MLB 2020 Farm System Overview: Pittsburgh Pirates

While we wait for the 2020 MLB season to get underway, it’s time to take a closer look at players who could one day be on opening day rosters. For the next month or two, we’ll be examining each team’s farm system, which will contain several prospects that will either one day be contributors for them, or could be used to acquire impact major leaguers. 

Since we’ll be going in alphabetical order by city, our 22nd farm system overview will be of the Pittsburgh Pirates. We’ll rank their top ten prospects, discuss some of their other notable minor leaguers, and then analyze the overall state of the farm system.

#1: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes

hayes
Photo Cred: Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette

Age: 23

Height: 6’1″ Weight: 210 lbs

Drafted: 32nd Overall- 2015

Hit: 55 Power; 47.5 Field: 65 Arm: 60 Speed: 57.5

Overall Grade: 55.95

Usually, when you think of the prototypical third baseman, you think of a player with a lot of power, even if they aren’t the best athlete. Yet, in actuality, I’d prefer a player like Ke’Bryan Hayes at the hot corner. With great hands, athleticism, instincts, and 60-grade arm strength, there is no doubt in my mind that he’ll not only win Gold Gloves, but he’ll consistently be a prime contender to win Platinum Gloves as well. Essentially, he’s a shortstop playing third base, but when you look at some of the most valuable players at the position- Matt Chapman, Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman, Manny Machado – that’s almost a necessity at this point. However, it’s not as though the 23-year-old is limited offensively. He shows flashes of hitting for power, but he’ll provide value with his plate discipline and contact ability- he’ll get on-base at a high level, which is more important than hitting for power anyways. Hayes isn’t your prototypical third baseman, but that many actually be a good thing. He stands out in all the areas you want a player to be skilled at, and as he nears his big league debut, he is by far Pittsburgh’s most irreplaceable prospect.

#2: RHP Mitch Keller

mitchkeller
Photo Cred: Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette

Age: 23

Height: 6’2″ Weight: 210 lbs

Drafted: 2nd Round- 2014

Fastball: 62.5 Breaking Ball: 57.5 Third Pitch: 50 Command: 52.5

ERA is a very deceiving statistic when it comes to evaluating pitchers- luck plays a major part in it. For Mitch Keller, he may have had a 7.13 ERA in 48 innings at the MLB level, but honestly, I couldn’t have been more impressed with his debut. With an absurdly unlucky .475 batting average on balls in play allowed, it’s clear that Keller’s high ERA was not deserved- his 3.47 xFIP is a much better reflection on the type of pitcher he is, which is a future frontline starter. With a fastball that tops out at 100 MPH with sinking action, as well as two effective breaking balls, it’s no surprise that he’s had plenty of success striking batters out- he posted a 12.19 K/9 in his MLB debut. Plus, even though his command isn’t as elite as expected, it’s still above-average, and he’ll definitely be a K-BB ratio artist. Keller wasn’t given much of a chance to succeed in Pittsburgh, but assuming he’s given a spot in the rotation from the start, he could be one of the top breakout candidates in the season- he has to be considered one of the frontrunners to win the Rookie of the Year this year, as he qualifies as a rookie by just two innings pitched.

#3: RHP Tahnaj Thomas

tahnajthomas
Photo Cred: Legends On Deck

Age: 20

Height: 6’4″ Weight: 190 lbs

Signed: December 5th, 2016- CLE

Fastball: 65 Breaking Ball: 57.5 Third Pitch: 45 Command: 50

Overall Grade: 54.375

The Pirates were looking for a starting shortstop when they acquired Erik Gonzalez from the Indians in exchange for outfielder Jordan Luplow and infielder Max Moroff. That didn’t go as planned, but when it’s all said and done, that trade may go down as one of the best made by the previous regime- they acquired pitching prospect Tahnaj Thomas as part of the deal. The 20-year-old Thomas was initially an afterthought when the deal was first made, and still isn’t a top-ten prospect in this farm system in the eyes of MLB Pipeline. However, his stock is clearly on the rise, and soon enough, he’ll be a consensus top-50 prospect in all of baseball. It’s one thing that he has an absolutely lively fastball that touches 100 MPH, but he does so with easy effort due to a very clean delivery, and complements with a breaking ball with excellent biting action. He’ll still need to add a third pitch and establish a greater feel for pitching, but any pitcher with that profile is very intriguing, and it’s clear to see Thomas’ upside. As Hayes and Keller figure to graduate from this list soon, he’s definitely a prospect Pirates fans can cling hope onto as the team goes through a painful rebuild.

#4: SS Oneil Cruz

oneilcruz
Photo Cred: Bucs Dugout

Age: 21

Height: 6’7″ Weight: 210 lbs

Signed: July 2, 2015- LAD

Hit: 45 Power: 60 Field: 47.5 Arm: 75 Speed: 57.5

Overall Grade: 53.75

Yes, you read that right: Oneil Cruz is a 6’7″ shortstop! Similarly to Thomas, Pittsburgh’s acquisition of Cruz from the Dodgers in exchange for reliever Tony Watson went under the radar, but if the 21-year-old reaches his potential, it could go down as an even greater heist for the Pirates. His power, which at its best earns a perfect “80” grade, is his calling card, and will dictate most of his value offensively. After all, he doesn’t walk much and strikes out a lot, so he he’ll be a low on-base, high-slugging percentage type of hitter, which is being devalued slightly in today’s game. That’s why I believe he’ll need to shift from shortstop to the outfield, as given his athleticism and borderline exemplary arm strength, he can be a strong defender; there won’t be as much pressure for him to succeed offensively with his flawed approach. At the moment, Pittsburgh has yet to move him off the position, but with a new general manager in Ben Cherington, that may not last long- Cruz will need time to get used to playing a new position, but if he continues to play shortstop, he projects as a below-average defender there. When you add it all together, you have one of the most risky, volatile prospects in the entire minor leagues. If Cruz isn’t the quintessential boom-or-bust prospect, I don’t know who is.

#5: OF Travis Swaggerty

traviswaggerty
Photo Cred: MLB Prospect Portal

Age: 22

Height: 5’11” Weight: 180 lbs

Drafted: 10th Overall- 2018

Hit: 52.5 Power: 50 Field: 55 Arm: 57.5 Speed: 62.5

Overall Grade: 53.7

The Pirates were expected to select a high school pitcher in a draft that was full of them in 2018, but when college outfielder Travis Swaggerty fell to them, they wasted no time selecting him with the 10th overall pick. The South Alabama product has a sound approach, and should only continue to see his walk rates climb over time. If that happens, the 22-year-old almost certainly has a path to being a solid everyday centerfielder- he uses his excellent athleticism to play terrific outfield defense, while he has more than enough raw power. Sure, he does strike out a decent bit, but he doesn’t do so at an alarming rate, and when considering that’s the only weakness in his game, it’s certainly not something that’s going to hold him back. If his power develops further, Swaggerty is a true five-tool player, and within a year or two, he should be manning center field for Pittsburgh for years to come.

#6: RHP Brennan Malone

malone
Photo Cred: Diamond Digest

Age: 19

Height: 6’4″ Weight: 205 lbs

Drafted: 33rd Overall- ARI 2018

Fastball: 60 Breaking Ball: 55 Third Pitch: 50 Command: 50

Overall Grade: 53.25

In the Ben Cherington’s first major trade as the general manager of the Pirates, he shipped outfielder Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks in exchange for two young prospects. One of them is Brennan Malone, who at just 19-years-old, is the type of high-upside pitching prospect that Cherington needed to add to his farm system to boost their future outlook.

From the Diamondbacks’ Farm System Overview: Since they had the most amount of bonus money in the 2019 draft, the Diamondbacks were not only able to add Carroll, but also lure in another high-ceiling prospect in Brennan Malone. With a projectable frame and a high 90s fastball, there’s a lot to like with the 19-year-old, but that doesn’t tell the full story with Malone. The North Carolina native also possesses a strong power slider, and perhaps most importantly, has already shown a great feel for his pitches- he flashes 50-grade command already. There’s still a wide discrepancy between Malone’s floor and ceiling, but still, he was a steal with the 33rd overall pick, and if they develop him properly, the Diamondbacks could be looking at a future front-line starting pitcher.

#7: RHP Quinn Priester

priester
Photo Cred: DK Pittsburgh Sports

Age: 19

Height: 6’3″ Weight: 195 lbs

Drafted: 18th Overall- 2019

Fastball: 57.5 Breaking Ball: 55 Third Pitch: 50 Command: 50

Overall Grade: 52.625

As mentioned with Swaggerty, the previous regime in Pittsburgh consistently displayed their willingness to draft high school pitchers, so in general manager Neil Huntington’s last draft with the team, he drafted an athletic, projectable high school pitcher- he selected Illinois native Quinn Priester with the 18th overall pick. Initially, I was lower than most on Priester, as I didn’t see much upside with him. However, that’s no longer the case, as his fastball velocity has seen a tremendous uptick, while his breaking ball and changeup could develop into above-average pitches in the future. Heck, given how athletic and clean his delivery is, he certainly should be able to refine his command, which would round out his skillset even further. I’m still not sure that Preister will ever be a frontline starting pitcher, but still, I see him as a #3 or #4 starting pitcher down the road. At this point, we just need more data points before ultimately projecting his future.

#8: SS Liover Peguero

lioverpeguero
Photo Cred: The Dynasty Guru

Age: 19

Height: 6’1″ Weight: 160 lbs

Signed: July 2, 2017- ARI

Hit: 55 Power: 42.5 Field: 55 Arm: 55 Speed: 60

Overall Grade: 51.5

Malone wasn’t the only 19-year-old prospect the Pirates got back in the Marte trade; they also acquired shortstop Liover Peguero, who is someone I’m even higher on that his overall grade would indicate.

From The Diamondbacks’ Farm System Overview: Though he right now is an inferior prospect to [Geraldo] Perdomo, Liover Peguero shares many of the same qualities as the Diamondbacks’ #2 prospect. He may not has as sound of an approach as Perdomo, but at the same time, his swing is extremely smooth, and his hit tool is definitely above-average. That complement his defense and athleticism really well, so even though he won’t be much of a source of power, there’s certainly big-league potential with the 19-year-old. He’s another player that is developing quickly through Arizona’s system, and should they assist in that development properly, he could move up through their farm system rapidly.

#9: OF Lolo Sanchez

lolosanchez
Photo Cred: Bucs Dugout

Age: 20

Height: 5’11” Weight: 168 lbs

Signed: July 2, 2015

Hit: 50 Power: 40 Field: 55 Arm: 55 Speed: 60

Overall Grade: 49.85

With plus athleticism and a strong arm, Lolo Sanchez will at least be a solid defensive outfielder, though he has the upside to be much more than that. Unfortunately, we can’t be certain he reaches his potential; he hasn’t hit for any sort of power whatsoever, and although he doesn’t strikeout much, also doesn’t walk at a high rate. In the end, he’s probably a fourth outfielder in the future, though perhaps he can debunk that opinion with a bounce-back year (77 wrc+ 2019) at High-A.

#10: OF Sammy Siani

sammysiani
Photo Cred: Pirates Prospects

Age: 19

Height: 6’0″ Weight: 195 lbs

Drafted: 37th Overall- 2019

Hit: 50 Power: 47.5 Field: 50 Arm: 47.5 Speed: 55

Overall Grade: 49.225

In Huntington’s last draft with the team, he didn’t just draft one, but two high school prospects within the top 40. Sammy Siani’s contact ability and solid athleticism likely impressed Pittsburgh’s front office enough for him to be the 37th overall pick, though unfortunately, I saw that as a reach, and am still unsure about his future outlook. After all, he simply doesn’t have a standout tool, and although he has more than adequate athleticism, his ceiling appears to be an all-around average outfielder. That’s pretty uninspiring, so perhaps he can change that by developing more power than expected, but he overall has a pretty strange profile for a high-school prospect; I’m not sure the pay-off was worth the risk of taking a high-school outfielder within the top 40 picks, and it’ll be interesting how the new regime goes about developing him.

Best of the Rest

  • Jared Oliva is an athletic outfielder, but he’s already 24-years-old and has to develop offensively. At best, he’s a depth player.
  • Luis Escobar has a nice rising fastball, sweeping curveball, and changeup, so he should be a reliable reliever in the future.
  • Cal Mitchell doesn’t have a clear defensive home, but he has a very smooth swing and offensive potential.
  • Kevin Kramer is already 26-years-old, and is both a below-average hitter and defender in the middle infield.

Farm System Overview

He got off to a nice start by acquiring Malone and Peguero, but Cherington has a lot to work to do in order to properly execute the Pirates’ inevitable rebuild. The farm system possesses two borderline blue-chip players (Hayes and Keller) and two high-upside prospects (Thomas and Cruz), but it’s still lacking depth, and needs to be overhauled with proper drafting and more trades. I wouldn’t be surprised for Cherington to look at trading some of the team’s starting pitchers in the future, as it’s probably the fastest way for him to deepen the farm system; with Keller and Hayes on the precipice of their debuts, you’d hope this would be a quick rebuild.

 

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