Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects: Underrated Players at Greensboro
By Noah Wright
Many of the Pittsburgh Pirates prospects who played at High-A Greensboro are being underrated. Why are they overlooked in rankings?
The Pittsburgh Pirates High-A affiliate is the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Last season the Grasshoppers had a loaded roster. Their lineup once housed Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Matt Fraizer, Lolo Sanchez, and Jared Triolo. Meanwhile, they had a rotation with Quinn Priester, Carmen Mlodzinski, Michael Burrows, J.C. Flowers, and Tahnaj Thomas on the pitching side of things.
That’s a strong cast of characters on one roster. Between those players, there are multiple top 100 prospects. But one thing I’ve noticed is that some of the players are being severely underrated, more so at Greensboro than other levels of the Pirates minor league levels.
Look at Nick Gonzales, for example. You’d think a guy posting a 150 wRC+, even in a hitter-friendly environment, with a well-rounded toolset would be a consensus top 50 prospect. Baseball America barely has him in their top 50 at no. 49. Baseball Prospectus puts him at a respectable no. 29, but Keith Law of the Athletic had him at no. 93. Currently, FanGraphs has him at no. 35 before even half of the teams have been given top prospect lists. He’ll likely fall further once they provide rankings for teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Miami Marlins, and LA Dodgers.
I went further into detail about how Gonzales is being underrated here, but it extends past Gonzo. Last year, Quinn Priester posted a low-3’s ERA and low-4’s FIP in a hitter-friendly environment. You’d think that, along with his improving stuff and a great second half, would give him a bump upward in rankings and earn him more appreciation. Did I mention he did all of this while being about three years older than his competition?
Priester actually fell in Baseball America’s eyes to no. 88. Priester ranks just above Gonzales at no. 34 in FanGraphs’ current rankings and comes in at no. 57 per Keith Law. FanGraphs has been the harshest on Priester, stating he’s “tracking like a mid-rotation starter”, something I wholeheartedly disagree with.
Now not every prospect who played in Greensboro got bumped down in rankings, and Liover Peguero remains relatively the same from his end of season rankings, as does Jared Triolo. FanGraphs boosted Michael Burrows and even put Matt Fraizer on top-100 watch (granted, the latter did play at Double-A Altoona). But the prospect I want to bring up that nobody else seems to pay much attention to is Carmen Mlodzinski.
Mlodzinski didn’t have a bad year at Greensboro. In 50.1 innings, the right-hander had a 3.93 ERA, 4.34 FIP, and 1.29 WHIP. He struck out 30% of batters on the dot while having a 9.4% walk rate. His 1.25 HR/9 may not have been great, but you need more context than just that.
He was about average in terms of home runs, as the average was 1.23. Mlodzinski was excellent in every other aspect compared to the standard. The right-hander pitched in a league where the average ERA was 5.10, the average strikeout rate was only 26.8%, and the average walk rate was 9.6%. In every aspect, Mlodzinski was average or better.
Mlodzinski got a bump down in FanGraphs’ rankings from a 40+ FV to just a 40. That might not be a significant drop, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that per their write-up. Their 2021 statement on Mlodzinski states that he’s a “mid-rotation starter who could go in the first round,” but in their most recent summary, they say that he could be pushed to a “middle-inning role.”
They also go on to state in their 2022 write-up on the right-hander that while he saw an uptick in velocity in the Arizona Fall League, the pitch was getting “hit more than you’d expect given how hard it is.” They downgraded his fastball from a pitch with 60-grade potential to just 50-grade potential. But this is also in a small sample size (11 innings) in a more hitter-friendly environment than High-A East, the Grasshopper’s league. The average ERA in the AZFL was approaching 6, at 5.66. On average, over six runs were scored per-9 innings. So while the pitch was getting hit hard in the AZFL, every pitcher was giving up their fair share of hard-hit balls.
Jared Triolo has been praised for his excellent glove work at third base and his an underrated prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. Plus, he had a .849 OPS, .371 wOBA, and league adjusted 128 wRC+. He didn’t even get a boost in fielding grade. Lolo Sanchez had a career year, posting a .826 OPS, .365 wOBA, and 124 wRC+. His 17 home runs were four more than he hit between 2016 to 2019. What happened to his FV? He fell from 40 to 35+.
I’m not here to argue that Mlodzinski will be a sub-3.00 ERA ace, Triolo will be the next Nolan Arenado, or Sanchez will be their next Andrew McCutchen. Each has their flaws. Mlodzinski needs to refine his command. Triolo’s overall hitting skill doesn’t shout long-term regular. Sanchez has very low exit velocities that don’t play well for a guy who had a fly ball rate over 40%. But each improved in some way.
Mlodzinski’s fastball was showing more life in the Arizona Fall League. Triolo was hitting for more power. Sanchez upped his line-drive rate from sub-20% to 25% and lowered his groundball rate away from around 50%. Yet for all of them, they fell in some regard in prospect rankings.
Injuries may have played a hand in Mlodzinski’s downgrade, as it might have also played a factor in Priester’s and Gonzales’ downgrades. But if you ask me, many of the prospects who spent a fair amount of time at High-A Greensboro are underrated by many outlets. Why is this? There has to be a reason why many of the Pittsburgh Pirates prospects who performed well at Greensboro aren’t gaining any traction, or in some cases, losing traction.
I think it’s a case of hitter-friendly bias. This happens throughout all of baseball. Ask anyone if they believe Trevor Story is overrated. If they say yes, they’ll say because he has massive home/away splits. Why did it take Larry Walker up until his 10th try to make the Hall Of Fame and needed some help from the general baseball community to boost his popularity? Because Coors. Why did Todd Helton finally reach the 50% mark in Hall of Fame Balloting? He played with the Colorado Rockies.
Now that’s not to say completely glance over a guy playing in a hitter-friendly environment or to completely overlook massive home/away splits. But hitters’ abilities are often ignored because of their environment helping them. Small sample sizes, like in Mlodzinski’s case and in an environment that heavily favors hitters will make any pitch look bad.
Overall, many of the 2021 Greensboro Grasshoppers aren’t getting the love they deserve. We’ve gone over Priester and Gonzales before, but guys like Triolo, Sanchez, and especially Mlodzinski need more attention.