This season’s Bradenton roster will be a bit less quirky than last year’s. That team walked into a crazy situation, with everybody missing the previous year and two whole levels of the minors being lopped off. One consequence was a very young team with bunch of guys who had little or no experience apart from the Dominican Summer League. It was also an unusually talented team, which it showed by winning the title despite the lack of experience.
This year will be closer to normal for Low-A, at least as far as the roster makeup is concerned. Nobody is jumping all the way from the DSL. Several guys are repeating the level, which isn’t the setback it seems given how many players probably got ahead of themselves last year. The bulk of the roster is moving up from the GCL, which is . . . well . . . normal.
One thing we won’t see, at least to start the season, is any of the prep draftees from 2021. You remember them: Anthony Solometo, Bubba Chandler, Lonnie White, Owen Kellington, Braylon Bishop and A.J. Graham. It could be some of them will appear at Bradenton later. No doubt the Pirates are still adjusting to the structural changes dictated by the corporate raiders in the Commissioner’s office. We don’t know yet how they’re going to handle assignments and promotions in the low minors in this new environment.
As long as it’s not in AAA, a Pirates’ affiliate these days has to have multiple catching prospects. The Marauders won’t be an exception, as they’ll have Wyatt Hendrie and Geovanny Planchart. Hendrie was the seventh round draft pick last year after showing some offensive upside at San Diego State. He played just briefly in the GCL year and might have moved up to Greensboro if it weren’t for certain other guys being there. He’s an athletic, converted outfielder who also should eventually be good defensively. Planchart has a .347 career average between the DSL and GCL, albeit in just 58 games total. He added some strength last year and started hitting for modest power. Both of these catchers are worth watching.
It looks like the regular infield will be Jacob Gonzalez, Juan Jerez, Tsung-Che Cheng (pictured above) and Alexander Mojica. Mojica, of course, is returning to the level after a weak 2021 season. He has prodigious power, but last year didn’t make much good contact in games. He’s reportedly been trying to get into better shape, which will have to happen for him to stay at third rather than shifting to first. He has the hands and arm for the position. Gonzalez, the son of former star Luis Gonzalez, arrived in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Scouts think he has above-average raw power, but he’s hit the ball on the ground too much to get any advantage from it. The fact that he’ll be in Low-A when he turns 24 in June tells you how his career has gone so far. He was originally a third baseman, but had severe defensive problems there and looks like he’ll play first for the Marauders. Logically, Mojica should get time there, too.
Jerez and Cheng had strong years in the GCL last year and are among the Pirates’ better, lower-level hitting prospects. Jerez put up an .894 OPS with good power, along with high K and walk rates. Defense has been a bit of an adventure so far. He’s played mostly second and third, with a little time at short, and errors have been a problem, even taking into account the low levels. Given the roster, you’d expect him to play mainly second, but the Pirates do like to move the fielders around. Cheng is a highly advanced player, largely the antithesis of Jerez, who signed out of Taiwan. He hit 311/449/492, with more than twice as many walks as Ks, and a lot of steals. He’s very good at bunting for hits and is unusually steady in the field for a 20-year-old player. Scouts seem to have doubts about his projectability and power potential, which is what you get when you’re 5’7″, but he has shown the ability to drive the ball. All scouts do is watch games, anyway.
The other infielders will be Mike Jarvis and Brenden Dixon. Jarvis is another San Diego State draftee, in round 6 last year. He was a prolific base stealer in college and went 11-for-11 last year in just 13 games in the GCL and five with Greensboro. Dixon was a JC draftee last year in round 20. He got into a dozen games in the GCL. He and Jarvis both hit very well in rookie ball and should get plenty of time this year, probably all over the place. In addition, Jase Bowen (see below) should see time at second.
The regular outfield will be Bowen, Sergio Campana and Rodolfo Nolasco. The first two are repeating the level. Bowen hit 14 home runs in a full season at Bradenton, but had contact problems. Unlike many of the team’s hitters, he didn’t pair the high K rate with a good walk rate. He can play anywhere in the outfield, as well as second, and is a good base stealer. Campana may be the fastest player in the system apart from Jasiah Dixon, and also has power potential, but he’s had significant trouble with slow stuff. He was sent down from Bradenton to the GCL after a five-week stretch in which he hit .101, which is good enough for a veteran player with the Pirates but not for class A. He hit well in the GCL, but still fanned in a third of his ABs after striking out half the time in Low-A. The Pirates clearly like the potential, so they’re still giving him chances.
Nolasco is probably the best power hitter at the system’s lower levels. He’s an imposing guy who hit 284/409/552 last year in the GCL and has a history of impressive exit velocities. He’ll be strictly a corner outfielder.
Other outfielders will be Luke Brown, Jakob Goldfarb and Randy Romero. The Pirates picked Brown in round 9 out of the University of Louisville, the same school as Henry Davis. He’s a speedster whose bat is questionable. For one thing, he never hit a home run in college. He struggled in the GCL. Romero is another speedster — 63-for70 in stolen bases in his three-year career — who also isn’t going to hit for power. He batted .376 in his second DSL season, then .252 last year in the GCL. Goldfarb, who signed with the Pirates out of independent ball, has an unconventional background. The White Sox drafted him as a catcher out of Oregon in 2019, but released him after giving him very little playing time. In 2020, he put up playstation numbers in the now-independent Pioneer League; it was a really extreme hitters league, but he was one of its top hitters. He played mostly center there and led the league in steals, and he was playing outfield in at least some of the exhibitions. He’ll be 26 this summer.
We know Bradenton’s starters for their first three games: Justin Meis, Po-Yu Chen and Joelvis Del Rosario. The Pirates got Meis in round 10 last year out of Eastern Michigan University. He had a 13.8 K/9 in ten relief appearances for the Marauders and now will return as a starter. He has a swing-and-miss curve and a change that has some potential. Chen got a $1M bonus out of Taiwan and, like Cheng, is an advanced player. He attracted some attention last year when he walked nobody in 26 dominant innings in the GCL. He had more trouble in four late-season starts with the Marauders, as hitters were better able to lay off pitches just out of the zone. He also was reportedly a little fatigued, as he fastball dropped several mph late in the year, so he’ll try it again with a fresh start. Del Rosario is a 5’11” righty and wasn’t a prominent signing out of the Dominican, but he had a strong season in the GCL in 2021, with better than a 5:1 K:BB ratio.
Most likely, the Pirates will run through a number of starters, not to mention relievers throwing three or more innings. Some candidates moving up from the GCL would be Valentin Linarez, Carlos Jimenez and lefty Luis Peralta. The latter two were both eligible for the Rule 5 draft last fall and the Pirates thought enough of them to protect them from the minor league phase. Jimenez had a 1.15 WHIP and 11.5 K/9 last year. Peralta was a little less effective due to some control issues. Linarez is a big guy and hard thrower who fanned 14.3 per nine innings last year in the GCL. He moved up to Greensboro for a couple starts at the end of the year when the Grasshoppers ran short of pitchers due to a COVID outbreak. He did well, except for a few gopher balls, and could be a guy to watch.
Other possibilities are Carlos Lomeli and Dante Mendoza. The Pirates took Lomeli in round 17 last year out of St. Mary’s College; he didn’t get into any pro games. He’s a finesse righty. Mendoza came to the Pirates from Cleveland in the trade involving Jordan Luplow and Tahnaj Thomas, among others. He’s a 6’5″ projection guy who mostly struggled at Bristol after the trade. He pitched just a few innings last year in the GCL, as he was rehabbing from some injury, so he’s an unknown quantity at this point.
The Marauders have some relievers worth keeping an eye on. Two of the most interesting will be Xavier Concepcion and Darvin Garcia. Concepcion is Oliver Mateo redux. He’s often reached triple digits, but control has been an issue, although not quite as big a one as it was with Mateo at the start of last season. A bigger issue was Concepcion getting into just three games with the Marauders last year before going out for the year with an unknown injury. Garcia dominated last year in the GCL, with a .188 opponents’ average and 12.0 K/9. Another interesting reliever could be Christian Charle. He has mid-90s velocity and a good change, which we don’t exactly see a lot. He had an 0.95 WHIP in the GCL last year, but had a lot more trouble in 11 late-season innings at Bradenton.
Other pitchers on the roster include lefties Nick Dombkowski, Jake Sweeney and Brayan Roman, and righties Wilkin Ramos and Yunior Thibo. Dombkowski was undrafted out of college, but pitched very well in 11 outings for Bradenton last year, except for one terrible one that accounted for nearly all the runs he allowed. Sweeney is a 6’7″ lefty who was drafted out of junior college back in 2019. He’s been hard to hit so far but walks have been a big problem. Roman, who’s from Mexico, is returning to Bradenton after missing most of last year with an injury. He’ll probably pitch in middle relief. The 6’5″ Ramos is another projection guy; the Pirates got him from Oakland for Tanner Anderson. Thibo struggled in the GCL last year, but he’s 6’4″, can reach the mid-90s and probably still has some projection.
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.