The Bristol Pirates open their 68-game schedule tonight. The Advanced Rookie League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates has usually been the team that gets the top prep pitchers drafted during the previous year, but this season had some changes. Second round pick Braxton Ashcraft and 11th round over-slot pick Michael Burrows were moved up to Morgantown. That takes away from some of the interest at Bristol this year, though as a fan, you’ll always take prospects exceeding expectations.
The top draw at Bristol this year is Tahnaj Thomas, a 19-year-old right-hander who was acquired from the Cleveland Indians over the off-season. Thomas has huge upside, standing 6’4″, with a fastball that gets into the high-90s and a slider that has a chance to be a plus pitch, looking like one at times already. He didn’t have a lot of work during spring due to a minor injury and an adjustment made to clean up his delivery, but he will be the Opening Day starter tonight.
Santiago Florez (pictured above) is also slated to start and he’s a player to watch. Florez is 19 years old, with a big 6’6″ frame and a fastball that got up to 96 MPH last year, after topping out at 92 previously. He started throwing more strikes and improved his off-speed pitches, showing huge potential.
There’s a large drop-off in prospect status after these two pitchers, but the team has a lot of potential arms that could establish themselves over the next 2-3 years.
Dante Mendoza, who was part of the Thomas trade with Cleveland, will also be in the starting rotation. He has taken a step forward this season after spending two years at the lowest level with the Indians. Mendoza was high-80s last year, but he’s now 90-92 with a hard curve as his out pitch.
The Pirates are sending two international signings to Bristol for their debuts and both have looked great during the spring. Adrian Florencio is a 6’7″ right-hander, who gets downward plane on his 92-93 MPH fastball, mixing it with a sharp slider and a changeup that has shown some recent progress. The other is 6’3″ righty Luis Ortiz, who throws 93-95 MPH and has been one of the better relievers this spring down at Pirate City. They were older signings (ages 19 and 20), but they have already surpassed players who have spent 2-3 years in the system. Both also have some room to still fill out. These two should both see plenty of innings of this season.
Oliver Mateo will bring his 100 MPH fastball to Bristol, after he showed better control than last year in the DSL when he was basically just walking, striking out or hitting batters, with not many balls put in play. Yordi Rosario, a 20-year-old right-hander acquired in the Ivan Nova deal, will also be at Bristol. Jose Maldonado has some big potential with a 93-95 MPH fastball and a sharp breaking ball, though his control still needs some work. He moved up to the GCL late last year, but had his only start washed away when rain came in the fourth inning of the game. I would expect him to get some starting time this year due to his potential. Yoelvis Reyes got a late boost to Bristol, due to a strong four-pitch mix. The 19-year-old lefty put up solid starts as a rookie in the DSL last year.
The Pirates are sending numerous draft picks to Bristol this year, and more could be on the way as new signings occur. On the pitching side, 24th round pick Trey McGough, 26th round Ryan Troutman, 27th round Samson Abernathy and 28th round pick Bear Bellomy are the first group of pitchers headed there. Alex Roth, who signed on Monday, will also head there after going to Pirate City for a short time. He was drafted in the 21st round.
On the offensive side, you’re going to see a lot of draft picks, as well as some players possibly being sent down from Morgantown as their roster fills out. That makes it tough to gauge who will stay here and who could move down as draft picks fill in here. Young outfielder Jean Eusebio is the top signing slated to stay in Bristol. The 18-year-old received a $450,000 bonus in early 2017 and has the tools to be a top prospect, but hasn’t put things together yet. He’s a possible breakout player.
Daniel Rivero, who was one of the top prospects from the 2018 DSL Pirates, is with the team now, but he could be headed back to the GCL when the roster fills out. Infielder Francisco Acuna and C/1B Samuel Inoa are also both with the team. They have shown potential, with Acuna excelling in Colombian winter ball at 18 years old this winter, while Inoa had dealt with a laundry list of injuries over the last two years, which has held him back and kept him from catching full-time.
The draft picks already headed to Bristol are 13th round pick Chase Murray, 14th rounder Aaron Shackelford, 16th rounder Eli Wilson, 25th rounder Ethan Goforth, 31st round pick Josh Bissonette and 33rd round pick Ernny Ordonez. Murray is an outfielder, Wilson and Goforth will split the catching duties, while the other three are infielders.
So basically, you have a lot of upside on the pitching side, and then a group of draft picks who should see regular playing time on the hitting side. Add in Jean Eusebio, possibly Daniel Rivero (if he stays with the team), as well as Acuna and Inoa, and there is room for potential among recent international signings. It’s not a group that currently ranks high, especially after Thomas, who has moved up to #12 in the system after Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds lost their prospect status. Both Florez and Eusebio are in our top 50, as well as the injured Roger Santana (who might not pitch this season), but that’s it for right now.
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.