Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 Minor League Recaps: DSL Pirates

It was not a good season in the Dominican Summer League for either of the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliates, but it was good to see them get back out on the field after a lost season last year. The league had a somewhat limited schedule to begin with, going from 72 games to 60 games, but the Pirates made it even shorter. The two clubs each played 56 games, with almost all of them consisting of seven-inning games. They had two games each canceled by rain, then they canceled two late season games that were supposed to be the two Pirates affiliates playing each other. So even though they got in their season, they really took a hit with the amount of playing time. For comparison sake, the two Pirates affiliates average 626 innings pitched in 2019. In 2021, they average 396 innings apiece.

I’m going to mention both teams together here below, but a look at the two clubs separately shows the team called Pirates Black went 34-22, finishing third in their division. The Pirates Gold team finished 19-37, in last place in their division. There were 46 teams in the league and only one team had a worse record. Despite the difference in record between the two affiliates, the Gold team had a better OPS, posting a .654 mark. The Black team was at .650, so they weren’t far behind, but there were still three clubs between them and another club at .650, which was tied for 34th in the league. On the pitching side, as you would expect, the Black team had the advantage, finishing with a 3.89 ERA, ranked 14th in the league. Pirates Gold had a 5.12 ERA, ranked 40th in the league. So basically both teams were below average hitting, one was well below average in pitching, and the other was slightly above mid-pack. The Pirates Gold also had the third most errors in the league. The Pirates Black were 15th.

Not only was there nothing to get excited about with the team hitting/pitching/fielding, the individuals didn’t stand out at all. Since they were playing seven-inning games, they didn’t have many batters qualify for league leaders. The ones who did were big name signings and they didn’t do well, finishing 99th, 103rd, 137th, 145th, 146th and 167th among the 167 hitters who qualified.

The pitching side had no one who qualified for league leaders, but if we look at Baseball-Reference, which uses a lower standard for league qualifiers, they have six Pirates in the top 100 (their entire list, but it’s a pretty rough list at the bottom). The Pirates ranked 15th, 30th, 81st, 89th, 95th and 100th. That’s a nice start, having two of the top 30 in a league with 46 teams, but then they had four of the worst 20 qualified pitchers.

I’m not going look at all of the players here, won’t even come close to be honest, but I won’t leave off anyone of note. The one team used 35 players, while the other used 39 throughout the season. It wasn’t 74 different players, as there were some players who saw action for both teams, but it would still be a lot to mention everyone. We start with the big signings, beginning with the biggest.

Shalin Polanco signed for $2.3 M,  so there were very high expectations. He fell well short of that, but I’ll add this asterisk once and it applies to everyone, he’s a young player coming off of an odd 2020 year for everyone. Polanco hit .204/.284/.338 in 47 games, which placed him seventh on his team in OPS among the nine regulars (tied for 12th overall out of 17 players). While they were far from impressive numbers, he led the team in triples and homers, and he went 6-for-8 in steals, so you take the positives where you can get them.

The highest OPS among both teams belonged to Ronny Sanchez, but even that comes with a bit of an asterisk because he’s a 19-year-old first baseman with previous DSL experience, unlike almost everyone else. A large majority of these players were signed during the last two signing periods, so this season was their pro debut. Sanchez had an .834 OPS in 35 games, with no homers and five walks. When I said it was a bad season, you probably didn’t expect a “best hitter finishing with no homers and five walks” type of bad season.

How about something positive (there won’t be a lot of it). Catcher Omar Alfonzo, who is the son of a former big league catcher (Eliezer Alfonzo), posted a .762 OPS, which is 80 points above league average. He also had more walks (32) than strikeouts (30), and that was after getting off to a slow start.

Enmanuel Terrero signed for $600,000 in July of 2019. He had a .707 OPS in 49 games, with the best signs being 33 walks and 24 strikeouts in 174 plate appearances. He has speed and should be a solid defender in a corner outfield spot, so it’s not just a bat-only profile.

Outfielder Eddy Rodriguez was another positive. He was signed for his bat and he came through with a .786 OPS, with some power and a great strikeout rate. Esmerlyn Valdez was a similar signing to Rodriguez, with high hopes based on a power bat, and he didn’t disappoint. He put up a .782 OPS with eight doubles and five homers. His strikeout rate wasn’t that good, but it’s not an alarming rate, and he drew some walks. Dioris Valdez had a .722 OPS, but he could be considered disappointing. His raw power is off the charts, but he homered once in 97 at-bats. He had a nice walk rate and a decent strikeout rate, so that could be a good sign, because there’s legit plus power that we didn’t see this year.

Jeral Toledo is a player who may have been helped out by the lost season, at least when looking at his stats. He was described as raw and there weren’t high expectations for 2020. Instead, his first season in pro ball now shows a .713 OPS, which is 31 points above league average. His nine doubles led all Pirates and his walk rate was outstanding, with a 35:24 BB/SO ratio.

Heiron Montalban is a raw power player who didn’t see much playing time, so there isn’t much to take away. He had a .739 OPS in 18 games. The Pirates signed a lot of power potential players over the last two signing periods, especially outfielders. Some worked out, some didn’t.

Gustavo Armas had below average results, but he’s a toolsy outfielder with potential for big upside, so I wouldn’t get down on him just yet. He hit .231/.378/.265 in 51 games, with 34 walks. The possible red flag here is 52 strikeouts in 189 plate appearances, which is a poor rate for the DSL.

Ruben Vizcaya is similar to Armas, as a toolsy outfielder with big upside. There were high hopes here and he had an average season for the league, finishing with a .693 OPS in 42 games. He showed a little power, had decent walk/strikeout rates, and his defense/arm/speed are all average or better.

Just being in the DSL this year was disappointing for Osvaldo Gavilan, the big signing from the 2018-19 signing period, who already had prior DSL experience. I’ll note that he finished strong, which is a good sign, but he had a .699 OPS in 39 games and he was playing first base. He just turned 20 this month (after the season was over), so he was old for the DSL.

Rodolfo De La Cruz hit .161 with 54 strikeouts in 153 plate appearances. That’s coming from a player who was praised for his ability to make loud contact often, so this is a major disappointment. On the plus side, his defense is one of his better tools, so he isn’t one of those players who won’t make it if the bat doesn’t reach its upside, but obviously he has to do much better than this year.

Robert De Paula is another batter with the ability to barrel the ball well, with above average power potential. He batted .188 with one extra-base hit in limited time. Not a big enough sample size of at-bats to make a judgement, but what they saw wasn’t good.

Jesus Castillo was a signing with solid potential, but the only really good sign we saw in 2021 is that he stole 15 bases. He posted a .613 OPS in 49 games. He moved all over the infield and did decent work defensively overall.

Wesley Zapata showed a great walk rate and not much else, but he was described as raw when he signed in January. I won’t say that a .538 OPS is fine from a player with tools beyond his bat, but there weren’t high expectations this year for him, so it wasn’t a major disappointment.

Delfin Ramirez would be among the biggest disappointments here. There were big things expected from him last year, but we had to wait for his debut, then he puts together a .191/.305/.213 slash line in 42 games. He was also signed as a shortstop and mostly played second base. He was a top ten prospect (between these two DSL clubs) and he fell well short of expectations.

Remember when the Pirates acquired a DSL catcher from the Milwaukee Brewers for two Triple-A players? Samuel Escudero put up a .437 OPS in 36 games. If you want to find positives in that number, his walk and strikeout rates were solid, and he’s still 17 years old until next Spring Training.

Ewry Espinal is another major disappointment because he already spent some time in the U.S. at Pirate City, just not in games. His raw power is special/elite, but it’s apparently very raw still because he hit .155 with 60 strikeouts in 150 plate appearances. He had 30 walks and ten extra-base hits, but those strikeouts are a disturbing total for the DSL (for any level really, but especially here).

No one was more disappointing that Javier Rivas, who there was said to be potential for him to be the top position player signed in 2019 by the Pirates. He’s a shortstop with speed and he received rave reviews for his bat. Considering that there were big expectations for 2020, you would expect big things this year as well. In fact, there was word that he might move up to the GCL mid-season if things went well. They did not…not at all. I mentioned above that the Pirates had the 167th best hitter out of 167 qualified hitters and he was that player. He hit .133/.214/.173 in 51 games. I’d like to point out positives, but his strikeout rate was high, his walk rate low, his stolen bases were nothing to write home (or here) about. His defensive numbers look okay, and he turned 19 during the season. In the DSL, that’s average at best for age.

I’ll have to mention three other players who missed time due to injury, so we didn’t get a big enough sample size. Jauri Custodio played just 19 games, but did well in 2019 and 2021, and he was a legit prospect when signed, so there’s potential. Shortstop John Zorilla was rehabbing an injury, so he barely played, and when he did it was basically rehab work in games at the lowest level because there was nowhere else to play. Pitcher Gilberto Alcala missed the entire season due to injury. He has huge potential, and was going to be the best pitcher to watch this season, so they took an early hit here.

Since we mentioned our first pitcher, that’s how we get into the rest of them. We start with the two pitchers who were thought to be the best to watch along with Alcala from the 2019 signing class, which also included Cristopher Cruz, who jumped to the U.S. Roelmy Garcia was described as a huge arm, with 100 MPH potential, though he needed to harness his pitches to reach his potential. I can sum up his season by saying he had 32 walks and 39 strikeouts in 24.2 innings over 12 games (ten starts). He basically throws a lot of pitches and eventually walks or strikes out the batter. Yojeiry Osoria is a high upside lefty, who signed for $600,000 and didn’t show that in his numbers, posting a 6.12 ERA in 25 innings over ten  starts, with 16 walks and 20 strikeouts. With Alcala’s injury included, this was a very disappointing season for this high upside trio.

Let’s look at some positives though, starting with Antwone Kelly, who was a raw signing from Aruba, who added about 7-8 MPH on average to his fastball. He had a truly awful pro debut, yet finished with a 4.14 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 37 innings. He went from having the second lowest fastball velocity of any pitcher from these two teams, to having some of the best velocity.

Another player who added velocity was Luigi Hernandez, though he was already in a good spot before his addition, which now has him mid-90s already. He had 37 strikeouts in 31.1 innings, but it came with a 7.18 ERA. Look past that ERA though, because there’s potential.

Jose Garces was considered to be the best pitcher in the 2020-21 signing class for the Pirates, though a few others were said to have potential to be the best as well. He finished with a 5.16 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP in 29.2 innings, with 32 strikeouts.

Darlin Diaz got the biggest bonus for any pitcher the Pirates signed when the 2020-21 signing period opened on January 15th. He was used in relief and put up mediocre stats, with a 4.81 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP, with 18 strikeouts in 24.1 innings.

Luis Faringthon was a bigger signing in 2019 for pitchers (below the top four names), but he had 5.18 ERA and 17 walks in 24.1 innings. The upside is that he had 29 strikeouts.

Jesus Clode signed late as a hard-throwing reliever and didn’t live up to expectations. In 32.2 innings, he had a 5.51 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP,  with 25 strikeouts.

Among non-big names who had strong seasons, Eliecer Romero had a 2.31 ERA in 35 innings, though he turned 20 mid-season. Patricio Ress had a 1.91 ERA in 35 innings, with a 1.24 WHIP and 25 strikeouts. Yoldin De La Paz was the best pitcher this season, with a 2.03 ERA in 40 innings, with a 1.00 WHIP and 40 strikeouts. When he signed in 2019, he had a four-pitch mix, with the control/stamina to be a starter, but his velocity was average. The DSL can be dominated by pitchers with the ability to throw off-speed pitches for strikes, regardless of velocity/quality, so ERA isn’t always a good indicator of future success. Miguel Diaz had a 2.30 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP in 27.1 innings of relief, with 29 strikeouts. Luis Gonzalez had a 1.63 ERA in 27.2 innings of relief (he was the top pitcher mentioned above in the league leaders section). He had a 1.27 WHIP and 23 strikeouts, so he didn’t dominate as much as that ERA would indicate. Isaias Uribe had a 2.76 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 25 strikeouts over 32.2 innings in 11 starts. Andres Silvera had a 2.97 ERA in 36.1 innings, with a 10:29 BB/SO ratio and a 1.29 WHIP. Kevison Hernandez posted a 2.78 ERA in 22.2 innings, which came with 27 strikeouts and a 1.47 WHIP.

One player was promoted mid-season from the DSL to the states in 2021 and that was pitcher Sebastian Rodriguez. He was an older signing in 2019, who has a solid scouting report, with a four-pitch mix, including a fastball that reached 92 MPH, but he also had athleticism and what was described as “plus arm speed”, which isn’t a tag you see often. Between his age (he just turned 21 last week), current stuff when he signed in October 2019, and his upside, it wasn’t surprising to see him move up in competition. He didn’t allow an earned run in three DSL starts (ten innings), then posted a 4.71 ERA in 21 innings in the FCL.

One final name is Joaquin Tejada, who was acquired from the Seattle Mariners in the Tyler Anderson trade. He pitched eight games after the deal, posting a 3.80 ERA in 23.2 innings, with 13 walks and 25 strikeouts.

I would normally do a top ten, but with the limited action and time off for these young players last year, it wouldn’t be responsible to do that. I included everyone of note, so that will have to do for now. You already know that Shalin Polanco would be the top player, regardless of his performance in the league. Many of the other top players didn’t live up to potential, but we will see if it was just the strange circumstances of this season, or they really do miss as prospects in the future.

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