First Pitch: More on Farm System Evaluations

I guess I can’t stay away from this.  That’s probably because I don’t think the Pirates’ major league team is going to be terribly interesting this year, but there’s a very large number of interesting players in the team’s farm system, so that’s what I’d rather focus on.

We’ve discussed FanGraphs’ list of the Pirates’ top 42 prospects and Keith Law’s farm system rankings (sub. req’d), mainly in the context of the relative strength of the Pirates’ system.  In the end, though, what matters is the details.  So I’ve got a few comments remaining about those.

Law’s comments about the Blue Jays, whom he ranks seventh, are especially interesting because of Ben Cherington’s and Steve Sanders’ recent involvement there.  Law says the Jays’ last two drafts look especially strong, they’ve added high-upside talent in Latin America and they “develop well.”  His comment about Houston, which he ranks 27th, was that they’re suffering from the effects of firing their scouts and that, “[i]f it weren’t for the work of the international scouting department, helmed by Oz Ocampo (now with Pittsburgh), this would absolutely be the bottom system in the majors.”  So that’s good, too.

On the FG list, I have some individual thoughts:

Oneil Cruz, SS (ranked 2nd):  I couldn’t pass this up:  “Somehow, over the past year, the ratio of scouts who believe the 6-foot-7 Cruz might actually stay at shortstop has grown.”  Since that’s what I’ve been thinking, naturally I’m pleased.

Mitch Keller, RHP (3rd):  The summary is what stood out:  “Keller is now a four-pitch strike-thrower with a state-of-the-art repertoire.”  That’s awfully different from Law, said the “more likely outcome” for Keller is the bullpen.  This is one case where somebody’s wrong and somebody’s right.

Travis Swaggerty, CF (4th):  FG characterizes Swaggerty as someone who’s falling short of what his physical talent should allow, a “common theme” with the Pirates’ hitting prospects.  In a way, that’s a good thing, because it’d be better if the team’s biggest problem in the minors, until now, was development and not scouting.

Tahnaj Thomas, RHP (5th):  The interesting part of this writeup was the characterization of his velocity as sitting 93-98 and reaching 100.  Some other writers have described Thomas’ velocity as mid-90s; they seemed unaware of how hard he was throwing in 2019.  So here, FG just seems to have better information.

Jared Oliva, CF (9th):  FG rates Oliva’s raw power as 55, which given his speed and defense would make for a good player if he can tap into it.  If you buy it, there’s a good reason for him to be ranked much higher on FG’s list than you’ll see elsewhere.

Nick Mears, RHP (13th):  If you’re wondering why an obscure prospect like Mears ranks so high in a system FG really likes, it’s simple:  “Fastball 70/70.”  That’s, like, really good.

Sammy Siani, CF (15th):  I’m a bit puzzled at Siani’s high rankings in most places.  You kinda expect a guy with no loud tools, especially an outfielder with modest power, to at least have a good hit tool.  FG, though, grades his at 25/50, which isn’t terribly impressive.  When I’ve seen Siani (pictured up top), there’s been a lot of swing-and-miss, including on pitches in the strike zone.  He struck out in exactly a quarter of his plate appearances in the GCL and produced no power.  Hopefully I’m wrong, but I’m just not seeing it.

Mason Martin, 1B (16th):  Another guy I’ve been puzzled about, only in a good way.  He easily led the entire minors, excluding leagues playing with a juiced ball (i.e., AAA), in homers and he was playing at the two class A levels at age 19-20.  Yeah, he strikes out a lot, but he also draws walks and power like this at that age isn’t at all common.  Despite all this, most sources don’t seem to buy into it.  Or maybe I’m just imagining that.  FG points out all this and seems optimistic about him making it as a three-true-outcomes hitter, which I think is quite fair.

Rodolfo Nolasco, OF (17th):  Just want to point out that, unless you’ve been reading John Dreker’s stuff, you would never have heard of this guy.  But here he is, mighty high up on FG’s list despite having no big-bonus pedigree and not having reached the US yet.  Information matters.

Santiago Florez, RHP (18th):  This is another guy we’ve been talking about a lot, but whom you won’t see mentioned much elsewhere (unless it’s someplace Tim writes).  Florez hasn’t dominated yet due to a need to improve his command and secondary stuff, but FG gives his curve a 50/60, which is promising.

Kevin Kramer, 2B (20th):  This one is puzzling in light of FG leaving Will Craig out of its writeup altogether.  Kramer and Craig were both below average hitters in the International League in 2019, but Kramer was in his second year there.  He’s also been overmatched in his brief major league trials.  I guess it’s because Kramer is a left-handed hitting infielder and Craig a right-handed hitting, firstbase-only player.

Michael Burrows, RHP (21st):  FG likes Burrows better than you might think from his shaky numbers in the New York-Penn League.  They got his velocity more or less right (90-94, reaching 96) and like his breaking ball.  We’ve seen Burrows as a candidate to take a couple steps forward.

Yerry De Los Santos, RHP (30th):  FG speculates that the Pirates may have left De Los Santos in the SAL, where he was blowing everybody away, to hide him from the Rule 5 draft.  (He’s eligible due to most of three years lost to Tommy John.)  I’d wondered about that, too.  If it’s true, look for them to move him very quickly this year.

Alexander Mojica, 3B (32nd):  FG is cautious about his monster DSL season, attributing it in part to him being bigger and stronger than the opposition.  I assume the idea is that he matured early and other players will catch up some.  They list him as a firstbaseman, which probably explains some of it; again, scouts don’t like RH-hitting firstbasemen.  But we’ll see what happens in the US.




Me, contemplating the Pirates’ 2020 bench . . .


By John Dreker

There have been six former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date.

Michael McKenry, catcher for the 2011-13 Pirates. He was a seventh round draft pick of the Rockies in 2006 and made his Major League debut in September of 2010. He was traded to the Red Sox prior to the start of the 2011 season and then the Pirates picked him up in early June after a rash of injuries depleted their catching ranks. McKenry caught 58 games for Pittsburgh and hit .222 with 11 RBI’s in 180 at bats. He remained with the team for two more seasons and finished with a .226 average in 187 games. McKenry played two seasons in Colorado (2014-15) and three games for the 2016 Cardinals. He is currently an announcer for the Pirates.

Bruce Aven, outfielder for the 2000 Pirates. He was a 30th round draft pick of the Indians in 1994, who made it to the majors by the 1997 season. He spent 1999 with the Florida Marlins where he hit .289 with 12 homers and 70 RBIs in 137 games. In December of 1999 the Marlins traded him to the Pirates in exchange for outfielder Brant Brown. Aven hit .250 with 25 RBIs in 72 games for the Pirates, before they shipped him to the Dodgers in early August. He made brief appearances for the Dodgers in 2001 and Indians in 2002 before finishing his career in the minors in 2003.

Brian Hunter, first baseman for the 1994 Pirates. He spent three season in the majors with the Braves prior to the Pirates acquiring him in November of 1993 in exchange for minor league infielder Jose Delgado. Hunter played 76 games with the Pirates, hitting .227 with 11 homers and 46 RBIs, prior to being traded to the Cincinnati Reds in late July. He played in the majors until 2000, except the 1997 season which was spent entirely at Triple-A. He played in the minors until 2002, hitting 142 homers over 13 minor league seasons. He was a .234 major league hitter with 67 homers in 699 games.

Mel Queen, pitcher for the Pirates in 1947-48 and 1950-52. He was signed by the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1938 and through July 1947 he had pitched just 33 Major League games for New York. The Pirates purchased his contract that July and put him in the starting rotation, where he went 3-7, 4.01 the rest of the way. In 1948 he spent most of the year in the bullpen and struggled. In 25 games he made eight starts and had a 6.65 ERA in 66.1 innings pitched. Queen spent the entire 1949 season in Triple-A, where he won 22 games. The Pirates put him in their rotation for 1950 and stuck with him most of the way, despite a final record of 5-14 with a 5.98 ERA. In 1951 he set career highs in wins (seven), innings pitched (168.1) and games pitched (39), with 21 of those appearances in the starting role. Mel had two very poor outings to start the 1952 season and then was sent to the minors, where he pitched another four years before retiring. His son, Mel Queen Jr., pitched seven seasons in the majors and held numerous other jobs in baseball up until his passing in 2011.

Clyde McCullough, catcher for the 1949-52 Pirates. He began his pro career in 1935 and made his Major League debut with the Cubs in 1940. After playing four seasons, he enlisted in the Navy and missed the 1944-45 seasons, although he was back in time to play in the 1945 World Series. He played three more seasons for the Cubs and was even named to the 1948 All-Star game despite playing just 69 games and compiling a .209 batting average. The Pirates acquired him in a four-player deal during December 1948. McCullough played four seasons in Pittsburgh, catching about 60% of the games over the 1949-51 seasons. In 1951, he hit a career high .297 with 39 RBIs. Pittsburgh traded him back to the Cubs after the 1952 season in exchange for pitcher Dick Manville and cash. McCullough made the All-Star team in 1953 again, this time playing just 77 games all year. He played with the Cubs until 1956 and finished his career in the minors in 1957. While with the Pirates he hit .258 in 352 games with 109 RBIs.

Dazzy Vance, pitcher for the Pirates on April 16, 1915. He would eventually go on to win 197 games and make the Hall of Fame in 1955, but during his Major League debut with the Pirates he did not pitch well. Vance started the third game of the 1915 season, lasting just 2.2 innings against the Reds, giving up three runs on three hits and five walks before being pulled. The Pirates sold him shortly after that game to the New York Yankees where he went 0-3 in eight games. He next pitched in the majors in 1918 with the Yankees and did not fare well in two games. He wouldn’t pick up his first win until 1922 with the Brooklyn Robins when he was 31 years old. In his first 11 seasons with Brooklyn he won a total of 186 games, three times topping 20 wins. Vance led the NL in strikeouts for seven straight seasons (1922-28) and thrice led the league in ERA. He pitched in the majors until 1935 and including his minor league win totals, he won 330 pro games. Vance had the second most wins of any pitcher in Pirates history after they left the team.

Jeff Pfeffer, pitcher for the 1924 Pirates. He was in his 13th big league season when the Pirates signed him in July of 1924 after he was released by the St Louis Cardinals. At one time he was considered one of the better pitchers in the league, but by 1924 he was on the downside of his career. He would go 5-3, 3.07 in 58.2 innings for Pittsburgh in what turned out to be his last Major League experience. He played in the minors until retiring after the 1929 season. Pfeffer won 16 or more games in a season six times and twice he topped 20 wins. His two best seasons came in 1914 when he went 23-12, 1.97 and in 1916 when he went 25-11, 1.92. Pfeffer finished his career with a 158-112 record and he won another 130 minor league games.

Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.

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