Skenes headlines 'tight-knit group' of exciting young arms in Bucs camp

2022 first-rounder Johnson continues to turn heads in Bradenton

March 2nd, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Paul Skenes stoked excitement in Pittsburgh when he hit 102 mph twice during his Grapefruit League debut Thursday. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 Draft shouldn't need much time before becoming the ace of a franchise that hasn't received a first-place vote in National League Cy Young balloting since Doug Drabek won the award 34 years ago.

While Skenes deservedly soaks up a lot of attention, the Pirates have enviable depth in pitching prospects behind him. Jared Jones (No. 62), Anthony Solometo (No. 82) and Bubba Chandler (No. 93) joined him on MLB Pipeline's 2024 Top 100 Prospects list and should arrive in the Majors in the next couple of years. So should other promising arms such as Thomas Harrington, Braxton Ashcraft and Mike Burrows, with another wave behind them that includes Zander Mueth, Hunter Barco, Michael Kennedy and Jun-Seok Shim.

Having that many mound prospects on hand eventually should translate into improved results for a big league staff that has finished in the bottom five in the NL in ERA in each of the past three seasons. Another added benefit is that they're pushing each other to succeed.

"The cool story with that group -- Skenes, the Top 100 prospects and the other guys too -- is that they're a really tight-knit group," Pittsburgh senior vice president and assistant GM Steve Sanders said. "They're cohesive and they really push each other and learn from each other. A lot of these guys train together in the offseason. It's a really cool learning environment.

"We’re really encouraged by the growth we've seen some guys take, and not just the really famous guys," Sanders said. "It's a testament to the hard work of a lot of people, our pitching group up and down the system from the big leagues to our academy in the Dominican Republic. There's a lot of good work going on, and we have to keep doing it because we need a lot of pitching to compete and survive at the big league level."

Skenes could surface in Pittsburgh before the All-Star break, as could Jones, who has a similar, if not quite as overwhelming, power fastball/slider combination. Solometo has impressed early in big league camp and his solid three-pitch mix, polish and deception may accelerate his timetable as well. Chandler, the former two-way player and Clemson quarterback recruit, surged in the second half of 2023 and may have the most upside of any Pirates pitching prospect besides Skenes.

Though Harrington flies more under the radar because he has yet to crack the Top 100, he possesses one of the highest floors in the system. A former walk-on at Campbell who became the highest-drafted pitcher in Fighting Camels history (36th overall in 2022), he led the system in whiffs (146 in 127 1/3 innings, tied with Jones) and K/BB ratio (3.6) in his pro debut last year.

"Harrington is a very good athlete who hasn't been pitching his whole life," Sanders said. "We saw a lot of progress in his time at Campbell and we've seen a lot of progress in his time here.

"He throws four pitches for strikes and you can't mistake his polish for a lack of stuff. He's up to 96 and he's got four pitches he can finish hitters with. Our hope is that he's just scratching the surface of his potential."

Camp standout: Termarr Johnson

The No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 Draft was hailed as one of the best high school hitters in recent memory. But Johnson batted just .244 between two Class A levels in his first full pro season. It wasn't a bad year by any means, as the second baseman showed improvement over the course of the summer, slammed 18 homers and ranked fifth in the Minors with 101 walks as a 19-year-old.

On Monday, Johnson slammed two homers against the Blue Jays, becoming the first teenager to go deep twice in a Spring Training contest since Carlos Correa in 2014. He went 5-for-11 over his first six games, a stark contrast from a year ago, when he injured his hamstring soon after reporting and never saw any Grapefruit League action.

"Monday was a really cool day for Termarr and fun for all of us to see," Sanders said. "It was less about the two home runs and more about the way he came into camp this year and has really grown into being comfortable in his first big league camp.

"He has a dynamic swing and knowledge of the strike zone, and it was very encouraging to see the power and walk numbers last year. We see the things we loved about him as a pure hitter in the Draft, and we think you'll continue to see them come out as he develops as a professional hitter."

Spring Breakout sleeper: Yordany De Los Santos

De Los Santos landed the largest bonus in Pittsburgh's 2022 international class when he signed for $1.2 million out of the Dominican Republic. He slashed .234/.348/.328 with 22 steals in 55 games between Rookie ball and Single-A at age 18 last season. Pirates fans will get a glimpse of the toolsy shortstop when he faces the Orioles in the first Spring Breakout game on March 14.

"Yordany is a big, physical shortstop with a combination of baseball skills and power," Sanders said. "He had a really good Florida Complex League before struggling at Bradenton. There's some chance that he outgrows shortstop, but he has all the tools to stick on the left side of the infield and be a run producer."

Breakout potential: Jun-Seok Shim

Shim decided to bypass the Korean Baseball Organization Draft to sign with the Pirates for $750,000, the highest bonus in their 2023 international crop. The 19-year-old right-hander worked just eight innings in his pro debut because of a right pectoral strain but he could start to move quickly now that he's 100 percent again. He can run his fastball up to 98 mph and backs it up with a pair of high-spin breaking balls.

"Shim is still extremely young and adjusting to his routine and workload," Sanders said. "We're excited at where he's at in camp. Obviously, his stuff is electric. It's a big arm and he's healthy, so we're hoping he takes a big step this year."