Pirates player development has a good problem on its hands

March 13th, 2023

The Pirates could have a good problem on their hands.

This one, in particular, comes at the catching position. Pittsburgh claims two backstops among MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects in No. 55 Endy Rodriguez and No. 57 Henry Davis. Both reached the upper Minors in 2022 with Rodriguez topping out at Triple-A Indianapolis and Davis reaching Double-A Altoona.

In the old world, that would have put the two on a collision course for playing time in the Majors as early as this summer. The Bucs know times have changed, however.

“If you look at the model of what's happening in the Major Leagues now, guys aren't catching 140 games anymore,” said director of player development John Baker. “So if you can keep two really good bats fresh by splitting up the catching time, then I think you have a better chance of having more dynamic offense out of the position. I imagine that the Braves will do a lot of that this year with [Travis] d’Arnaud and [Sean] Murphy, where one can DH and another one can catch. They had two All-Stars at the position last year, and they upgraded.”

Rodriguez hit .323/.407/.590 with a career-high 25 homers over 125 games across three levels in a breakout 2022, pushing him into the Top 100 for the first time. Davis’ plus power made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2021, and it played quickly in his first full season as he homered five times and slugged .585 over 22 games with High-A Greensboro. Though the pop dipped (in part due to wrist injuries) at Double-A, Davis ended on a brighter note in the Arizona Fall League, where seven of his 13 hits went for extra bases.

Alternate the switch-hitting Rodriguez and the right-handed Davis in the lineup for 162 games, and that’s a great way to maintain consistent production out of a position not known for hitting.

But beyond just catching and DH, it’s likely the two will see time elsewhere on the diamond in 2023 and beyond. Rodriguez also saw time at second base and left field, where the Pirates could take advantage of his athleticism, while even Davis, who receives rougher defensive reviews, made two appearances in right field in 2022, thanks to his plus-plus arm strength.

Baker, a former catcher with seven seasons of Major League experience, notes that the evaluation of receiving plays a larger role than it did even five years ago, and different methods of catching setups and angles can work for different players. However, what hasn’t changed is the leadership and relationship management required for a position that works with an entire pitching staff, and that aspect will be a big part of the development of the games for not only Rodriguez and Davis but the entire Pirates Minor League catching corps.

He identified Axiel Plaz, who had a .500 OBP and almost as many extra-base hits (15) as strikeouts (16) over 32 games in the Dominican Summer League, as the next potential popup backstop who could keep the catching pipeline moving once Rodriguez and Davis graduate.

“I think it’s a great problem for us to have,” Baker said. “But the hardest part for us will be how to get everyone at-bats [in the Minors].”

Camp standout: Anthony Solometo

Anthony Solometo, a second-round pick in 2021 out of New Jersey, already made an impression in his first full season with a delivery that draws Madison Bumgarner comps, along with a 90-92 mph sinker and above-average mid-80s slider.

There was always hope that the 6-foot-5 left-hander could pick up some velocity as he grows into his body, and Baker said the Bucs are already seeing that this spring with Solometo touching 95 in recent sim games, a touch above the 93.5 mph max velo he showed last season in the Florida State League.

The 20-year-old already got off to a solid start at Single-A Bradenton with a 2.64 ERA, .188 average-against and 51 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings, and Pittsburgh’s No. 10 prospect could jump a few more notches in the rankings if the spring bump holds.

“We're seeing some guys make on the pitching side, some velo jumps and some stuff jumps because our pitching development never stops,” Baker said. “When you're in February and you’ve got 19-20-year-olds throwing mid-90s and throwing strikes, man, do I get really excited.”

Something to prove: Travis Swaggerty

The Pirates had high hopes for Travis Swaggerty when they made him the 10th overall pick in 2018. Nearly five years later, he’s dealt with multiple years of lost development due to the 2020 pandemic season and a 2021 shoulder injury.

Once considered a strong hitter out of South Alabama, he’s now more known for his defensive gifts as an outfielder. He did appear in five games for the big club in 2022, going 1-for-9 with four strikeouts, but a mundane performance at Triple-A Indianapolis (.254/.348/.399, 102 wRC+ over 107 games) has him on the fringes of the roster heading into his age-25 season and second 40-man campaign.

“Being able to hit the ground running and having a healthy offseason is big,” Baker said. “We just need to see him play. When he's on, he is a threat on the bases. He does a great job in center field, he hits the ball in the gap and he can run. So we need more of that. More getting on base essentially too is going to be a big part of his game.”

Breakout candidate: Bubba Chandler

Bubba Chandler is a pitcher. The 2021 third-rounder confirmed he’ll be on the mound exclusively for ’23 after playing both ways for Bradenton and the Pirates’ Florida Complex League affiliate last year.

The right-hander/switch-hitter was facing a longer road with the bat, having hit .196/.331/.382 with four homers over 46 games, and he was much more dominant from the hill (2.61 ERA, 60 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings). He already sat in the mid-90s and showcased a pair of above-average breaking balls while splitting his duties, and the hurler himself believes his changeup could take a jump with a more intent focus this summer.

“We want him to have an opportunity to focus on one thing and really master a craft,” Baker said. “In truth, we're at a position now where the team that he'd be competing to pitch for is different than the team that he would be competing to hit for. We reached that fork in the road. So we put it in front of him and let him take ownership of it. We're excited to see him pitch.”