The Pittsburgh Pirates seized on the opportunity to add to their minor league system as they selected a pair of pitchers and an infielder in the minor league portion of the annual Rule 5 draft, held Wednesday via teleconference.
Zach Matson, a 26-year-old left-handed pitcher from the Colorado Rockies originally selected in the 24th round of the 2016 draft by the Baltimore Orioles, was the Pirates’ first choice at No. 2 overall.
In subsequent rounds, the Bucs chose Nic Laio, a right-handed pitcher with the Texas Rangers, and Jacob Gonzalez, an infielder with the San Francisco Giants organization. All three players selected can be assigned to any level of the minor leagues in 2022.
In addition to picking up three players, the Pirates also lost a pair as the New York Yankees selected right-handed pitcher Steven Jennings with their first pick and the St. Louis Cardinals nabbed outfielder Jonah Davis in the third round.
Matson is a career reliever who played at the Double-A level in 2021 – his fifth year in the minor leagues not counting the 2020 pandemic season.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Matson pitched in the Orioles organization through the 2019 season, then missed the 2020 season before being released the following spring. The Rockies signed him to a minor league contract in April and he was assigned to Hartford of the Double-A Northeast League, where he went 2-2 with a 5.73 ERA in 35 games – all in relief. He gave up 28 hits and 15 walks in 33 innings but struck out an impressive 57 batters.
The 24-year-old Laio was a 20th-round pick in the 2018 draft out of Western Michigan. The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder reached High-A last season but did not fare well, posting an 0-1 record with a 7.80 ERA in 30 innings over 15 appearances, all but one of them in relief. He did strike out 40 batters in those 30 innings while walking 10 and allowing 34 hits.
At Low-A in 2021, Laio went 3-2 with a 2.73 ERA and 39 K’s in 26 1/3 innings.
Gonzalez, the son of former major leaguer Luis Gonzalez, was a second-round selection in the 2017 draft by the Giants out of Scottsdale, Ariz., and had a promising start to his pro career, batting .339 with an .876 OPS at the Rookie League level that season. He spent the next two years at Low-A Augusta, where he batted .227 with a .627 OPS in 2018 and .241 with a .679 OPS in 2019.
He split last season between the Giants’ Arizona Complex League team, where he batted .301/.856, and High-A Eugene, where he hit just .174/.502 in 103 plate appearances.
Jennings was once a highly regarded prospect in the Pirates organization; he was chosen in the second round — 42nd overall – in the 2017 draft and signed for a reported $1.9 million bonus out of Dekalb County High School in Smithville, Tenn.
But the 6-foot-2, 175-pounder never developed as envisioned, as he compiled a career minor league record of 19-19 with a 4.75 ERA in 79 games – 51 of which were starts – over four seasons. Jennings was developed as a starter during his first three seasons, the last of which was in Low-A Greensboro in 2019 when he went 7-12 with a 4.71 ERA in 27 starts.
Last year, he spent time at three different levels, the highest of which was Double-A Altoona, where he went 3-0 with a 6.98 in 13 appearances – all in relief. He gave up 40 hits and 11 walks while striking out 20 in 29 2/3 innings.
The 24-year-old Davis was a 15th-round selection out of Cal in the 2018 draft and split the 2021 season between High-A Greensboro and Altoona. The 5-foot-10 left-handed hitter slugged 19 homers and drove in 52 at what was then Low-A Greensboro in 2019, finishing with an .816 OPS. Last season, he batted just .196 at Greensboro and .211 at Altoona, but did show some pop, combining for 15 home runs and 38 RBIs in 297 at-bats.
Usually, the minor league Rule 5 draft follows the major league portion, but this year’s major league Rule 5 draft has been postponed due to the lockout. The major league event was scheduled to take place on the last day of the annual Winter Meetings Thursday, but there’s no telling when a major league Rule 5 draft will take place.
Last year, the Pirates selected three players in the minor league Rule 5 draft, including one – pitcher Shea Spitzbarth from the Los Angeles Dodgers – who ultimately reached the big leagues. The other two selections were pitcher Jeffrey Passantino from the Chicago Cubs and infielder Claudio Finol from the Cincinnati Reds.
Spitzbarth, 27, spent most of the 2021 season at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he went 3-3 with a 2.12 ERA in 42 appearances – all in relief. That earned him a call to the Pirates, where he was 0-0 with a 3.60 ERA in 5 innings of work.
Passantino, 26, went 1-8 with a 4.62 in 18 games – 15 starts – at Double-A Altoona. He struck out 74 and walked 20 in 76 innings.
Finol, 21, saw action at four levels last year, with most of his time spent in the Florida Complex League where he hit .276 with an .814 OPS. Overall on the season, Finol batted .217 with a .648 OPS in 106 plate appearances.