When Pirates general manager Ben Cherington was hired after the 2019 season, it was clear that player development would be a huge aspect of the organization going forward.
The Pirates’ Top 30 Prospects list was revealed on Wednesday, and the renewed depth that Cherington has created thanks to some pivotal trades in the offseason moved the farm system to No. 8 in the organizational rankings, per MLB Pipeline.
Now, it’s time to see how these players develop entering what is expected to be a full Minor League season after a year of alternate training site work due to the pandemic.
With the refresh also comes a slew of new questions for the organization -- where it stands, who the key players are and what the path going forward will be. Here are a few things I’m thinking about regarding the new Pirates Top 30:
Thomas, who jumped from No. 18 to No. 7, matched his uptick in fastball velocity -- reaching triple digits -- with some improvement in his slider. The key to his development will be his secondary pitches, because his ceiling as a flashy starter depends on commanding a third pitch like his changeup. Thomas has also made great progress in one of his initial areas of concern -- his walk rate -- but he can still make further strides there.
Martin, who received a non-roster invite to Spring Training, may have the most raw power in the organization, which has fueled his rise from the No. 25 prospect to No. 15 this season. He hit 35 homers in 131 games in 2019 across Low-A and High-A, not to mention his 32 doubles and four triples.
As is the case for many power hitters, the area of emphasis for Martin will be strikeouts. The Pirates will likely trade some strikeouts for homers from a hitter like Martin, but he had 168 strikeouts in '19, and Major League pitchers will craft even more ways to try to get him out vs. his competition in Class A ball.
Center field conundrum
The Pirates have an open competition in center field this year, and it’s no different in the prospect ranks.
They have three center fielders in their Top 20: Hudson Head (No. 6), Travis Swaggerty (No. 9) and Jared Oliva (No. 16). The good news for the Pirates is that they’re spread out in terms of their expected MLB arrivals; Oliva made his MLB debut last season, Swaggerty is expected to arrive next season -- though he could debut this year -- and Head should be due around '23.
Despite the range in their rankings, if you look at their scouting grades on the Top 30, not much separates them. They all have solid hitting ability, above-average speed and are good fielders.
I’m keeping a particularly close eye on Head, who was the headliner of the Joe Musgrove deal with the Padres in January. He’s still only 19 years old, but he has a 6-foot-1 frame to grow into and could potentially develop more power. Head’s ceiling is the highest of the three, but he’s still yet to have a full season of pro ball, so '21 could be instrumental in his development.
Aces of the future
One of the questions I got when the rankings came out on Wednesday was, to paraphrase it, who besides Quinn Priester is likely to be a top-of-the-rotation arm?
That question made me scratch my head. Not because the Pirates don’t have one, but because with so many of the best options years away from the Majors and a year removed from a Minor League season, it’s tough to gauge.
Malone has only pitched eight pro innings since being selected with the 33rd overall pick in the 2019 Draft by the D-backs, who shipped him to the Pirates with No. 5 prospect Liover Peguero for Starling Marte. But he’s tall, projectable and has a live fastball, which are all great attributes to fall back on. What sets him apart is a strong slider that he differentiates from his curveball, and a changeup to get left-handers out.
One more name to keep an eye on: Cody Bolton. While he isn’t a strikeout machine, he hasn’t really had many stumbles in his three years through the Minors, and he is the closest to the Majors of any pitcher I see as a potential top-of-the-rotation arm, though he slots more as a mid-rotation guy.