The Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of high-end prospects, but they could see these minor leaguers make an unexpected impact in 2023
At this point in the rebuild, Pittsburgh Pirates fans expect to see the likes of Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester, Mike Burrows, and Endy Rodriguez in the major leagues sometime this season. Not only do they expect them to debut, but they also expect them to make a decent impact on the team, and rightfully so. Of course, there are other youngsters like Luis Ortiz, Ji-Hwan Bae, Jared Triolo, and Malcom Nuñez that fans expect to get playing time in 2023, but Gonzales, Priester, Rodriguez, and Burrows are the big four.
But teams aren’t solely composed of a dozen or so prospects. You’ll often see lesser-known or unranked names significantly impact a team. While the Pirates expect to get their main contributions from top prospects, they have a boatload of minor leaguers who could make an unexpected impact in 2023.
Colin Selby was a relatively nondescript 16th round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018. In 2018 and 2019, Selby was mainly used as a starting pitcher. The right-hander started all 28 games he played in. In 2021, he made the complete transition to the bullpen but struggled. Despite his struggles at Greensboro, the Pirates felt confident enough in Selby to give him the bump to Double-A.
The move to Altoona did Selby a whole lot of good. In 32.2 innings, the right-hander posted a 2.20 ERA, 2.59 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP. Selby struck out nearly 30% of the batters he faced with a 29.7% K-rate. Impressively, he allowed just a single dinger, partly due to a 53.1% ground ball rate and sub-30% flyball rate. The one downside to his season was his sub-par 10.1% walk rate. By the end of the season, he was in a high-leverage role. He pitched a total of 18 innings in the 9th inning or later and 14 innings when the game was late and close.
Selby backed his numbers up with some impressive stuff on the mound. The right-hander was pumping mid-to-upper-90s gas. He’s currently pitching in the Arizona Fall League and is topping out at 99 MPH. He pairs that with a 12-6 curveball in the low-80s. Pretty decent stuff for a 16th-round draft pick.
The Pittsburgh Pirates do not have much in the way of relief pitching this year. Selby would be a nice success story for the Pirates, going from a late-round selection to a part of a Major League bullpen. Selby already debuted at Triple-A and is 25 years old. But there is a chance he will be selected in the Rule 5 draft. Although I wouldn’t bet on him getting selected, I also wouldn’t bet against it either.
While Selby was a late-round draft pick, Nick Dombkowski wasn’t even drafted. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed him as an undrafted free agent after the 2021 draft. The southpaw had an excellent 2022 campaign, climbing the minor league ladder and making it all the way from Bradenton to Altoona. Dombkowski will be knocking on the major league doorstep next season and could be a vital part of the team’s bullpen.
Through 67.1 innings, Dombkowski worked to the tune of a 3.07 ERA, 3.26 FIP, and 1.10 WHIP. The southpaw posted an impressive 30.7% strikeout rate to go with an equally impressive 6.8% walk rate. His 4.53 K:BB ratio led all Pirates minor leaguers who tossed at least 50 innings. Dombkowski’s .94 HR/9 wasn’t great, but it was more than usable and nothing to fret over.
Dombkowski made it to FanGraphs’ top Pirates prospect list at the end of the season. He’s only ranked as the team’s 55th-best prospect, but he definitely could still make an impact. He’s not a flamethrower, only averaging out at 89-90 MPH with his fastball. But he makes use of his slider/change-up combo to get outs. He also has displayed above-average location.
Despite pitching nearly 70 innings, Dombkowski only appeared in 36 games. He’s a long-relief pitcher who could occasionally start games, but he plays his part well. He could end up being a better option to open the year within the long relief role over Chase De Jong. After all, Dombkowski will be in his age-24 season and has already pitched very well at Altoona over an extended look. If Dombkowski works to a sub-3.80 ERA through 70+ innings and starts a game here and there, he’d make a massive impact in 2023.
Aaron Shackelford was teammates with both Dombkowski and Selby for most of the 2022 season. Shackelford stepped to the plate a total of 443 times for Altoona. The Pirates felt confident enough in the power-hitting infielder to give him the bump to Triple-A Indy at the end of the season.
During his time at Altoona, Shackelford batted .239/.314/.499 with a .351 wOBA and 117 wRC+. Shackelford hit for a ton of power, slugging 26 home runs and having a .259 isolated slugging percentage. It’s the second year in a row he’s had more than 20 home runs and ISO above .200. Despite mostly hitting for power, he showed some base running prowess and swiped 11 bags in 13 attempts. His 9% walk rate was also above average, but he struck out 28.9% of the time. That’s an improvement from 2021 when he went down on strike three 31.6% of the time, but still poor overall.
Shackelford only played four games at Triple-A before the season ended, and things could have gone a lot better. It was just 16 plate appearances, but he had a single hit that was a single and did not draw any walks. He also struck out seven times. Although it was far from a good stretch, it was also just four games and less than 20 plate appearances.
The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t limited to using Shackelford at just first base. He’s played over 20 games at the keystone in each of the last two seasons and even saw some time in right field this past year. First base, second base, and designated hitter are his three primary positions, but he can play corner outfield on top of that, giving him plenty of options on where to put him.
Shackelford may not be the team’s next Willie Stargell, but he has the chance to be a solid platoon utility power bat. If he came up and gave the team 2014 Pedro Alvarez numbers (.231/.312/.405, 18 home runs in 445 PA’s, 103 wRC+) at first base, second base, and corner outfield, you won’t find many fans complaining. The Pirates have almost zero first base depth at the moment, so 2023 could be his chance to see the major leagues.