First Pitch: Early Season Prospect Surprises

We were bound to see some surprises this year.

You go 20 months with no minor league baseball games, and when things return you are going to see some unexpected players emerge.

The minor league season is only two weeks old, which means there has hardly been enough time to get a good enough sample size to say that any performance is lasting.

That said, it is interesting how we view early-season results. If they come from a prospect where you expect good results, then any good result will be the expectation.

If you get bad results from a player expected to be good, there’s cause for concern about whether the results will continue.

But, what about when the Pirates get an early-season surprise from an unexpected prospect?

If you go to the leaderboards in the minor league system, you’ll find Aaron Shackelford near the top. The 24-year-old first baseman was drafted as a middle infielder in the 14th round in 2019, and played in Bristol that season.

He has moved to first base this year, and already has four home runs and a 1.075 OPS. I spoke with Pirates’ farm director John Baker between home runs three and four, discussing some of the surprising results so far early in the season.

“He’s gotten off to a hot start in Greensboro,” Baker said. “He seems to be another happy-go-lucky great teammate guy who all of his teammates love, and love to see him have success. It’s always fun for me to see those stories, too. I like the fourth year college grinder sign that goes out and has success. They always have a place in my heart.”

Shackelford has gone 2-for-16 in his last five games, so it’s not time to anoint him a breakout prospect just yet. He does have an interesting background, hitting 36 home runs in his senior year at The Masters University in San Diego. He hit eight home runs in Bristol in 2019, with a .217 ISO in the very pitcher friendly Appalachian League.

The Pirates placed Shackelford at first base this year, because it’s going to be difficult getting playing time in the middle infield playing on the same team as Liover Peguero and Nick Gonzales. He played six games in Spring Training after working with Jamey Carroll, and has played every game this season at first base.

As with any college player, I discount the results until they come in the higher levels. This is good to see for Shackelford, but until he does it over a larger sample size, or at a higher level, the early results just make him an interesting guy to follow.

That’s fine. That’s the point of the weekly breakdowns like this, to keep track of who is standing out. Here are some of the more expected guys:

**Canaan Smith-Njigba, an outfield prospect the Pirates received in the Jameson Taillon trade, is batting .300/.421/.633 in Altoona, with two homers and three stolen bases.

**Mason Martin is also off to a great start on that Altoona team, batting .333/.426/.615. A key to watch for Martin will be whether his high average is maintained with a near-30% strikeout rate. His average right now is carried by an unsustainable .458 BABIP.

**The Pirates need a catching prospect to emerge, and Endy Rodriguez is off to a good start in Bradenton. Rodriguez, acquired in the Joe Musgrove trade, has a .325/.413/.550 line with two homers in ten games.

**Speaking of surprising performances, Chris Sharpe is doing well in Indianapolis. The 25-year-old outfielder split 2019 between High-A and Double-A, and now has a .959 OPS in the start of the Triple-A season. Sharpe has good defense in the outfield, and good patience at the plate, with some power ability. The Pirates have plenty of opportunities for upper level outfield prospects to emerge, with very few established.

**On the pitching side, Michael Burrows has been a standout in Greensboro, with eight shutout innings and 15 strikeouts in his first two outings.

**Hunter Stratton has been a strikeout machine in Altoona. The big framed reliever has 16 strikeouts in seven innings, with just one earned run.

Who has been the biggest surprise for you in the first two weeks of the minor league season?

Daily Links

**Pirates Get Good Keller, Bad Offense, Lose to Giants

**Pirates Game Discussion: Pirates vs Giants, 1:05 PM; Stallings Update


**Prospect Watch: Homers Help Indianapolis to Comeback Victory; Mason Martin Homers for Altoona

**This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: Rick Rhoden and Rick Reuschel

**Card of the Day: 1987 Topps Mini Leaders Rick Rhoden

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First Pitch