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Pirates prospect report from Spring Training

March 3, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates have produced their share of impact pitching prospects in recent years in the likes of Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, the club’s respective first-round picks in the 2010 and '11 Drafts, and, to a lesser extent, Tyler Glasnow. But it’s hard to remember the last

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates have produced their share of impact pitching prospects in recent years in the likes of Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, the club’s respective first-round picks in the 2010 and '11 Drafts, and, to a lesser extent, Tyler Glasnow. But it’s hard to remember the last time the organization had as many high-ceiling arms in its system as it does right now.

“We had spent some money back when [Draft] slotting really didn’t exist, just trying to acquire talent maybe 10 years ago or so,” said Pirates farm director Larry Broadway. “But I don’t think we’ve ever had the upside that we feel right now in several of these pitchers, not just one or two.”

As a result, there’s a palpable excitement in Pirates camp this year that extends from organization’s new front-office regime and coaching staff down to its youngest players, with everyone involved eager to play a role in a new era for the Bucs.

Though the Pirates have only one Top 100 pitching prospect in Mitch Keller, who finished the 2019 season on a high note in the big leagues after adding a slider to his arsenal, there is an increasingly long list of promising young hurlers in the system who could soon be in the Top 100 conversation.

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“Our scouts have done a great job identifying guys in the Draft that had a lot of potential but, for one reason or another, were mostly under the radar -- players who were raw but had a lot of raw ability and projection that our guys thought could be unlocked with the right development," Broadway said.

“We’ve definitely had guys who we’ve liked, guys who have become good big league pitchers, but the kind of ceiling we see in some of the young guys we have like Cody Bolton, Quinn Priester, Tahnaj Thomas and Brennan Malone -- and others like Aaron Shortridge, Brandon Ashcraft, Michael Burrows -- it’s definitely an exciting time within our organization.”

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Tahnaj Thomas was primarily an infielder as an amateur in the Bahamas and didn’t begin to focus on pitching until after he had signed with the Indians for $200,000 in December 2016. A raw projection project, he worked just 58 total innings in two pro summers in Rookie ball before he was sent to the Pirates along with Erik Gonzalez in return for Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff after the 2018 season.

After pitching at 92-96 mph in 2018, the 20-year-old right-hander’s velocity shot up in his first year with the Pirates. He touched 100.2 mph during the summer in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, pitching to a 3.17 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings.

“Just seeing him jump by just continuing to throw and get experience with the skill of throwing and pitching has been exciting,” said Broadway.

The next step for Thomas will be to develop a more dynamic and effective breaking ball to complement his electric heater.

“We’re establishing what his breaking ball is going to look like right now,” noted Broadway. “His feel to spin isn’t great yet, so the focus is to get a grip and spin creation that he’s comfortable with.”

Camp standout
When Nick Burdi crumpled on the mound, writhing in pain while clutching his right arm after throwing a pitch in April, it was fair to wonder whether he would ever pitch again. After all, the right-hander had already undergone Tommy John surgery in 2017, when the Pirates selected him the Rule 5 Draft, and pitched just 12 1/3 innings between the Minors and Major Leagues in ’18. It was determined that Burdi had thoracic outlet syndrome, and he had season-ending surgery to address the issue.

To the delight of the Pirates, Burdi made a full recovery and has been a bright spot so far in big league camp, with the 27-year-old right-hander flirting with triple-digit velocity in his early outings.

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“His first bullpen out here, after pitchers and catchers reported, he looked like he’d never been hurt at all, pitching at 100 percent with no restrictions,” said Broadway. “He looks better now than he did coming off Tommy John -- it just looks easier than it did last time coming off surgery.

“I’m proud of him, because that was tough for him to work his way back from Tommy John and blow out again. But he’s put in a lot of work and put himself in a position to be as healthy as he can be.”

Something to prove
After reworking his swing with the goal of driving the ball more consistently, Kevin Kramer proceeded to slash .311/.365/.492 with 15 homers and 35 doubles, both career highs, during his first Triple-A campaign in 2018, and he finished the year with the Pirates as a September callup.

But after batting just .135 with zero extra-base hits and a 50 percent strikeout rate in his first big league audition, Kramer spent the majority of his age-25 season back in Triple-A, producing mixed results. And while he did make it back up to Pittsburgh, the 2015 second-round pick batted just .167 and slugged .190 across 50 plate appearances.

“You have to be able to do damage against good Major League fastballs, and he’s gotten into some trouble chasing pitches and getting out of his zone,” said Broadway about the left-handed-hitting utility player. “The big focus with Kevin now is having him own his hitting area and own his swing decisions in there and making sure he’s ready to do damage.”

Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.