If the Pirates didn’t give right-handed pitcher Bubba Chandler a $3 million bonus — plus the opportunity to also hit — he would have gone to Clemson.
Lonnie White Jr. would have gone to Penn State to play baseball and football, had the Pirates not signed him away.
Owen Kellington was going to UConn. Braylon Bishop to Arkansas. Anthony Solometo was going to North Carolina, and is now in Single-A.
The Pirates ended up landing an impressive recruiting class, adding these prep players to number one overall pick Henry Davis.
Davis, coming from college at Louisville, went straight to Greensboro, and is now in Double-A in his first full season.
The prep players find themselves mostly in the FCL. Had they gone to college, they would have been eligible for the 2024 draft, at which point they would have likely followed the path Davis took to Double-A, with a brief stop in High-A.
The Pirates now have the job of creating a development path to Greensboro for these young players, giving them everything they would have picked up in college, minus the bad habits from a win-now atmosphere.
Jim Horner, the assistant field coordinator for the Pirates, oversees both the Florida and Dominican complexes. He’s managed all the way through the minors, played for ten years in the minor leagues, and even coached current Pirates prospect Andres Alvarez at Washington State.
“Jim’s got great eyes and is a baseball tactician,” said Pirates farm director John Baker. “His task, which is a big one, is training these really young players, like putting them through what they would experience if they got to go to college, as far as baseball tactics go. Jim’s focus is on that, and that’s our focus this year in the FCL.”
Baker said that the Pirates cut down from two to one team in the FCL to allow for more “fundamental practice days” for players who aren’t in the lineup that day.
“You’re thinking about a college baseball developmental track, you’re playing Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday, generally,” said Baker. “You’re playing 54 times. And then, on those other days, Wednesday-Thursday-and sometimes Monday, you’re practicing. So, we’re trying to mimic a similar cadence on the field and on the field outside of competition.”
These levels are so far away from the majors that it’s hard to grasp how raw and inexperienced the level of play is, even for professional players.
When you think about it more, it makes sense. Do you really expect Lonnie White Jr. to catch touchdown passes, hit home runs, and be a fundamentally sound defensive outfielder at the age of 18? Do we expect Bubba Chandler to lead his football team as the quarterback, while also playing all over the field in baseball, and doing all of those things well?
Ultimately, teams draft athleticism, attitudes, and adaptability at this level. They want someone who has shown an advanced ability, a willingness to be coached up, and a demonstrated ability to learn. Even with all of that, the play at this level can be rough, due to the lack of experience.
Baker noted the amount of walks and errors at the level as something to be thoughtful of when evaluating the games and stats. Ultimately, players at this level don’t fully know the fundamentals of baseball. They don’t know how to line up a cutoff, where to be on bunt plays, which bases to back up from which position, or how to talk to each other on the field.
“All of those things should be handled by the time our guys get to Greensboro,” said Baker.
The Pirates have Jose Mosquera managing their single FCL team. Mosquera managed his Colombian team to a Caribbean Series victory last year. That team included Pirates prospect Tsung-Che Cheng as the shortstop. In the championship game, they beat a team with Robinson Cano and Marcell Ozuna.
“Mosqie has been in some big spots, and he knows the game of baseball,” said Baker, who highlighted how much showcase baseball can distort our view of the knowledge of these young players.
“I look around baseball – and I know this is a Get Off My Lawn style comment, yelling at the clouds – there’s been so much showcase baseball that we often forget that people don’t know what they don’t know,” said Baker. “It’s not their fault. It’s just that no one has taught them. These travel ball teams are too focused on the bottom line, and not focused enough on teaching the game of baseball.”
The Pirates are tasked with identifying the things players didn’t know they needed to know, and then teaching those things in a way that is more effective than if those players went the college route.
“It’s why we position people that really know the game at the lowest levels, like [Single-A manager] Jonathan Johnston and Jim Horner, to make sure that when our guys get to Greensboro, they know exactly where they need to be, and we don’t have to worry about it anymore,” said Baker.
Baker said that the Pirates are focused more on tactics here, rather than pitching mechanics. Don’t expect a lot of overhauls and adjustments. This is more about teaching players how to play the game — almost like teaching how to walk before you can run, from my perspective of this approach.
The 2021 prep class is notable for the financial commitment and the system-building strategy that the Pirates employed. Ultimately, they will be the first true test to measure the success of this approach in the complex league.
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Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.