Pittsburgh Pirates: Prospects to Watch in 2021

Photo Credit: Matt Freed/Post Gazette

 The minor league season is set to begin this week and the Pittsburgh Pirates have announced their initial rosters for all their year-long teams.

After digging and digesting who is starting the year at each level, I wanted to go through some of the things I'm excited to watch for during the minor league season. I was able to come up with four individual prospects and a group of players that I was going to keep my eye on this season.

Nick Gonzales - 2B - Greensboro Grasshoppers (Class-A+)

This one is an easy one, and I was initially going to leave him off of my list due to how obvious of a selection the Pirates first round pick from 2020 was going to be.

One of the most advanced college hitters in his draft class, Gonzales destroyed the ball his junior year before COVID-19 shut down his season at New Mexico State. At the time of the stoppage, nearly half (12) of Gonzales 26 hits were home runs, helping him sport a 1.155 slugging percentage.

While you can question the hitter-friendly ball park he called home, his dominance in the Cape Cod League (first in On-Base percentage, Slugging, OPS, doubles and hits in 2019), Gonzales has 'that noise' that you want to hear when making contact that lets you know he is a legitimate hitter.

Video game numbers aside, Gonzales is one of the best pure-hitters in the minors and has a chance to move quickly through the minors, with MLB.com having an expected major league ETA of 2022. Gonzales is one of the prized prospects of the Pirates' rebuild, so it's hard not to mention him when your talking about what to watch in the minor leagues.

Travis Swaggerty - OF - Indianapolis Indians (Triple-A)

If not for COVID-19 year, I believe there was an outside shot of Swaggerty getting a legit shot to earn the center field job going into this season.

The Pirates have cycled quite a few options in center field this year, currently settling in on shifting Bryan Reynolds back from left field.

Swaggerty - himself a top-ten pick like Gonzales - has the speed and arm to play center field in the majors, but his bat is still a work in progress. He got an aggressive push to Triple-A to start the season, skipping Double-A altogether.

The Pirates are betting on spending the 2020 season at their alternate site helped Swaggerty take the next step in his progression. 

Mason Martin - 1B - Altoona Curve (Double-A)

Pittsburgh have a couple of big slugging prospects in their minor league system, who are going to have their bats carry them to the major leagues, and Martin may be the one with the greatest upside.

The 21-year old Martin slugged 35 home runs across two-levels of Class-A ball in 2019, but also struck out 168 times.

The former 17th round pick is a top-10 prospect at his position, and he is at the make-it-or-break-it stage entering Double-A. If he can make more consistent contact, while keeping his power - it's hard not to imagine that game breaker strength from the left side hitting baseballs into the river at PNC Park.

Brennan Malone - RHP - Bradenton Marauders (Class-A)

This might be single handedly the prospect I'm the most excited about watching this year. We are still a couple of years away from seeing a potential return from trading Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks, but it's setting up a good trade, especially it was the first big move made by Ben Cherington.

The other main piece, Liover Peguero, is going to start the season on the stacked Greensboro roster having setting up the double play combination with Gonzales. 

The 20-year old Malone is getting his first dab of full-season baseball this season and the Pirates are in no rush to push him. 

Malone was one of the top rated prep-pitchers in the same draft class the Pirates drafted Quinn Priester, but slid due to a commitment to North Carolina that most teams thought he'd honor. Arizona drafted him, gave him over $2 million to sign, and eventually packaged him in with Peguero to land Marte.

Standing at 6'4", Malone has the look and build of a pitcher, with the stuff to go with it. Throwing four pitches, his fastball and slider are already rated as 'plus' offerings with his curveball not too far behind.

I'm not going to pretend I'm a scout, but at this point in my life I have watched baseball for over 20 years. Some guys you just see the ball explode out their hands, and Malone has that. His delivery is smooth, and while he needs to work on his control, that's every 20-year old who hasn't pitched in full season baseball yet.

He's going to be fun to watch over the next couple of years as he moves up the ladder.

Bonus: The Entire Potential Rotation For Greensboro

As I was going through the Pirates' minor league rosters, as well as going through their top prospects, I started to notice that Greensboro's name next to a lot of the players I was writing down as potential options for this article.

And they weren't only on Greensboro's roster, they were potential options for the rotation.

To say that the Pirates Class-A+ team is stacked with major league prospects is an understatement, and their current projected rotation could all end up in Pittsburgh at some time or another.

Priester obviously leads the group, as he is the top ranked pitching prospect in the system, and there is a lot of talk of a breakout season that could land him among the league's best arms in the minors.

Omar Cruz is a crafty lefty, signed out of Mexico, and will be getting his first bit of full-season baseball this year. 

I talked about Malone having that 'look' of a pitcher, you get the same feeling when watching Tahnaj Thomas and Braxton Ashcraft throw as well. Thomas is a 6'4" righty that was included in the deal that landed the Pirates Erik Gonzalez.

Ashcraft is another personal favorite of mine to watch this season that ended up getting lumped in with the rest of the rotation. Like Priester, Ashcraft was a two-sport athlete in high school playing wide receiver. The Pirates were able to sign him away from attending Baylor after drafting him in the second round.

While Priester will get most of the headlines, Ashcraft is another name that could skyrocket up rankings charts as he gets more comfortable pitching.

Of all the potential starters in Greensboro, only Carmen Mlodzinski came from college ball. The 31st overall pick of the 2020 draft, Mlodzinski also benefited from the Cape Cod League, just as Gonzales. 

The product of South Carolina and the SEC, Mlodzinski went 2-0 in the Cape, posting a 2.15 ERA while striking out 40 in 29 1/3 innings pitched.

Which Pirates prospect are you most excited to see in 2021? Who on this list has the best season, and which makes it to Pittsburgh first? Let us know in the comment section below, subscribe to the site at the link above and follow me on Twitter @AJ_Murfy.


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