I like to think about a baseball farm system like an ocean.
The shore is the Major League level, and from that vantagepoint, you can see the tide pushing in new players in waves.
Off in the distance, you can’t see it yet, but a group of high school players are making adjustments to build up a future wave that lies beyond any wave you can see.
Beyond that, the ocean looks like flat ground, but is filled with a sea of young baseball players around the world, making their way into the sport.
These oceans aren’t always rocky. In fact, sometimes it can feel like there are no waves on the horizon, or that the tide is actually going out.
Then, there are different types of waves. A wave from the Pacific Ocean is larger than a wave from the Atlantic Ocean, which is larger than a wave from the Gulf Coast.
Ultimately, I think there’s a tendency to optimistically view each wave as a Pacific wave, until we’re shown otherwise.
It would be easy to view the first wave of the Pirates’ rebuilding efforts as a Pacific-sized wave.
We’ve already seen a preview of that wave hitting the shore with the end-of-2021 MLB debuts of Roansy Contreras and Oneil Cruz. I would expect both to begin the 2022 season back in the minors, while also expecting both to arrive full-time in the majors at some point during the season. Cruz represents one of the biggest impact bats in the system, while Contreras is one of the best candidates to become a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Cruz and Contreras started the 2021 season in Altoona. A lot of their Altoona teammates are joining them in the first wave under Pirates’ General Manager Ben Cherington.
The holes in the Pittsburgh outfield could find a solution from Matt Fraizer, Jack Suwinski, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Cal Mitchell, or Travis Swaggerty — with the latter spending his brief 2021 season in Triple-A. Suwinski, Smith-Njigba, and Swaggerty are already on the 40-man roster, so expect them to arrive at some point in 2022.
The infield could receive help up the middle from Rodolfo Castro and Diego Castillo. Both are candidates for the open long-term second base position, with Castro already getting a good amount of playing time there in 2021. Ji-Hwan Bae is another middle infielder who could add to this mix, or move to center field and join the outfield mix.
First base is a long-term hole at the MLB level, and the top prospect at that position is Mason Martin, who hit 25 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. Martin is Rule 5 eligible, but it’s extreme rare for first basemen to get selected, meaning he should be safe in the system.
Behind the plate, Carter Bins could be the first catching prospect to arrive as a long-term solution, although Bins is likely to end up behind Henry Davis on the long-term depth chart.
The Pirates’ bullpen needs some help, and the upper levels has some solid relievers. Cristofer Melendez hit triple-digits in Altoona in 2021, sitting mostly 95-98. Yerry De Los Santos sat 96-97 at the same level, giving another hard-throwing, late-inning relief candidate. Hunter Stratton isn’t as hard of a thrower, but had solid numbers with a dominant fastball between Altoona and Indianapolis.
Time will tell how this wave impacts the shores of PNC Park. The good news is that this isn’t the only wave on the horizon.
While this wave is largely made up of players who spent the 2021 season in Altoona, there is another talented group arriving in Altoona in 2022. That group includes top prospects Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, and Quinn Priester, and Wilbur Miller broke them down in his latest look ahead to the upcoming season. A lot of the top players from that group could arrive in the majors in 2023.
Beyond the 2022 Altoona group, the Pirates have loaded up on young, talented players via trades, the draft, and international signings. With an effective development system, there should be enough waves on the horizon to turn the tides in Pittsburgh.