Well, this is the toughest one of all. Not just because the Pirates have a ton of interesting pitching talent that could/should be at Greensboro. It’s also tough because the ordinary notions about starters and relievers don’t really hold up at the low class A level.
Generally speaking, yes, the best pitchers will be in the rotation. At this level, though, not many pitchers will be on track for a 26- or 27-start season with 5-7 innings per start. Because of that, setting a rotation won’t simply be a matter of deciding on the five best pitchers. More realistically, you’re probably going to have workload targets for each pitcher, and work from there to figure out how to get them to that target. That may mean starting with moderate or low pitch limits, or piggybacking, or, in the case of less experienced guys, opening the season in extended spring training and joining GBO in May or even June. And, of course, the top prospects would get priority.
GBO has three obvious priorities, because it has the three highest-ceiling pitchers in the Pirates’ farm system, unless you count Mitch Keller. That’d be last year’s top pick, Quinn Priester; Brennan Malone, the other half of the Marte return; and Tahnaj Thomas, who came from Cleveland in the Jordan Luplow trade.
Priester is very advanced for a prep pitching draftee and probably could use the challenge of full-season ball. Apart from the high school season, he threw only 36.2 IP last year, so he probably wouldn’t be in GBO yet if there was an actual season now. Malone threw only eight innings after the D’backs drafted him out of prep school, so he also would be a candidate to stay in extended for a bit. Thomas threw 48.1 IP at Bristol, so he might be a slightly better candidate to open at GBO. Also, here’s a fun comment on Thomas from Eric Longenhagen, in answering a chat question about how Jacob DeGrom came out of nowhere:
I don’t think it was scout failure so much as randomness. A conversion arm exploded late, that’s all. He’ll, he’s still getting better, velo up again last year for fifth consecutive year. Tahnaj Thomas is the one who I think has a shot at late-developing growth that makes him really good.
Beyond the Big Three, there are several pitchers who need to be starting regularly. They include two 2018 prep draftees, Braxton Ashcraft and Michael Burrows, both of whom showed promise and had some struggles in the New York-Penn League last year. They also both offer some projection still. There’s also Santiago Florez, a big righty with good velocity who needs to keep making progress with his secondary stuff and command after a solid season with Bristol. And last year’s fourth round pick, J.C. Flowers, remains more of a project than the usual college draftee. He’s focusing on the mound now after being a two-way player in college.
If we stopped here, GBO would have an extremely intriguing rotation. There are enough at-least-marginally interesting pitchers remaining, though, to make up a whole rotation themselves. None of the pitchers above threw a ton of innings last year — Ashcraft threw the most with 53 — so at worst there should be significant innings available in piggybacking roles. But there are a lot of candidates for those innings.
There are three righties from the Pirates’ international program who’d merit rotation spots in just about any other year. Luis Nova, who was an older signee, made a jump to full-season ball in 2019, in just his second season. He moved up to GBO partway through the season when there was an opening and held his own over 41 innings. He probably needs more time at the level, although he could go to Bradenton. Luis Ortiz, another older signee, started his career at Bristol and pitched very well for two months before control problems hampered him in August. Domingo Gonzalez is a smaller righty who pitched well in the GCL last year and finished with one excellent start in the NYPL. He has good command for his experience level and also fanned over ten per nine innings in 2019, so he’d be a good pitcher to challenge with a full season assignment.
There are a couple college pitchers from the Pirates’ 2018 draft who’ve struggled with injuries. Zach Spears, a 6’7″ lefty drafted in round 8, was supposed to be in the GBO rotation in 2019, but missed the season due to a shoulder injury sustained while weight-lifting. Michael Flynn, the 6th round pick, missed all of 2019 except for a few rehab outings following a UCL sprain. Both need to get innings at the full-season level.
Two other possibiities are Jesus Valle and Bear Bellomy. Valles pitched well as a starter in the NYPL last year but is a finesse guy who doesn’t miss bats. Bellomy, a late-round 2019 draftee, pitched in a swing role in the NYPL.
Apart from pitchers listed above, possibly pitching in piggybacking roles, the GBO bullpen could have some interesting international guys and a raft of college pitchers from the 2019 draft. The two most interesting pitchers may be Xavier Concepcion and Saul De La Cruz, both of whom have limited experience at this point. Concepcion regularly hits triple digits, but after two brief seasons still needs to work on the other aspects of his game. De La Cruz signed way back in 2015, but missed a lot of time due to Tommy John surgery. He missed a lot of bats and held opponents to a .157 average last year, pitching in the GCL and at Bristol.
Of the 2019 draftees, Samson Abernathy (27th round), C.J. Dandeneau (37), Garrett Leonard (15), lefty Jake Sweeney (36) and Alex Roth (21) could all see at least some time with GBO. Abernathy, Dandeneau and Roth put up good numbers at Bristol, although the stats of college players at that low a level have to be viewed with caution. Abernathy may be interesting because he gets good deception with a funky delivery. Sweeney went to the GCL and had control problems, so he may not make it out of short season ball. Leonard pitched in the NYPL and didn’t have a lot of success.
There are still other possibilities. Denny Roman, a small lefty, had a mediocre ERA but good peripherals at Bristol in 2019. Alex Aquino, a minor league Rule 5 selection from the Braves, is a converted shortstop who gets to the mid-90s. Yordi Rosario, who came from the White Sox for Ivan Nova, had strong numbers at Bristol.
Our hypothetical Greensboro pitching staff:
Rotation: Tahnaj Thomas, Braxton Ashcraft, Michael Burrows, Santiago Florez, J.C. Flowers (I’m keeping Quinn Priester and Brennan Malone in extended spring training to start the season).
Bullpen: Luis Nova, Luis Ortiz, Zach Spears, Michael Flynn, Xavier Concepcion, Samson Abernathy and Garrett Leonard.
SONG OF THE DAY
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
By John Dreker
Six former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date and one Opening Day of note.
On this date in 1886, Pittsburgh played its fifth opener in franchise history. The team was called the Alleghenys then and that season would be their last in the American Association before they moved to the National League. That Opening Day was like no other in franchise history. It was the only time Pittsburgh has ever played a doubleheader on Opening Day. The Alleghenys lost both games that day to the St Louis Browns, the eventual champions of the AA that season. Pittsburgh lost the opener 8-4 with Ed “Cannonball” Morris as the starter and then lost 10-5 in the second game with future Hall of Fame pitcher James “Pud” Galvin starting. The Alleghenys also opened up their season in 1885 on this date. It was the first time in team history that they played a regular season game in the month of April. That day, Ed Morris shutout the Browns by a 7-0 score.
Steve Blass, pitcher for the 1964 and 1966-74 Pirates. The Pirates signed Blass right out of High School in 1960 for $4,000 and sent him to the low minors, where he compiled a 5-4, 4.32 record in 73 innings, split between two teams. He broke out the next year as a 19-year-old, going 13-6, 3.32 in 160 innings for Batavia of the NYPL. Blass moved up to the Carolina league for 1962 and went 17-3, 1.97 in 23 starts, earning a last season promotion to A-ball for Asheville of the South Atlantic League. Although he didn’t pitch well in his brief trial for Asheville, he was still moved up to Triple-A to start in 1963. After going 11-8, 4.44 in 24 starts, it took just two more Triple-A starts in 1964 to earn him a promotion to the big leagues.
Blass went 5-8, 4.04 his rookie season, making 13 starts and 11 relief appearances. He returned to Triple-A for the entire 1965 season, then was a regular in the Pirates starting rotation the next season. He went 11-7, 3.87 in 155.2 innings in 1966, then followed it up with a 3.55 ERA in 1967, though his record dropped down to 6-8 due to a lack of run support. The 1968 season would be his breakout season in the majors. He won 18 games, posted a 2.12 ERA in 220.1 innings and led NL pitchers with a .750 winning percentage. Fortunately for Blass, the 1969 Pirates were a strong team, because his season wasn’t a good one compared to his other peak years. He had a 4.46 ERA (the worst on the team), but he was still able to go 16-10 thanks to great run support. Dock Ellis that season had an 11-17 record with an ERA almost a run lower. Those tables turned on Blass the next season when he had a 3.52 ERA, but ended up with a losing record on a team that won the NL East with 89 wins.
The 1971 season was a magical one for the Pirates and for Blass. He went 15-8 during the season, leading the NL in shutouts. After struggling in two NLCS starts against the Giants, he won both of his World Series starts against the Orioles. Both were complete game victories, the second game being game seven of the series, a 2-1 victory. Blass had his best season in 1972, winning a career high 19 games, making the All-Star team for the only time in his career and finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting.
When he came back for the 1973 season the control on his pitches was gone, without any injuries or explanation. He couldn’t throw strikes and his record that season was a dismal 3-9, 9.85 with 84 walks in 88.2 innings. Things got so bad the next season, that he spent the year in the minors, where he pitched just as poorly. He was released in the spring of 1975, ending his baseball career. Blass had a 103-76 record in ten seasons with the Pirates. He retired from baseball in 2019 after his 60th seasons as a player/announcer the Pirates, though he was with the team as a guest instructor during 2020 Spring Training.
Angelo Encarnacion, catcher for the 1995-96 Pirates. He was signed by the Pirates as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1990. In 1994, he hit .291 and threw out 43% of baserunners attempting to steal while at Double-A. Those numbers earned him an Opening Day spot on the 1995 Pirates. Encarnacion spent all but one month of the season in Pittsburgh, hitting .226 with ten RBIs in 58 games that year. He began the next season in Triple-A, hitting .319 in 75 games, while playing for Calgary. The Pirates recalled him for a three week span beginning in mid-July and he hit .318 in seven games before being sent back down. Just prior to the start of the 1997 season, he was traded to the Angels in a four-player deal along with Trey Beamon, that brought Mark Smith to Pittsburgh. Encarnacion played 11 games for the Angels that season, then spent the rest of his career in the minors, retiring in 2003.
Larry Foss, pitcher for the 1961 Pirates. He was signed by the Pirates as an amateur free agent in 1955, spending the first seven seasons of his career in the minors. The Pirates finally called him up to the majors in September of 1961 after he went 10-7, 3.59 in 143 innings, splitting the year between A-ball and Double-A. Foss made three starts for the Pirates, winning his Major League debut over the St Louis Cardinals on September 18th by going seven innings and allowing two earned runs. He spent the 1962 season back in A-ball where he pitched well, though when he was called up to Triple-A, he was hit very hard. In nine innings over three starts and two relief appearances, he allowed 19 earned runs. The Pirates put him on waivers in early September and he was picked up by the expansion New York Mets. Foss pitched five games for the Mets that 1962 season, posting a 4.63 ERA in 11.2 innings. Early in the 1963 season, the Mets trade him to the Milwaukee Braves, in what turned out to be his last season in the minors. He played in the Western Canada Baseball League in 1964.
Bob Linton, catcher for the 1929 Pirates. He spent the entire 1929 season with the Pirates, but never started a single game. Linton came off of the bench 17 times that year, eight times to finish the game behind the plate and the other nine times he was used as a pinch-hitter. He only batted more than once in a game one time, on August 20th when the Pirates sat their regular catcher after they went down 8-0 to the Phillies in the third inning. Linton spent the rest of his career in the minors, 14 more seasons, finally retiring after the 1945 season. He also managed for three years in the minor leagues. His pro career began in 1927 and he played for the Pirates during Spring Training of 1928, before he got injured and returned to the minors. After he hit .305 in 109 games for the Decatur Commodores of the Three-I League in 1928, he won the third string catching job for the 1929 Pirates during his second Spring Training with the club. Linton beat out Roy Spencer, who caught for the Pirates from 1925-27 and John O’Connell, who caught three games over two (1928-29) seasons, to earn that third string position.
Jack Scott, pitcher for the Pirates on September 19, 1916. He made his Major League debut for the Pirates as a pinch-hitter, before making his pitching debut in relief of starter Elmer Jacobs in the first game of a doubleheader. Scott pitched five innings, allowing six earned runs on five hits and three walks. He struck out four batters that day. In 1917, he pitched for two different minor league teams, compiling a 14-11, 2.44 record in 221 innings. In mid-August, his contract was purchased by the Boston Braves. He ended up pitching four seasons for the Braves, one game for the Reds in 1922, then six years for the Giants. He pitched in 1927 for the Phillies and led the NL in losses with twenty-one. Scott had a 103-109, 3.85 career record in 356 games. He was a lifetime .275 hitter and he pinch-hit over 50 times during his career. He was traded twice for Hall of Fame pitchers, the first time was for Rube Marquard in 1922 and the other was for Burleigh Grimes during the 1926-27 off-season.
Jack Rothfuss, first baseman for the 1897 Pirates. He spent his first two seasons of pro ball playing for his hometown team, the Newark Colts of the Atlantic League. Rothfuss joined the Pirates in early August of 1897 after batting .323 in 89 games for Newark. He played well with the Pirates, hitting .313 with 18 RBIs in 35 games during the last two months of the season. He was supposed to be the Pirates starting first baseman for 1898, but he contracted dysentery and was too sick to play the first three months of the season. The Pirates sold his contract to the Kansas City Blues of the Western League shortly after the 1898 season started. Rothfuss ended up playing semi-pro ball in 1898 once he was better, then finished his career playing with another nine seasons in the minors, never returning to the majors again.
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.