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How aggressive should Pirates be with their prospects?

Would it make sense to skip levels with some highly regarded prospects?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the calendar has flipped to 2022, the upcoming baseball season seems to be a whole lot closer than it was just a week or two ago. Of course, that’s somewhat of an optical illusion; I’ve just always felt that once January rolls around, Spring Training isn’t all that far away. And even with a lockout in place, it’s fun to speculate on the makeup of not only the Pittsburgh Pirates’ big league roster, but the rosters of their Minor League affiliates as well.

Most would agree that general manager Ben Cherington and his staff have done a solid job of rebuilding the Bucs’ farm system, although we’ve really had just one year’s worth of actual results to view in that regard. Still, the early returns are promising; two teams – the Low-A Bradenton Marauders and the High-A Greensboro Grasshoppers — reached their respective league championship series, with Bradenton coming out on top. Both teams played at or just a tick below .600 ball during the regular season, and the same goes for one of the franchise’s two entries in each of the Florida Complex and Dominican Summer Leagues.

And while records aren’t of paramount importance in the Minor Leagues, they do give some indication of the talent that’s starting to bubble to the surface in Black and Gold garb. And the talent train will continue to roll; the club figures to add another highly regarded prospect in July when it cashes in its No. 4 overall selection in the opening round of the first-year player draft, and if the Major League season plays out as many expect, the Bucs will own yet another high pick in 2023.

The addition of talented youngsters gives fans plenty of hope, but one question that pops up is, where do you put all these guys? Or to look at it another way, how aggressive should you be when it comes to promoting players through the system?

One common criticism of the previous regime was that Neal Huntington and Co. took too long to promote certain players, with fans pointing to the Nutting ownership’s desire to wait until the last possible second to start their prospects’ six-year big league contract clocks. The 2021 season saw some — but not a whole lot of — movement through the Minor League system, with Matt Fraizer being one exception after tearing up High-A Greensboro.

One thing fans likely will be curious about this year is where much of that successful Greensboro club will start the 2022 season. The logical choice would be to move most of the highly regarded prospects from that team – Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Jared Triolo, Quinn Priester and maybe a few others – to Double-A Altoona.

Some online publications, though, have speculated that the Cherington and Co. might be more aggressive and ask some players to skip the Double-A level and advance directly to Triple-A. There is precedent; the Bucs did just that last year with their 2018 No. 1 pick Travis Swaggerty, who played a full season at High-A in 2019, missed the 2020 pandemic campaign and then started the 2021 season at Triple-A Indianapolis.

One player in particular whose name has come up is pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Mlodzinski was the 31st overall pick in the shortened 2020 draft out of South Carolina, and he spent the bulk of his first professional season in 2021 at High-A Greensboro. There, he made 14 starts and logged a 2-3 record with a 3.93 ERA in 50 1/3 innings. He allowed 45 hits and 20 walks while striking out 64.

Mlodzinski’s work earned him a promotion at the tail end of the ’21 campaign, as he managed to get into one game at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he worked two innings and gave up one earned run, three hits and two walks and struck out two. He also appeared in seven games – all in relief – in the Arizona Fall League, working a total of 11 innings and giving up six earned runs, nine hits and five walks while striking out nine.

Mlodzinski, who turns 23 in February, certainly looks like he has the frame and the power arm to be a big league workhorse for years to come if the Pirates choose to use him as a starter. But if that’s the case, I don’t see the wisdom of skipping him past Double-A Altoona in 2022 and making him part of the Indianapolis rotation at the start of the season. He made just 14 starts at High-A last year and missed five weeks with a shoulder injury he sustained in mid-July. Prior to that injury, Mlodzinski made nine starts and worked a total of 41 innings, giving up 27 hits and 14 walks while striking out 54 and boasting a 2.63 ERA and an opposition batting average of .185. In the five starts he made at Greensboro following his injury, Mlodzinski pitched 9 1/3 innings and surrendered 18 hits and six walks while striking out 10. In addition to an unsightly 9.64 ERA, Mlodzinski’s batting average against was .409.

I realize that’s an extremely small sample size, but perhaps Mlodzinski needs another season to build up his arm strength, given that 2020 was a lost season in that he pitched just 25 1/3 innings at South Carolina before the season ended. I’m certainly not against challenging young players, and perhaps placing Mlodzinski in Triple-A would open up an extra rotation spot at Altoona. But I’d rather see the Curve go with a rotation that includes Priester, Mlodzinski, Michael Burrows, Tahnaj Thomas and whomever else is deemed worthy.