Standout Bucs prospects from the '21 season

October 19th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- Let’s be honest: The 2021 season did not have a lot in the way of excitement for Pirates fans. The team ended the season with 101 losses, as players were acquired, traded, designated for assignment and everything in between to fill holes while trying to win games.

But looking ahead to 2022, the Bucs will draw a lot more intrigue due to a crop of prospects who proved themselves in ‘21 -- and more are on the way.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the Pirates’ 2021 Minor League season and one big question left to answer for ‘22.

3 players who forced their way onto the radar this year

1. OF Matt Fraizer (No. 23)
It’s unfair to say that Fraizer, a third-round Draft pick out of Arizona in 2019, came out of nowhere. The outfielder had only played 43 pro games entering the ‘21 season, but he didn’t enter the High-A Greensboro roster with nearly as much hype as some of his counterparts.

That changed quickly. May started out with average results as Fraizer acclimated to the level, but then he hit 11 doubles, three triples and 18 home runs in 51 games over June and July. That phenomenal run took him from unranked to the No. 23 prospect in the Pirates’ system and earned him the High-A East MVP Award.

Fraizer’s hard work was recognized in early August, when he was promoted to Double-A while some of the more highly touted prospects stayed at High-A working toward postseason goals.

2. C (No. 19)
A switch-hitting catcher with outfield capabilities? That is the kind of versatility a team like the Pirates dream of having. However, Rodriguez had yet to play above Rookie-level ball ahead of the 2021 season.

How did Rodriguez’s first A-ball season fare? Well, only with a Low-A Southeast championship and MVP Award honors to his name. The 21-year-old hit 25 doubles, six triples and 15 home runs in 98 games while using good plate discipline (50 walks) to produce a .380 on-base percentage.

Those are advanced numbers for a player at that stage of the organizational ladder. Defensively, Rodriguez played the majority of his reps at catcher, but also had 15 starts at first base and four in left field.

3. RHP (No. 15)
In his first full season of pro ball, the 2019 second-round pick from California struggled with run prevention toward the end of the year. But by then, his pure stuff was already drawing eyes.

Jones finished the season with a 4.64 ERA -- inflated by an 8.78 ERA in his final four starts -- but he struck out 103 batters in 66 innings to produce an incredible 14.05 strikeouts per nine innings ratio. In a start on June 28, he produced 11 of his 12 outs via the strikeout.

It will be interesting to see which way the Pirates view Jones in the coming years, whether it’s as a front-half starter or an electric reliever. In his 18 starts this season, half were fewer than four innings, though that is likely a mix of innings management and struggles with efficiency. But again, it was Jones’ first full season after a pandemic-affected year. Give him time.

2 possible breakout players to watch in 2022

1. RHP Michael Burrows (No. 14)
Burrows began the 2021 season with the High-A Grasshoppers and broke out, pitching to a 2.20 ERA in his first 13 starts (49 innings). However, an oblique injury shut him down for the final two months of the season, meaning that the 2018 11th-round pick still has yet to pitch a full season.

Maybe next year is the year. Burrows is one of the Pirates’ representatives in the Arizona Fall League, where he’ll face his most advanced competition yet. Will that have a carryover effect into ‘22?

2. SS Maikol Escotto (No. 20)
Escotto was the only unranked prospect the Pirates received from the Yankees in their trade package for Jameson Taillon. But a strong first half put the 19-year-old shortstop on the map. Through his first 37 games at Low-A Bradenton, Escotto hit .303 with a .429 on-base percentage. The power hasn’t come around quite yet, but he’s still very young and growing into his body.

Escotto will return to the organization after gaining some experience in Dominican winter ball. It will be interesting to see if his rise continues there, cementing him as a prospect to watch in the Minors.

1 big question for next season

How ready do the Pirates believe their more advanced top prospects are?
The Pirates only saw three of their top prospects -- Miguel Yajure, Rodolfo Castro and Max Kranick (now unranked) -- for more than a couple of games this season. That is going to change in 2022.

The question is by what margin will it change, and when? The stacked lineup at Double-A Altoona in 2021 will be pushing for playing time at Triple-A and, likely in short order, in the Majors. Some names from that group to watch will be Oneil Cruz (No. 3) and Roansy Contreras (No. 6) -- who made their MLB debuts in the Pirates’ final homestand -- as well as Mason Martin (No. 17), Cal Mitchell (No. 18), Ji-hwan Bae (No. 22) and Canaan-Smith Njigba (No. 27).

At Triple-A already are Tucupita Marcano (No. 9) -- young for the level, but the Pirates showed faith in him by acquiring him from the Padres in the Adam Frazier deal -- and Travis Swaggerty (No. 16), who sustained a season-ending shoulder injury early in the 2021 season and will be fighting for a Major League look out of Spring Training.