To say the Pittsburgh Pirates have had a turbulent past three seasons is an understatement, with a 136-220 (.382 win %) record, including a 19-41 last-place finish in all of baseball during MLB’s 60-game 2020 season.
Currently the fourth-worst team in the game and second-to-last in the National League after another failed comeback attempt combined with a game-costing error in extra innings, the Bucs have struggled to find consistent contributors outside of center fielder Bryan Reynolds, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, and closer David Bednar.
Luckily for the Pirates, reinforcements are on the way.
The Greensboro Grasshoppers have been the best team throughout the organization all season long and have caught fire as of late, including a seven-game winning streak entering Saturday.
Pittsburgh’s High-A affiliate houses four of the system’s top five prospects and three others within MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Prospects, compiling an organizational best 68-38 record after the minor’s one-year absence in 2020, good for second place in the High-A East Division.
No one has more knowledge of the current Grasshoppers than Ben Spanier of Baseball Prospectus, collecting video and eyewitness reports of the latest Pirates breakout prospects.
Spanier lives about 15 minutes from the Grasshoppers’ home at First National Bank Field and attends a few games at most homestands, being one of the first throughout baseball to see highly talented players before advancing to the highest levels of the Minor Leagues. He said:
“It’s like putting a puzzle together basically like when you’re looking at guys trying to figure out how they’re going to be in the future. Greensboro this year is an interesting team.”
Second baseman Nick Gonzales and shortstop Liover Peguero have formed a dynamic middle-infield duo with Gonzales currently the hottest hitter in baseball, hitting .474 (9-19) with five home runs, 17 RBI in four games spanning August 29-September 2 including a three-homer game on the 29th, earning High-A Player of the Month honors for his success throughout August.
Nick Gonzales hit THREE home runs yesterday. pic.twitter.com/wKYIdOq4P3— Young Bucs (@YoungBucsPIT) August 30, 2021
I talked to Spanier about the Bucs 2020 first-round pick’s offensive ability and what Gonzales has done to improve his game, liking the upside and potential that he brings to the Greensboro lineup compared to any other. He said:
“Great bat speed. There’s probably a debate over whether it’s really going to generate power because he’s not a big guy. It seems like a lot of his strengths as a hitter are hitting it up the middle and to right field.”
One criticism of the 5’10’’, 195 pound Gonzales is his power playing up in Greensboro, with 12 of his 16 home runs belted at home, while also not displaying much defensive versatility. Spanier said:
“I’ve seen him drive the ball too. I’ve also seen criticism of him because his home runs were only in Greensboro which is a big hitters park. The issue with Gonzales is he’s a second baseman and only a second baseman. He’s not going to be one of those utility guys.”
Gonzales, 22, missed over a month of action with a right-hand injury spanning May 19-June 26 and hit a snag with the bat through July, batting a season-low .214 on July 15. Spanier thinks the injury and slump prevented Gonzales from advancing to AA Altoona by now, benefitting from advanced game action to move forward through the organization.
“He swings at more pitches through the zone at this level than I would suspect, definitely really good breaking balls I’ve seen him swing through a lot. That might be nit-picking because he’s still developing… Once he develops his hit tool more it will help with his power too.”
As for Peguero, the Pirates acquired the 20-year-old infielder alongside RHP Brennan Malone from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Starling Marte in General Manager Ben Cherington’s first trade since being hired in November 2019.
Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales creating a run. Peguero has also made two great plays at short today, one to his left and one to his right pic.twitter.com/it6lq25umS— Ben Spanier (@b_span2) August 19, 2021
Spanier believes Peguero is playing well at High-A for his age, hitting .271 with 14 home runs, 43 RBI, 23 stolen bases, and a .793 OPS against pitchers frequently older than him who have experienced more gameplay. He said:
“You never want to say ‘for sure he’s going to be a hitter,’ but there’s a lot of things to like about Peguero. He’s just one of those guys who are fun to watch. I think he can hit for above-average power too.
“The one thing is, and this is positive and negative, people think he has a lot of physical projection left and I can see it in some ways positive and negative projections… his upper thighs are bigger than the rest of his body, his shoulders aren’t that big… in some ways, it’s good because it might be helpful in keeping him at shortstop and some ways it’s not because I’m not going to say he’s going to develop plus power, though I’ve seen flashes.”
Spanier said he thinks Peguero has the tools to hit, and despite 21 fielding errors in 77 games at short in 2021– raising an eyebrow with skeptics— Spanier believes he has what it takes to stick at the position long term.
“He’s got certain qualities that are good, for one I think that he could be a plus shortstop. A lot of people don’t necessarily think that and that he has to move off the position, but for me maybe his upper body action is ahead of his lower body action and that helps at the plate as well.”
Peguero 2B that would’ve been out if the CF wall wasn’t so high pic.twitter.com/icmO5bDcGZ— Ben Spanier (@b_span2) June 20, 2021
“He’s got a good first step, good arm, good instincts, he throws from different angles. That’s the most enjoyable part about watching him. He’s an athlete who knows how to play shortstop... his tags are pretty cool, he’s got good hands.”
Peguero suffered a minor right knee contusion in mid-May but has stayed relatively healthy since. Spanier thinks Peguero could play numerous positions, including third and left down the road if needed, and has seen the prospect’s good hands assist in positive results at the plate, also trying to tap into his power potential.
In May, Baseball America posted a side-by-side video of Peguero and Atlanta Braves superstar outfielder Ronald Acuña’s swing path, almost mirroring each other’s approach.
This is a fun one.— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) May 6, 2021
On the left? Ronald Acuña Jr.'s swing at 20 years old.
On the right? #Pirates prospect Liover Peguero's homer from Tuesday night.
Looks pretty similar
( ️ via @jnorris427) pic.twitter.com/y9tt3rtPVm
“I’ve seen it work to his advantage at the plate at times. I’ve seen him get in on pitches, hit the ball the other way, but it definitely seems like he wants to tap into the power sometimes and his swing will get a little stiff and a little grooved.”
After signing with the Pirates, first-overall pick Henry Davis reported to the team’s FCL affiliate for two games before being aggressively promoted to Greensboro. In eight games between two levels, the former Louisville catcher totaled three homers, seven RBI, and a .308 batting average.
Spanier said Davis looked ready for High-A competition before being played on the IL due to an oblique injury.
“He can definitely throw the ball and hit it far. Even seeing him a couple of times that’s obvious.”
Davis caught four games for the Grasshoppers and served as the DH in two others, displaying his top-of-the-order bat the 21-year-old was best known for in college. Spanier said:
“You can see the bat speed, how strong he is, you can see that’s the main thing. He’s definitely going to be a power hitter, you can tell by the way he swings too. He gets a lot of loft, he swings uphill a little bit but that’s not a problem. He’s a power-hitting catcher and I think they’re banking on him being ok back there, decent enough (behind the plate).”
Defense has been a calling card for scouts to direct concern, unsure if Davis can handle pitch framing well enough to steal strikes, but does display a strong throwing arm behind the dish. Spanier said:
“I don’t know enough about him yet to know how good he is at blocking, but generally what I’ve heard is… he’s fine…. He looks like a catcher to me… not a DH. From everything I’ve heard he’s got a big arm.”
What type of hitter could the Pirates be getting? At first overall, middle-of-the-order potential as an offense-first catcher looks likely. Spanier said:
“Power hitting and I think he’s polished enough with the contact hitting not to necessarily be a high average hitter but he’s going to drive the ball… he’s going to be well above (the offensive bar for catchers)... that’s why he’s a No. 1 pick.”
Spanier said Gonzales and Davis are the best bets from Greensboro to become major leaguers, with another player who jumped onto the scene garnering much-earned attention.
A former colleague told Spanier that the Pirates were hyping up outfielder Matthew Frazier in the offseason, looking likely to improve his game and add power once the Minor League season began.
“The first couple games I was not really seeing it. He was playing left field, batting eighth; his swing is not pretty, especially for a lefty it’s a little abrupt but you can tell he gets power from it. He really grew on me quickly. Then he started really hitting and there are certain things about him that are impressive.”
A third-round selection out of Arizona in the 2019 draft, the 23-year-old lefty never stopped hitting in Greensboro on his way to a .314 average, 14 doubles, 20 long balls, and 50 RBI in 75 games. Spanier had this to say about him:
“He obviously has power, the bat speed’s pretty good, especially on pitches inside, like fastballs, I’ve seen him really turn on them. It’s impressive how well he fouls off pitches that are not good. I’ll see him with an 0-2 count fouling off four or five pitches.
“You can always say ‘he’s 23 so A-ball pitching he should be able to handle but that’s not completely fair either because you have to perform and perform the assignment you’re given.”
After crushing High-A pitching, Frazier, earned a promotion to Altoona in early August, showing no signs of slowing down, hitting .300 in 24 games with the Curve, also displaying play defensive ability in center. Spanier said:
“They were playing him in the corner outfield at the beginning, I think they were prioritizing Gorski playing center, then Frazier started hitting more… and he can play center. He’s a good center fielder, his arm’s pretty good, he just seems to know what he’s doing in general.”
As for Greensboro’s starting pitchers, who were the main attraction at the year’s inception, top pitching prospect Quinn Priester has stood out above the rest, with pitchers like Michael Burrows, Carmen Mlodzinski, and others battling injuries throughout the season. Priester has stayed healthy and after a rough start, had thrown five or more innings every outing since July 6. Spanier said:
“He usually sits around 93-94 touch 95 (MPH) now, even lower sometimes. Sometimes he uses the two-seamer, runs it in on people, gets it low, and gets ground balls.”
It might fall on deaf ears to hear Priester could be a ground ball pitcher, but the righty has strikeout 10 in one outing and a career-high 13 in another all this month as well.
“No one really wants to hear Priester’s a sinker-slider guy though he can pitch with that style when he wants to…. It’s also not bad that he can vary his approach and he seems to have a good feeling for what he’s doing and how to pitch.
“A lot of times it gets tiresome, it’s one of the reason’s I enjoy watching Preister pitch. Guys at this level and especially that age it will be ‘fastball-slider, fastball-curveball.’... Priester’s, not that.”
Spanier said Priester could become a solid No. 2 pitcher in his mind with a 12-6 curveball one of his better offerings, with a slider acting similar to a cutter improving this year.
As for Mlodzinski, who has faced injuries, Spanier said he could see the former South Carolina right-hander in the bullpen long term but after a successful first half of the year is intrigued to see how Mlodzinski furthers his pitching ability.
“At the beginning of the year his two-seamer was really working, you could see how heavy it was, sawing guys off inside, breaking bats, and then he had a slider that was sweepy at times but also was really sharp… he was dominating. It’s not really fair of me to say he’s not going to succeed as a starter, he’s succeeding right now. He’s got one of these high effort deliveries that looks like a reliever, up-tempo.”
Overall, Greensboro has been a fun and energetic group this season with Peguero a high-energy teammate and leader contributing as Cherington’s first big acquisition. Peguero’s presence in the lineup combined with Nick Gonzales, Jared Triolo, and others who have come and gone has made the Grasshoppers the team to watch in September. Spanier said:
“The lineup is basically loaded... the system is good and Greensboro is one of the better teams in the league. You never know how much to make of minor-league records, but some of the more successful systems at churning people out or being called good organizations, in general, do have good minor-league records.”
Greensboro has been a nice place to play for some of the Bucs top talents and is even more enjoyable for Spanier to join in on the action and experience the group’s potential closer than anyone else.
“They’ve got a lot of talent. If you’re in a minor-league town it’s nice to be in a place where the team (Pirates) is paying attention to the system at the current moment… The Pirates are in a cycle where you’d like to have them as one of your local teams, it's fun.”