Tracking the Pirates’ Rule 5 Candidates — The Pitchers

One news item to start with — Baseball America has the schedules for the Gulf Coast and Arizona Leagues.  Except apparently they’re now the Florida and Arizona Complex Leagues.  As we already knew, the Pirates will field two teams, Pirates Gold and Pirates Black.  Both are in an eight-team division that will play every day except Wednesdays and Sundays.  And, yes, the Pirates’ teams will play each other.  Play begins June 28.

BA also notes that the Dominican Summer League will run from July 12 through October 2, although virus outbreaks could throw a wrench into things.  The Pirates will once again field two teams.  No other information is available yet.

POTENTIAL RULE 5 CANDIDATES

The Pirates have assembled a remarkably deep farm system, with far fewer roster spots than normal occupied by players who aren’t actual, or at least potential, prospects.  One reality of all that depth, of course, is the possibility of a Rule 5 crunch.  The Pirates are going to have one on a biblical scale this fall.

I’m not going to try to cover everybody here.  I won’t go through players I don’t think have a realistic chance of getting into the discussion.  I also won’t go through veterans, like Steven Wright and Jandel Gustave.  I figure guys like that either will earn a roster spot during the season or move on.

I’m also not going to try to make predictions or anything.  The point right now is that there are an awful lot of players who could insert themselves into the picture (or remove themselves from it) based on what they do the rest of the way.  It’s worth taking a look at them to see what kind of case they’re making.  The Pirates are undoubtedly doing just that.

Today, the pitchers (* = lefty) . . . .

Blake Weiman* — Weiman made it to AAA quickly, putting up good numbers all along.  I was surprised when the Pirates didn’t bring him to the alternate site last year, but maybe there was a reason.  He’s struggling this year, with a 7.15 ERA and six home runs allowed in 11.1 IP.  He was passed over in the R5 draft last year and will have to step it up dramatically to get in the picture this year.

Braeden Ogle* — Another lefty reliever who was passed over in the draft last year, Ogle also isn’t having an especially good year in AAA, either.  He’s allowed only ten hits and fanned 18 in 14.1 IP, but he’s walked 16.  I thought he was on the bubble last year, but he’ll need to throw more strikes this year.

Shea Spitzbarth — The Pirates got Spitzbarth from the Dodgers in the minor league phase of the R5 draft.  He was closer to being a prospect than you’d expect, given that LA didn’t even put him on their AAA roster.  Despite unimpressive stuff, he’s had very high K rates in the minors.  He has a 1.32 ERA at Indianapolis, but unimpressive walk and K rates.  It’d be pretty surprising if he got added to the roster.

Joe Jacques* — Jacques is a lefty submariner.  His college coaches had him go back and forth between throwing overhand and low sidearm, so he’s only consistently done the latter as a pro.  He skipped AA, except for one inning, and is having a solid season in AAA, with a K/9 of 10.0.  He’s got a big platoon split this year, so the three-batter minimum won’t help him any, although Derek Shelton’s been pretty good at evading the rule.  Jacques will probably have to pitch better to get on the radar, but that could certainly happen.

Travis MacGregor — This is an interesting case.  MacGregor got off to a strong start in 2018, but got hurt and had Tommy John surgery.  He went nearly three years without pitching, but now he’s skipping High-A and has a 12.8 K/9 in AA.  He’s averaging only three and a third innings per start, but if he gets stronger over the course of the season he should be in the picture.

Noe Toribio — Only 21, Toribio made only seven starts above short-season ball before this year.  He’s having a solid year so far, with a 6.8 K/9, which is very low nowadays.  Toribio is more of a pitchability guy, so he may not have the perceived ceiling to make him attractive in R5, despite the fact that he’s moved up so quickly.

Osvaldo Bido — Bido signed late, which is why he’s already 25 even though he’s moved up very quickly.  He’s having a good year, with a 2.30 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 8.9 K/9.  He probably profiles as a 4th/5th starter, which may make him less attractive in R5, but he could be useful to the Pirates, who need to start culling through their pitchers.  A lot could depend on whether Bido moves up to AAA and how he does there.

Cody Bolton — Bolton was one of the Pirates’ top pitching prospects and figured to reach the majors this year.  Instead, he’ll miss most or all of this season due to knee surgery.  Bolton scuffled in his first exposure to AA, so between that and the injury, it might make sense to risk leaving him off the roster.  Then again, it’s a knee injury, not labrum surgery.  And what if it’s a choice between, say, Bolton and Cody Ponce?

Aaron Shortridge — Another injury case, this time Tommy John.  Shortridge got good results, with a low K rate, in High-A in 2019.  The Pirates reportedly were very impressed with him at the alternate site.  He probably doesn’t have the track record to interest anybody in R5.

Yerry De Los Santos — De Los Santos missed most of three seasons due to Tommy John, then carved up Low-A in 2019.  He went unselected in R5, which made me wonder whether the Pirates kept him in Low-A to hide him.  He saw action with them in spring training and was doing very well at Altoona before getting hurt.  He’s only on the seven-day IL, so hopefully he’ll be back soon.  He should at least be on the bubble.

Shea Murray — Murray is interesting because he throws hard and has always been very hard to hit.  He was very inexperienced when the Pirates drafted him and, for most of his career, has had severe control problems.  He’s also 27 now.  Murray has made a lot of progress the last couple years, but he’s still walked 11 in 14.2 IP at Altoona this year.  He’s also fanned 19 and has a 1.23 ERA.  He’d probably need to step it up quite a bit, control-wise, over the rest of the season to get onto the bubble.

Hunter Stratton — In his first three years with the Pirates, Stratton muddled along with 4+ ERAs and control problems.  The control remains shaky, but suddenly he’s striking out 16.2 per nine innings with Altoona.  He’s faced 58 batters, fanned 27 of them, and has a 1.00 WHIP.  We just have to see what happens the rest of the year.

Tahnaj Thomas — Well, this one is easy.  Thomas has had some ups and downs this year, but he’s making a big jump and he’ll turn just 22 tomorrow.  Dave Littlefield is a distant memory.

Omar Cruz* — There’s probably a reason why San Diego was willing to part with Cruz; it’s tough making a roster decision on a pitcher who’s still in class A and who isn’t dominant.  Cruz is pitching well for Greensboro, with some control issues but a 13.1 K/9.  Hopefully, he’ll make it to AA this year.  Particularly with him being a left-handed starter, he’s not a guy the Pirates should risk losing.

Cristofer Melendez — Here’s one from under the radar.  Melendez has drifted around some.  Houston released him after three years in the DSL, then the White Sox picked him up and sent him there for a fourth year.  The Padres selected him in the minor league phase of R5 and shipped him on to the Pirates for cash.  He spent 2019 in Low-A and had a huge (14.5) K/9 and a bad ERA (5.13) that was probably a fluke; opponents had only a .641 OPS against him.  This year he blew people away over nine innings at Greensboro and has shown 99 mph velocity in three hitless outings for Altoona.  With Blake Cederlind out, Geoff Hartlieb having a shaky season and Nick Mears imploding, the Pirates could use somebody like this.  In fact, I’d bet they moved him up to Altoona so quickly at least partly to evaluate him for roster purposes.

Santiago Florez — Same situation as Omar Cruz, except Florez is in Low-A now.  He’s made great progress this year, cutting his walk rate by more than 50% and increasing his K rate by nearly as much.  FanGraphs pondered whether the Pirates were having Florez throw his breaking ball a great deal of the time to help him move up, for R5 purposes; obviously, if he goes on the roster this fall he’ll have just three option years to reach the majors from class A.  Hopefully, that’ll be from High-A, as Florez doesn’t seem challenged at Bradenton.  Florez was already passed over in R5 once and, if he keeps pitching so well, the Pirates shouldn’t risk it again.

Eddy Yean — The main prospect acquired for Josh Bell, Yean has had a rough time in Low-A, with an 8.38 ERA and 1.76 WHIP.  He won’t turn 20 until later this month — R5 can present some serious problems with Latin American prospects — and before this year he’d made only two appearances above rookie ball.  A lot could change between now and the end of the year, but he seems far too raw to be a successful R5 pick.

Jose Maldonado — The Pirates have pushed Maldonado aggressively and he has good stuff.  He got mediocre results at Bristol in 2019, then struck out 11 of the first 22 batters he faced this year for Bradenton.  And then he got hurt.  He’s on the 60-day IL, so it’s probably not good.  He’s not a candidate for the roster, but he might have been so I thought I’d mention him.

Steven Jennings — The Pirates picked Jennings in the second round back in 2017 and he put up pretty bad numbers through 2019.  This year they’ve moved him to relief and he pitched well enough at Bradenton to earn a promotion to Greensboro.  He probably won’t be a candidate for the roster unless he improves dramatically over the course of the season.

Analysis

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