The Pirates’ Florida Complex League entry had a solid 2022 season. They didn’t make the playoffs, but they finished with a 30-25 record.
The Bucs’ hitters had a good season. By weighted average age, they were tied for the youngest group in the 16-team league, but they were fourth in scoring. They were fifth in OPS and fifth in walks, and struck out less than all but one other team.
The Pirates fielded the league’s youngest pitchers. They had a bit less success on that side, finishing tenth in ERA and 13th in WHIP. The big issue was control, which we’ll get to; only a terrible Orioles’ team walked more hitters. The Pirates tied for fourth in K/9. Fielding percentage doesn’t mean much at this level, at least as long as you’re not a bad outlier, but for what it’s worth the Pirates were fifth.
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This didn’t go so well. The FCL Pirates had two catchers who, going into the season, looked like possible prospects. One was Omar Alfonzo, the son of a former major leaguer who had good scouting reports when the Pirates signed him three years ago. It looked like he had some potential with the bat, but he hit just .144 with little power in the FCL. He also wasn’t impressive defensively, showing some issues blocking pitches and committing ten passed balls in 24 games. He did, however, turn 19 just a few weeks ago. The other possible prospect was Geovanny Planchart, who batted well over .300 in his first two seasons in the system. He was already struggling when he got to the FCL this year; after batting .321 there last year, he went to Bradenton this year but got demoted after batting .175 there. He hit just .200 in the FCL this time with little power. He has good strike zone judgment; in the FCL he had the same number of walks and strikeouts, but he has a slow bat.
Oddly, the team’s best catcher was Luis Hernandez, whom the Pirates seem to have pegged as an organizational guy. He filled in briefly for Bradenton and caught only 14 games in the FCL. He didn’t hit much, but threw out 39% of base stealers in the FCL.
Considering that the Pirates had enough players in the FCL to field two teams, the infield surprisingly was sort-of stable for much of the season. That was partly due to injuries, as we’ll see. It frequently featured some permutation of Javier Rivas, Jeral Toledo, and Jesus Castillo at second, third and short; the Pirates, as we all know, think every player should be a utility guy, so the infielders moved around a lot.
Toledo and Castillo are very solid defenders who have a good chance to play short going forward. (If you check Baseball Reference, you’ll see their defensive stats at short are almost exactly identical, to the point of weirdness.) They’re both patient hitters who don’t chase, but Toledo struggled to hit, batting .184. Castillo, another player who just turned 19, made a run at the batting title, finishing at .352, although with almost no power.
The marquee player in the infield, though, was Rivas. He was a well regarded signing, but may have been the worst hitter in the entire DSL last year. He’s a tall (6’3″), wiry player who apparently got a lot stronger, as he put up a 265/337/419 line in the FCL. (The league hit 232/342/350.) Rivas showed power (I saw him hit one home run to right-center) that’s likely to get better, especially if he gets less streaky. He had a six-hit game in July, but slumped in August, maybe in part due to curtailed playing time as the Pirates sought time for other players. Rivas’ strength is defense, as he has the actions, range and arm for short, and made a number of highlight-reel plays.
A couple of infielders who were probably slated for meaningful playing time, but who spent much or most of the season injured, were Luis Tejeda and A.J. Graham. A prominent signing in 2018 as an offense-oriented infielder, Tejeda mostly struggled before this year and was repeating this level. He looked a lot better, batting .308 with 13 walks against only eight strikeouts, but he got into only 13 games. Graham was a 2021 draft pick, but he played in only four games last year and, after returning from injury, seven this year. For his career so far he’s 2-for-29 with 13 strikeouts.
One other semi-regular in the infield was Rafael Escalante. Ostensibly a catcher, Escalante caught only five times, but played a lot at third and also saw time at first and second. He put up a .760 OPS by hitting a lot of doubles and drawing a whole lot of walks.
The principal first baseman was Ronny Sanchez. He has some power, but his BB:K of 4:36 should tell you what you need to know. His OPS was just .487.
Various other players passed through the infield briefly. That included Maikol Escotto and Alexander Mojica, both of whom got demoted from full season ball. Draftees Termarr Johnson and Jack Brannigan made late-season cameos.
The FCL Bucs got a lot of production from their outfield, but it didn’t come entirely from the expected sources. The big names going into the season were Lonnie White, Jr., Braylon Bishop, and Shalin Polanco. White basically missed the season, appearing in only two games due to some vaguely described injury or injuries. Bishop started off well enough, but he increasingly struggled as he got more and more indecisive at the plate. His OPS, by month from June through August, was .825, .708 and .450. He finished with just a .652 OPS. Bishop walked a lot, but also fanned in a third of his ABs.
Polanco was the Pirates’ top international signing in 202-21. He struggled last year in the DSL, but made a little progress this year, hitting 250/324/371. Chasing breaking balls and offspeed stuff was a big problem. Defense was more of a success, as Polanco has good range in center and made some spectacular catches.
The outfield included two of the team’s three best hitters (we’ll get to Bubba Chandler later): Jauri Custodio and Enmanuel Terrero. They’re very similar: line drive hitters who don’t chase and will take a walk. Custodio missed about half the season, but put up a 1.078 OPS in 21 games, with a solid walk rate and low K rate. Terrero hit 330/446/443, with 23 walks and only 17 strikeouts. Custodio obviously has more power right now, but he’s also a year older.
The other most frequent outfielders were Esmerlyn Valdez and Solomon Maguire. Valdez profiles as a power-hitting corner player (he spent a little time at first as well as mostly playing the outfield corners). He hit 232/371/394, so he’s not getting to his power consistently yet, but he won’t turn 19 until January. Maguire signed out of Australia two and a half years ago, but he’s missed a lot of time due to injuries and the plague year. He struggled in very limited action in the FCL last year. He got off to a slow start this year, hit well in July, then slumped again in August. Maguire profiles as a center fielder and hasn’t shown much power yet.
The FCL Pirates used 39 pitchers in 2022. That’s in a 55-game season, mind you. Of the 39, 18 threw fewer than ten innings. Only eight threw more than 20. Only two (Bladimir Dotel and Alessandro Ercolani) topped 30. It’s open to question how much they’re accomplishing with so little game experience. I’ve watched a lot of very raw pitchers at Bradenton in the last two years, guys who didn’t seem ready for full-season ball, and Bradenton’s and Greensboro’s staffs are near the bottom of their leagues in ERA this year. Yes, the home parks are a factor, but both are near the bottom in BB/9 and Bradenton is last in K/9, with Greensboro below average. Anyway, I’m not going to go over the guys who barely put in a cameo.
Without a doubt the pitcher who stood out was Bubba Chandler. Before moving up to Bradenton, he allowed no runs and just three hits in 15.1 IP. His control faltered a little at times, but he also fanned 27. He’s throwing in the upper-90s, although he sometimes loses a little velocity after a couple innings, and opposing hitters mostly just seem overpowered. Not only was Chandler the team’s best pitcher, he was also the best hitter. He put up a 1.098 OPS with good power, and a 9:6 BB:K. And he’s made highlight reel defensive plays as a pitcher. And he’s apparently semi-ambidextrous. Crazy.
As noted above, the two rotation stalwarts were Dotel and Ercolani. They’re both big-framed guys who should get stronger. Dotel had a 2.62 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, and struck out a batter an inning. Ercolani had trouble with walks, but opponents batted only .185 and slugged only .223 against him, and his K/9 was 11.6. And, of course, he’s especially intriguing because he hails from San Marino.
There were a number of pitchers who either were above-slot, prep signees from the draft, or notable international signings, who’ve run into problems as pros. Owen Kellington ended up making only six appearances due to an unknown injury, and he really struggled, giving up 13 earned runs in ten innings. Ryan Harbin, an above-slot signee way back in 2019, has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness. This was his third shot at rookie ball and he managed a 5.02 ERA, which was a big improvement over his first two tries. Cristopher Cruz was one of the Pirates’ top international signings in 2019, but after putting up a 7.36 ERA and 1.77 WHIP this year, he’s not looking so good. Hung-Leng Chang, who signed out of Taiwan, had a more promising season. He looked dominating at times, but at others got hit around. He finished with a 4.76 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, with good walk (3.2 BB/9) and K (10.7 K/9) rates.
A couple international guys did better and both are still 18 (for a few days). Antwone Kelly gave up just one earned run over his last 18.2 IP and finished with an ERA of 2.31 and K/9 of 11.2. Luigi Hernandez struggled with his control in his first few games, but posted a 3.98 ERA and 14.6 K/9, and earned a late promotion to Bradenton.
The FCL team had several pitchers with very strong stuff but significant control problems. Jose Garces just turned 18, so he has to get some slack. He fanned over a batter an inning, but had a 10.5 BB/9 and an ERA of 8.00. Roelmy Garcia was even more extreme, with a 13.8 K/9 and 17.1 BB/9. Owen Sharts was a 13th round pick out of college in 2021 and he had Tommy John surgery before the draft. He had really severe control problems as he went through his recovery season, walking 27 in just 11 innings.
Another pitcher trying to come back from injury was Enmanuel De Los Santos. He signed four and a half years ago and will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this fall, but he’d thrown only 32 pro innings prior to this season, due to injuries of an unknown nature. He had control problems, but his stuff looked good and he managed a 2.82 ERA and 12.5 K/9.
The FCL Bucs had a lot of pitchers who worked mostly or entirely in one- or two-inning relief stints. A lot of them fit a mold you see a lot in the low minors: right-handers who often are on the short side, sometimes stocky, who throw 94 mph or so with a breaking ball, but probably don’t have a lot of projection. The Bucs had a bunch, of which the most prominent was likely Joaquin Tejada, who came in the Tyler Anderson trade. Tejada just turned 19 and held opponents to a .172 average, but had some control problems. Of the others, the most successful was Jorge Ramos, who signed out of Mexico and was repeating the level. He had a 1.23 ERA and 18 strikeouts with only three walks in 14.2 IP.
This article was published on August 31, 2022.
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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.