Williams: Three Observations About the Pirates Farm System After One Month

The first month of the 2022 minor league season is in the books.

Mason Martin was named the Pirates Prospects Player of the Month for April. The Pirates have seen several prospects in the majors this year, including Roansy Contreras for a brief look. And they’ve had their various top performers and struggles along the way.

In this week’s article drop, we gave a brief recap of some of those ups and downs over the first month in our Prospect Roundtable series. We also have a look at three different members of the current Bradenton rotation in our Player Features, along with an update on Cal Mitchell from Indianapolis.

To get things started off, I wanted to look at three early observations from the farm system, and the players impacted by the trends from those observations.

The Offense Has Been Hit or Miss, and a Lot of Miss

Strikeouts have been an alarming issue early in the season, across the Pirates’ farm system.

Three of their top ten prospects — Oneil Cruz, Nick Gonzales, and Matt Fraizer — are striking out in 32% or more of their plate appearances.

The Greensboro Grasshoppers batters lead the South Atlantic League in strikeouts.

The Indianapolis Indians hitters have the sixth most strikeouts of the 20-team International League.

Bradenton and Altoona are both middle of the pack, trending slightly above-average.

Strikeouts are more common in the game today, though the Pirates are showing to be more susceptible to them than other teams, as seen in the numbers below.

League: Average / Pirates Affiliate: Average / Pirates Below Average

International League: 23.7% / Indianapolis Indians: 25.4% / Below Average Hitters: 10/18

Eastern League: 27.8% / Altoona Curve: 27.2% / Below Average Hitters: 8/15

South Atlantic League: 26.3% / Greensboro Grasshoppers: 29.3% / Below Average Hitters: 11/14

Florida State League: 28.5% / Bradenton Marauders: 26.8% / Below Average Hitters: 7/14

The trade-off for more strikeouts is typically more power. That hasn’t been the case in Indianapolis, where the Indians as a team rank 12th out of 20 teams in isolated power. Some prospects like Mason Martin are hitting for power while striking out, but that’s not team-wide. Altoona is a similar story, ranking 7th out of 12 teams in the Eastern League in ISO.

Those Greensboro strikeout totals are paired with the third-best ISO in a league of 12 teams. There is the consideration that Greensboro plays in a hitter-friendly home park. Bradenton ranks first in ISO out of ten teams in their league. Bradenton has been known to be more hitter-friendly early in the season, with stronger wind playing a factor. Both of these situations will be ones to follow, especially Greensboro, where the power will be needed to justify the high strikeouts.

It’s early for every team, but in general, you don’t want to see these types of strikeout numbers at any point.

Pitching Usage in the Minors Still Uncertain

The Pirates have used 32 starting pitchers in the minors so far this year.

That’s an average of eight per team.

It’s more common in the minors to find piggyback situations, especially in the lower levels. You’ll see rehab starts, followed by the scheduled starter entering the game after the rehab guy to pitch like a starter.

It hasn’t been common for a lot of guys to pitch more than four innings. Some of the pitchers who have achieved that are Chase De Jong, Mike Burrows, Carmen Mlodzinski, Kyle Nicolas, and Po-Yu Chen. De Jong is MLB swingman depth, while the other four are legit starters throughout the organization.

As pitchers get further stretched out, we will see more 5+ inning appearances. It will be interesting to follow how each pitcher is used, if only to note which guys get extended outings and which guys are used in more swingman roles.

I think the fact that the Pirates aren’t limiting their Altoona pitchers early — which is where their best group of pitching prospects is collected — is a good sign that they will continue developing guys as starters. Out of that Burrows/Mlodzinski/Nicolas group, I’d predict all three will make the majors at this point, but maybe one will make it as a true starter.

Burrows is stepping up as that guy early, while Mlodzinski and Nicolas have each shown promise on a less consistent note. Like the hitters, it’s still early. It will be interesting to see if there are any changes to the usage of pitchers who maintain inconsistency.

Breakouts!

This week in our Prospect Roundtable series we covered guys who might be rising up the ranks with their hot starts. We also covered prospects who might be on the decline.

You’ll see both every season in the minors. In order to maintain a top farm system, even through graduations to the majors, the Pirates will need a continuous flow of breakouts emerging, at a higher rate than the prospects on the decline.

It’s too early to call anyone a breakout at this point. There have been some positive signs.

The Pirates continue to see good immediate results from their trade returns. Connor Scott (.940 OPS) and Kyle Nicolas (4.91 ERA, 17 K, 14.2 IP) have both shown promise early from the Jacob Stallings trade. Last year’s deadline acquisition Jack Suwinski was off to a hot start in Altoona, and is currently in the majors.

Top 2021 draft pick Henry Davis has been mashing in Greensboro. Big bonus international pitcher Po-Yu Chen is looking better in Bradenton this year.

The Pirates have also seen great things in Altoona from Mike Burrows and Liover Peguero, who both draw top ten consideration in the system — with Peguero a consensus top ten prospect and a top 100 prospect in the game. Seeing Peguero validate that status, and seeing Burrows potentially start to emerge into that territory is good to see.

A lot of those performances were expected, or at least hoped for in the plans the Pirates had. What’s more encouraging are the guys who weren’t clearly in the plans.

In addition to Chen looking good in Bradenton, this week we covered two other pitchers in the Bradenton rotation who have shown upside: Luis Peralta and Carlos Jimenez.

Mason Martin and Cal Mitchell have both been mashing since being left off the 40-man roster, and might make the Pirates re-think their decisions.

Blake Sabol and Aaron Shackelford, two bat-first prospects with a lot of raw power, are both hitting well in Altoona. That’s a level where you start to take such a prospect seriously when they continue to hit. Shackelford is a first baseman with a .256 ISO. Sabol has been getting a lot of time behind the plate, and has a .150 ISO to go with his .317 average and .359 OBP.

There have been a lot of positive signs so far. Time will tell if this year’s system produces more positive than negative. It’s too early to count out the struggling top prospects, and it’s too early to elevate those off to a surprising hot start.

But it’s never too early to take note of what’s happening.

I hope we can keep you in the loop this week with our recap of the first month of the minor league season.

THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

Williams: Three Observations About the Pirates Farm System After One Month

Prospect Roundtable: Pirates Prospects Who Look Like They’re On the Rise

Prospect Roundtable: Pirates Prospects Off to Concerning Early Starts

Cal Mitchell is fast now

Po-Yu Chen Looks Much Better in His Second Chance with Bradenton

Luis Peralta Showing Promise and Inexperience

Carlos Jimenez: Advanced Off-Speed Pitch Setting Stage In Early Season

PROSPECT WATCH

DAILY VIDEO RUNDOWN

PIRATES DISCUSSION

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