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Re-evaluating Ben Cherington’s first draft class

With the 2021 MLB Draft only a few days away, let’s take a look at what Cherington did his first time out.

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After officially joining the Pittsburgh Pirates organization on November 18, 2019, unanticipated and unexpected challenges have been thrown at General Manager Ben Cherington in crafting the Bucs’ next winning team.

The COVID-19 pandemic was just the beginning, as the season was delayed until late July, resulting in a shortened 60-game MLB season and the cancelation of Minor League action. The Pirates drew the short end of the stick in 2020, accumulating a 19-41 overall record, but also struggled to find their footing in 2019 to a lesser degree.

In their last full season under GM Neil Huntington, the team free-falled to a 69-93 mark, good for seventh worst in baseball, thanks to one of the most unique collapses in Pirates history, with defensive and baserunning fundamentals practically forgotten about, players fighting in the locker room, and an organizational overhaul only weeks away.

The pandemic also significantly shortened the length of the 2020 MLB Draft from a whopping 40 rounds to five, making it even tougher for Cherington to load up the pipeline with sleeper-type prospects.

Despite the limitations, evaluations after the draft lead to high praise for the first-year Pittsburgh GM. Let’s take a look back at who the Pirates selected with their six picks.

First round: 2B Nick Gonzales (7th overall)

Rated as the fifth-best available prospect heading into draft night by MLB Pipeline, Gonzales dominated his sophomore season at New Mexico State playing in high altitude. The 5’10” second baseman truly made a name for himself at the Cape Cod League, winning the league MVP by hitting an impressive .351 with 7 homers and 33 RBI, walking almost as much as he struck out (20BB/22K).

After the draft, Gonzales reported to the team’s alternate training site for the 2020 season and opened eyes early on due to his strong hit tool. MLB Pipeline has compared him to Milwaukee’s Keston Hiura due to his advanced approach at the dish, also displaying solid speed but range meant for the right side of the infield.

The 22-year-old Gonzales was assigned to the high A Greensboro Grasshoppers (A+) to begin the 2021 season and immediately produced, hitting .294 with 2 home runs and 5 RBI in 13 games before injuring his right hand in a collision at first base. The Pirates No. 1 overall prospect returned on June 26 and hit home runs in back-to-back days along with another shot on July 6 to move his overall line to .250/.330/.511 with 11 RBI, 10 walks, 31 strikeouts, and 3 steals in 23 games.

Gonzales’s quick bat speed and ability at the top of the lineup have piqued Pirates fans’ interest in becoming the everyday man at second by the middle of 2023, with the possibility of a late 2022 call up not out of the question.

MLB Pipeline projected ETA: 2022

Competitive Balance Round A: RHP Carmen Mlodzinski (31st overall)

Despite breaking his left foot three starts into his sophomore year after struggling as a freshman at South Carolina, Mlodzinski tore up the Cape similar to Gonzales, providing the foundation for the Pirates to select him with their second selection. Mlodzinski finished 2-0 thanks to a 2.15 ERA and 40 strikeouts in six starts spanning 29 ⅓ innings. The 21st-ranked prospect heading into the June 10 draft, his performance at Cape Cod solidified his first-round talent, and the Pirates are beginning to see their gamble pay off.

Also 22, Mlodzinski has been fantastic in Greensboro, recording 51 punchouts in 37 ⅓ innings pitched, a 2.65 ERA, and a 0.96 WHIP. He held an outstanding 0.84 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 21 ⅓ through his first five starts. Dwelling on the Mlodzinski pick makes me think of the Ben Cherington smiling smirk meme, knowing he made the right choice once again for the future of the ballclub.

Don’t be surprised to see the Pirates No. 10 prospect in Altoona (AA) soon, despite an abolition of his last start on July 3 as his worst to date, allowing five runs over six innings of work. MLB Pipeline grades him with a 60 fastball, 55 slider, 55 changeup, and 50 control on a 20-80 scale, projecting a strong three pitch mix with more room to improve and sharpen his stuff.

MLB Pipeline projected ETA: 2023

Second Round: RHP Jared Jones (44th overall)

Thirteen picks after taking Mlodzinski, the Bucs went the high-school route to take Jones out of La Mirada High School. The 19-year-old Jones, who also was a strong threat with the bat at La Mirada, signing over slot away from his Texas commitment and finding early success with the franchise. Currently the Bucs’ 16th-best in the system, Jones can work his fastball up to 97 MPH and has easy swing-and-miss stuff.

In seven games, five starts, with the Bradenton Marauders (A+) in 2021, Jones has given up 20 hits and 8 earned runs spanning 22 ⅔ innings, vaulting to a 3.18 ERA, .233 opponent average, and 39 strikeouts. Jones has not pitched more than four innings yet, but a wipeout slider will carry him alongside the fastball on a strong track to the big leagues. MLB Pipeline ranks him with a 60 grade heater, 55 slider, and 50 changeup with only 40 for control, walking 10 so far this season. The future is bright for Jones and could become a mainstay in a big-league rotation.

MLB Pipeline projected ETA: 2024

Third Round: RHP Nick Garcia (79th overall)

Mainly drafted due to his strong performances as a reliever, Garcia started his time in college as a middle infielder at DIII Chapman, switching to pitcher the following season and being named the College World Series Most Outstanding player for his efforts as the team’s closer. He also pitched in the Cape Cod League as a reliever, somewhere the Pirates might want to buy a permanent timeshare for the amount of good players they’ve found in the league.

The 6’4”, 215-pound righty who bats lefty has a 60 graded fastball, 50 slider, and 50 cutter with 50 control according to MLB Pipeline. Cherington clearly wanted to load up on players with highly regarded fastballs in the first three rounds. The Bucs began him as a reliever, but a move to Bradenton’s rotation on June 18 has produced mixed results and not many innings, with his high of five on July 8 marking his first win as a starter.

Garcia has struck out 38 in 33 ⅔ innings, with a .246 opponent average and 1.51 WHIP due to a high walk count of 20, giving up 31 hits including three homers in the process. An overall 3.21 ERA has helped Garcia begin to establish himself as a starter, and the Pirates will want to keep it that was for as long as possible before any decision being made on a move back to the bullpen.

Pittsburgh’s 20th best prospect will turn 23 before the start of next season, needing a quick trajectory to the big leagues from A-ball to catch up with Gonzales and Mlodzinski, climbing three move levels of the Minor Leagues to reach PNC Park sometime in the next two years.

MLB Pipeline projected ETA: 2023

Fourth Round: RHP Jack Hartman (108th overall)

Hartman is the only Bucco 2020 pick not to appear in a game since being drafted 108th overall out of Appalachian State due to Tommy John surgery in December. After playing at two different community colleges from 2017-18, Hartman had many ups-and-downs at App State, recording a 4.98 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 21 ⅔ innings of work. He pitched well before the draft though and opened enough eyes in the Pirates organization to join a stacked draft class thus far.

Expect Hartman to begin the 2022 season in the low minor leagues, likely Bradenton, as he turns 23 on July 13. Hartman has a strong fastball to guide his 6’3” build, and his frame should help him to add velocity and rebound from Tommy John.

Projected ETA: 2024 (estimated; not listed on Pipeline)

Fifth Round: RHP Logan Hofmann (138th overall)

Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada, Hofmann was the last Pirates draft pick in the five-round draft, but is putting up similar numbers to his fellow counterparts. The 21-year-old rightly from Northwestern State has pitched as well as anyone in the Pirates’ class. In three starts over 11 total games pitched for Bradenton, Hofmann has only allowed two home runs and a .179 opponents batting average over 32 innings, striking out 46 and walking 13 in the process.

The Pirates have to be pleased with what they see in Hofmann and see him as a great value pick in the fifth round. He started his last three outings after appearing out of the bullpen in the first eight, so it will be worth watching to see if the Bucs can use his sing-and-miss ability out of the rotation as well.

Projected ETA: 2023 (estimated; not listed on Pipeline)

Looking back one year later on Cherington’s first draft in Pittsburgh, the potential is there for the 2020 class to be a grand slam type of difference maker for an organization that has struggled to develop first round picks since 2014, especially missing the remainder of the 2020 Minor League year.

Only Ke’Bryan Hayes and Kevin Newman in the 2015 draft have produced solidly in the big leagues, in a small sample size, in a group that also includes Cole Tucker and Connor Joe (2014) Will Craig and Nick Lodolo, who didn’t sign (2016), Shane Baz (2017) and Travis Swaggerty (2018).

The next boys of summer await, but after seeing early success from all four picks in the first three rounds, trusting Ben Cherington to create a perfect sunset on the horizon should be Pirates fans top priority. The management team deserves a long chance to prove they have what it takes to revamp the team, and after evaluating the Minor Leagues after one season, they’ve earned some time and patience, with aggression not too far off in the distant future.

Ben Cherington passes his first test so far with an A and the potential to add a plus alongside it, but the real test begins Sunday night, where if the Bucs do go under slot at first overall, they must be prepared to pick a talent like Jones in the second or third round and throw the kitchen sink his way in order to help solidify the Pirates with a top-three farm system in the game.