Bucs protect 4 top prospects from Rule 5

November 20th, 2021

The Pirates had many talented prospects who were due to be exposed in this year’s Rule 5 Draft, but when the deadline to set the 40-man roster ahead of it arrived at 6 p.m. ET on Friday, only four of them were added and protected.

Shortstop Liover Peguero, the Pirates’ No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline, and three outfielders -- Travis Swaggerty (No. 16), Canaan Smith-Njigba (No. 27) and Jack Suwinski (No. 29) -- had their contracts selected by the Bucs. Three spaces were cleared already, and the fourth was opened up by designating catcher Michael Perez for assignment.

Pittsburgh's outfield was one of the most interesting areas for consideration at this offseason’s protection deadline, as four top outfield prospects who are near or at Triple-A were Rule 5-eligible. The Pirates left only one of those players exposed: No. 18 prospect Cal Mitchell, who slashed .279/.328/.428 in 115 games across Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis last season.

While Swaggerty missed all but 17 games of the 2021 season with a right shoulder injury, he’s swinging a bat now and will be given a shot to make the Major League roster next season. General manager Ben Cherington said that all three outfield prospects “could very well push for playing time as early as next year,” noting that Smith-Njigba and Suwinski are both getting on base at a high clip, which points to good swing decisions.

Peguero, 20, was the closest thing to a no-brainer in the Pirates’ decision-making process. His overall offensive numbers at High-A Greensboro in 2021 (a .776 OPS in 90 games) weren’t eye-popping, but his all-around game -- including an above-average speed tool that led to 28 stolen bases -- makes him one of the best shortstop prospects in baseball. (He's ranked No. 85 overall by MLB Pipeline.)

Pittsburgh left a number of high-ceiling prospects off the 40-man roster, including No. 17 prospect Mason Martin. The slugger hit 25 home runs last season between Double-A and Triple-A, but he’s a first baseman and has had issues with swing and miss, including 171 strikeouts in 120 games in 2021.

“It’s something he’s working really hard on,” Cherington said of Martin’s contact rate. “He’s always worked hard, and he’s worked hard on his defense, too. … We think Mason is in a good spot in terms of where he is and what he’s working on. He’s certainly one of the guys we talked about.”

Two interesting pitchers were also unprotected: No. 13 prospect Tahnaj Thomas and No. 26 prospect Omar Cruz. Thomas, 22, posted a 5.19 ERA in 16 starts at High-A Greensboro, but he is seen as a right-hander with very high upside. His case is oddly similar to Luis Ovedio, who had a 5.38 ERA in 2019 at Class A Lake County before being selected in the 2020 Rule 5 Draft by the Pirates and making it through the entire ‘21 season in the bullpen.

Cruz, a 22-year-old lefty, had a 3.44 ERA over a season split between High-A and Double-A, but spent most of it at Altoona. His strikeout numbers dropped drastically, but quality left-handers are always in demand. Could a team be interested in him?

“In terms of anyone who was not added, it’s really less about anything in a player that we don’t see or don’t like,” Cherington said. “It’s just that we can only add so many guys, and we have to make some decisions and bets on what’s the best way to keep as much talent in the organization. It’s not just the Rule 5-eligibles we’re trying to keep in the organization, but other guys that are already on the roster, too.”

The fact that 2020 effectively cut a year of game action out of prospects’ development timelines means that this Rule 5 Draft won’t just be anxiety-inducing for the Pirates. A lot of high-caliber prospects will be exposed to selection from across MLB, which provides a rebuilding Pittsburgh club a great opportunity to find “a needle in the haystack,” as Cherington called it.

The Pirates are confident in their decisions and hopeful they will find talent, but there’s no denying that this process is stressful with so many top prospects on the line.

“We’ve got people screaming and pounding the table, ‘We have to protect this guy!’ That’s good. We want that,” Cherington said. “There’s always a little bit of anxiety related to it. We look back in time and review these decisions, see what we got right and what we didn’t get right.”