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Prospects Pirates Fans Can Look Forward to This Season

With Pittsburgh Pirates fans seemingly always having to look to the future, let’s take some time to discuss some prospects. This won’t be a look at the top ten Pirates prospects, although most of the prospects discussed are on that list. Others are names Pirates fans have been hearing for a while. Still others have exciting stories.

When general manager Ben Cherington was hired in 2019, he immediately set about to rebuild the Pirates’ farm system. One way was for the Pirates to acquire other teams’ top prospects in trades for veterans who likely wouldn’t be in Pittsburgh by the time the team was ready to contend. The other way was via the draft and international signings. Cherington’s trades have been a mixed bag. This year’s squad will include several players acquired in those trades. It’s also true that he should have got more for Josh BellRichard Rodriguez, and Jacob Stallings. However, Cherington has made up for it with his drafts and international signings. It’s a far cry from when his predecessors used first-round picks on Chad HermansenBryan Bullington, and Tony Sanchez.

Most of the Pirates’ top prospects are pitchers. It’s an approach that takes work to argue with. In today’s baseball, having at least one high-caliber starter is essential. Having a five-man rotation who are each five or six games over .500 will get a team into the playoffs. But with a legitimate ace among the five, winning a short series and getting past the Wild Card round is easier.

Pirates Prospects on the Horizon

The Stud

The number one overall pick in last year’s June Amateur DraftPaul Skenes, 21, is a future star. He’s also the Pirates’ top prospect. Pitching for the 2023 College World Series winner Louisiana State University, in 19 games covering 122-2/3 innings, Skenes was 13-2 with a 1.69 ERA, .750 WHIP, 209 strikeouts, and 20 walks. The right-hander’s fastball averaged 98 mph and has been clocked as high as 102. Skenes is big at six-foot-six, 235 pounds. To batters, it looks like the fastball is right on top of them and blowing by them before they can make a swing decision.

His wipeout slider gets a lot of swing-and-miss and features a power change-up. Observers who saw him pitch at LSU insist he’s ready to get major league hitters out now. Skenes will most likely start the season in the minors. Pirates fans won’t want to read that. One can’t blame them for wanting to see Skenes in the big time sooner rather than later. But it’s a sensible approach for such a valuable piece. We should see him in Pittsburgh soon enough, perhaps as early as June.

A Gem of a Second Baseman

This brings us to another gem in the Pirates’ system, namely Termarr Johnson, 19, the second baseman of the future. The number-two Pirates prospect and left-handed hitter was their first pick (fourth overall) in the 2022 draft. Drafted as a shortstop, the Pirates are converting him to second base, which suits his arm better. Although merely five-foot-eight, 175 pounds, Johnson drives the ball to all fields against all types of pitching. He also makes good contact and has the on-base skills the Pirates like to see. He came across as level-headed and mature when he was interviewed on the Pirates’ telecast after being drafted. Given his ability and maturity, projections have him in Pittsburgh in 2025.

Slowed Down but Not Forgotten

We jump now to the Pirates’ number-eight prospect, Mike Burrows because this is a name Pirates fans have been hearing. Unfortunately, the 24-year-old right-hander made only two starts at triple-A Indianapolis in 2023 before requiring Tommy John surgery. Thus, his projected arrival in the bigs has been pushed back to 2025, although even that seems optimistic. He throws a fastball sitting at 95 mph, a curveball that’s an effective “out” pitch, and an evolving change-up. He profiles as a starter but needs to show he can handle the long major league season. Burrows pitched well at double-A Altoona in 2022 and was named to the Futures Game. That year, he earned a promotion to Indianapolis but seemed to tire and produced mediocre results. Once he’s built up to handle some innings, Pirates fans will be anxious for his debut.

A Wolf in Pirates’ Clothing

Now we jump down to number 10 on the Pirates’ prospect list, Jackson Wolf. The six-foot-seven lefty was the key acquisition in last year’s trade deadline deal that saw Rich Hill and Ji-Man Choi go to the San Diego Padres. Getting a prospect of this magnitude for Hill and Choi was a master stroke of genius by Cherington. Wolf, 24, is particularly interesting to Pirates fans because he pitched for nearby West Virginia University. (WVU’s Mountaineers are considered a rival of the Pitt Panthers. However, the intensity of that rivalry has dissipated in recent years, with the two schools competing in different conferences.)

Despite his size, Wolf is not a hard thrower. Even so, he had a high strikeout rate in his senior year. That’s because his breaking pitches rate is above average, and hitters must also be wary of his change-up. His minor league numbers have yet to quite live up to the hype. However, given the quality of his pitches and the fact that PNC Park favors left-handers by featuring a deep left field, he should become a helpful starter once he makes it to Pittsburgh.

More For the Arms Race

Right-hander Jared Jones and left-hander Anthony Solometo are the Pirates’ third- and fourth-ranked prospects, respectively. Jones, 22, has a power arm and a fiercely competitive nature. His fastball has been clocked as high as 99 mph. He also features a curveball, slider, and change-up. On the other hand, Solometo, 21, is a good thrower. He features a high leg kick and relies on smarts and control to get the hitters out. Like Wolf, he’ll benefit from PNC Park’s friendly dimensions. Jones and Solometo are projected to be in the big leagues in 2024. Jones reportedly has things to work on, while Solometo is a fast learner. The smart money might be on Solometo making it first.

Bubba Chandler, 21, was drafted as a switch-hitting shortstop and a pitcher. However, becoming the next Shohei Ohtani is now in his future. Subsequently, he’ll concentrate on pitching, where he’s shown significantly more progress. Tom Harrington, 22, is an interesting success story. The Pirates drafted him in 2022 after he pitched for two years for the Fighting Camels of Campbell University in Blues Creek, North Carolina, out of the Big South Conference. His “out” pitch is an exceptional change-up. Anybody claiming to be a Fighting Camel with a straight face must be a tough character.

Chandler and Harrington are expected to arrive in the big time in 2025. Fans and pundits dismayed over the selection of Henry Davis with the first overall pick in 2021 should note that the bonus pool savings from that pick were used to lure Chandler and Harrington to sign pro contracts. (Meanwhile, it’s early to write off Davis after just 62 MLB games at an unfamiliar position.)

A Top International Prospect

An intriguing Pirates prospect is number 14 on the list, right-hander Jun-Seok Shim. The Korean native skipped the KBO draft to sign with an MLB team. When he was signed in January 2023, the 19-year-old was the 10th-ranked international prospect. Shim has a hard fastball and curveball and is working on a slider and change-up. He’s only pitched in the Rookie League, so his entry into the majors seems a few years away. At 6-foot-4, if nothing else, he gives future Pirates pitching staffs a chance to lead the majors in height.

More Familiar Names

First baseman Malcolm Nunez, obtained from the Cardinals in 2022, and center fielder Hudson Head, acquired from the Padres in 2021, are two names Pirates fans have heard bandied about. It was thought both would be starting in Pittsburgh in the future. Both have dropped on the list of Pirates’ top prospects and have yet to progress slowly through the system. It’s yet to be discovered when, if ever, we’ll see them in Pittsburgh.

The Last Word

A few years ago, an older woman called a sports talk show in Pittsburgh. She discussed the Pirates and said, “I’ve had prospects up my (bleep)!” That’s the sentiment in Pittsburgh, but finally, the Pirates’ future is something to be excited about. The Pirates’ top prospects should arrive later this year or in 2025. Hey, Pirates fans, you’ve waited this long. What’s another year or two?

Main Photo: © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports


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