Pittsburgh Pirates: Examining Their Best Pitching Prospects


The Pittsburgh Pirates have built their farmsystem up through pitching, so who is the team’s best pitching prospect?

Since taking over as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Ben Cherington has added a ton of pitching prospects to the farm system. His first big trade involved him acquiring a high school pitcher who was a first-round pick in 2019.

During the 2020 draft, he only took one position player prospect, that being Nick Gonzales with his first pick ever as the new team’s GM. In the Rule 5 Draft, Cherington picked up more pitching and even made a trade for a pitcher who the New York Mets had taken in the same draft. Most recently, he traded veteran first baseman Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals for two pitching prospects, one that can slot into the rotation now and one who is seen as a future mid-rotation starter.

With Cherington taking a huge emphasis on pitching, I wanted to take a look at who the best pitching prospect in the system is. Ironically, it could be a guy Cherington didn’t bring in, rather a top prospect who the former GM, Neal Huntington, acquired during his tenure. Let’s first go over Tahnaj Thomas, who FanGraphs ranks as the team’s best pitching prospect.

Thomas has made leaps and strides to improve his game since arriving with the Pittsburgh Pirates, most notably his command and control. After walking 18.1% of the batters he faced in his first professional season and then 12.5% the next season, Thomas lowered his walk rate to an impressive 7% mark after the trade. Thomas has an elite fastball, one he can run into the triple digits.

He also has two plus breaking balls, a curveball that FanGraphs sees as a future-60 grade pitch and a slider MLB Pipeline sees as a 55-grade pitch. He also has a change-up that he’s been working on. While it is seen as a below average pitch right now, FanGraphs believes it can develop into an average pitch.

Thomas is seen as the 71st best prospect in the MLB according to FanGraphs. While some think Thomas will move into a bullpen role, the right-hander has stated he wants to stay in the starting rotation. The flamethrower has shown he’s willing to make major improvements to his game so it’s not hard to see him sticking around as a potential future ace for the Pittsburgh Pirates if he can stay healthy.

2021 will be Thomas’ age-22 season and if he continues to pitch like he did for the Bucs’ Rookie-Ball affiliate, he could quickly climb the minor league system. He should start the year out at High-A, but could get a taste of Triple-A before the end of the year if he doesn’t get hurt and continues to dominate batters with his triple digit fastball.

Recently, Quinn Priester has been getting a lot of attention by MLB Pipeline as a pitcher to keep an eye on. MLB Pipeline’s Jonathan Mayo even has stated that Priester could be the best pitching prospect in all of baseball by the end of 2021 and it’s easy to see why.

Priester was one of the top high school arms in the 2019 draft. While Priester has only tossed 36.2 professional innings, he showed a lot of potential striking out 25.8% of all the batters he faced, having an outstanding ground ball rate and allowing just 13 earned runs and a single long ball.

Priester works with four pitches all of which are seen as above average offerings. Priester has a four-seam and two-seam fastball. His four seamer can touch the upper-90s while his two seamer sits in the lower 90s. The ladder of which he uses to get a lot of ground balls.

He also uses a curveball that averages out in the lower-80s, but puts plenty of spin on averaging 2500 RPM. Finally there’s his change-up and while he hasn’t used it much, he’s got a good feel for it and FanGraphs even sees it as a 55-grade offering in the future.

Priester spent part of the 2020 season at the Pittsburgh Pirates alternative training site. According to Mayo, Priester was absolutely dominating batters in instructionals as he was throwing harder. Scouts from other teams were telling Mayo that he was definitely a talented arm to keep an eye on.

Among prospects acquired by Cherington as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, right-hander Brennan Malone is likely the best pitching prospect he’s brought in. Malone was one of the two pieces the Bucs got in the Starling Marte deal. Like Priester, Malone was seen as one of the best high school arms in the draft and was selected with the 33rd overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He likely would have been selected earlier if there wasn’t uncertainty surrounding the possibility he would sign.

Malone didn’t get as much time in the minors as Priester did, tossing just 8.0 innings and facing 33 batters. But Malone has a good amount of potential. His fastball can reach into the upper-90s and tops out at 99 MPH. It also has a future grade of 60. He uses two breaking pitches with a slider and curveball, both of which have 55 future grades. Then he has a fourth pitch, a change-up that has a 50-future grade. This gives him four pitches that are seen as average or better. Malone’s 6’4″, 205 pound frame at just 20-years-old.

It’s also possible the best pitching prospect the Pittsburgh Pirates will have by the end of 2021 is not currently in the system. Next year’s draft will see Kumar Rocker, Jaden Hill and Jack Leiter as three of the highest ranked prospects available for selection. All three have ace-level potential and are likely going to be selected in the top-5 picks. Given Cherington’s history with pitchers, it’s almost for certain that the Bucs will select one of the three with the number one overall pick in the draft.

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Currently, Quinn Priester is probably the Pirates’ best prospect. Many scouts love Priester’s stuff and talent. However you can’t count out Tahnaj Thomas. He’s still a raw talent with plenty of room for improvement. You also can’t overlook Brennan Malone already having 4 pitches that project as average or better before his 20th birthday.