The typical progression for a young player in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization is to spend a complete season in West Virginia. This usually happened a year or two after being drafted out of high school or coming to the US, and in most cases it was required before getting a promotion to a higher level. In the past, if a player didn’t get a complete year at the level — as was seen with Josh Bell and Luis Heredia — they would return to the level the following season for further development.
That’s not the case this year with Austin Meadows. The Pirates gave him an aggressive push to Bradenton at the start of the season, despite the fact that he only spent half a year in West Virginia in 2014. The numbers last year were solid, but Meadows is young, and there is no immediate need for outfield help in the Majors, which is why it was surprising that the Pirates promoted him.
Then again, it’s not that surprising if you look at his talent. He’s an athletic player who has the range for center field, but the arm strength to eventually move to left. That’s fine, because he’s got the bat speed, approach at the plate, and raw power potential to handle a corner outfield spot. In his brief debut in High-A, he has already put those skills on display.
“He had a great Spring Training. It’s a new leap for him,” Bradenton manager Michael Ryan said. “He’s a young player for the league, and it’s going to take some adjustment. But his approach is going to allow him to have success.”
Meadows is off to a hot start, going 8-for-21 with a double and a homer. The home run came on Sunday, when he worked the count full in his first at-bat in the game, before depositing a homer over the bullpen in right field at McKechnie. The hot start is just a continuation of how he looked at the plate all Spring.
It’s early in the season, and 21 at-bats is nothing of a sample size to go on, even when you add the Spring Training results, but the skill that Meadows has at the plate can be seen by how teams are already pitching around him. In the third game of the season, he came up with a runner at third base and two outs. The amount of pitches he got in the zone before walking? Zero.
It was even more obvious the next day against St. Lucie. Bradenton had runners on first and third with two outs, and a one run lead. Despite the two outs, the opposing pitcher was more focused on trying to pick Michael Fransoso off first base. When he actually pitched to Meadows, he was pitching around him. And then with a full count, rather than throwing the payoff pitch, he worked himself into a balk trying another pickoff attempt. Another run scored, and Meadows was walked on the next pitch on a ball nowhere near the plate.
“In my opinion, I think that they were pitching around him in that situation,” Ryan said. “I don’t know what was going on, but I know Meadows had something to do with it.”
Meadows spent the off-season working on a new hand position, dropping his hands to shorten his swing, which will allow him to recognize breaking pitches better, and allow him to tap into his raw power more often.
“I feel like I’m in a stronger position,” Meadows said about the hand position. “I’ve been working on it. Not really focused on mechanical things as much as the approach, especially into the season.”
He’s looking much better this year against breaking pitches than he did when he first entered the system in 2013. There have been some bad swings, such as a strikeout on a curveball in the dirt on Saturday, but the frequency of those bad swings has been lowered.
“I think the recognition is good, and we’re continuing to get better,” Bradenton hitting coach Ryan Long said. “Embrace how he’s going to be pitched this year. Some of these other teams, they’re going to pitch him tough. And we see it as a good thing, going to make him better in the long run.”
The Pirates have Meadows leading off in Bradenton, solely with the goal of guaranteeing he hits in the first inning, and also increasing his at-bats throughout the year to make up for some lost time last year. So far, it doesn’t look like he has needed to make up for much of anything at the plate.
Defensively he looks good from a range perspective. In fact, he looks very Andrew McCutchen-like in center field at times. That’s not to say he has the same range as McCutchen, but Meadows has emulated some of the traits the MVP shows on the field. This was shown over the weekend when he ranged in for a shallow fly ball, and made a sliding catch to his side, similar to how McCutchen makes the feet-first sliding catch. Meadows said he got that approach from watching McCutchen.
“I’ve been watching him for a long time, and the way he catches balls like that, it’s pretty impressive,” Meadows said. “So I kind of picked up on that from him. Just the sliding catch is a little bit easier on your body.”
The irony here is that Meadows and McCutchen could be tied together very closely in the future. McCutchen is under team control through the 2018 season, with many starting to wonder if the Pirates should extend him. Meanwhile, Meadows could take a year per level and be ready before the 2018 season. If all goes well with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, and all goes well with the development for Meadows, then you could see a situation where the Pirates use Meadows as the eventual replacement for McCutchen in Pittsburgh.
That’s still several years away. For now, the focus is on Meadows developing his bat to reach his full upside. So far, the results have been very encouraging.
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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.