It has been a long time since I have felt gratitude for being a Pirates fan. Now, that doesn’t mean I agree with how ownership operates or the way the MLB operates from a financial standpoint, but it is nice to see some hope floating down the Three Rivers again. When you look at the Rockies’ return for Nolan Arenado and you compare it to what the Pirates received for double-TJ and cancer survivor Jameson Taillon…well, it seems pretty clear that things in Pittsburgh could be a lot worse. Despite the Chris Archer deal, I just can’t muster up much vitriol for the Neal Huntington era.
A lot happened that I didn’t agree with, but that front office did get us back into the playoffs for several seasons by making some savvy moves (signing Russ Martin and trading for A.J. Burnett being the two most obvious ones). The pitching philosophy employed by the former development team wasn’t a good one, and Pirates fans paid a heavy price for that failure when we shipped Tyler Glasnow off to Tampa. But you know what? I am over it. The winds have shifted in Pittsburgh and the future is looking brighter than I can remember. The farm system is unbelievably stacked and will only get deeper with back-to-back 1st overall picks in 2021 and 2022 (yeah, I am comfortable calling that now). With this in mind, let’s take a look at all the new prospects the Pirates acquired over the offseason.
THE JOSH BELL TRADE
Wil Crowe is the slightly unsexy part of the return for Josh Bell, but that doesn’t mean he is unimportant. What Crowe provides the Pirates is a pitcher who can throw a lot of innings for the big club in 2021 and 2022. The depth of talent that the Pirates have in the farm that will, one day, get them back into the playoffs is, generally speaking, far away from cracking the major league roster. When this trade came through initially, I must admit I was disappointed. However, after the Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove deals went down, the reason for acquiring Crowe was obvious. The Pirates can’t just not field a team in 2021. An innings-eater type starter who can round out the rotation for the next couple of years while the rest of the system matures has value. Don’t look at Crowe’s stats from the juiced-ball PCL in 2019. Instead, focus on the fact that he started 19 games in 2018 and 26 games in 2019 and should be able to toss 150+ innings in 2021. Hey, I did say he was the unsexy part.
Eddy Yean is a promising pitcher that already features two plus pitches. The fastball comes with above-average spin rates and sits in the mid-90s. The slider has nasty bite and can absolutely plummet out of the hitting zone. If a changeup can be developed, Yean can absolutely make it as a starter. As far as 20-year-old pitchers go, the Pirates could have done a lot worse here. Fans will be quick to point to Josh Bell’s 2019 1st half and cry foul, but the fact of the matter is that Josh Bell has been abysmal at the plate for about 140 games. I hope a change of scenery and an offseason of swing work back home with his father can turn his career back around.
THE JOE MUSGROVE TRADE
I want to highlight two players from this trade: Hudson Head and Endy Rodriguez. What can be said about Hudson Head that hasn’t already been said by @Alex_W_Sanchez ? Not much. My take on the hotshot youngster is that he has immense tools and performed admirably in his rookie ball debut in 2019 despite being younger than most of his competition. Frankly, I don’t want to say more than that until we see more from Head, but there is a lot in the profile that Pirates fans can dream on.
The more intriguing part of the Musgrove return was flipping Joey Lucchesi to the Mets for catching prospect Endy Rodriguez. The Pirates haven’t had an answer behind the dish since Francisco Cervelli. No disrespect to Jacob Stallings, but he likely won’t be around in 2024 when the Pirates have righted the ship and are the odds on favorites to win it all (yeah, I said it). Who will be around you ask? Well, my 2021 top 50 included exactly zero catching prospects in the Pittsburgh system. That is a huge problem. As much as I like Head, the Pirates have a lot of solid outfield prospects already and I have heard the catcher position is mildly important for playing real baseball games. There isn’t much game footage or data on Rodriguez yet, but so far he has shown the ability to hit for average, get on base, swipe a couple of bases, and rack up doubles. Reports indicate that his defensive abilities are average to above average.
THE JAMESON TAILLON TRADE
This trade is actually my favorite of the three swaps that Cherington and Co. have pulled off. For starters, if Taillon returns to form and maintains good health, well, at least we won’t have to be on the receiving end of his success very often. The real reason this trade excites me is the return. The Pirates may not have received any high-end prospects like Head, but the quality of all of the players coming to Pittsburgh is above average.
Miguel Yajure (Ya-her-ay) is a sneaky good pitcher. Fangraphs has given all of his pitches grades of 50 or better, with the cutter topping out as a potential 60-grade pitch. Added to those grades are high marks for command and control. Having watched several of Yajure’s starts since the deal went down, I can report that Yajure’s pitchability and understanding of his arsenal are exceptional. He has turned in very low walk rates (~5%) throughout his minor league career and has posted 10%+ swinging strike rates at every stop along the way (save for his brief MLB debut last season). Another promising aspect of Yajure’s journey is a 3-year improvement of his K%. He just seems to be getting better and better as time goes on and he learns how to best employ his pitch-mix. If Taillon struggles to stay healthy for the rest of his career there is an outside chance that Yajure ends up providing more value over the long run all by himself. That is optimistic, but I don’t think it is unreasonable considering the injury history for Taillon.
Canaan Smith-Njigba is a young and powerful outfield bat who has shown great command of the strike zone so far in his professional career. The numbers from the 2019 Sally League were fantastic. Smith-Njigba slapped 11 homers with 32 doubles and 74 walks in just 124 games. Oh yeah, he also swiped 16 bags that year. I don’t expect the steals to continue as he rises through the system, but those numbers do at least indicate that he knows what he is doing on the bases. Canaan is a lefty bat that reminds me a bit of what the Pirates already have in Mason Martin, which is a compliment.
Roansy Contreras is another pitcher with a similar profile to Yajure. Currently sporting three pitches that all have the potential to be average or better, Contreras had a good 2019 and is excellent at limiting free passes. I really like young arms that already have a good handle on their control. There is some wait-and-see here, but this is another great addition to a deep farm system that is stacking and pairing a lot of control and pitchability arms with big-heat hurlers.
Finally, Maikol Escotto. Signed for 350K in the 2018 J2 period, Escotto had a great season in the DSL in 2019. Power, speed, walks, and average were all on display. Now, it is best not to get too excited about DSL stats, but I am amped to see what Escotto does when he gets stateside.
THE STATE OF THE HULL
The plan that Cherington and Co. are trying to execute is to increase – by leaps and bounds – the depth of talent within the Pittsburgh system. Unlike his time in Boston, Cherington knows that the only pathway to competitive baseball in Pittsburgh is through the creation of a robust farm system. After choosing to stand pat at the trade deadline during the sprint season, the results of the 2021 offseason are very encouraging. Really, I have to applaud Cherington for his restraint at the deadline and his unwillingness to negotiate deals from a position of extreme weakness. My hope for the 2021 season is for Adam Frazier and Gregory Polanco to both hit enough to garner something in trade at, or before, the deadline. Other than that, we wait for the seas to calm and prospects like Jared Oliva, Oneil Cruz, Cody Bolton, and Travis Swaggerty to make an impact in the near future.