Although the Pittsburgh Pirates have plenty of high-profile prospects, they also have some notable under-the-radar names who are nearly MLB ready
The Pittsburgh Pirates have one of the best farm systems in the league. Even with the likes of Oneil Cruz, Roansy Contreras, Rodolfo Castro, and Jack Suwinski, all top 30 prospects for the Pirates according to FanGraphs, they still rank with the fourth-best farm system according to the baseball site. There is still a lot to be excited about in the system. Of course, you have the high-profile names like Henry Davis, Termarr Johnson, Endy Rodriguez, and Quinn Priester, but there are plenty of other players that fans should be excited to see within the following year.
Among the Pirates’ most underrated prospects, they could promote many of those players to the major leagues next season. I define an underrated prospect as a prospect who isn’t among the Pirates’ top 15 but still stands out as one of their better ones, regardless. I also define MLB readiness by how much they have played in the upper levels of the minor leagues (Double-A and Triple-A).
Among their pitchers, you have to consider J.C. Flowers as one of the most underrated arms the Pittsburgh Pirates have to offer. Although Flowers had a 4.01 ERA, he also put up a sub-3.00 ERA in 68.2 innings at Altoona. On top of that, he had a 56.8% ground ball rate. From June through the end of the year, Flowers had a 2.61 ERA, 3.31 FIP, and 1.03 WHIP. He struck out over a quarter of the batters he faced with a 27.3% strikeout rate but also had a solid 9.1% walk rate while allowing just two long balls through 38 innings.
His strikeout rate for the 2022 season was low, but he did improve as the season went on. By August, he struck out a third of the batters he faced. His upward trend in strikeout rate is promising and shows he is improving. He has a devastating slider and is arguably the best breaking ball in the organization. The only one that can compete with it is Quinn Priester’s curveball, which is also elite.
It’s still up for debate as to whether Flowers is a reliever or starter long-term. I’d like to believe the Pirates will give him a chance to start at least semi-regularly at Triple-A next season, but only time will tell. Altoona used him in a multi-inning role, pitching him for nearly 70 innings in just 33 total games (two starts). But even if he ends up as a reliever, he should be a really good one.
Although Flowers is definitely underrated, Malcom Nuñez is arguably the most underrated prospect the Pirates have to offer. Despite his quality 2022 campaign, Nunez is still ranked below the likes of Mason Martin, Jared Oliva, and Nick Garcia on FanGraphs’ list. MLB Pipeline is giving him some credit, though, placing him as the organization’s’ 12th best prospect.
After getting traded to the Pirates, Nuñez raked at the plate. He batted .280/.385/.475 with a .378 wOBA, and 135 wRC+. His 22.4% strikeout rate may not have been great, but it wasn’t terrible either. But what was great was his 14.7% strikeout rate. Nuñez also hit for power, crushing six long balls for Altoona and Indy and having a .195 isolated slugging percentage.
After Nuñez’s slow start in April and May, the corner infield prospect had an OPS well over .900 at .913, a wOBA approaching .400 at .394, and a wRC+ of 135 from June through the end of the year. His isolated slugging percentage was also excellent at .236, and he hit 20 home runs in less than 350 plate appearances (337, to be exact). That’s a pace of nearly 36 in 600 plate appearances.
The only reason Nuñez isn’t ranked higher is that he is a slow runner and is limited to just first base and designated hitter. Although those kinds of prospects must hit in order to be successful, Nunez has all the tools to make it work. We’re not talking about a Mason Martin-type batter who is an all-or-nothing, defensively-limited slugger. Nunez doesn’t strike out often, draws his fair share of walks, and has plus power.
Nuñez and Flowers may be the most underrated pitching prospect and position player prospect, but relief pitching prospects are underrated by nature. Most relief pitchers in the major leagues did not set out to be relief pitchers. Edwin Diaz started 26 of the 36 games he appeared in as a minor leaguer. Some of the best relievers of all time, like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, were originally starters.
The Pittsburgh Pirates definitely have some relief pitching prospects to take note of, and the best among them is Tahnaj Thomas. His season definitely flew under the radar for most. The expectations for Thomas were low after a rough 2021 season with the High-A Greensboro Grasshoppers. However, the results soon followed Thomas after fully settling into a high-leverage relief role.
From the start of summer through the end of the year, Thomas had a 1.98 ERA, 2.70 FIP, and 1.05 WHIP. He struck out 28.5% of the batters he faced with a minimal walk rate of 6.9%. But the most impressive part of his hot summer streak was allowing just two home runs in 36.1 innings. Both walks and home runs were the two areas Thomas struggled the most in during the 2021 season. He had a 12.5% walk rate and 1.93 HR/9. He was surrendering nearly two home runs every nine innings. Now, he has a walk rate below 8% and now allows a home run at a 0.5 HR/9 pace.
Although Thomas has always been projected to be a reliever, him fully embracing the role and excelling in it is extremely promising. Arguably the biggest issue the Pirates have to resolve for next season is the bullpen, and if Thomas can become one of the Pirates’ high-leverage arms behind Yerry De Los Santos and David Bednar, the Pirates will undoubtedly get a considerable boost in the bullpen.
All three of Flowers, Nuñez, and Thomas could be part of the major league team by the end of the season. They’ll all certainly be part of Triple-A Indy’s roster to start the year. Seeing these three prospects in the majors will certainly be fun to watch, as all three could be long-term cogs to this team.