It’s hard to be optimistic in the midst of a 101-loss season, but some Pittsburgh Pirates fans might have found a silver lining in this ill-fated campaign – not at the Major League level, but down on the farm.
Starting last winter and continuing through the July draft, General Manager Ben Cherington added some choice pieces to his rebuilding project, and he and his staff are now overseeing what MLB Pipeline has ranked as the fourth-best farm system in baseball.
No. 1 draft choice Henry Davis tops the Pirates’ prospect list, according to MLB.com, followed in order by pitcher Quinn Priester, shortstop Oneil Cruz, second baseman Nick Gonzales, shortstop Liover Peguero, pitcher Roansy Contreras, pitcher Anthony Solometo, pitcher/infielder Bubba Chandler, utility man Tucapita Marcano, and pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski.
While the numbers some of those prospects put up in 2021 were encouraging, there is no guarantee any of them will achieve great success at the Major League level. There’s also a chance that one of the Pirates prospects who had a down 2021 season could rebound spectacularly in 2022.
If you don’t believe me, consider one M.J. Melendez. A second-round pick of the Kansas City Royals in 2017 from Westminster Christian School in Miami, the left-handed hitting catcher performed well – but not in any sort of eye-popping fashion – during his first two seasons in the Royals system.
In 2019, he was assigned to Wilmington in what was then the High-A Carolina League and promptly laid a giant egg. In 419 plate appearances, Melendez batted .163 with a .260 on-base percentage and a .311 slugging mark for an OPS of .571. He struck out 165 times – or 39.4% — and walked 10.5%. Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline said Melendez might have had the worst season of any full-time player in the Minor Leagues that season.
Melendez – like all Minor Leaguers – did not play last year, but he must have done something right with his time because this year he became a brand new man. Assigned to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, Melendez hit a whopping 28 home runs with a .999 OPS in 347 plate appearances, earning a promotion to Triple-A Omaha.
There, the hits just kept coming, as he pounded out 13 more homers and drove in 38 in 184 plate appearances for a 1.033 OPS. Overall on the season, he led all the Minor Leagues in home runs with 41 and finished with a 1.011 OPS while playing what Callis described as stalwart defense.
Callis said Melendez’s 2021 performance was not only the most surprising of any player in 2021 but the most surprising season in the last 10 years.
The point is, as former right-hander Joaquin Andujar once famously said, “Youneverknow.” And now a quick look at the seasons the Bucs’ Top 10 prospects put together in 2021.
No. 1 - Henry Davis
The Louisville product needed just two games with the Pirates’ Florida Complex League Black team to convince the player development folks that he was worthy of a bump, so he was promoted to High-A Greensboro. But Davis’ 2021 season came to a premature ending when he suffered an oblique injury after just 24 at-bats. During his stay in Greensboro, Davis went 5 for 19 with two home runs and three RBIs. Defensively, Davis had two passed balls in 46 innings combined between the Complex League and Greensboro and gunned down one of four would-be base stealers. He is ranked as baseball’s No. 22 overall prospect by MLB.com.
No. 2 - Quinn Priester
Priester, the club’s No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft and No. 18 overall, is now pegged at No. 49 in MLB’s Top 100 list. He made 20 starts at High-A Greensboro, where he went 7-4 with a High A East-leading 3.04 ERA. In 97 2/3 innings, Priester allowed 82 hits, 33 earned runs and 39 walks while striking out 98 for a WHIP of 1.24. Although no decisions have been made yet, it would be surprising if Priester – who just turned 21 last month – was not promoted to Double-A Altoona next season.
No. 3 - Oneil Cruz
Pirates fans got their first real look at Cruz in the final weekend of the season, as the giant-sized shortstop was promoted to Pittsburgh and immediately left an impression – on the baseball and those who saw him play. Cruz came to the plate nine times in two games, striking out four times and collecting three hits, including his first Major League home run in his final at-bat of the season. He also set a new standard for the Pirates’ hardest-hit ball during the Statcast era, dating back to 2015, when he ripped a 118.2-mph single.
The 23-year-old Cruz missed a sizable portion of the season after straining his right forearm, but he still put up some impressive numbers. At Double-A Altoona, Cruz hit 12 homers and drove in 40 runs while stealing 18 bases in 21 attempts. He batted .292 with an .882 OPS, collecting 12 doubles and five triples in 273 plate appearances. He struck out 23.4% of the time at Altoona. The Pirates promoted Cruz to Triple-A Indianapolis, where he put up video game numbers — .524 batting average, 1.286 slugging and 1.941 OPS in 29 plate appearances, slugging five home runs and driving in seven before getting the call to PNC Park.
Defensively, Cruz handled all five of his defensive chances cleanly for the Pirates, but in 54 games at Altoona, Cruz committed 13 errors, and he made three more in five games at Indianapolis. I can’t envision the 6’7” Cruz as an everyday shortstop in the Majors, but I’ve been wrong a whole lot more than I’ve been right in trying to handicap prospects over the past 50 years, so maybe Cherington, John Baker and the others see something I don’t. But with Liover Peguero a few years away, I don’t see why the Pirates don’t just move Cruz – ranked as MLB’s 52nd best prospect overall — to right field and be done with it. Yes, I realize he has much more value as a shortstop, but not if he can’t play the position.
No. 4 - Nick Gonzales
The 22-year-old second baseman, chosen No. 1 by the Pirates in the 2020 draft out of New Mexico State, had an outstanding year in his first professional season. At High-A Greensboro, Gonzales slugged 18 homers, drove in 54 runs and batted .302 with a .950 OPS in 369 plate appearances over 80 games – numbers that put him in the running for second base prospect of the year, according to MLB’s Callis. Gonzales, ranked as the 62nd best prospect in baseball by MLB.com, missed significant time after suffering a fractured finger in mid-May, and it seemed to bother him after he returned to the lineup in late June. From June 26 through the end of July, he batted just .252 with a .729 OPS, homering four times and driving in 14 runs. But absolutely nothing bothered Gonzales in the latter stages of the season. From Aug. 1 until the end of the season – a span of 43 games and 203 plate appearances – Gonzales batted .322 with a 1.084 OPS, crushing 3 home runs and driving 38. Overall on the season, Gonzales had a 27.4% strikeout rate and a 10.8% walk rate. He should be Altoona’s everyday second baseman to start the 2022 campaign, and if he hits like he did in the last 43 games this season, a promotion to Indianapolis could be in the cards by midseason.
No. 5 - Liover Peguero
Gonzales’ keystone partner in 2021, Peguero had a solid season at High-A Greensboro, particularly given his age — he won’t turn 21 until December. Ranked as MLB’s 85th best prospect, Peguero batted .270 with a .776 OPS in 417 plate appearances over 90 games. He slugged 19 doubles and 14 home runs, stole 28 bases and drove in 45 runs. He struck out at a 25.2% clip and had a 7.9% walk rate. Peguero had a fairly consistent season offensively with the exception of July, when he batted just .236 in 118 plate appearances. He rebounded in August to bat .281 in 100 plate appearances with five homers and an .846 OPS, but dipped a bit in September with a .697 OPS in 77 plate appearances. Defensively, he committed 23 errors in 86 games at shortstop. It’ll be interesting to see where Peguero starts the 2022 season; it’s hard to imagine the Pirates asking him to repeat the High-A level, but perhaps because he was limited to 90 games they might want to see him perform there for at least the first half before moving him to Altoona.
No. 6 - Roansy Contreras
Like Cruz, the 21-year-old right-hander made his major league debut last week, starting against the Cubs and pitching three scoreless innings. He walked one, gave up three hits and struck out four in facing 12 batters. Also like Cruz, Contreras had his season interrupted by a right forearm strain that limited him to 13 starts – 12 at Double-A Altoona and one at Triple-A Indianapolis. At Altoona, Contreras pitched 54 1/3 innings, giving up 37 hits and 12 walks while striking out 76 to go with a 3-2 record and a 2.65 ERA. In his one start at Indianapolis, the six-foot, 175-pound Contreras yielded four hits and a walk while striking out six in 3 2/3 innings.
No. 7 - Anthony Solometo
The club’s second selection in the July draft did not appear in a game for the organization this season. The 6’5” left-hander, a New Jersey high school product taken 37th overall, reportedly received a $2.8 million signing bonus – nearly $1 million over slot — to forgo his enrollment at North Carolina. During his senior year at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, Solometo posted a 4-0 mark with a 0.21 ERA, 64 strikeouts and five walks in 32 2/3 innings, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
No. 8 - Bubba Chandler
Chandler, the Pirates’ third round pick in last month’s draft, did not throw a pitch for the Pirates’ Black team in the Florida Complex League but he did appear in 11 games – eight as a DH and two at shortstop. Offensively, Chandler went 5 for 30 and struck out 16 times while walking five times in 37 total plate appearances. He did homer once and drove in a pair of runs. Defensively, he made one error in 21 innings at shortstop.
No. 9 - Tucupita Marcano
The 22-year-old left-handed hitter, who came over from San Diego in the Adam Frazier deal, appeared in 25 games for the Padres and spent the rest of his season at the Triple-A level – 45 games for the Padres’ El Paso team and 48 games at Indianapolis. He found Triple-A West pitching much more to his liking, as he hit .273 with an .808 OPS in 202 plate appearances with six home runs and 27 RBIs. He struggled with Indianapolis, batting just .230 with a .604 OPS in 210 plate appearances. He did show some versatility, playing both corner outfield spots as well as second, short and third base for the Indians, although he spent the vast majority of his time at second base. There, he committed three errors in 34 games.
No. 10 - Carmen Mlodzinski
The 22-year-old right-hander had his season interrupted by a bout of shoulder stiffness but he managed to make 14 starts at High-A Greensboro, where he went 2-3 with a 3.93 ERA in 50 1/3 innings. He gave up 45 hits and 20 walks while striking out 64. Mlodzinski’s numbers tumbled precipitously after returning from his shoulder injury, which sidelined him from mid-July to mid-August. In five starts post-injury, the 6’2”, 235-pounder pitched just 9 1/3 innings and gave up 18 hits, 10 earned runs and struck out 10. Prior to his injury, Mlodzinski made nine starts at Greensboro and had a 2.63 ERA, giving up 27 hits and 14 walks while striking out 54 in 41 innings. He made one start for Triple-A Indianapolis, pitching two innings and giving up three hits and an earned run while striking out two and walking two.
NOTES: Several other players are worthy of mention. No. 14 prospect Michael Burrows, a 21-year-old right-hander, made 13 starts and gave up just 24 hits in 49 innings at High-A Greensboro while striking out 66. He did walk 20 batters, however. … No. 17 prospect Mason Martin smashed 25 homers and drove in 81 with an .803 OPS at Altoona. However, his 34.2% strikeout rate was tops among the top-30 Pirates prospects who played full-season ball this year. … No. 19 prospect Endy Rodriguez, who came over from the Mets as part of the Joe Musgrove trade, hit a robust .294 with 15 homers, 73 RBIs and an .892 OPS at Low-A Bradenton. Rodriguez saw action behind the plate in 54 games, but with Davis on the scene, he might have to move. He did play in 18 games at first base and four games in left field. … No. 22 prospect Matt Fraizer came out of nowhere to dominate High-A Greensboro, hitting .314 with a .979 OPS, 20 home runs and 50 RBIs in 350 plate appearances before moving up to Altoona. There, he more than held his own by batting .288 with an .848 OPS in 149 plate appearances, although he did slump down the stretch, hitting .229/.747 with one homer and six RBIs in his final 15 games. … No. 26 prospect Omar Cruz, a 22-year-old lefty, split his season between Greensboro and Altoona, where he went a combined 6-7 with a 3.44 ERA in 21 starts. In 99 1/3 innings, Cruz yielded 87 hits and 36 walks while striking out 98. … Like Marcano, No. 29 prospect Jack Suwinski’s numbers dipped after coming over in the Adam Frazier trade. The 23-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder batted .252 with a .750 OPS in 182 plate appearances for Altoona after hitting .269/.949 with the Padres’ Double-A affiliate in San Antonio.