At the end of Spring Training, Pittsburgh Pirates Minor League Field Coordinator Shawn Bowman approached 2021 20th rounder Brenden Dixon about a position change.
“How’s your third base?” was the question Dixon recalled getting from Bowman.
“It’s okay,” was the response from Dixon.
That wasn’t exactly true.
“Never once played, but I told him ‘It’s okay,'” Dixon fessed up with a smile in Bradenton when we spoke two weeks ago.
Originally a shortstop and second baseman, Dixon felt confident enough that he could make the switch, and the Pirates felt confident enough to approach him with it. He’s played more games at third base this year than any position, and is starting to get a feel for the position.
“I wouldn’t say I feel like home, but it’s getting there,” said Dixon.
The third base worked out.
And there were no issues with Dixon’s embellishment of his prior experience to Bowman.
So, when Bowman asked if Dixon had ever played first base, you can imagine what the answer was.
“Yes sir, I play it all the time,” Dixon responded.
That definitely wasn’t true.
“I’ve never once played it,” Dixon said with a laugh. “That’s been new for me. It’s been good to learn that. I figured the more spots I can play, the better chance I have to move up. Anywhere I can hit, I’m good.”
Dixon has shown an ability to get on base at a good rate this year in Single-A, while adding a bit of power and playing all four infield positions. That includes nine games at first base, where he eventually had to fess up to his experience level.
“I told them ‘I may need just a little bit more work at first base. I don’t know if I’m real caught up on my first base,’” Dixon said.
The old adage for defensive positioning is that if you can play shortstop, you can in theory play anywhere. Shortstop is the most difficult position. First base is regarded as one of the easiest positions. Third base is on the more difficult extreme with shortstop.
You would think if Dixon had an issue with one position, it would be third base, and not first. But the differences between the left side of the infield and the first base position are the learning experience.
“I thought first base was going to be a whole lot easier than it is,” said Dixon. “There’s actually a whole lot of movements that are different than second base and shortstop.”
A middle infielder typically goes all-out to get any ball that is close. That approach can be taken over to third base. However, the first baseman has different priorities, as Dixon realized in a game this year.
“There was a ball that was not my ball at all,” said Dixon. “It was close. I hauled at it. I looked back and there was nobody at first base.”
Dixon realized his mistake when he was standing right next to second baseman Jase Bowen.
“It’s less range, but I think it’s more movements, if that makes sense, which you would not think for first base,” said Dixon.
SECONDARY POSITIONS ALL AROUND
The Pirates have been giving all of their prospects secondary defensive positions this year.
That can add value in a lot of different ways, and it’s definitely something we’ve seen in the past from this farm system. The process of making it system-wide, even from the lower levels, would ideally make it so that they can avoid future Oneil Cruz situations, where a top prospect needs to learn a new position in Triple-A. Cruz has expressed that he doesn’t want to play outfield, where the Pirates are giving him a look.
In all honesty, this group had two years to get Cruz outfield work, so he’s got a point. It’s not like people woke up on January 1st, 2022 and started questioning whether Oneil Cruz could play shortstop long-term. People have been questioning that since it was announced he would move there.
Ideally, learning secondary positions earlier would avoid this type of situation.
Another prospect who is making the move to first base this year is Matt Gorski. The recently promoted outfielder can handle center field, and is projected to remain in the outfield. That said, Gorski also has the plus power to be a legitimate bat at first base. The Pirates are only improving his odds of reaching the majors by giving him one start a week at first, and opening another path to the majors.
When I spoke with Gorski, he said he enjoyed getting a break from the outfield. Of course, he also said the smaller Greensboro outfield was boring. He’s probably having more fun in Altoona’s more spacious grounds. He’s yet to get a start at first base in his first two weeks at the new level.
Considering Dixon’s comments, and the free-range approach of the outfield, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gorski is experiencing a completely different mindset when he plays first base.
I recently spoke with Endy Rodriguez, who is a top ten catching prospect in the system. Rodriguez has been playing second base and left field this year, giving him alternatives as the Pirates find time for Henry Davis, Abrahan Gutierrez, and Eli Wilson. I asked Rodriguez which position he enjoyed playing the most. Rodriguez did most of the interview with a translator, but this answer came in English.
“Second base,” was the quick answer. Rodriguez went into more detail, via his interpreter.
“Compared to catching, it’s easier to see the ball and make the routine play. In the outfield, you don’t really know off the bat where that ball is going to go, whether it’s going to slice right or left,” said Rodriguez. “In the infield, you see the ball hit the dirt, and I’m able to know where that ball is going to go, so I can set up my feet and be in a good position to catch the ball and make the play.”
Rodriguez has more value behind the plate, especially as one of the best pure hitters on the team. That said, he’s one main example of why teams need to teach alternate positions, as the biggest thing blocking him is Henry Davis. Rodriguez has the bat to find value at any position, and I’ve heard nothing but good things of his second base work for over a year now.
One of the more interesting secondary positions I’ve been following this year has been from Blake Sabol. He’s got some impressive power that has shown up regularly in the Pirates DVR. He’s been a corner outfielder since his final year at USC, but has been getting time behind the plate this year.
That’s another common tactic of position changes, trying to increase a player’s value by seeing if he can develop into a more difficult position. You know, like Oneil Cruz and shortstop. Sabol’s power would be impressive if he can handle the catching position.
Mike Persak of the Post-Gazette had a great breakdown recently of how Sabol moved behind the plate. This position change was one that was originated by the player, in this case.
I’ll say at this point that I don’t see him sticking at catcher long-term. In the few times I’ve seen Sabol, his receiving skills have been rough. That’s to be expected, considering he hasn’t caught much since his sophomore year in college.
What really stood out to me was that Sabol didn’t feel like he was challenged to improve behind the plate. He has the drive to do that now, and the Pirates are open to giving him the work. So, while he looks rough now, and catching is incredibly difficult, he has everything needed in theory to develop into the position.
If he doesn’t develop into a catcher, I wonder what the switch in mindset will do for other parts of his game.
I wonder the same for everyone else mentioned above.
Everyone mentioned above is adding theoretical value with the ability to play them at a new position on the field. It’s a positive that everyone I’ve spoken to, beyond these players, has been positive about the change. I think there’s a benefit to giving players a break from the usual routine. But is there a hidden benefit here?
Think of it this way: When Brenden Dixon finally learns how and when to restrain his all-out mentality that derives from being a middle infielder, do you think he will also see similar restraint on the other side of the ball to help reduce his 29.4% strikeout rate?
FUQUAY VINYL PLAYLIST
Welcome to First Pitch!
Long-time readers know this feature as a former daily column on this site. That has essentially been replaced by P2Daily, which provides a daily update and links to all of our content.
I’ve been waiting to bring First Pitch back as a weekly column in some form. I really enjoy the format of the Sunday Notes feature by David Laurila at FanGraphs. Like a lot of ideas on this site over the years, I thought “What if there was that, but it’s all Pirates and mostly focused on the prospects?”
And thus, the new First Pitch: The first article of the week on Pirates Prospects, every Monday at 8 AM.
Thanks for reading today!
Long-time readers also know that First Pitch comes with certain elements that will remain in the new format. One of those is music. Each week I’ll throw together a playlist of mostly 2022 releases, but also some older and classic songs mixed in. This is part of a music side project I’ve been working on the last few years. Hopefully it gives you some new tunes to enjoy.
Enjoy this week’s playlist! First Pitch continues below…
JACK SUWINSKI LOOKS HERE TO STAY
You know who looks like he’s having a lot of fun?
captain jack suWINski pic.twitter.com/lNNZP1OVi5
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) June 4, 2022
Suwinski has been one of the biggest surprises this year, with six home runs and a .722 OPS in his first 117 plate appearances. He was originally called up from Double-A after just 13 games and a 1.107 OPS.
That promotion seemed like it would be short-term at the time, as it was to replace two players out with COVID.
Suwinski has remained on the roster, and after hitting a walk off game winner on Saturday night and three hits Sunday, you have to wonder if he’s ever going back down?
The Pirates added Suwinski last summer in the Adam Frazier trade with the San Diego Padres. He’s really grown on me since first talking with him last year in Altoona. His approach is calm, collected, and he knows his strength.
The strength? It might have been overlooked power.
Prior to the season, Jason Gindele did a great breakdown of some of the best hitting skills in the system. Suwinski was the guy who stood out to me in that breakdown, showing an ability for a high walk rate, a low ground ball rate, and strong power numbers. His strikeout rate was just above 10%, though acceptable with everything else.
A guy putting the ball in the air, walking a lot, not striking out a lot? Yeah, the power seemed legit.
Those trends have started to carry over to the majors. His strikeout rate through Sunday is 25.6% and his walk rate is a hair under 6%. The latter could improve. His isolated power has jumped to .211. The ground ball rate has gone up to 44%, which is not great, but has not prohibited his power.
The most impressive thing is he only has 20% soft contact. If he starts hitting the ball in the air more, we will probably see that power increase with the way he’s making contact.
At this point, unless he really starts to struggle, I think Suwinski should be up for good.
COLE IN ARIZONA
I was happy to see that Cole Tucker was claimed by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Tucker is a good guy — highly athletic, positive, and charismatic, which is a combination that led to the Pirates taking him in the first round in 2014.
Former Pirates second baseman Kevin Kramer spoke out last week after Tucker was designated for assignment about the toxic culture in the old development system. Kramer’s comments, which I discussed last week, indicated that the Pirates weren’t great at building up their athletes on a personal level.
My guess from all of this is that there may have been some damage done to some players who came up under the old system, making it so that they can’t envision their success in Pittsburgh. That theory is based on so many going on to have better careers outside of Pittsburgh.
I wouldn’t be surprised if everything starts to click for Tucker. That’s especially true now that the Arizona native is playing for his hometown MLB franchise.
Tucker will start his career in Triple-A for the Diamondbacks.
**Rodolfo Nolasco homered on Sunday, hitting his fourth of the year. Nolasco is regarded to have some of the best raw power in the lower levels of the system. That has yet to show up in games on a consistent basis, with Nolasco struggling with swing-and-miss. Anthony Murphy wrote about Nolasco and the small development steps he’s taking. He seems to have taken a step forward the last few weeks, hitting for a .316/.435/.500 line in the two weeks leading up to his Sunday homer. That includes a 26.1% strikeout rate and a 15.2% walk rate. This is great to see, and hopefully the 20-year-old can maintain this pace.
**The Pirates added left-handed pitcher Tyler Samaniego in the 15th round last year out of South Alabama — the same school as Travis Swaggerty. So far this year, Samaniego has been nearly unhittable. In 17 games, he has allowed one earned run on three hits. He has 27 strikeouts and 11 walks in 20 innings. Most of that came prior to his promotion to Double-A. He’s thrown three perfect innings with three strikeouts since the promotion. As John Dreker has pointed out, he hasn’t allowed a hit since April 15th. It’s good to see that continuing across three appearances in the higher level.
**Bligh Madris was our Player of the Week last week, and continued hitting for Indianapolis this week. Madris has a .989 OPS over the last month, and has been trending up during that span. Ryan Palencer broke down some of the changes he’s been making with his swing to bring the results. The Pirates just called up Travis Swaggerty, and have a few young options in the majors with him. Madris isn’t on the 40-man roster, but could force himself into a next-man-up role with continued play like this. It’s nice seeing depth of options emerging for the MLB outfield.
**Speaking of that outfield, Swaggerty now joins Suwinski and Cal Mitchell, who hit his first MLB homer on Sunday. With Tucupita Marcano returning to the majors strong, and Diego Castillo continuing to get a look, this Pirates offense has become fun to watch on a nightly basis.
**Since hitting two doubles on May 11th, Matt Fraizer has an .876 OPS for Altoona. The 2021 breakout prospect and Minor League Player of the Year struggled out of the gate with Altoona, but seems to have put that slow start in the past. Fraizer added a double and two triples this week.
WEEKLY PIRATES QUIZ
More below the quiz!
**Jason Mackey of the Post Gazette had a detailed feature on Travis Swaggerty, which included this part that really stood out to me:
“That first month I’d be searching for a feel in the cage and worrying about how my body’s moving. Now I’ve conditioned my mind to think about less when I’m hitting.“
We’ve seen a lot of alarming offensive starts this year, with a lot of alarming strikeout rates to go with them. More and more players have been emerging with better results in May. The Pirates have been focusing on visual perception through drills and devices that obstruct vision and force a hitter to react implicitly.
I think we’re starting to see a 180 on the hitting side, and I think we’re going to hear a lot more answers similar to Swaggerty on why things started to improve.
**Mike Burrows didn’t make the top 100 in the recent update from Baseball America. Alex Stumpf wrote about Burrows recently, noting that he could make the top 100 soon due to his changeup. Right now I’ve got Burrows ahead of common top 100 prospect Quinn Priester, due to the makings of three plus pitches from Burrows, and dominant numbers at Double-A. The changeup improvements that Alex detailed have been huge. I feel like I’ve been getting changeup updates all year from Anthony Murphy, surprised at the quality. Burrows has quickly taken a big step forward. I wouldn’t even be surprised if we see him in the majors by the end of the year. Top 100 rankings are long-term views, but right now there’s less projection needed for Burrows to achieve the same thing that makes Priester a common top 100 prospect.
PROSPECT GUIDE UPDATE
The 2022 Prospect Guide has been under a delay, as I’ve been focusing on building up the site content.
The original version of the Guide ended up being our prospect rankings at the start of the season. As we were getting more and more information, I kept updating and adding reports.
The book this year has a different format than years past. There are no numerical rankings, only tiered rankings. Also, the book is entirely written by me, and while it has information from other writers, all rankings will be mine.
I’ve been building up not just this site, but everything Pirates Prospects. One of the big issues with the book was creating something separate from the site. This site is a collection of reporting, analysis, and a lot of work from a lot of people.
I am taking an “Independent Scouting Director” approach on the site. That is largely the role I’m creating for myself on this new incarnation of the site. I believe Anthony Murphy will be a great writer, and will have some amazing coverage on the farm system. You may have noticed, but he’s been slowly moving into a lead writer role on this site — the role I used to have. That allows me to move into my new role, which obviously still includes writing — as you obviously know at this literal point.
With Anthony, John Dreker, Wilbur Miller, Ryan Palencer in Indianapolis, and our eventual team writers in Altoona and Greensboro, we have a ton of updates to sort through in the system.
The Prospect Guide each year will be my compilation of all of the available reports, mixed in with my own crosschecking, to ultimately try to give you the most accurate long-term reports for each player. This year’s book is going to be a completely different look than anything we’ve published before.
I’ll be honest, I’m a bit nervous. My rankings are going to be extremely different from what I’ve ever published and from what the consensus is right now. I’ve got the goal to finish the editing this month, which will spark an updated system ranking on the site next month, just before the draft.
I’ll have more updates on the book and the site in this article each week.
I apologize for the delay for everyone who has pre-ordered, expecting to get a preview book. That essentially went to the site. My focus is getting you a quality book, while also producing a quality site.
We are finally there on the site, and I can’t wait to finalize the book.