Forget your program or scorecard – minor league baseball fans might be better served with a compass this year, as play resumes Tuesday following a year-long hiatus due to COVID-19.
Gone are familiar league names like the International League, the Eastern League, the Florida State League and the South Atlantic League.
In their place are directional-heavy monikers — the Triple-A East, the Double-A Northeast, the Low-A Southeast and the High-A East.
And those aren’t the only changes. Also gone are the Pacific Coast League, the Texas League and several lower minor leagues.
Pittsburgh’s top two farm teams remain in Indianapolis and Altoona, respectively, but Indianapolis will play in the Triple-A East Midwest Division instead of the International League and Altoona in the Double-A Northeast Southwest Division rather than the Eastern League.
In past years, Bradenton was considered the Pirates’ High-A affiliate, but this year’s Marauders team will play in the Low-A Southeast West Division. Greensboro, N.C., will play in the High-A East South Division.
Complete rosters haven’t been set for those four teams, but both Altoona and Bradenton have posted them on their respective websites, and Greensboro had a partial roster as of Saturday afternoon. The accuracy of those rosters can’t be guaranteed; for example, pitcher Nick Garcia – the Pirates’ 17th-best prospect according to Baseball America, is listed on both the Bradenton and Greensboro rosters.
Altoona will boast a number of top Pirates prospects, including 21-year-old Oneil Cruz, the skyscraping shortstop who ranks as No. 2 on the Pirates list according to Baseball America. The 6-foot-7, 210-pound Cruz, rated as the 50th best overall prospect in the game, has played shortstop for the most part, but he did see some action in the outfield in spring training and some believe that’s his ultimate destination.
Cody Bolton, ranked No. 7 among Pirates prospects, figures to hold down a spot in the starting rotation. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander turns 23 in mid-June. Other starting pitching candidates include Roansy Contreras (No. 13) and Max Kranick (No. 30).
Infield prospects at Altoona include middle infielder Ji-Hwan Bae (11), first baseman Mason Martin (21) and utility man Rodolfo Castro (29). The top-rated outfielders at Altoona are Cal Mitchell (25) and Canaan Smith-Njigba (27).
Martin was named the Pirates’ minor league player of the year in 2019 after hitting a combined 34 home runs at what was then low Class A Greensboro and high class A Bradenton.
Greensboro, meanwhile, is listing four Top 20 prospects on its roster in infielders Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero and pitchers Carmen Mlodzinski and the aforementioned Garcia.
Gonzales was the Pirates’ top pick in the 2020 draft while Peguero was obtained from Arizona in the Starling Marte trade. Some see those two as the Pirates’ future keystone combination, although Cruz might have something to say about that if he proves he can stick at shortstop. Mlodzinski and Garcia — like Gonzales — are 2020 draft picks.
The top prospects at Bradenton are outfielder 20-year-old Hudson Head, ranked No. 6; and right-handers Brennan Malone (9) and Eddy Yean (19). Head was the key piece in the Joe Musgrove trade, while Malone, just 20, came over from the Diamondbacks with Peguero in the Marte deal. Yean, who turns 20 in late June, was the centerpiece in the Christmas Eve trade that sent Josh Bell to Washington and also brought back Wil Crowe.
Indianapolis could feature several players who’ve already seen action in the big leagues, including outfielders Anthony Alford and Dustin Fowler, both of whom struggled in their earlier stints with the Pirates, and pitchers Miguel Yajure — the club’s 10th-ranked prospect — and Crowe (20). Former top draft pick Cole Tucker, who has been working in Bradenton on what the Pirates have called “skills development,” also figures to be assigned to Indianapolis.