Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects: Altoona Could Open 2022 With a Strong Roster

Altoona Curve pitcher Roansy Contreras as the Binghamton Rumble Ponies hosted Altoona on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. The Ponies lost to the Curve, with a score of 5-0.
Altoona Curve pitcher Roansy Contreras as the Binghamton Rumble Ponies hosted Altoona on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. The Ponies lost to the Curve, with a score of 5-0. /

The Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A affiliate could have one of the strongest rosters in the minor leagues to start 2022

Over the past year plus the Pittsburgh Pirates have acquired so much exciting talent. From the offseason trades, to the draft and the trade deadline, there’s a ton of highly talented young players in the system now.

Many of those prospects are in Low-A Bradenton and High-A Greensboro. There are some very noteworthy names at Double-A, but the lower levels have most of the most intriguing prospects. Because of that, Double-A Altoona could start 2022 with a loaded roster.

For starters, both of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2020 draft picks should start the season at Double-A. Nick Gonzales is having a phenomenal season. He’s hit .298/.368/.514 with a .381 wOBA, and 135 wRC+. Gonzales has a solid 8.5% walk rate, but is striking out more than you’d like with a 29.5% mark. Though some swings and misses aren’t uncommon among young batters in their first professional season. The second baseman is hitting for more than enough power, blasting 10 home runs, hustling out 17 doubles, and having a .216 ISO in 272 plate appearances. That would put him on pace for about 22 home runs and 37 doubles across 600 plate appearances.

Gonzales is a big-time line drive hitter. He has a 29.6% line drive rate, which is one of the best in all of the minors. Among the 1096 batters with at least 200 PAs throughout all levels of the minors, his line drive rate ranks 18th. He also avoids ground balls (35.8%) while having a solid 34.6% fly ball rate.

Over the last month or so, Gonzales has been one of the minor’s best hitters. His last 125 trips to the plate have yielded a .363/.424/.593 line, .436 wOBA, and 170 wRC+. His walk rate is still at 8%, but his strikeout rate has decreased to 24%. Clearly, he’s made some strides to get his swings and misses down.

Marty recently looked over why he should be promoted to Double-A this year. While I do believe he should get at least a taste of action at Altoona, I also think he should get a bigger taste in 2022. Giving him 200-300 PAs in total at Double-A is more than enough to get an idea of what he can do and if he’s ready for an even bigger promotion.

The Pittsburgh Pirates other 2020 first-round pick, compensation selection Carmen Mlodzinski, also deserves to start the 2022 season at Altoona. So far in 45 innings at Greensboro, Mlodzinski has a 3.20 ERA, 3.85 FIP and 1.09 WHIP. He’s striking out batters at a fantastic 32% rate. Walks haven’t been his strong suit, but his 9.4% walk rate is not awful. Home runs have been his biggest weakness. He currently has a 1.4 HR/9, but his solid 45.2% ground all rate indicates he has the talent to improve his home run issue.

Mlodzinski has the stuff to compete at a high-level. His sinking fastball comes in around the upper-90’s. He also has a strong breaking ball, and solid changeup. Sure his control can get a bit spotty from time-to-time, but he’s more than capable of making the jump from High-A to Double-A. If he does well there to start the year, we could see him at least pitch a few games with the MLB team in September 2022.

Another talented arm that should get the bump to Double-A very soon is Michael Burrows. The Pittsburgh Pirates right-handed pitching prospect is having a breakout season at Greensboro, pitching to the tune of a 2.25 ERA, 2.86 FIP and 0.86 WHIP across 44 innings of work. Despite his 31.8% ground ball rate and mainly being a fly ball pitcher, he only has a HR/9 of 0.41. He’s striking out batters at a rate above 35%, 36.4% to be exact. Walks have been a bit of an issue though with a 9.4% mark.

Though whether or not he’ll remain a starting pitcher long term, or eventually be moved to the pen is up for discussion, Burrows’s fastball/curveball are two very good offerings. He’s seen an uptick in velocity this year and has always had one of the highest spin rates on his four-seamer and curveball. His changeup is a work in progress, but even if he only tops out as a reliever, he should be an effective one. Double-A might be a test of that.

There is an argument to be made that Roansy Contreras should at least start the season at Double-A. Now, granted, I only see him spending about a few starts, maybe the month at very most at Double-A in 2022. After all, he’s still only 21-years-old and has missed a good portion of the year because of injury. Due to this he may need to get back up to speed.

While he may only get a few starts (only 3-4) just to get back up to speed, he’s pitched extremely well. In 46 innings, Contreras has a 2.35 ERA, 2.36 FIP and 0.91 WHIP. He’s struck out batters at an insane 35.5% rate. He’s seen an increase in fastball velocity, breaking ball movement, and his changeup has always projected as an above average pitch. With two offerings that could project as 60-grade pitches plus a third 55-grade offering, you’re looking at possibly one of the most underrated pitching prospects in baseball.

Despite the increased effectiveness of his offerings, he has not lost a bit of control. He’s walked batters at a strong 6% rate, which is actually a 0.7% decrease from his 2019 mark. As long as he stays healthy, Contreras could be a mid-season call-up by the Pittsburgh Pirates. If he starts the year at Altoona, his time there would only be a few starts, if he even gets sent there to start 2022.

Canaan Smith-Njigba is another prospect who may benefit from spending the first few weeks of the 2022 season at Double-A. 2022 will be his age-23 season, but he’s put up fine numbers at Altoona. In 248 plate appearances, he has a .286/.403/.427 line, 6 long balls, and 11 doubles. He’s walking at an incredible 16.1% mark. However his K-rate is a high 25.8%.

Smith-Njigba’s biggest struggle has been getting the ball in the air. Despite a solid batting average and .386 batting average on balls in play, the lefty hitter has a 65.4% ground ball and a meager 11% line drive rate. He has a ton of raw power, which has helped make up for a higher ground ball rate, but Triple-A might be a struggle for him if he can’t reduce it. He only had a 43.4% GB-rate and strong 26% line drive rate in 2019, so it’s not like he hasn’t done it before.

One of the most underrated prospects in the Pirate system that isn’t getting enough attention is infielder/utility man Jared Triolo. Triolo is putting up a solid .292/.346/.461 line at Greensboro. His plate discipline numbers aren’t great, but they aren’t bad either. He’s walking at a 7.5% rate while having a 21.2% strikeout rate. About average. All of this comes to a .352 wOBA and 116 wRC+.

Triolo is already 23, and it’s a bit of a wonder why he hasn’t been promoted to Double-A yet. He’s a plus fielder at third base, but has also seen time at shortstop, and played a fair bit of left field during college. While he might not be the Pittsburgh Pirates most talented prospect, he’s a solid one at that.

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There are some other players currently at High-A, such as Lolo Sanchez, Enmanuel Mejia, JC Flowers, and Tahnaj Thomas that could be pushing for a Double-A promotion. Overall, the amount of talent at High-A could lead to a strong opening day roster at Double-A Altoona. Since Altoona isn’t very far off from the majors, meaning some of these guys may even be pushing for a major league promotion later in the season.