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Top Pirates prospects off to slow start in Minor Leagues

Oneil Cruz, Nick Gonzales scuffling at Indianapolis, Altoona, respectively

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Roughly 10 percent of the Minor League schedule has come and gone, so now would be a reasonable time to take our first look at how some of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ top prospects are faring at the two highest levels – Triple-A Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona.

Generally speaking, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag, as highly regarded prospects such as O’Neil Cruz and Nick Gonzales have scuffled to start the season, but others ranked much lower – like Mason Martin, Cal Mitchell and Jack Suwinski – are off to very good starts.

Of course, limited sample sizes and cold, damp weather in the early going should serve as sizable grains of salt when trying to glean anything from the early numbers.

At Indianapolis, Martin, the Bucs’ No. 24-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline, is still striking out a lot: 20 times in 57 at-bats. But he’s hitting .316 with a .702 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.046, which is tied for seventh in the International League. The left-handed hitting first baseman, who turns 23 in June, has seven doubles, three triples, three home runs and 13 RBIs.

Mitchell, a left-handed hitting outfielder who is ranked No. 28, is hitting .333 with a .985 OPS and is tied with Martin in home runs at three and has driven in 12 runs. The 23-year-old Mitchell has walked six times compared with seven strikeouts.

Neither Mitchell nor Martin was placed on the 40-man roster over the winter, and both would have been subjected to the Rule 5 draft. Fortunately for the Pirates, the draft was canceled due to the lockout and won’t take place this year.

Infielder Rodolfo Castro, 22, who saw some time in the big leagues last year and is ranked No. 27 by MLB Pipeline, is hitting .286 with an .898 OPS, as he’s homered once and driven in seven. He’s also walked 12 times and struck out 16 times.

No. 3 prospect Oneil Cruz, meanwhile, is off to a slow start, as he’s hitting just .204 with a .333 slugging percentage and a .628 OPS. The 23-year-old shortstop/outfielder, ranked No. 26 among all MLB prospects, hit his first homer of the season Sunday and has eight RBIs to go with 19 strikeouts and six walks in 54 at-bats.

Also slow to get moving are No. 13 Travis Swaggerty (.200/.597), No. 17 Ji-hwan Bae (.224/.534) and No. 23 Canaan Smith-Njigba (.196/.510 with 17 strikeouts and four walks in 51 at-bats). Swaggerty, who turns 25 in August, was the Pirates’ top pick and tenth overall in the 2018 June draft. Both Bae and Smith-Njigba will turn 23 during the season.

Among pitchers, No. 5 prospect Roansy Contreras, 22, who’s already made three appearances – all in relief — with the big club, has just one start at Indy. He went three and one-third innings, allowing one run and three hits while walking two and striking out five. Look for Contreras to return to Pittsburgh after he gets stretched out as a starter.

At Altoona, the aforementioned 23-year-old Suwinski – the Bucs’ No. 30 prospect — is setting the offensive pace with a .353 average and a 1.107 OPS, as he’s homered three times and driven in 13 in 51 at-bats. He’s also struck out 14 times and walked five times.

Outfielder Connor Scott, 22, the 13th overall pick in the 2018 amateur draft by the Marlins who came to the Pirates in the Jacob Stallings trade, is hitting .400/1.089 with one home run and six RBIs in his first 40 at-bats.

Shortstop Liover Peguero, 21, ranked No. 6 among Pirates prospects and No. 79 among all MLB prospects, leads Altoona in RBIs with 14 and is hitting .320/.906 in 50 at-bats while his keystone partner Gonzales, 22 – MLB Pipeline’s No. 1-ranked Pirate prospect and No. 20 overall, has struck out in half of his 42 at-bats and is batting just .167 with a home run and three RBIs. Also struggling is No. 10 Matt Fraizer, 24, Pittsburgh’s Minor League Player of The Year last year when he hit a combined .306/.939 with 23 homers and 68 RBIs between High-A and Double-A. Fraizer is batting just .157 with 17 strikeouts in 51 at-bats.

On the pitching side, 21-year-old right-hander Quinn Priester – the Pirates’ No. 4 prospect and No. 54 overall – has yet to appear in a game as he was placed on the injured list with an oblique muscle strain prior to the start of the season. But No. 11 Mike Burrows has looked solid; in his first three starts spanning 13 innings, the 22-year-old right-hander has allowed eight hits and two runs while walking only two and striking out 16 for an ERA of 1.38 and an 0.77 WHIP.

Two other unranked hurlers are putting up solid numbers in the early going; left-hander Omar Cruz, 23, has allowed just seven hits and two earned runs in 12 1/3 innings, walking six and striking out 20 – all in relief. Right-hander Luis Ortiz, 23, one of the better pitchers in the Low-A Southeast League last year, is also holding his own, as he’s surrendered seven hits and five runs in 12 innings (3.75 ERA), striking out 15 and walking five.