Three Rivers Stadium is about to get hit with a wave of young talent. And yeah, I realize the stadium is probably called Crypto Cathedral or something by now. (Narrator voice: “Three Rivers Stadium was actually imploded in 2001. The Pirates play in PNC Park now, which is, in fact, named for a bank that shuttered 200 branches in June of this year.) So . . . pretty close.

Fact remains that this list is loaded with players set to debut in 2023. One downside of a tank-tastic rebuild is the timeline crunch. Pittsburgh has too many good-not-great youngsters to play at any given time. We saw some of that in 2022 when the club would call up a prospect and let him ride the bench or make him walk the plank like Captain Jack Suwinksi. It’ll take a lot of skill and a little luck to separate playing time winners from losers and build a sea-worthy vessel from this veritable forest of prospects. 

 

1. C/OF Endy Rodriguez | 22 | AAA | 2023

Rodriguez is nearing the end of his minor league journey. In a real-world scenario, he’s probably the Opening Day catcher for this team. Pittsburgh punted in all sorts of creative ways last year, so the chances of Endy breaking camp with the big club are minuscule. It’ll probably be Jason Delay and his 53 wRC+ or Tyler Heineman and his 57 wRC+. You never know, though. If Pittsburgh suddenly decided to give a shit about wins and losses, they could field something resembling a competitive ballclub. Johan Oviedo was a big find for the rotation. Mitch Keller seemed to break through into something approaching functionality. Roansy Contreras is already good fresh off his 23rd birthday.

If you put the switch-hitting Rodriguez behind the plate and in the middle of that lineup, the whole team looks about 50 percent better. The athletic 6’0” 170 lb former Mets farmhand played a fair bit of outfield in 2022 but looks smooth behind the plate. His bat is racing his glove to the majors, and the presence of number one pick Henry Davis complicates the issue further, but it might help them both to share the workload and kick over to DH or left field on off-days. Rodriguez is a better baseball athlete than Davis and a more versatile defender, so he might find himself in the ideal fantasy catcher spot, escaping the rigors of daily dish duty while finding his way into the lineup much more than the average backstop. In 31 Double-A games last year, Rodriguez popped eight home runs and slashed .356/.442/.678 with an impressive 13-to-15.2 percent walk-to-strikeout rate. He finished the year with a week in Triple-A, where he collected eight RBI in six games and slugged .773. In short, he is ready. 

 

2. 2B Termarr Johnson | 18 | A | 2025

A double-plus hit tool leads the way for Termarr Johnson, a 5’7” 175 lb left-handed hitter who calls Jose Ramirez to mind on a quick visual evaluation. The organization would be stoked if Johnson follows a similar path, grinding his way up the chain before growing into power at the highest level. He’s off to a great start, slashing .275/.396/.450 with one home run and four stolen bases in 14 Low-A games. He also walked 18.9 percent of the time. Scouts have hung a lot of superlatives on Termarr. Some called him the best high school hitter they’ve ever seen. It’s a high bar for Termarr, but I’m not going to bet against him.

 

3. C Henry Davis | 23 | AA | 2023

The number one overall pick in the 2021 draft, Davis is a thick 6 ‘2” 210 lb right-handed bat whose swing explodes out of a relatively deep crouch. It’s a catcher-y swing built for the launch-angle era, and it had worked like a charm until Davis reached Double-A, where he slashed .207/.324/.379 in 31 games. To be fair, it was his third level of the season, and he was crushing the ball in High-A (181 wRC+). Feels like more noise than signal, but I’ve always been a little fearful on the Henry Davis front. It’s a pull-heavy approach in a home park where fly balls to left field go to die. Always been more of a Sell than a Buy for me.

 

4. 2B/OF Ji-Hwan Bae | 23 | MLB | 2022

If Pittsburgh makes room for Bae in its day-to-day lineup, we’ll want him on our fantasy teams. His combination of plus hit and double-plus speed with just enough power is the stuff that roto dreams are made of. He’s a 6’1” 170 lb left-handed hitter with an all-fields approach that should work well in the park, where home runs are easier to get in right field and extra base hits are there for the taking in left. Steamer is kind of aggressive on him for 2023, giving him a 105 wRC+ and .264/.332/.393 slash line with five home runs and 13 steals across 76 games. I’m kind of anti-projections in a general sense, as least insofar as they can become a dividing line between approaches to fantasy sports, but this feels about right for Bae as a rookie, all the way down to the playing time. If they give him a full season, 10 HR and 25 SB is within the range of outcomes, and there’s even some upside beyond that.

 

5. 2B Nick Gonzales | 23 | AA | 2023

An early-season, desert power surge in the pandemic-shortened 2020 NCAA season rushed Gonzales up the draft boards to 7th overall. It wasn’t all smoke and mirrors by any means. Gonzales features plus bat speed, but he did manage just seven home runs in 71 games at Double-A last season and might never become a middle-order power threat. He could benefit from letting that go. I think his swing got a little grooved as he hunted to the optimal launch angle. A guy with his hand speed and coordination should be managing the strikeouts a little better than he has to this point in his career.

 

6. SS Liover Peguero | 22 | MLB | 2022

Peguero debuted in 2022, but I’m not sure you’d call it a cup of coffee. What’s the one-game equivalent in the big league coffee shop metaphor verse? The promotion was a surprise in more ways than one. Peguero got the call before Oneil Cruz. He was also mediocre at Double-A, posting a wRC+ of 88 with a .259/.305/.387 slash line across 121 games. I was pretty discouraged, but Peguero was young for the level and retains the 20/20 topside that helped make him the primary return for Starling Marte.

 

7. OF Matt Gorski | 25 | AAA | 2023

A plus athlete at 6’4” 198 lbs, Gorski made big gains in 2022, particularly in his plate skills. He cut his K-rate from 31.2 percent at High-A last year to 26.7 percent this year, increasing his walk rate from 8.5 percent to 11.6 percent in the process. He was repeating a level for which he was already a senior citizen, but we just can’t ignore a .754 slugging percentage or 17 home runs and nine stolen bases across just 37 games. He wasn’t anywhere near as dominant in 38 games at Double-A, but his 130 wRC+ and .277/.354/.489 slash line was enough for the club to send him to Triple-A for the season’s final game. It’s an interesting profile, even if he feels like a whole host of Pirates prospects and recent rookies who can catch your eye in flashes but might never settle into becoming full-time, major league regulars.

 

8. RHP Quinn Priester | 22 | AAA | 2023

The 18th overall pick in 2019, Priester exorcized some FIP demons in 2022, lowering his 2021 mark of 4.08 at High-A to 3.23 this year in Double-A. The stuff is good, especially the dynamite curve and sharp-edged cutter, but the fastball shape is not ideal. He may have to learn to pitch around it a bit. Even with the solid year at Double-A (2.87 ERA in 75.1 innings), he allowed a 1.19 WHIP, which is still good. It’s just not what we want from a fantasy stud facing minor league hitters, and that’s pretty much my takeaway here as it has been since I was downplaying the pandemic hype that sent Priester soaring up some lists. Pitching prospects come and go, and I’m much more likely to let them go than spend much to get a big-named one.

 

9. 3B Malcom Nunez | 22 | AAA | 2023

Good pull for the front office here. The Pirates got everything they could ask for and more from signing Jose Quintana, partly because the rag ball enhanced the profile of contact-inducers like Jose Q, partly because Q was just more his old self this year, accepting his fate as a low-strikeout innings eater and producing a 2.93 ERA and starting game one of the wild card round for St. Louis. Good trade for the Cards, too. Quintana posted a 2.01 ERA and allowed just one home run in 12 starts down the stretch for them, and they’ve typically struggled to maximize their impressive system depth. As promising as he is, Malcolm Nunez was unlikely to carve out much of a future under the arch. Nunez started like a house afire in the DSL then lost a shade of his prospect shine when he struggled to adapt to full-season ball in a cold April of 2019, when he was a newly minted 18-year-old against older pitchers. Since that set-back and demotion, Nunez has enjoyed a steady climb through the minors, posting a .262/.367/.466 slash line with 23 home runs and five stolen bases across two levels where the average age player was about three years his senior. The club traded for Ji-Man Choi this week, but Nunez should be a contender for first-base at bats by mid-season.

 

10. RHP/DH Bubba Chandler | 20 | A | 2026

There’s really no ceiling for Bubba The Chandelier. Or at least, if there is a ceiling, it’s one of those see-through ceilings you wouldn’t hang a light fixture from anyway. No telling how long the club will keep playing him as a pitcher and a hitter. He’s a better prospect on the mound, and designated hitters are a dime a dozen, but it’s fun while it lasts, and it’s stunning that he’s attempting to do both as a switch-hitter. In 32 games in Low-A, Chandler got his lights turned out. His 39.8 percent strikeout rate and .184/.284/.289 slash line might’ve reduced the rope he’ll get to keep doing both, which might be a positive outcome in the long run for an organization that absolutely needs to develop better pitching internally. Chandler is raw on the mound, relying on a big fastball and a curve that comes and goes. This report started out so positively I’m a little surprised with how negative these sentences are becoming, but hey, this is Pittsburgh, and optimism gets dim in the winter. Bottom line, Chandler is a double-plus, multi-sport athlete who could’ve played quarterback wherever he wanted, if he’d wanted to go that route. Patience is a virtue with guys like this.

Thanks for reading!

I’m @theprospectitch on Twitter.

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NATRONEMEANSBUSINESS
NATRONEMEANSBUSINESS
15 days ago

You’re Bubba comments about two-way players give extreme pause. Reminds me of the old Yankee Stenton, and Taylor Trammel. Two-way star with lots of promise dot dot dot.

You are amazing! You’re dives into each system are fantastic and enlightening. Termarr’s got my attention. I traded away OC for Seager right before the hitting coach change came out/started bearing fruit. Not super pleased, but happy with a higher floor (in theory).

Harley Earl
Harley Earl
15 days ago

Itch,

Really happy to see this write-up, as I happened to find Endy Rodriguez at the end of this season on the waiver wire and made him a late addition. I’m hoping I stumbled onto something here like I did Gunnar Henderson and Ely De La Cruz. So my question is, with your much more vast knowledge, what kind of ceiling and floor would you give Rodriguez? I’m also curious how convinced you are of him. Thanks.

Jimmy
Jimmy
15 days ago

Who do you like better Endy or Gabriel Moreno? Thanks itch!

junior56
junior56
16 days ago

Hi Itch

I have never been a big fan of the Pirates talent evaluation nor their player development. Too much garage sale shopping.

Who do you like better Kjerstad or Canario?

Of these SP’s who would you hold?

Grayson
Espino
Hunter Brown
Ryne Nelson
Jobe

Thanks!

Philip
Philip
16 days ago

Would you call Endy a top-3 catching prospect? Up there with guys like Alvarez and Soderstrom?

He seems like the perfect guy to pair with Melendez in my dynasty. That’s nutty versatility from two catchers.

Ross
Ross
16 days ago

Great read! Luis ortiz’s late season cameo do anything to make you think he can stick in the rotation? That fastball / slider combo was fun to watch!

galica1234
galica1234
16 days ago

The Itch!!!!

Awesome!!!!

a. Great read. Now Ji-Man can show Ji-Hwan where all the good strip clubs are when PIT goes on the road. Good job.

b. Finally, when I saw Pit in the title today I go no way ‘The Itch’ makes this better than the previous organizations and I was right. This is the organization that throws us a curve. Only guy I like from this list is Ji-Hwan. I’ve always (all of 2022, what a long time) had a hard-on for him.

c. George Carlin quote of the day for November 13, 2022

‘The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: The Earth plus Plastic. The Earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the Earth! The Earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the Earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself, didn’t know how to make it, needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question: “Why are we here?” PLASTIC!!! ASSHOLES!!!’

Saving the planet

Cheers,
Ante