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Seven Pirates to represent organization in Arizona Fall League

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Nick Gonzales leads group of Pirate farm hands ‘Nor Leaguers set to begin fall baseball.

MLB: MAR 23 Spring Training - Twins at Pirates
Nick Gonzales in the box during spring training
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the Major League regular season and Minor League schedule now complete and the MLB playoffs just beginning, the Pittsburgh Pirates will not take the field again until February 26 in Spring Training, but some members of the franchise don’t have to wait more than a week to get back to the ballpark.

The Pirates announced today that seven prospects throughout the organization will play in the 2021 Arizona Fall League. Second baseman Nick Gonzales (No. 2/MLB No. 62), right-handed pitcher Roansy Contreras (6), RHP Carmen Mlodzinski (10), RHP Michael Burrows (14), infielder Ji-hwan Bae (22), Miguel Yajure (24), and Canaan Smith-Njigba (27) represent six of the Bucs’ Top 30 Prospects, with Yajure holding a spot on the list before graduating from prospect status.

Gonzales was a spark plug offensively for the Greensboro Grasshoppers in 2021, his first season of pro ball due to the pandemic. The Pirates 2020 first-round pick and fourth-best prospect slashed .302/.385/.565 with 23 doubles, 18 home runs, and 54 RBI in 80 games despite an injured right hand in May kept him sidelined until the end of June, winning High-A Player of the Month in August.

Contreras made his major league debut on September 29 after one start at AAA Indianapolis, pitching three scoreless innings after dominating AA hitters. The 21-year-old, acquired from the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon trade, delivered a 2.65 ERA, .185 opponent average, 0.90 WHIP, and 76 strikeouts compared to 12 walks allowed in 54.1 innings pitched.

Mlodzinski, 22, also made his final start of the season in AAA after pitching exclusively in Greensboro. The 2020 Competitive Balance Round A selection struggled to find length in his starts during the second half of 2021, failing to pitch four-plus innings post-July 3.

Burrows, a 21-year-old starter with a strong fastball-curveball combination, also dealt with injury complications this season similar to other Pirates’ farm hands looking for increased reps. The 2018 11th rounder was solid when available, striking out 66 in 49 innings to the tune of a 2.20 ERA in 13 starts.

Bae, 22, had an up-and-down season offensively in the early portion of 2021 but found a power stroke yet to be witnessed since joining the organization in 2018. After failing to hit a single home run in two Minor-League seasons as a Pirate, Bae slapped 7 in 83 games playing primarily at second base but also seeing time in center field, collecting a .278 average and 20 stolen bases for Greensboro.

Yajure, acquired with Smith-Nijgba and Contreras, bounced between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis while also dealing with a forearm injury midseason. The oldest of the group at 23, Yajure struggled with command, spanning only 15 innings allowing 17 hits, 7 walks, and 14 earned runs for the big-league club this past year, looking to build back up to full strength after missing all of June and July.

Smith-Njigba finished his first season in the organization with Indianapolis after also playing primarily for the Curve. The 22-year-old lefty batting outfielder couldn’t adjust to AAA pitching in seven games, batting .095, but had a decent season in Altoona before the promotion. Smith-Njigba hit .274 with 11 doubles, only 6 home runs, and walked more times than he drove in a run, 45 walks to 30 RBI, similar to his even count of 74 walks and RBI in 2019 with New York.

The Pirates have a developing core of young players in the minor leagues who have already provided a glimmer of hope to an otherwise overwhelmed franchise. The brief promotions of Contreras and polarizing 6’7’’ shortstop Oneil Cruz are only a hint of what could be to come, with a talented group led by Gonzales ready to knock down the door in 2022 and beyond as well.