With Christmas just a few days away, I thought I’d present you with an early gift – something to mull over during these times when news is even harder to come by than in a normal offseason.
MLB Pipeline recently published its top prospect rankings for the 2022 draft, and since your Pittsburgh Pirates are holding the No. 4 selection, it might be worthwhile to take a look at some of the names that might fall to the Buccos.
MLB.com’s top prospect at this point is Druw Jones, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound right-handed hitting outfielder from Wesleyan High School in Norcross, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. If the name sounds familiar, it should, as Jones is the son of longtime major league outfielder Andruw Jones, who spent 17 years in the big leagues, including 12 with the Atlanta Braves.
The younger Jones, rated No. 4 among high school draft prospects by Baseball America, appears to be a chip off the old block defensively, as MLB rates him as the best defensive center fielder among all high school players eligible for the 2022 draft and indicates that he might be the best overall draft-eligible defender, regardless of position.
The 18-year-old Vanderbilt recruit is no slouch at the plate, either; his scouting grade for the hit tool is at 55 and he has a 60 power grade to go along with 70 grades for both fielding and running and 65 for his throwing arm.
Next on the list is a fellow Georgian high school player, 17-year-old Termarr Johnson, who is rated the top high school prospect by Baseball America. Johnson, who projects as a second baseman, is considered a potential No. 1 overall pick by MLB Pipeline largely for his hitting ability. MLB says he “might be the best pure prep hitter in decades.” MLB gives him a 70 hit tool but acknowledged that some evaluators put an 80 grade on that tool – the highest grade there is.
Johnson, at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, is a left-handed hitter who won’t turn 18 until mid-June. According to MLB, one scout likened him to a combination Wade Boggs (plate discipline) and Vladimir Guerrero Sr. (bat-to-ball skills).
No. 3 on the list is Elijah Green, whom we touted 13 months ago in this space and whom Baseball America rates as the No. 2 overall high school prospect. You might recall that the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Green already has a Pittsburgh connection as his father, Eric, played tight end for the Steelers from 1990 through 1994 and was an All-Pro selection the last two years.
The right-handed hitting outfielder has shown plus raw power, but he’s also shown a propensity to swing and miss. However, given the way the game is today, it’s unlikely his swing-and-miss trouble will be held against him, particularly considering his other tools. MLB calls him an “elite-level runner” who should cover plenty of ground – and steal some bags – and rates his arm as plus as well.
Following Green on the MLB list is Jacob Berry, who gained significant notoriety as a freshman last year at the University of Arizona, where he led the Pac-12 conference in extra-base hits and RBIs. The 6-foot 205-pound switch hitter has been compared to former fellow Pac-12 performer Andrew Vaughn, whom the Chicago White Sox drafted No. 3 overall in 2019, although Vaughn is strictly a right-handed hitter.
Berry’s value appears highly weighted to the offensive side of the game; he was mostly a DH last year for the Wildcats, although he’s expected to see more action at third base this year at LSU, where he transferred after former Arizona coach Jay Johnson took the Tigers’ head coaching job.
Rounding out the top five is Brooks Lee, another collegiate infielder who plays at Cal Poly, where his switch-hitting skills translated to marks of .342/.384/.626 . That enabled him to take home Big West Co-Player of The Year honors. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder turns 21 on Valentine’s Day.
MLB’s list doesn’t show a pitcher until the No. 9 spot, where another Georgia prep player – Dylan Lesko – appears. The 6-foot 2, 195-pound right-hander became the first underclassman to win the Gatorade national player of the year honor last year when he went 11-0 with a 0.35 ERA. Lesko, whom Baseball America ranks as the No. 3 overall high school prospect entering the 2022 draft, struck out 112 batters in 60 innings.
Baseball America’s top college prospect is Jace Jung, who is ranked No. 6 overall by MLB Pipeline. Jung, whose older brother Josh was taken No. 1 by the Texas Rangers in 2019, batted .337/.697 last year at Texas Tech. The 6-foot, 200-pound left-handed hitter split time between second and third base during his first two seasons as a Red Raider.
What will the Pirates do?
While there’s certainly nothing written in stone at this point, the lists do make for some intriguing discussion – or at least thought because one must consider the state of the Pirates organization to give some context to those prospects. Although the Pirates’ Minor League system certainly is in better shape than it was before Ben Cherington arrived in the fall of 2019, it’s not as if it’s loaded to the gills. In other words, I don’t think the Bucs are so well-stocked at any one position as to exclude the possibility of taking any one of the aforementioned prospects – or anyone else ranked high on the MLB Pipeline or Baseball America list.
However, given that last year’s top pick was a catcher (Henry Davis), it would be a bit surprising if the Pirates went in that direction in 2022, although Baseball America ranks Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada as the No. 2 overall college prospect. It would not be unprecedented for an organization to take two highly regarded catchers in fairly short order; the Giants took Joey Bart with the No. 2 overall pick in 2018 and then selected Patrick Bailey at No. 13 in 2020.
Elsewhere, the Bucs seem to be fairly well set at the middle infield spots, and providing that Ke’Bryan Hayes’ troubles in 2021 were mostly due to injury, that could point to the outfield or the pitcher’s mound as potential areas of focus.
Many will tell you that you can never have enough pitching, but perhaps taking a pitcher at No. 4 would be a reach this year. Lesko was already mentioned, and the top college pitcher – at least in the eyes of MLB Pipeline and Baseball America – is Peyton Pallette, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound right-hander. Pallette, ranked No. 13 overall by MLB and No. 5 among draft-eligible college players, was having a strong sophomore season at Arkansas until it was cut short by elbow issues. According to MLB Pipeline, those issues did not require surgery, but he was limited to just one inning in fall ball.
As a fan, I would love to see the Pirates opt for one of the stud outfielders – Jones or Green – if either one was to fall to No. 4. It’s not that the system is bereft of outfield prospects, but none of them jump off the page. According to MLB Pipeline, Lonnie White is the highest-ranked outfield prospect, and given that he’s just 18, it’ll be years before he’s ready to play in the big leagues. The same would be said of either Jones or Green, of course, but I wouldn’t mind having one of them to team with White and perhaps Hudson Head, in the PNC Park outfield in 2026.