The Triple-A Indianapolis Indians could be the strongest minor league affiliate for the Pittsburgh Pirates to open 2023
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a robust farm system, with Double-A Altoona being one of their strongest affiliates. The team has a handful of prospects in the upper levels of the minor leagues. When the 2023 season opens, will the team’s Triple-A affiliate be their strongest minor league team?
Let’s look behind the dish. If Endy Rodriguez doesn’t open 2023 with the major league team, he’ll surely be Indy’s starting backstop. Since reaching Double-A, Rodriguez is batting .356/.442/.678 with a .475 wOBA and 199 wRC+. Rodriguez has struck out just 21 times in 138 plate appearances while drawing 18 walks. In just 31 games, he has 14 doubles and eight home runs, which is a pace of 60 two-baggers and 35 dingers in 600 plate appearances.
Rodriguez isn’t the only other backstop option for Triple-A. Henry Davis, the number one overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021, may also kick off 2023 with Indianapolis. Davis has missed a good chunk of the 2022 season because of injuries caused by a handful of hit-by-pitches.
In total, he’s been hit 19 times in less than 300 plate appearances. While Davis may only have a .696 OPS at Altoona, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, he has a healthy 22.9% strikeout rate and a 9.2% walk rate. The second thing is he has a batting average on balls in play of just .244, so there’s been some bad luck involved. He has a .301 BAbip on the season and a much better .851 OPS.
A third potential option for catcher if he doesn’t start the year out with the Pittsburgh Pirates is Blake Sabol. Sabol got promoted to Triple-A, where he has a .315/.448/.611 triple-slash, .457 wOBA, and 179 wRC+. He’s drawn 11 walks in 67 plate appearances and 15 Ks. All three of Sabol, Rodriguez, and Davis aren’t limited to just catcher. All three have seen time in the grass (albeit more so Sabol and Rodriguez), Rodriguez and Sabol can play first base, and Rodriguez has plenty of time spent at second base.
Now let’s move to the infield. First base and designated hitter can be shared between Aaron Shackelford and Malcom Nuñez. Between the two, Nunez is the better prospect. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Nuñez in the José Quintana trade, and he’s hit .297/.388/.495 for Altoona. That includes a 22.3% strikeout rate and a 13.2% walk rate. He has ten total extra-base hits (five doubles and home runs) and a .198 isolated slugging percentage. This all culminates in a .386 wOBA and 140 wRC+. There are questions about Nuñez’s defense, which makes him a candidate to split time at first base and designated hitter.
Shackelford hasn’t been nearly as productive as Nuñez at Double-A, but he’s had a solid campaign nonetheless. In a total of 443 trips to the plate, Shackelford has a .239/.324/.499 line, .351 wOBA, and 117 wRC+. Shackelford has been a home run machine, demolishing 26 long balls and having a .260 isolated slugging percentage. The downside is he has a 9% walk rate to combat a 28.9% strikeout rate. Shackelford doesn’t have to be limited to just first base. He can play second base, the corner outfield spots, as well as the hot corner.
Speaking of the hot corner, Jared Triolo definitely deserves the regular role if he doesn’t travel South with the Major League team. Since being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019, he’s failed to post a wRC+ below 110. This year, he is slashing .282/.379/.419 with a .356 wOBA and 121 wRC+. Triolo gets on base a ton. He has a 12.7% walk rate and a 17.6% strikeout rate. On the bright side, Triolo has had an excellent .194 ISO since the start of June.
Sliding over to the keystone is Nick Gonzales. Gonzales started the year off ice cold but got things going; that was right before an injury knocked him out for just over two months. Regardless, he picked right back up where he left off. In his last 210 plate appearances (including his hot streak before landing on the IL), Gonzales is batting .305/.411/.497, walking at a healthy 12.9% pace and having a .192 isolated slugging percentage. His 24.8% strikeout rate is a tad high, but overall, he has a .405 wOBA and 152 wRC+. However, one thing worth mentioning is that he has just a 21.6% strikeout rate in his last month of playing time. We saw this last year with Gonzales slowly cutting down his strikeout rate each month at Greensboro.
Shortstop will be a bit tricky. It seems a bit premature to promote Liover Peguero to Indy, given his struggles at Altoona. He has just a .692 OPS, .306 wOBA, and 87 wRC+ this season. But he did get off to a good start in 2022. When the Pirates promoted him, he had a .784 OPS, .340 wOBA, and 110 wRC+. Since then, he’s had just a .612 OPS, .279 wOBA, and 70 wRC+. Personally, I think the quick promotion/demotion after one game may have messed something up. Also, keep in mind he’s just 21 at a level where the average pitcher is 24.5 years old.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates feel he needs a little more seasoning at Altoona, they could slot Andres Alvarez there until Peguero starts hitting again. Like Shackelford, Alvarez isn’t a top prospect but has had a solid campaign for Altoona. In his 438 plate appearances, Alvarez is batting .220/.340/.433 with a .343 wOBA and 113 wRC+. Alvarez’s 14.6% walk rate is one of the highest among all Pirates minor leaguers, and he cranked 20 home runs. On top of that, he swiped 20 bags. But he did strikeout 27.4% of the time.
In the outfield, Matt Gorski deserves the look at Triple-A. Gorski has hit very well at Altoona, slashing .277/.354/.489. Gorski has six dingers and a .213 isolated slugging percentage. His 9.4% walk rate is relatively healthy, though he is striking out 29.6% of the time, which is concerning. Still, he’s put up a quality .370 wOBA and 130 wRC+. He’ll be tested at Indianapolis, but he’s definitely going to be interesting to see if he can overcome his strikeouts.
The last two outfield spots could be a little more complicated. Both Matt Fraizer and Connor Scott have struggled this year at Altoona, but are still noteworthy prospects. Shackelford, Davis, and Rodriguez could also see time in the corners. Possibly a depth guy like Jared Oliva, Hoy Park, or Lolo Sanchez will take up a role. There are plenty of options the Pirates can slot into the outfield corners to flank Gorski.
The pitching staff could also be quite good. The rotation should be a mix of Quinn Priester, Kyle Nicolas, Aaron Shortridge, and Carmen Mlodzinski. Both Priester and Nicolas have had quality campaigns at Altoona. Mlodzinski showed talent, albeit at an inconsistent rate. He’s still a notable prospect for the Bucs. Shortridge isn’t a top prospect, but he’s done well at most levels of the minor leagues. Recently, he’s done well for Altoona. The Pirates could also slot J.C. Flowers or Cody Bolton into the starting five. The bullpen has some notable prospects like Tahnaj Thomas, Tyler Samaniego, and Nick Dombkowski.
Indy has a strong roster, but you also have to pose the question if one of the PIrates’ other affiliates could be better. Greensboro will give Indy a run for their money. Top prospects like Anthony Solometo, Bubba Chandler, Po-Yu Chen, Tsung-Che Cheng, Tres Gonzalez, and Rodolfo Nolasco, along with a handful of young former international signees, could all be part of the same Greensboro roster.
But while Greensboro might give Indy a run for their money to start the season, I would still go with Triple-A Indianapolis. That much talent, especially when you’re starting to see some guys get promoted to the upper levels of the minor leagues and handling themselves well, is promising, and a handful of important prospects are doing so. But Triple-A might not stay that way for long. Many of those prospects are going to see the major leagues and graduate prospect status.