Number 1 – Outfield
I’ve gone over it before, but the Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of young talent coming up through the pipeline who play the outfield. Last year, the Pirates mainly used Bryan Reynolds, Ben Gamel, and a mix of Anthony Alford, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Ka’ai Tom, Wilmer Difo, and a slew of others to cover the outfield. Alford and Gamel will be returning next year, but as nothing more than placeholders for the young talent.
Among the most talented Pirate outfield prospects you have Travis Swaggerty leading the pack. The team’s 2018 first-round pick, Swaggerty’s defense has always gotten high praise, but his bat has consistently been underrated.
His hit tool is considered average by FanGraphs and has been praised for his raw power. Last year, he started to turn some of that raw strength into home runs with a .220 isolated slugging percentage and 3 home runs in his small taste of playing time at Triple-A. 2021 just wasn’t Swag’s year. Not only did he get extremely unlucky on batted balls (.200 batting average on balls in play despite a fantastic 26.7% line drive rate and 36.7% ground ball rate), but he dislocated his shoulder just 12 games into his season. So long as he is fully recovered from shoulder surgery and it doesn’t have any lingering effects, he’s a guy that you could see in early May. In a full season, you’re looking at a guy who can hit .260/.350/.450 with 20/20 and display strong plate discipline.
He’s not the only outfield prospect who we will see next year. Far from it. Next, we have Canaan Smith-Njigba. Like Swaggerty, Smith-Njigba has a ton of raw power potential but has yet to fully translate that into game power. He hits for a decent average as well as drawing a ton of walks. But he has so far struggled to get the ball in the air more often. That is what might be separating him from 15 home runs and 30 home runs. Smith-Njigba isn’t all that fast, nor is he a fantastic fielder like Swags. But the Pirates will be wanting his bat in the line-up, so they’ll find somewhere for him to play.
Matthew Fraizer had a huge breakout campaign last year. He finished 2021 with a 149 wRC+, .402 wOBA, and .939 OPS with 23 home runs in 499 plate appearances between High-A Greensboro and Double-A Altoona. If Fraizer’s breakout was for real, he’s easily one of the Pirates’ most underrated prospects. He’ll be going into his age-24 season next year, but hasn’t had any experience past Double-A. If the Pirates feel he needs that Triple-A experience, he could be a candidate to come up around late May to early June.
A guy we talked about earlier was Ji-Hwan Bae as a potential shortstop, but he’s a potential outfield option as well. Last year, Bae had a solid season at Double-A Altoona, posting a 114 wRC+, .343 wOBA, and .771 OPS. Bae has been a middle infielder for his entire professional career but has started to get some time in the outfield. Between late last season and the Arizona Fall League, Bae has racked up 165.2 innings in center field. He is a bit younger than all the guys we have talked about so far. Next year will only be his age-22 campaign, but he’ll have a very good chance of starting at Triple-A. He’s a mid-season call-up but should have plenty of time to show what he is capable of.
While those might be the four most notable prospects who should see a fair amount of time next season, they’re far from the only outfield prospects the Pirates have. Cal Mitchell had a decent campaign down at Double-A. Jack Suwinski was added to the 40-man roster. Tucupita Marcano and Hoy Park are two outfield capable infield prospects. They also picked up Greg Allen, who had a 140 wRC+ with the Yankees last season (albeit in only 48 plate appearances).