Top pitching prospect Priester turning heads

February 20th, 2021

 was throwing bullpen sessions in the Florida heat -- drenched with sweat before his work was close to finished -- around this same time last year when he found out the baseball season had been shut down.

So he trekked back to Cary, Ill., just north of Chicago. With indoor venues also given the red light, Priester did what he had to do: He bundled up with layer upon layer, he grabbed his high school catcher, Drew Stengren, and he got to throwing in the freezing March weather.

“I’m wearing two pair of long sleeves, a pair of tights -- everything I possibly can,” he recalled on Saturday. “There was definitely a difference in feel, and I had to adjust to that.”

Now, he’s returned to Bradenton, Fla., as a non-roster invite to big league Spring Training, preparing for his first full season in the pros. And camp is already buzzing about what the No. 52 overall prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, has shown.

When manager Derek Shelton was asked about what he saw out of Priester in the instructional league, a smile broke across the skipper's face.

“He was good,” Shelton said on Wednesday. “And I'm excited. I talked to both him and [Max] Kranick today. Basically told them, ‘Just have fun.' This kid's, what, 20 years old? I'm partial to him because he's a northern Illinois guy, right from where I grew up. But it's a good, young arm.”

It’s a similar vibe for Priester -- the 18th overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft -- in this year’s camp as compared to last year, but it’s also slightly different. Now, he’s doing his work in groups with the guys expected to lead the rotation, with conversations already started with Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl.

“I like him a lot," reliever Kyle Crick said. "Good dude. He cares. Serious dude, too. He’s in the first group. I’m in the middle group. I kind of barely missed him. Whenever the groups get smaller, that’ll be one of the first guys I go up to.”

Priester wants to be a “sponge” this spring and soak up as much information as he can from the Major Leaguers, though he’s trying to stay “open ears, not an open mouth.” However, he’s not afraid to ask questions, and one of the biggest focuses for him was a changeup he’s been tinkering with, leading to conversations with guys who throw great changeups, like Brault.

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“Definitely wanted to come in and ask guys who have good changeups about changeups,” Priester said. “I know I've been harping on this, and it is probably getting annoying to everybody, but that is something I'm seriously trying to perfect and work on and become a plus-pitch for me.”

The changeup was a pitch Priester tried to throw effectively while making the rounds as an Under Armour All-American in high school, but he had trouble getting the pitch to the dish instead of spiking it in front of the plate. Working with pitching coach Oscar Marin and Pirates pitchers and catchers, he’s been using mental cues like “throw through the catcher” to straighten out his delivery and timing.

“After last season, throwing it and forcing myself to throw it, I have a lot more confidence,” Priester said. “Even through the first couple days of camp, being able to work with Oscar and [Triple-A pitching coach Joel Hanrahan], and a bunch of these pitching coaches that are so great within our organization, I’ve made even more great changes mentality-wise. That has made the pitch a lot more consistent.”

The Pirates had Priester on a five-day throwing program this offseason, getting him comfortable with the routine he’s expected to have as a Major Leaguer in a couple of years. First, he’s got to traverse the Minor League ladder as he grows into his body and into his potential.

Priester isn’t overthinking that aspect. He’s ready to take whatever assignment comes his way and trust the Pirates’ development system while he hones in on particular aspects of his game.

“I set goals coming into Spring Training, such as keep hammering on my changeup, work on four-seamers glove-side, certain things like curveball, strike-to-ball [ratio],” he said. “But in terms of the season, I don’t know exactly what I want to set yet, because I want to go through this Spring Training, see what’s working well, what isn’t working well and what I want to get better.”

Of course, at age 20, he’s not too far removed from the kid who spent his days at the high school ballpark wondering what it would be like to pitch in the Majors. With a sheepish grin, he admitted he’s already thinking about starting big games in black and gold.

“I catch myself, a little bit, daydreaming about playoff games at PNC [Park],” he said. “But I definitely like to keep myself grounded just by reflecting how fortunate I am to be able to come out here and get on the mound and throw baseballs for a living. That's incredible. That doesn't go over my head.”