With alternative training sites coming to an end, MLB Pipeline is recapping the development highlights for the prospects involved for each organization.
Top position prospect: Nick Gonzales, SS/2B (No. 1 on Top 30)
It might take a coin flip to decide who belongs in this spot between Gonzales, the team’s first-round pick in 2020, and Ke’Bryan Hayes, the team’s No. 2 prospect who had a tremendous big league debut. But since everyone saw Hayes take the National League by storm and become a front-runner for the 2021 Rookie of the Year Award, let’s give Gonzales some love.
Gonzales was the No. 7 overall pick in this year’s Draft out of New Mexico State because of his advanced bat (60 hit grade on the 20-80 scouting scale). He didn’t disappoint in that regard at the alternate site in Altoona, Pa.
“The swing is so short and fast and impressive, how much hard contact he made against older pitchers,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said.
He wasn’t in Altoona only to show off his bat speed, of course. No one doubts he’s going to hit, but it is a little unclear where he ends up playing defensively. The Pirates drafted him as a shortstop, where he played his shortened junior year, but most see him as a very capable everyday second baseman at the highest level. He got reps at both middle infield positions, but more at second, and the Pirates think he has the chops to play second, short and maybe even third.
“He really took advantage of the opportunity to improve defensively and will continue that in Bradenton,” Cherington said. Gonzales is in Florida with other prospects as part of the Pirates’ instructional league program.
Top pitching prospect: Cody Bolton, RHP (No. 11)
No. 4 prospect Quinn Priester made a late charge for this honor, but wasn’t in Altoona long enough to really be considered. Bolton, MLB Pipeline’s choice for Pirates pitching prospect of the year in 2019, took a nice step forward in utilizing his stuff more consistently.
The club’s sixth-round selection in 2017 Draft, Bolton was dominant in the Florida State League in 2019 to earn a midseason promotion to Double-A Altoona, where he scuffled at times. He’s capable of missing bats (10.1 K/9 and 5.7 H/9 in Bradenton in 2019) with power stuff and excellent spin on both his fastball and breaking ball. His time in Atloona this year allowed him to apply more polish.
“Cody has really good stuff,” Cherington said. “The time in Altoona was really valuable in learning how to harness that stuff in the zone and use it most effectively. He’s really hard to get good swings off.”
Youngest prospect: Liover Peguero, SS (No. 5)
The Pirates got two young prospects from the D-backs in January’s Starling Marte trade: Peguero and right-hander Brennan Malone. Peguero was really impressive in the rookie Pioneer and Class A Short-Season Northwest Leagues in 2019, finishing with a combined .326/.382/.485 line, but the Pirates hadn’t really gotten the chance to work with him because of the shutdown. At just 19, he needs as many reps as possible, a big reason why he was sent to Altoona this summer.
Not surprisingly, the jump to the level of the competition he faced was daunting at first and it took a while for the teenage infielder to get his feet under him. Once he did, he competed very well on both sides of the ball, not only in terms of performance but how he carried himself and the leadership teams like to see in a future shortstop.
“Lio came from Montana to the Dominican Republic to Altoona in about 2 weeks,” Cherington said. “So I think the transition took some time. He really made some good adjustments and was effectively facing pitching two-to-three levels above what he was used to and still held his own and he made some highlight plays defensively.”
2020 Draft picks
Gonzales was the only 2020 draftee in Altoona. All six of the Pirates’ selections are participating in instructs.
Everyone knows Mason Martin (No. 18) has power. He did hit 35 homers and slug .558 across two levels of A ball in 2019, after all. But during his time at the alternate site, he showed that the power will show up against much better pitching and in a ballpark that has historically not been kind to left-handed hitters. Martin worked to cut down on the length of his swing, leading to a little less swing and miss, with reports regularly coming in of him hitting balls off the roller coaster in right field in Altoona.
Bolton wasn’t the only pitcher who impressed this summer. Right-hander Max Kranick (No. 24) was up to 98 mph with this fastball and featured a slider with cutter-like action to it, while making really good progress on his changeup as he threw it more consistently toward the end of his time there. Right-hander Aaron Shortridge also made progress, focusing especially on his breaking ball. He switched his grip and now throws more of a spike curveball, with more of a downward break to it.
On the position player front, the Pirates were very pleased with how good Rodolfo Castro (No. 26) looked. He continued to work on playing multiple positions, heading in a very good super-utility role direction.
“Castro really improved his defensive versatility,” said Cherington, who noted Castro saw a lot of time at third and shortstop. “He had good ABs, and showed consistent great effort and teammate. We brought him up to the taxi squad to spend a few days with the Major League team at the end of the season.”