Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 Minor League Recaps: Bradenton Marauders

The Bradenton Marauders faced an unusual environment in 2021.  The remnants of the Florida State League got moved down a level; robo umps were used at some ballparks, including LECOM, some of the time; the short season leagues were eliminated, forcing some players higher than they otherwise would have gone; and the missed season had an as-yet uncertain impact.  And the changes in hitting and pitching philosophy had their own impact.  But the Marauders went ahead and won the league title.

Bradenton went 71-48, the league’s second-best record by a wide margin over the third-best.  Their hitters were the league’s youngest by a wide margin, a year below the league average.  They were second in runs, home runs, batting average, OBP and slugging.  They drew walks at an above-average rate and struck out at less than the league average rate.  Their pitchers were the fourth-youngest in the ten-team league, a little below the league average.  They were third in ERA, had the fourth-lowest walk rate and the highest strikeout rate.  The defense had issues, finishing 8th in fielding percentage.

Discussing individual players on this team is hard due to several factors.  As Baseball America pointed out, the Low A Southeast was the epicenter for some wacky statistical trends in the minors, specifically very high walk and K rates, low averages and sharply increased error rates.  The Marauders weren’t exceptions, but what look like out-of-control K rates for the hitters maybe weren’t so bad in context.  Dariel Lopez fanned in a quarter of his ABs, but his K rate was better than the league average.

And there were other factors.  Many of the hitters were young for the league and most were skipping directly from rookie ball to low A.  Quite a few played in the DSL in 2019, and that’s a big jump.  Then there was the automated strike zone in some LECOM games, as well as games in some other parks.  It differed noticeably from the “human” strike zone we, and more importantly the players, are accustomed to.  On top of that, the robo zone got adjusted a little after mid-season.  Some players, Hudson Head in particular, struck me as struggling at times to figure out where the zone was.  Still another variable was LECOM; many of the hitters had huge H/R splits, favoring the home park.  It’s not that LECOM is a high-offense ballpark, it’s more that it isn’t the offense-suffocating environment found in most Florida parks.

Catchers

A year ago, the Pirates didn’t have a catching prospect in their entire farm system, unless you counted Eli Wilson, who was and is more of a “maybe.”  Things have changed juuuust a bit.  The Marauders started the season with Endy Rodriguez and Wilson behind the plate, and finished it with Rodriguez and Abrahan Gutierrez.

Rodriguez had a big season, one that for some reason was slow to attract attention until he won the league’s MVP award.  He won the batting title and finished near the top in just about every other offensive category, including dingerz.  That’s significant, because power was probably the biggest question mark for him.  Unlike some hitters on the team, Rodriguez hit better on the road than at LECOM, .925 OPS to .861.  Also unlike most of his teammates, he didn’t strike out too much; his BB:K was 50:77.  He’s an athletic guy with good speed for a catcher.  He should be able to stay behind the plate, but he played a lot, and well, at first and some in the outfield.  There’ve been suggestions that the Pirates could try him at second.

The Pirates don’t seem big on prospects catching a huge number of games, which in my opinion is good.  Despite being on a team with Rodriguez, Wilson through July got a lot of time behind the plate and some at DH.  For much of the season, he was the team’s best hitter, with a 328/480/474 line.  He drew a ton of walks, but also struck out a lot and was vulnerable on high fastballs.  That may be why his hitting dropped off quite a bit after he moved up to Greensboro, to 203/299/373.

When Wilson moved up, Bradenton added Gutierrez following a trade with the Phillies.  He only got into 22 games because he missed a couple weeks with an injury.  Gutierrez hit even better than before the trade, batting 294/448/471, and walking more than he struck out.  He didn’t hit any homers in those 22 games, but then he hit three in the last two games of the Marauders’ playoff sweep.

Bradenton got some catching help from a couple of organizational guys, Dylan Shockley and Kyle Wilkie, mainly when Gutierrez was hurt.  And Blake Sabol caught three games; more on him when we get to Greensboro.

Infielders

Bradenton wasn’t big on having guys stay at one position.  It wouldn’t be surprising if that contributed to the team’s defensive problems.  The “regular” infield at the start of the season, first to third, was Will Matthiessen, Jase Bowen, Maikol Escotto/Dariel Lopez and Alexander Mojica.  Matthiessen moved up after a couple weeks — he’s another guy to cover with the Grasshoppers — and Ernny Ordonez largely took over at first.  Bowen also played some in the outfield and later in the season, due to demotions and injuries, spent most of his time in center.  Escotto spent a lot of time at second and Lopez at third, and Mojica played a little at first.  The result was that most of these guys played only around three-quarters of the time.

Escotto, Lopez and Mojica were all young for the level and skipping from the DSL to full season ball.  It showed the most with Escotto and Mojica, in different ways.  Escotto takes a big cut at the plate and chased some bad pitches, although he did draw a lot of walks.  His hitting tailed off badly after a big first month and he finished at 234/354/347.  He showed some range in the field but was erratic at short, and may not have the actions for the position.  Mojica was very tentative and got into a lot of bad counts.  Like most of the team, he drew a lot of walks, but he didn’t hit for the power he should have.  Defensively, his hands and arm are good, but his range is very limited.  He won’t be able to stay at third unless he gets in much better shape.

Lopez is probably the best prospect of the infielders.  He struggled the least with the big jump, batting 258/341/393 and striking out a lot less than Escotto and Mojica.  On the other hand, his defense was awful.  Possibly because of his struggles at short, late in the season he spent more time at third and Escotto spent more at short.  But Lopez was bad at third, too.

The decision to make Ordonez, an organizational guy, the semi-regular first baseman was puzzling.  He hit decently — 252/321/411 — but was a little old for the league and doesn’t hit well enough to play first.  He also struggled defensively.  Mojica likely will end up at first down the road, but played only 21 games there.

Bowen had an interesting season.  He swung aggressively for the fences and finished among the league leaders in home runs with 14.  He struck out a lot and, unlike most of the team, he didn’t have a high walk rate.  Bowen’s numbers were all over the place.  He had terrible months in July and September, and very good ones in May and August.  And he had huge platoon and home/road splits.  His overall line was 220/309/384, which was a little below league average.  He played well defensively at second and in center.

Late in the season, fifth-round draft pick Jackson Glenn became the regular at second.  He was drafted as a college senior and was a little old even for that, so he was old for the level.  Still, a 337/452/475 line, with one more walks than strikeouts, was nice for his first month.

The Marauders had several utility guys:  Yoyner Fajardo, Francisco Acuna and Norkis Marcos.  Fajardo is the most interesting.  He’s hit for high averages, including 309/397/471 in 31 games at Bradenton, but he seems to have settled in as an organizational guy.  Fajardo finished the season at Greensboro and didn’t hit well there in 19 games.  He primarily played second and left.  Marcos started the season as a utility guy who played nearly every day and moved all over the infield.  He struggled at the plate and got sent down to the FCL.  Acuna had a good year at Bristol in 2019, but struggled with Bradenton.

Outfielders

The Marauders’ outfield went through even more changes than the infield, although for different reasons.  At the start of the season, it was a four-man rotation with Sergio Campana, Jasiah Dixon, Sammy Siani and Hudson Head.  Center was usually occupied by Campana or Head, with Siani or Dixon there occasionally.  Campana and Dixon both struggled and got demoted to the FCL; I discussed them in the previous installment.  Siani got hurt in mid-July and missed nearly two months.  After all the attrition, the four-man rotation became Jack Herman, Daniel Rivero, Bowen and Head.  Herman generally played left and Rivero, who was voted by coaches and scouts as having the league’s best outfield arm, mostly played right.

Head, who’s probably the best prospect of this group, and Siani had fairly similar seasons.  They’re left-handed hitters who generally tried to wait for a pitch to pull.  Both got into a lot of deep counts as a result, and Head in particular got rung up an awful lot.  Head drew a lot of walks and struck out a ton.  Siani’s K rate, by this league’s standards, wasn’t that high and he drew a ton of walks.  They both hit for low averages and pretty good power, and had good OBPs.  Head hit 213/362/394 and Siani 215/376/390.  Those may not be impressive lines but both had above-average OPS numbers for the league.  Head tied Endy Rodriguez for third in the league in home runs with 15, and Siani probably would have been among the leaders if he hadn’t missed so much time.  Both had huge home/road splits.  Siani didn’t have much of a platoon split, but Head batted just .097 against LHPs.

Herman was overwhelmed at Greensboro and, after a brief hiatus in the FCL, settled in for a second season in low-A.  He pretty much sells out for pull power, resulting in a K rate (28.8%) that looks alarming but actually wasn’t a lot above the league average.  He batted 253/325/493 and had 13 home runs in less than half a season; he almost certainly would have led the league in a full season.  Rivero walked more than he struck out, but didn’t hit well.  He batted 241/381/333.

Pitchers

A lot of pitchers took the mound for the Marauders, 39 in all.  Of course, that included three position players and four pitchers who were rehabbing.  Some more pitchers — Drake Fellows, Xavier Concepcion, Alex Aquino, Jose Maldonado and Estalin Ortiz — disappeared after a few outings due to injuries and didn’t return.  Several — Santiago Florez, J.C. Flowers, Domingo Gonzalez and Steven Jennings — pitched very well and moved up to Greensboro.  I’ll discuss them next time.  Brennan Malone, whom I’ve already discussed, went in the wrong direction.

The Marauders got some good to outstanding performances from their rotation.  The two most impressive, in terms of results, were Adrian Florencio and Luis Ortiz, both of whom had at least semi-breakout seasons.

Florencio was the Pitcher of the Year winner in the Whatever-It-Is-Now League.  His 2.46 ERA would have led the league by a mile, except he fell one out short of qualifying.  He did lead the league in strikeouts — hooray for counting stats!  In just his second pro season, Florencio went from a 1.59 WHIP and 24:38 BB:K to a 1.05 WHIP and 30:117 BB:K.  Ortiz was also in his second pro season and also has had control problems.  This year, they resurfaced in June.  Over the last three months, though, he had a 2.73 ERA with a 2.1 BB/9 and 12.5 K/9.  He was second in the league in strikeouts.  Florencio and Ortiz finished their seasons with outstanding playoff outings.

Even with Florencio and Ortiz, the most exciting pitching prospect at Bradenton was 2020 second-round pick Jared Jones.  He had command breakdowns from time to time, resulting in a 4.6 BB/9 and 4.64 ERA, but that wasn’t too surprising for a prep draftee making his pro debut, who was expected to need to work on his delivery.  Jones showed electric stuff.  He sat at 97, although his velocity tended to drop after a couple innings, and showed two potentially plus breaking balls.  He had a 14.0 K/9 and there were stretches when he was almost absurdly unhittable, like one game in which he went four innings and fanned 11.

The other three principal starters were more spotty.  The dark horse was Logan Hofmann, the 2020 5th round pick.  He’s a 5’10” righty who surprisingly got off to a great start in the rotation, posting a 1.86 ERA the first two months.  The rest of the way, it was 4.53 as gopher balls became a problem.  Nick Garcia was mildly disappointing.  He was thought to be a find in the 3rd round out of Division III Chapman University.  He didn’t show the stuff he did in college, and his command came and went.  He finished with a 4.22 ERA and solid rather than good secondary numbers.  The biggest disappointment was Eddy Yean, supposedly the main return in the Josh Bell salary dump.  He struggled from the start, and bounced back and forth between starting and relief.  He had control problems (5.3 BB/9), didn’t show the dominating stuff he was supposed to have (9.1 K/9 in a league that averaged 10.6), and had some gopher ball problems.  He’s still only 20, though, so maybe he can pick it up.

The bullpen, typically for low A, went through a lot of changes due to promotions, injuries and poor performance.  There were some guys who struggled a little or a lot (Sergio Umana, Brayan Roman, Ryan Troutman, Alex Roth, Parker Brahms, Carlos Campos, Wandi Montout).  Several relievers — Cameron Junker, Enmanuel Mejia, Nick Dombkowski, Justin Meis and Tyler Samaniego — were impressive in different stretches.

Mejia led the team in saves and was named the league’s top reliever.  In 21 outings, he allowed no earned runs, although he gave up four unearned runs.  He walked a lot of batters, 5.8 per nine, but gave up fewer hits than walks, as opponents hit .161 against him.  He went up to Greensboro for 11 games and pitched the same way:  lots of walks, not many hits and only two earned runs.  And five unearned runs; of the 11 runs he allowed on the year, nine were unearned.

Junker, a 2019 10th-round draft pick, got off to a strong start, fanning 14.1 per nine.  Like Mejia, he walked a lot (6.0 per nine) and was very hard to hit (.143 BA).  He moved up to Greensboro after 14 games, but got hurt after a few games there and didn’t return.

Dombkowski went undrafted in 2020, then signed with the Pirates.  He’s a lefty who was considered one of the better NDFA signings after the five-round draft.  In 11 games, he put up a 1.02 WHIP with good walk and K numbers, and . . . well . . . he’s a lefty, which we don’t see much in this system.

Meis (10th round) and Samaniego (15th) were among the few pitchers drafted in 2021 who got into games.  They shored up the Marauders’ bullpen late in the year.  Meis had a 2.04 ERA and 13.8 K/9 in ten games.  Samaniego, a 6’4″ lefty, threw seven innings in five games, striking out 15, and allowing just four hits and two walks.

And then there’s Oliver Mateo.  He came into the season as a scatter-armed pitcher with just under 30 innings of pro experience who can hit triple digits.  In the first couple of months, he walked two batters per inning and had an ERA in double digits.  But the Pirates stuck with him.  Over the rest of the season, he still walked a lot, but he found the plate enough to get through innings consistently.  In his last 24.2 IP, he gave up just ten hits to go with 17 walks, and he struck out 55.  That’s a 20.1 K/9.  Mateo sat around 97-98 and his curve was almost literally unhittable, like can’t-even-foul-it-off unhittable.  He’s eligible for Rule 5, so he presents the Pirates with an interesting problem.

Analysis
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