Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates had their big run a few years back when they competed in the “play-in game” multiple times.  Just to be clear, the play-in game is not technically the playoffs.  But, hey…they had a good team and made a run. 

They are once again in full rebuild and after some less than optimal trades, they now have a new front office and are at it again.  Their minor league system is very good.  They just added the number one pick in last year’s draft in Henry Davis.  While he was a safe pick, he should be their backstop for years.  Oneil Cruz should see Pittsburgh in 2022 and has double-plus power and should hit enough to be a regular.  Their best pitchers are Quinn Priester and Roansy Contreras.  Both are at least number three starters and Priester has a chance to be ace.  Both have a chance to see the Major Leagues next season.

Is it enough to get back into the plan-in game?  Yeah, I think it is with a window that should open in 2024.

Prospect Quick Shot

  • Top Prospect: Henry Davis
  • Biggest Mover: Quinn Priester
  • Emerging Prospect: Tahnaj Thomas

1. Henry Davis (C)

  • Highest Level:  Low-A ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 5 Catcher
  • Tools Summary: Went 1:1 in the 2021 Draft.  He has a plus approach and should make great contact with solid above-average power

Without a consensus number one overall pick in last June’s draft, the Pirates went safe and drafted Henry Davis with pick 1:1.  While safe, Davis is an excellent player with a chance to be an All-Star, and given his advanced approach, he should move quickly through the minor leagues.  Now, he didn’t set the world on fire in his professional debut.  His slash line looked great at .263/375/.684 but he struck out a third of the time.  None of that bothers me as he has a plus approach and in college rarely struck out, posting a 10.5 K/9 in his junior year.  There’s plenty of bat speed for future above-average, if not plus power.  The only thing I’ve heard to the downside is that he’s only an average defensive catcher.  For fantasy owners, that might be music to their ears as a corner outfielder might fit better.  However, I think he stays a catcher and could develop into one of the best offensive catchers in the game.

2. Oneil Cruz (SS)

  • Highest Level:  Majors ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 SS or Top 30 OF
  • Tools Summary: Great bat speed and leverage, good foot speed and he’s making contact.  It’s all you would want in a fantasy prospect, except he’s 6-foot-7, at least

I had a chance to see Oneil Cruz again this summer and was reminded how tall he really is.  I know Baseball reference says 6-foot-7 and maybe I don’t know how tall that is, but he’s so much taller than everyone else, it’s easy to lose perspective.  While the strike zone is big and the swing is long, he doesn’t strike out a ton.  In 273 plate appearances in Double-A, he only struck out 23% of the time.  Now, he also only hit 12 home runs, but based on the bat speed and batting practice I witness, he could have big in-game power – 30 plus homer runs annually.  In fact, he got a late season promotion to Triple-A where he hit five bombs in 6 games and then played in the final two games of the Major League season, hitting another. He’s also a good runner and stole 18 bases.  It’s still hard to believe that he’ll be a shortstop, but at least early in his career, that is where he will play.  It’s an odd player and he breaks all the norms, but he could be an impact fantasy performer with big power and speed early in his career.  If he can keep his strikeout rate in the low-20s, he could be a monster.  It’s hard to believe he won’t strike out more when it’s all said and done.

3. Quinn Priester (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 30 SP
  • Tools Summary: With three plus pitches, the promise has turned into results

When we wrote about Quinn Priester last season, we used words like projectable and promising.  After an encouraging season in High-A where he pitched to a 3.04 ERA in 97.2 innings, striking out a batter an inning and walking 3.6 per nine, the promise is turning into results.  I had a chance to see him in 2021 and was excited to see his double-plus curveball but left as impressed with his slider and fastball.  Both grade out as plus pitches.  The change-up is still developing and while not consistent, he can flash it. He has all the tools to pitch at the top of the rotation with a ceiling of a number two pitcher.

4. Nick Gonzales (2B)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 2B
  • Tools Summary: In 2021, he added significant loft to his swing and traded power for contact

I’ve been clear on my high-floor, low-ceiling analysis of Nick Gonzales since the Pirates selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft.  I saw him as a hit-first player without much power and a little bit of speed.  Maybe a .280/.350/.400 player with 10 to 12 home runs and a handful of stolen bases.  So far, my initial analysis looks wrong.  In 80 games in High-A, he showed power by slugging .565 with 18 home runs but also struck out 27% of the time.  He’s added significant loft to his swing and has traded contact for the power.  Given he’s not a bat speed guy nor does he have the bulk to hit 30 home runs annually, I find this surprising and wonder whether this will play out well.  But, the data is the data and if he continues down this path, he has a chance to hit 25 home runs with pressure on his batting average.

5. Liover Peguero (SS)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 SS
  • Tools Summary: Intriguing player with good speed and emerging power

Liover Peguero is athletic with plenty of tools.  He’s a plus runner, has great bat speed, and makes enough contact that labeling him the shortstop of the future is a reasonable projection.  He nearly went 15-30 in High-A hitting 14 home runs and stealing 28 bases.  He did strike out 25% of the time, but he added loft to the swing this year and is still getting used to hitting with the added loft.  Last year, I thought he could be a 15-15 type player, but after seeing him, there’s enough power to project a 20-20.

6. Roansy Contreras (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Majors ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 40 SP
  • Tools Summary: Athletic pitcher with a plus arsenal including a wipeout change-up.  Plus, he’s always been able to throw strikes

Roansy Contreras started the season strong in Double-A, throwing strikes and showing command of his arsenal.  In 12 starts, he pitched to a 2.65, striking out nearly 13 per nine while walking less than two per nine.  Unfortunately, he spent a good chunk of the season on the IL with a forearm strain but returned late in the season.  He even started a game for the Pirates and pitched well. If he were 6-foot-4, he might be a top 10 pitching prospect.  But, he’s not and stands at 6-feet.  Still, there’s a lot to like with a fastball that will touch the mid-90s, a solid slider, a wipeout change-up, and most importantly, he throws strikes.

7. Hudson Head (OF)

  • Highest Level:  Low-A ETA: 2024-25 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 OF
  • Tools Summary: Elite bat speed that should project 20+ home runs annually.  However, currently, he is struggling to make enough contact to effectively get to that power

There was a lot of excitement when the Padres drafted Hudson Head in the third round in 2019.  He has elite bat speed that should eventually project future plus in-game power. Currently, he’s struggling to make contact.  In 101 games in Low-A, he did hit 15 home runs, but he also struck out 32% of the time.  Players who strike out that much in Low-A rarely become impact players at the highest level.  Regardless, I believe the is something there, but it’s going to take time and Dynasty League owners need to be patient. 

8. Travis Swaggerty (OF)

  • Highest Level:  Triple-A ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 OF with risk
  • Tools Summary: Was hurt most of the season. There is still potential plus on-base skills with excellent stolen base potential

Travis Swaggerty spent most of his 2021 on the IL recovering from shoulder surgery that was needed when he dislocated his shoulder in late May.  It was a tough blow for a kid who needed reps at the plate.  I continue to be bullish on the upside and see a high OBP player with plus speed and enough power to be a full-time regular.  He likely needs another full season in the minor leagues, but if he knocks the rust off early, he could see Pittsburgh late in the season.

9. Tucupita Marcano (2B)

  • Highest Level:  Majors ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 2B
  • Tools Summary: Great contact and on-base skills.  He got stronger since we last saw him in 2019 and was driving the ball better in 2021

The Pirates acquired Marcano from the Padres in exchange for Adam Frazier last July.  It was an interesting trade as there is a lot of similarities between the two players.  Both make great contact, have good speed, but lack the power to be an impact player.  However, Marcano got noticeably bigger since 2019 and started driving the ball more in 2021.  If he can continue to get stronger, he could develop into a high OBP with 8 to 12 home runs and similar stolen base totals.  That’s not a star, but that could be a Top 15 2B in fantasy.

10. Canaan Smith-Njibgba (OF)

  • Highest Level:  Double-A ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 60 OF
  • Tools Summary: Shows good on-base skills with some contact concerns.  He’s currently more of a line-drive hitter that if he adds loft, could exasperate his contact issues

I bought into the hype around Smith when he excelled in Low-A for the Yankees.  The stat line was impressive where he showed power, speed, and good contact.  The contact hasn’t been the same as he’s progressed to the upper levels of the minor leagues because he can be beaten on inside velocity.  He’s got a lot of strength and when he hits the ball, there is hard contact.  Given his lack of loft, at least in 2021, it’s been more doubles-power, than over-the-fence power.  He’s shown good speed, but he’s a big kid with thick legs, so I’m not sure how long the speed will remain.  For me, the ceiling is more of a fourth outfielder with good on-base skills, 15 to 20 home run pop, and good speed early in his career.

11. Carmen Mlodzinski (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2023 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 60 SP
  • Tools Summary: Solid stuff but struggles throwing strikes

Carmen Mlodzinski finally got on the field after being the Pirates’ second-round pick in 2020.   He pitched well, striking out over 11 per nine and posting a 3.93 ERA.  He also walked 3.6 per nine and therein lies the issues.  The stuff is solid, but a lot is going on in his delivery and he struggles to repeat his delivery.  He’s got a starter arsenal and body, but if he can’t throw enough strikes, he could be bound for the bullpen.

12. Tahnaj Thomas (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2023-24 Fantasy Ceiling:  Closer
  • Tools Summary: He has an 80-grade fastball and can flash a plus slider at times.  For now, though, he doesn’t know where the ball is going and is walking over five per nine

At 6-foot-4 and hitting 100 MPH, Tahnaj Thomas is one of the more intriguing guys on this list.  The problem, as it is many times, he has no idea where the ball is going.  In 60.2 innings in High-A, he walked over five per nine.  He also struck out a batter an inning.  The slider took a step forward in 2021 and now he has a plus slider to go along with his 80-grade fastball.  The ceiling is substantial here, but it will be about whether he can harness his stuff and add a third pitch.  For now, the Pirates will continue to develop him as a starter, we will set his ceiling as a closer.

13. Anthony Solometo (LHP)

  • Highest Level:  DNP ETA: 2024 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 50 SP
  • Tools Summary: Polished high school draftee in 2021 who should be able to move through the system quickly

Solometo was the Pirates’ second-round pick last June.  He’s not a big kid but is already very polished and is expected to move more quickly than a typical high schooler would move through the system.  He doesn’t yet have a stat line as the Pirates kept him back on the backfields after he signed.

14. Lonnie White (OF)

  • Highest Level:  Complex League ETA: 2025 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 OF with extreme risk
  • Tools Summary: Uber athletic but with very raw baseball skills

White was the Pirates supplemental second-round pick in June.  He’s a great athlete, turning down a football scholarship to play Division 1 football to sign with Pirates for $1.5 million.  With many two-sport high school players, he’s a great athlete, is a plus runner but his pitch recognition skills are raw.  He only got 23 at-bats in his professional debut but struck out half the time.  If it all comes together, he could be an impact performer at the highest level, but he has a long way to go.

15. Maikol Escotto (SS)

  • Highest Level:  Low-A ETA: 2024 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 SS with extreme risk
  • Tools Summary: Toolsy middle infielder that has an idea at the plate but does need to cut down on his strikeouts

Escotto is another toolsy positional player in the Pirates organization.  He has excellent bat speed, is a plus runner with an idea at the plate.  He did strike out 30% of the time in Low-A, but he also walked 15% of the time.  He needs to cut down on his strikeouts and he’s chasing much too frequently, but he’s very young and the swing works.  For Dynasty Leagues, he’s a lottery bet at this time.

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