The Pirates have a crowded roster in the Florida Complex League. They’ve probably got enough players to field two teams, especially given that they’re only going to play five games a week. They’ll have only one.
That team currently is loaded with players on injury rehab (Geronimo Franzua, Juan Jerez, Josiah Sightler, Jack Herman and, most notably, Lonnie White, Jr.) and others who’ve been demoted after struggling at Bradenton or elsewhere (Sergio Umana, Omar Alfonzo, Rayber Romero, Javier Rivas, Braylon Bishop and Jauri Custodio). Some of these guys, perhaps many, might move on quickly, so I’m not going to spend time on them here.
There still are far more than enough players, though, to staff a short-season team, and that should be a matter of some concern. I’ve seen the Bradenton Marauders a lot the past three years and it looks to me like a large percentage of their players haven’t been ready for full-season ball. That’s not just my opinion; if you read Baseball America, you know that it’s a widely held view around baseball that the quality of play at the Marauders’ level is well below what it was before MLB eliminated most of the short-season leagues. Of course, that affects everybody, not just the Pirates, but it still behooves the Pirates to get their youngest prospects sufficient experience this early in their careers.
The FCL team currently has five catchers listed on the roster. The most noteworthy, certainly, is Axiel Plaz. He put up a 1.206 OPS last year in the Dominican Summer League and he won’t even turn 18 until mid-August. He only had 86 PAs, so we have to bear in mind both the small sample size and the fact that DSL stats have little meaning. (Don’t forget that Alexander Mojica, now in his third year at Bradenton, destroyed the DSL.)
The FCL team has another catcher, Miguel Sosa, who put up strong hitting numbers in the DSL last year, including a .980 OPS with twice as many walks as strikeouts. He saw more time in the outfield than behind the plate last year, so it remains to be seen where the Pirates see him playing.
Another catcher who’ll probably see a lot of playing time is Omar Alfonzo. He was well regarded, mainly for his bat, when the Pirates signed him back in 2019, but he batted only .144 in the FCL last year and recently got sent down from Bradenton, where he was hitting .167 this year. The team also has Eybert Escalona, who put up very strong hitting numbers in the DSL in 2021-22. For some reason, though, he’s never gotten regular playing time.
The marquee position player on this team (depending on how you view Lonnie White Jr.) is shortstop Yordany De Los Santos (pictured at top). The Pirates’ top international signing for the 2022 period, he’s athletic enough that he may be able to stay at the position, and he has the strength to develop middle-of-the-order pop. He’s coming off a good debut in the DSL last year and spent a lot of time on the field with higher-level players this past spring. De Los Santos won’t turn 18 until next February.
Apart from De Los Santos, the team will have three players just up from the DSL: Kelvin Diaz, Jhonson Pena and Wesley Zapata. Zapata made a lot of progress in 2022, putting up a 287/369/427 line after struggling in the DSL in 2021. Like a lot of guys at this stage, he plays all over the infield, except first. Diaz also improved in his second DSL season, although not nearly as much. He batted only .218, but drew a ton of walks and hit for some gap power. He’s been primarily a shortstop so far, but De Los Santos will be in his way there. Pena, too, spent two years in the DSL, but he was very productive at the plate in both years. He’s a top-of-the-order type who gets on base a lot. He played mainly second in the DSL, but started off this year playing in the outfield.
The FCL infield has a lot of returning players. That’s obviously not a good sign and you don’t know how much playing time these guys are going to get. Luis Tejeda was one of the Pirates’ more prominent international signings way back in 2018. He struggled in the FCL in 2022, then was hurt most of last year, so this is his third try at the level. He was expected to be an offense-oriented shortstop. A.J. Graham has been a mystery man. Since the Pirates signed him out of high school in 2021, he’s gotten a whopping 31 plate appearances. Jeral Toledo can play anywhere in the infield and draws a lot of walks, but he batted .173 in the FCL last year. Ronny Sanchez is a first baseman who’s shown some power, but a lot of swing-and-miss.
The focus here will be on Lonnie White Jr., at least for now. It’s been nearly two years since he was drafted and he’s barely gotten over 50 plate appearances. Ideally, he’ll earn a promotion to Bradenton. At 20, you don’t want to see him mired in rookie ball, even with the injuries.
Looking just at players who aren’t on rehab and haven’t been moved down for performance reasons, the other outfielders would be Ewry Espinal, Esmerlyn Valdez and Eddy Rodriguez. Valdez was in the FCL last year and had a solid season, putting up a .765 OPS. He’s still 19 and has power potential. Espinal also has some power and he’s certainly patient. In 200 PAs last year in the DSL, he drew 60 walks, which fueled a .480 OBP. That came, though, with 61 strikeouts. He’s 20 now. Rodriguez, who’s 19, hit well in both of his DSL seasons, and he’s also shown some power. He had a .787 OPS two years ago and improved to .840 in 2022. All three could see time at first base.
The two most prominent names on the FCL Pirates’ pitching staff are Jun-Seok Shim and Michael Kennedy. Shim was a high-profile signing out of Korea — a 6’4″ 19-year-old who already features elite velocity. Exactly how long he stays in the FCL will be interesting to see. Kennedy, a lefty, was a fourth round pick last year out of prep school who signed for double the slot value. Despite hailing from cold-weather Troy, NY, he’s considered very advanced and might also be a candidate to move up soon.
Other pitchers who’ve shown promise so far are Antwone Kelly, Hung-Leng Chang and Isaias Uribe. The first two are returning to the level. Kelly is a short, stocky pitcher who throws in the mid-90s and has gotten very good results so far. The Pirates seem to be taking things very slowly with him so far; he’ll turn 20 in September. Chang signed out of Taiwan and, last year, alternated between dominating and struggling. Uribe is the only lefty on the staff other than Kennedy. He’s shown good stuff and has some projection left. He had two good seasons in the DSL and also missed a season due to the pandemic, so he’ll be 21 in another month.
The FCL team always has a raft of pitchers who fall into a couple broad categories that often overlap. One is pitchers with excellent stuff (or just velocity) who lack control. The other is pitchers trying to overcome injuries or just put things together.
Chief among the group with good stuff and control problems are Roelmy Garcia and Jose Garces. Both piled up the walks and strikeouts in the FCL last year. Enmanuel De Los Santos and Andy Maldonado both have good arms. They’ve missed time to injuries, the pandemic and, in Maldonado’s case, a PED suspension. Joaquin Tejada (acquired with Carter Bins in the Tyler Anderson deal), Jorge Ramos, Johan Montero, Sergio Umana and Eliecer Romero are all repeating the level, in some cases for the second time. And there’s also Cristopher Cruz. He got the largest bonus of the Pirates’ July 2, 2019, signings, but he just hasn’t performed well.
Some pitchers new to the level are Keneth Quintanilla, Luis Faringthon, Andres Silvera, Alberto Saba, Kevison Hernandez and Jackson Grounds. The first five are all medium- to lower-bonus signees who’ve had some success in the DSL. Silvera in particular had an outstanding season in 2022, as did Faringthon, although he missed some time. Silvera, though, is on the seven-day injured list right now. Hernandez was having a very strong season but got hurt early on. He appears to be healthy now. Grounds signed out of Australia and just made his pro debut. He already has good velocity and a promising breaking ball, and won’t turn 19 for another month.
Pitcher development is erratic and unpredictable. All of these guys have ability or they wouldn’t be there. The best way to sort through them is a simple one: Follow the season and see which guys the Pirates give the innings to.
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.