Young Bucs a sign of what's to come in Pittsburgh

May 25th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- The future isn’t all the way here in Pittsburgh. Not yet. Not quite. No, the future isn’t all the way here in Pittsburgh. Nor will it come all at once.

But it’s coming. It’s close, and getting closer. The kids are on their way.

In a two-day span, the Pirates have received an injection of youth. Right-hander Yerry De Los Santos was called up on Monday, righty Roansy Contreras and outfielder Cal Mitchell on Tuesday. For De Los Santos and Mitchell, this marks the first callup of their respective careers.

The promotions were partly a product of circumstance. Designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach and right-hander Heath Hembree were placed on the 10- and 15-day injured list on Tuesday, with left-hander Cam Alldred designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for the newcomers. Still, the moves are representative of the Pirates beginning to take the next step in their evolution as a club. The most exciting part?

They likely won’t be the last.

"I think the big thing is we know that our farm system is getting to the point where we have players that are gonna be close to ready or [are] Major League ready. That’s important as we move forward,” said manager Derek Shelton. “Any time we can continue to inject youth into our group, especially coming from our own system, it's exciting.”

The Pirates’ 2-1 loss to the Rockies on Tuesday at PNC Park did not cloud how the rookies shined. Contreras, in his first appearance with Pittsburgh since April 19, pitched five scoreless innings. Mitchell recorded his first hit and RBI. Even in a loss, there was a tinge of hope.

“They both impacted the game,” said Shelton.

That Mitchell is here in Pittsburgh, impacting that game at the Major League level, is a testament to his bouncing back from a career speed bump.

Mitchell had a solid 2021 season with Double-A Altoona, slashing .280/.330/.429 with 12 homers and six stolen bases, but he was ultimately left off the 40-man roster. His name slid down prospect rankings, but his confidence didn’t waver. The goal never changed.

“I don’t know if you want to call it a chip on your shoulder,” Mitchell said. “There was a sense of, ‘OK, now watch what I can do,’ for sure.”

Across 34 games with Triple-A Indianapolis this year, Mitchell slashed .306/.362/.500 with a 128 wRC+. He complemented his five homers with six steals. There was also his plate discipline; Mitchell’s 14.5 strikeout percentage was on pace to be the lowest of his professional career.

“To his credit, we made a decision on the roster last winter where he wasn’t added, and he responded to that exactly the way you would want a young player to respond,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “He was disappointed, as you would expect he would be. Busted his tail every day since. Has turned himself into a better player. Based on the feedback we’ve gotten from our Triple-A staff, [he] really has been our most consistent position player in Indy all year. He earned this, and we’re happy for him.”

Cherington wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a paradigm shift -- “I feel like it started a long time ago and will never end.” That said, the Pirates do appear headed in a direction that emphasizes its up-and-comers in the Minors.

“We want more and more guys to get that opportunity,” Cherington said. “We've got to pick our spots and timing. This week it's Cal's turn and Roansy's turn and Yerry's turn, and we'll see what happens down the road.”

Sometime down the road, Oneil Cruz and Mason Martin could have their respective turns as well.

Cruz, the No. 22 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, has had his struggles with Indianapolis, but he is starting to simmer. In his last eight games, Cruz is hitting .285 with three homers, raising his OPS by 53 points in that stretch.

While Cruz has needed some time to heat up, Martin has been boiling from the start. In 38 games with Indianapolis, Martin is slashing .254/.329/.592 with nine home runs. Martin has been aggressive on the bases as well; the first baseman already has seven steals on nine attempts, possessing more than enough time to best his career high of eight steals.

“He’s trending in a good direction,” Cherington said of Cruz. “The at-bats continue to go in the right direction. He’s starting to impact the game, impact the ball more. Working hard and doing all the stuff we’re asking him to do. We feel like the direction is very positive.”

Regardless of the specifics -- the who, the when, the how, the why -- Contreras, De Los Santos and Mitchell are representative of Pittsburgh’s incoming wave of young talent.

“We’ve got a lot of good ball players coming through,” Mitchell said. “I’m happy that Pittsburgh is giving some of the homegrown guys a chance to play.”