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Roansy Contreras looking sharp at Altoona

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates-Workouts Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates’ top four minor league affiliates are a little more than a week into their respective seasons, and a few bright spots already have appeared.

Perhaps the brightest has been Roansy Contreras, a 21-year-old right-hander who came over as part of the Jameson Taillon trade. In 11 innings over two starts for Double-A Altoona, Contreras hasn’t allowed a run and has yielded just five hits and two walks while striking out an eye-popping 22 batters. All five of those hits came in his first start of the season; in his most recent start, which came Tuesday, Contreras pitched six hitless innings, walked two and matched his Double-A debut in strikeouts with 11. He needed only 70 pitches to go six innings and 49 of them were strikes.

The 6-foot, 175-pound Contreras, ranked the Pirates’ No. 20 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, signed with the New York Yankees out of the Dominican Republic and debuted in professional ball in 2017. The following year was divided between the Yankees’ short-season Class A team and their Low-A team at Charleston in the South Atlantic League. In those two stops combined, he went 0-2 with a sparkling 2.42 ERA in 12 starts. He yielded just 44 hits in 63 1/3 innings, striking out 60 and walking 21.

In his most recent full season of work, Contreras went 12-5 at Charleston with a 3.33 ERA in 24 starts. He gave up 105 hits in 132 1/3 innings, striking out 113 and walking 36. According to MLB Pipeline, Contreras’ fastball can reach the upper 90s and he sits more in the 92-95 mph area. His best secondary pitch is the changeup.

Two other players brought in via offseason trades also are off to good starts in catcher Endy Rodriguez and shortstop Maikol Escotto, both of whom are playing at Low-A Bradenton.

Rodriguez came to the Pirates from the Mets as part of the three-way deal with the Padres that saw Joe Musgrove go to San Diego. As part of that deal, the Pirates received pitcher Joey Lucchesi, who was then shipped to the Mets for Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, ranked the No. 27 prospect, is leading Bradenton in hitting with a .357 average and a .679 slugging percentage. In 28 at-bats, he has 10 hits – five of which have gone for extra bases – and seven RBIs. The switch-hitting catcher will turn 21 later this month.

Escotto, who is not ranked among the club’s Top 30 prospects on MLB Pipeline, started out 9 for 24 with four RBIs. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound right-handed hitter won’t turn 19 until early June. He is making his U.S. debut this season; in 2019, he put up a .981 OPS in the Dominican Summer League – good for eighth in that league.

At High-A Greensboro, considered one of the five most talented teams in all of the minor leagues by Baseball America, the keystone combination of Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales hasn’t disappointed anyone. Peguero, a shortstop and the club’s fifth-ranked prospect, is 7 for 18 (.389) with two homers and four RBIs. He sustained a mild right knee contusion, according to the Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey, and is expected to return to the lineup in a few days. Gonzales, the Pirates’ top pick in last year’s draft and the team’s No. 2 prospect, is 8 for 23 (.348) with three doubles, a home run and two RBIs.

Quinn Priester, the club’s top pitching prospect and No. 3 overall, has scuffled in his full-season debut at Greensboro. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-hander, who won’t turn 21 until after the season ends, is 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA. In two starts, he has given up eight hits and six earned runs while walking five and striking out seven.

Moving back to the higher levels, outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba – another piece obtained in the Taillon trade – is 6 for 18 (.333) with a homer and four RBIs at Altoona. Fellow outfielder Cal Mitchell, a second-round draft pick in 2017, has a home run and four RBIs and is hitting .294 at Altoona. Rodolfo Castro, who already has seen brief playing time at the big league level, also has a home run and four RBIs at Altoona and he’s batting .310. First baseman Mason Martin, the No. 15 prospect who hit 35 home runs in two Class A levels combined in 2019, has yet to go yard in 2021, but he does have three doubles and a triple in 28 at-bats. Infield mate Oneil Cruz, the Pirates No. 4 prospect, is 6 for 24 (.250) with two homers and six RBIs. Ji-hwan Bae, the middle infielder who is ranked No. 14, is just 3 for 25 with an RBI at Altoona.

Closer to the big leagues, center fielder Travis Swaggerty, the Pirates’ No. 9 prospect and their first-round draft pick in 2018, got an aggressive assignment this year, as he bypassed Double-A ball and is starting in center field at Triple-A Indianapolis. Swaggerty is 5 for 23 (.217) with two homers and four RBIs hitting leadoff for the Indians. Cole Tucker, whom many expected to play in the big leagues this year, has started slowly at the plate again, going just 5 for 28 (.179) in his first seven games. Will Craig, another first-round draft pick who has yet to make an impact at the big league level, started very slowly but has hit three home runs in his last two games.

On the pitching side, Miguel Yajure – also part of the Taillon trade – lost his first start but gave up just one earned run and four hits in six innings, walking two and striking out six.