a few hits. At both spots, his defense was stellar.
Baker relayed a story to me about how the Pirates were working on a defensive play while Cheng was gone. It took him one day to pick up the drill, with Baker praising his high baseball aptitude.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cheng have good numbers in the hitter friendly Greensboro this year. What I wonder is whether the shortstop could add some pressure to Liover Peguero, who is at shortstop in Altoona.
A name that I keep hearing a lot is JP Massey. Drafted in the seventh round last year out of Minnesota, Massey has been drawing positive reviews from both inside and outside the organization.
Massey has a fastball that can reach mid-90s, but struggled with control in college, and had an ERA north of six. Scouts loved his ability to pitch, and his stuff seems to have taken a nice jump forward this spring. The latest evidence is shown in today’s Pirates DVR.
The Pirates sent Massey to Bradenton, where he will have a chance to break out with plenty of innings in the rotation.
Maybe file this in the “I want to believe” file. Maikol Escotto was one of my sleepers last year, due to his plus power potential at second base. He has yet to show good contact skills in pro ball, and had a rough season in 2022. He struggled in Greensboro, and had decent numbers in Bradenton. He will get another shot at Greensboro to begin the year.
So, what’s changed?
Escotto went home frustrated to the Dominican, and worked in the Dominican Instructional League. He was put into a leadership position, and according to Baker, he responded well to the role, with some of his best effort.
Aside from the effort and attitude, Baker also highlighted how Escotto has fared well at managing the pitch clock — which may allow him to cut down on some of the swing and miss issues by getting in a better prepared position quicker than the pitcher.
Escotto stands out due to the power potential from the middle infield. He’s held back by swing and miss issues. He will get another shot at Greensboro this year, where he will hope to cut down on those and let the bat power through.
TODAY ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
It’s Tuesday, which normally would mean an article drop. With minor league seasons starting, we have article drops hitting the site every day this week. We’ve got our season previews rolling out over the next few days.
My first daily column looks at a play between Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski, and argues that Suwinski should be the center fielder.
I’ve been having fun writing this series on my view of the tools of baseball. I have a feeling that the formatting style of these articles is leading to the death of at least two Boomers per article. Just like with COVID, we all have to make sacrifices to keep the economy going. In this case, the economy is thinking about the game of baseball like a game of chess.
**Five Sleepers to Follow in the Pittsburgh Pirates System in 2023 – READING
Who are your sleepers? Leave them in the comments below!
**Cody Bolton Amped-Up For Move to the Bullpen
Cody Bolton has moved to the bullpen as a full-time reliever in Indianapolis. Ryan Palencer talked with the right-hander, who was amped up about the new, consistent role.
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.
Massey’s the only one I’d consider a sleeper. If people didn’t notice Cheng during the WBC, they weren’t watching.
Escotto, Massey, AND Nicolas? This is only missing Sean Sullivan to be a perfect sleeper list 😂
JP Massey…now that’s a deep cut.
I think he could be this year’s Justin Meis.
wait, is rivas really 6’7??
6’7” SS and a 5’9” 2b (Johnson). That’s gonna be a site!
Wouldn’t it be great if they came up through the ranks together!
He’s listed at 6’6, but I was told 6’7.
Interesting picks Tim
Btw how big is Endy Rodriguez?
Last year he was listed at 6’0” 200
Now he’s shown at 5’9” 170
i swear last i checked he was listed at 6’4 lol
having two 6’7 shortstops….pirates cornering the market there
Site usually don’t update signing height/weight, so I was surprised to see him listed at 6’6″ not long ago. He signed at 6’4″, but he was still 16 at the time.
Need to go swipe elly de la cruz from cincy so we can officially monopolize