The Pittsburgh Pirates will open the 2022 campaign with many near-MLB ready outfield prospects who will be ready to take over throughout the season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a strong farm system. According to FanGraphs they have the second most valuable farm system in baseball and by a fair margin. Most cite their glut of middle infield prospects as their farm’s biggest strength, which is fair enough. There are the most notable names like Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Oneil Cruz, Bubba Chandler, and about a dozen more.
The Pittsburgh Pirates also have a ton of noteworthy pitching prospects. Quinn Priester, Roansy Contreras, Miguel Yajure, Carmen Mldozinski, as well as others. But one position is overlooked in terms of the amount of young depth the Pirates have is in the outfield.
Many of their near-MLB-ready players are outfielders. There is a handful that has a decent chance of starting out the 2022 campaign at Triple-A Indianapolis. Among the most notable, you have 2018 first-round pick, Travis Swaggerty. Swaggerty was recently protected from the Rule 5 Draft. He’s a guy who has underrated five-tool player potential. He’s projected to have an average hit tool, above-average power, is very fast, and a phenomenal glove with a strong arm.
Last year, he was limited to just 48 plate appearances, but still posted a .220/.333/.439 line, .343 wOBA, and 108 wRC+, resulting in pretty good production. He has always been praised for his outstanding raw power, but he started to translate that into game power with a .220 ISO and 3 home runs. Plus he had 6 walks and just 8 strikeouts. Despite his line drive rate well above 25% and ground ball rate well below 40%, he got unlucky with a .200 batting average on balls in play. Remember, this is still a very small sample size, but it’s a promising one at the very least. If Swaggerty’s shoulder injury, which cut his 2021 season short, is recovered by the start of the 2022 season, he’s a guy that could easily be one of the Pirates’ starting outfielders by mid-May.
One of the biggest breakout seasons in the minor leagues last season came from Matthew Fraizer. A third-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019, Fraizer wasn’t a high-ranking prospect coming into 2021. He didn’t perform well back in his first taste of professional action. A small sample size of just 171 plate appearances, but he registered a poor .221/.287/.266 line, .266 wOBA, and 71 wRC+. Not only did he perform poorly at the plate, but he was pretty much seen as nothing more than a light-hitting outfielder with solid speed.
But this past season was a completely different story. The outfielder posted a phenomenal .306/.388/.522 line, .402 wOBA, and 149 wRC+. He also slammed 23 home runs in 499 plate appearances. This was a big step-up in the power department. His isolated slugging percentage went from under .045 in 2019 all the way to nearly .250 (.246 to be exact). Plus he walked at a strong 11.2% rate while still swiping 16 bags. He’s a good fielder but doesn’t have a very strong arm. He put up some pretty decent numbers at Double-A, but despite the sample size of just 149 plate appearances, I think he has a fair shot of starting 2022 at Indianapolis.
Next, we have Canaan Smith-Njigba. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Smith-Njigba in the Jameson Taillon, and like Swaggerty, was also recently protected from the Rule 5 draft. Heading into his new organization, the corner outfield prospect showed previously a strong ability to reach base and hit for contact but has lacked the ability to make his raw power game power.
This past season was pretty similar to years prior. He spent most of the campaign at Double-A where he posted a .274/.398/.406 line, .364 wOBA, and 127 wRC+. He was striking out a bit more than you’d like, but a 24.8% strikeout rate is still usable. But he offset that by walking 16.9% of the time. He eventually got promoted to Triple-A but struggled in only 23 plate appearances. He had a negative wRC+, but again, it was a small sample size. This off-season, he’s spent his time at the Arizona Fall League where he has 17 hits and 15 walks in only 73 plate appearances. He still only has 1 home run though. The lack of power, despite the ability to rip the cover off the ball, is due to his lack of getting the ball in the air. But if he can overcome that, he’s a potential 30 home run hitter.
There is also Jack Suwinski. He’s another prospect who was recently put onto the 40-man roster to prevent being available in the Rule 5 draft. The Pirates acquired Suwinski as part of the Adam Frazier trade. Suwinski may not be the best prospect we’ve talked about today, but he delivers a package of power, good fielding, and sneaky athleticism.
Before the trade, Suwinski was batting .269/.398/.551 with a .412 wOBA, and 150 wRC+ through 267 plate appearances. He also had slugged 15 home runs while having a great .282 isolated slugging percentage. He was striking out 27.7% of the time but combated that with a 16.9% walk rate. After the trade, Suwinski continued to post solid numbers, having a .252/.359/.391 with a .337 wOBA, and 110 wRC+, but his power dipped. He only hit 4 home runs in his next 182 trips to the plate while having a .139 ISO. He was still walking a lot (13.7%) and had a high strikeout rate (28%), but the power wasn’t there. The main reason was his HR/FB% dropped from 22.7% with the Padres’ Double-A team to just 7.8% with the Pirates. A 20%+ HR/FB% would be among the top 30 in the league in 2021, but I doubt he would rank in the bottom 30 in HR/FB rate either. Even if he averages out in the 13-15% range, he has the raw power that he’ll easily reach the 25 home run mark. He also is considered a good fielder with a strong arm, as well as a guy who has some under-the-radar speed.
Now that’s only the most notable names that have a chance of starting the 2022 season at Triple-A Indianapolis. There are a ton of other guys who are outfield capable who could get the nod to start out right below the major leagues. Cal Mithcell is the last of the primary outfield prospects, but Ji-Hwan Bae is seeing an increasing amount of time in centerfield. Tucupita Marcano also is getting outfield reps.
It’s a good thing the Pittsburgh Pirates have so many near-MLB-ready outfield prospects. The current outfield picture isn’t the best. Bryan Reynolds may be a top 10 hitter in baseball, but he’s going to start 2022 flanked by Anthony Alford and Ben Gamel. While that’s not to insult either Alford or Gamel, Alford hasn’t shown the ability to put together the talent he will flash from time to time across an entire season, and Gamel is a quality 4th/platoon outfielder, but not the best answer for everyday playing time. Having some mix of Reynolds, Swaggerty, and Fraizer for regular playing time between left, center, and right field is a quite promising mix, not to mention that Canaan Smith-Njigba could be in the fray for playing time in left and right field, and Suwinski in play for all three positions as well. In short, if the Pirates can live with Alford and Gamel in the grass for at least a month, they’ll be rewarded with some high-ceiling prospects.