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PITTSBURGH — The Pirates’ farm system is getting to the point where some of its best prospects are reaching “closest to majors” status. If that doesn’t throw open the club’s window of contention by 2025, nothing will.

Entering the 2022 season, Baseball America said the Pirates had the third-best minor-league system. It marked a rapid ascent from two years earlier, when they were rated No. 24. The Pirates claimed six top-100 prospects, two of whom — Oneil Cruz (No. 14) and Roansy Contreras (No. 80) — graduated to the majors last summer.

Rankings are nice, but performance is what matters. Which players are on the horizon going into 2023?

Here’s a position-by-position look at the Pirates’ player development system — the top talent at each spot, the guys who are on the verge of playing in Pittsburgh, and players whose development over the next couple of years will be intriguing for a variety of reasons.

Also included is a look back at who filled each of these slots in the farm system report I compiled in December 2021. I earned a victory lap for some of my picks, but there are others I’d like to forget.

Catcher

Best prospect: Endy Rodriguez — Putting together a healthy, breakout season at three levels in 2022 gives Rodriguez the edge over Henry Davis, who might begin next season back at Double-A Altoona. Both can do a lot of good things with the bat, but they are different defensively. “Henry takes a more direct approach and uses his strength. He’s a big, strong, stacked guy,” said right-hander Quinn Priester, who threw to both catchers last season with Altoona. “Endy’s a little bit looser, a little bit, you know, more rubbery. Balls that Endy will ‘spring’ into the zone, Henry’s just gonna stick them in the zone. They both catch extremely well; it’s just different styles.”

Closest to majors: Rodriguez — Austin Hedges, who has agreed to a one-year, $5 million contract, will be the starting catcher on Opening Day. Tyler Heineman likely will be the backup. During the Winter Meetings, manager Derek Shelton said Rodriguez will start the 2023 season with Triple-A Indianapolis. Yet it seems likely Rodriguez will get to Pittsburgh at some point next summer if he maintains the success he had last season, when he hit a combined .323/.407/.590 with 25 homers. “He’s really good,” Shelton said with a smile. “He just continues to get better as he climbs level to level.”

One to watch: Abrahan Gutierrez — Early last season with High-A Greensboro, Gutierrez was stuck at the back of a queue for playing time behind the plate. After Davis and Rodriguez were promoted, Gutierrez made 14 of his final 15 starts as Greensboro’s catcher. He hit .257/.356/.411 with 12 homers. Last season was the first time Gutierrez, 23, played first base as a pro. He could get more time there next year, especially if he and Davis open the season together at Altoona.

Last year’s picks: Carter Bins (closest to majors), Davis (best prospect), Rodriguez (one to watch). Rodriguez certainly clicked in a big way. Bins hit .196/.285/.388 with Indy and Altoona and destroyed whatever fringe prospect status he had left.

First base

Best prospect: Malcom Nuñez — The Pirates exposed Nuñez to the Rule 5 draft, figuring other clubs wouldn’t want to carry a 21-year-old first baseman/DH with minimal Triple-A experience on their big-league roster all season. After making it through the draft, Nuñez deserves to get a long look next season with Indy. His glove is average at best, so Nuñez could end up as a full-time DH in the majors.

Closest to majors: Mason Martin — Martin wins this one by default, as he’s the most experienced first baseman in the upper levels of the system. Last season, he took a step backward offensively, batting .210/.287/.410 with 19 homers and a 36 percent strikeout rate. Brendt Citta, the everyday first baseman at Altoona, was moved up in August, but he lacks power and started almost as many games in the outfield (11) as at first (14) with Indy.

One to watch: Aaron Shackelford — This guy is easy to root for. A 14th-round pick out of tiny The Master’s University in 2019, Shackelford is a 5-foot-10 fireplug who hit 48 homers over the past two seasons and finished this year with Indy. “I do feel like I’m kind of a champion for small-school guys,” Shackelford said. He won’t be an everyday starter in the majors, but he’s got enough grit to make it up there as a bench guy.

Last year’s picks: Martin (closest to majors and best prospect), the 2022 draft (one to watch). This was the thinnest position in the system a year ago, and not much has changed over the past 12 months. The Pirates drafted one first baseman this year: Josiah Sightler (15th round) out of South Carolina.

Second base


Nick Gonzales was sidelined for more than two months last season due to an injury. (Josh Lavallee / Pittsburgh Pirates)

Best prospect: Termarr Johnson — It was only 40 at-bats late in the season with Low-A Bradenton, but Johnson’s pro debut was encouraging. The first-round pick batted .275/.396/.450 and drew raves from scouts for his poise and potential. Baseball America ranks Johnson as the club’s No. 2 prospect behind Rodriguez.

Closest to majors: Nick Gonzales — If he doesn’t break camp with the team, Ji Hwan Bae, who played 10 games in the majors last season, probably is the best answer here. At this point, though, I’m assuming Bae graduates straight out of spring training and Gonzales moves to the front of the queue at Indy. This past season was difficult for Gonzales, who endured a freak foot injury and batted only .263/.383/.429. He did well in the Arizona Fall League, which should give him momentum going into 2023.

One to watch: Andres Alvarez — Alvarez, who’s listed at 5-foot-10, batted .220/339/.429 with 20 homers and 20 stolen bases with Altoona. “He showed some real power potential for a little guy,” farm director John Baker said. Alvarez played at age 25 last season, which is a bit old for the Double-A Eastern League, so it will be interesting to see how he does at Indy. His best position is third base, but he played 30 games at second while Gonzales was on the injured list and also got in 12 games at shortstop. Shelton loves those Swiss Army Knife players, so don’t be surprised if Alvarez gets a call-up next year.

Last year’s picks: Diego Castillo (closest to majors), Gonzales (best prospect), Tucupita Marcano (one to watch). As it turned out, Castillo was even closer to the majors than I thought last December — he made the 2022 Opening Day roster.

Third base

Best prospect: Dariel Lopez — Despite being nearly three years younger than the average age in the High-A South Atlantic League, Lopez, 20, hit .286/.329/.476 with 19 homers with Greensboro. He was a shortstop when the Pirates signed him for $400,000 in 2019 and made about one-third of his starts there this past season. However, scouts say he’ll be a better fit as a corner infielder as he advances. He’s playing third base exclusively in winter ball.

Closest to majors: Jared Triolo — After playing with Triolo last season at Altoona, Priester sounds like he’s his No. 1 fan: “Jared Triolo doesn’t get talked about enough. He can do so much for a team. He’s such a savvy player, runs the bases well and is super intuitive. He can hit for average and he knows when to take a shot. Defensively, he’s super good. When he’s over there (at third base), nothing’s getting by him.”

One to watch: Jack Brannigan — When the Pirates drafted Brannigan in the third round out of Notre Dame this year, he was listed as a third baseman/right-handed pitcher. However, he did not pitch in the Florida Complex League or in his 26 games with Low-A Bradenton. Scouts say he’s a superb defender with good speed and power potential, and there were flashes of that this past summer. Over 119 plate appearances, Brannigan hit .210/.336/.330 with three homers and three stolen bases. Baseball America says he has the best infield arm in the Pirates’ system.

Last year’s picks: Hunter Owen (closest to majors), Triolo (best prospect), Alexander Mojica (one to watch). Mojica is 20 years old and has a loud bat, but hit .167/.293/.296 in 40 games at Low A. Owen played in three games with the Pirates in 2021, but he was hurt most of last season and now is a free agent.

Shortstop


Liover Peguero made his major-league debut in June. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

Best prospect: Liover Peguero — A trap elite players sometimes fall into when they’re young is trying to spice up a routine play into something for the highlight reel. Pirates coaches have frequently preached that warning to Peguero. “I play the game really aggressive, that’s one of the things I’m proud about,” Peguero said. “But I’m also always trying to keep things simple, focus on the things I can control.” Peguero can hit, he can run, he can enliven a clubhouse. The final hurdle might be defensive consistency. He made 23 errors in 86 games at short with Altoona.

Closest to majors: Peguero — You might’ve heard the Pirates already have a young, stellar shortstop named Oneil Cruz. Does that mean Peguero’s ETA in the majors won’t come until five minutes after Cruz reaches free agency? Not necessarily. Peguero made 19 starts at second base last season and is getting a bit of time there in winter ball. “Peggy plays some second base just to make sure he’s comfortable on the other side of the bag,” Baker said. “Shortstop is the most challenging position, so we’re pretty confident that if we move you to the left or to the right of that position, you’ll figure it out and be OK. We want to give you an opportunity to experience it in a lower-(stakes) environment.”

Keep an eye on: Jesús Castillo and Tsung-Che Cheng — I couldn’t choose just one. Cheng, 21, was signed in 2019, but due to the pandemic has played only the past two seasons in the system. Last season, he batted .270/.376/.418 at Low-A Bradenton. Strong arm, good speed and sneaky power. Castillo, 19, had a great summer in the FCL, hitting .352/.439/.383 and playing second, third and short. He’s playing shortstop in winter ball in Australia.

Last year’s picks: Oneil Cruz (closest to majors), Peguero (best prospect), Maikol Escotto (keep an eye on).

Outfield

Best prospect: Lonnie White Jr. — The system doesn’t have a slam-dunk standout. White is a terrific athlete and gets the most love from the Baseball America and MLB Pipeline rankings, but he’s spent the past two years in the FCL — and played a total of 11 games, according to Baseball Reference. So let’s say potentially he is the club’s best outfield prospect. He needs to start backing up that status in 2023 by producing with a full-season affiliate.

Closest to majors: Travis Swaggerty — This also was a tough call. Swaggerty, a first-round pick in 2018, hasn’t had a ton of offensive success in the minors (.254/.342/.390 with 26 homers over four seasons), but he’s fast and adept in center field. Those qualities are important for the small-ball Pirates. If the team needs versatility, however, Marcano could move ahead of Swaggerty on the call-up list. If it needs some pop off the bench, Matt Gorski might be the man to call.

One to watch: Ryan Vilade — He went into 2022 as the Rockies’ No. 6 prospect, then batted .249/.345/.352 at Triple A. Vilade had a 12 percent walk rate and a 16 percent strikeout rate, but hit just five homers despite playing in Albuquerque’s hitter-friendly ballpark. The Pirates claimed him off waivers in November. Vilade will turn 24 in February and has two minor-league options left.

Last year’s picks: Canaan Smith-Njigba (closest to majors), Matt Fraizer (best prospect), Gorski (one to watch). I’d say two hits and one whiff there. Smith-Njigba was called up June 13, the same day as Swaggerty. (Jack Suwinski was recalled from Double A on April 26, but the circumstances were somewhat unusual: Bryan Reynolds went on the injured list and Suwinski was a short drive away.) Gorski slugged his way from High A to Triple A. Fraizer hit .219 and had six homers with Altoona.

Pitcher


Quinn Priester began last season on the injured list with Altoona and ended it by making with two starts for Indianapolis. (Adam Pintar / Indianapolis Indians)

Best prospect: Quinn Priester — He will move up to Indy next year and probably pitch in Pittsburgh before the season is over. His upper-90s mph fastball at the top of the zone is deadly and he’s refining his backdoor sinker, slider and changeup. “Whether it’s determined that I’m ready in March or April or May or June, I’m gonna be ready for that opportunity,” Priester said. “I don’t want to come up and have to keep learning. I want to be able to win games right away.”

Closest to majors: Mike Burrows and Luis Ortiz — If one of them makes the Opening Day roster, the other won’t be far behind. A shoulder injury cost Burrows a chance for a call-up in September. “After I got hurt, it was like, ‘All right, let’s get ready for next year. Let’s not do anything to screw it up, because next year is going to be big for this organization and I want to be a part of it,’” Burrows said a couple of weeks ago. In four starts down the stretch, Ortiz showed a blazing fastball (9.6 K/9) but also had some rough spots (4.50 ERA, 5.6 BB/9).

One to watch: Bubba Chandler — The Pirates haven’t revealed if Chandler’s two-way player experiment will continue next season. “There is a unique combination of skills there and we don’t want to put a ceiling on it, at least not too early,” general manager Ben Cherington said. It should begin to come into focus at the High-A level for Chandler, who made 88 plate appearances (.184/.284/.290) and eight appearances (4.14 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 11.4 K/9) for Low-A Bradenton. Keep an eye on how he is used during spring training — Baker hinted that’s when things might begin to shake out — and where he’s assigned to start the season.

Last year’s picks: Miguel Yajure (closest to majors), Priester (best prospect), Adrian Florencio (one to watch). Well, I was kinda correct about Yajure. He was on the Opening Day roster, mostly because he already was on the 40-man and the Pirates needed bullpen depth. Yajure put up an 8.88 ERA over 12 outings and was claimed off waivers after the season by the Giants.

(Top photo of Endy Rodriguez: Adam Pintar / Indianapolis Indians)

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