Pittsburgh Pirates: Looking at Some Recent Career Minor Leaguers
By Noah Wright
Every team has had career minor league players, so here's a recent history of the Pittsburgh Pirates minor leaguers who spent all or most of their career in the minors
Being a minor league baseball player isn't a glamorous life. Unless you were an early-round draft pick given a massive signing bonus or a teenager given a big professional contract from an international country, many minor league players play for less than minimum wage. The conditions also usually aren't what you see at the Major League level. But despite the sub-standard pay and living conditions, there are many that stick with the profession and play multiple years in the minor leagues, even if they never see the Majors.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, like all Major League teams, have organizational depth. These guys aren't top prospects and are mostly there to fill a minor-league roster spot. If they ever see the major leagues, the reason will likely be because of an emergency. Today, I want to shine a spotlight on some of these career minor leaguers. These guys made very few major league appearances, and most didn't even see the big leagues. I'm also only focusing on players who spent most, if not all, of their minor league careers for the Pirates (so shootout to Drew Maggi, even if he won't be a featured player).
Eric Wood owns the most plate appearances by a Pirate minor leaguer who never appeared in the majors. Wood, a 6th round pick a decade ago, played the four infield and outfield corners. Wood was mostly known for his power, swatting at least a dozen home runs three years straight from 2016 through 2018. 2018 was his best as a professional, slashing .270/.330/.481. Wood had a mediocre 25.4% strikeout rate to pair with a poor 6.5% walk rate. But he did register a .212 isolated slugging percentage. Overall, he had a 127 wRC+ in 2018.
Throughout his minor league career, Wood hit .253/.325/.408. His production at the plate was slightly above average at 106. 2019 was his last year in an affiliated ball. He played just two games in China before returning to the United States in 2020, where he signed with the Winnipeg Goldeyes for the 2020 season. However, after just 50 games, Wood has not appeared in another professional contest since.
Ulises Montilla has the highest wRC+ among players who had 800+ plate appearances for Pirates' minor league affiliates yet never appeared in a major league game. Montilla was a fairly productive batter through 948 plate appearances. The utility man batted .321/.410/.447. Although he had an ISO of just .126, he walked more often than he struck out, with 112 walks and just 78 strikeouts.
Montilla had a .411 wOBA and 144 wRC+. Endy Rodriguez is the only Pirates minor leaguer to have a higher wRC+ since '06 in 900+ PAs. His best year was 2011, when he slashed .364/.439/.509 through 296 plate appearances at the Pirate Venezuelan Summer League affiliate.
Montilla never made it past Low-A and based on the very little information there is of the former Pirate minor leaguer, he suffered a major leg injury in 2014, though he did play 15 games for West Virginia when they were still a Pirate affiliate in 2015 before not appearing professionally again. It's odd that despite being a consistently good hitter, the Pirates never moved Montilla up the ladder. As stated earlier, there is very little information, let alone reliable information, out there on Montilla, so we may never know the reason why the Pirates decided to only give him 12 games above Rookie-Ball.
On the pitching side of things, Zack Dodson racked up the most innings pitched for Pirate minor league affiliates without appearing in a major league contest. A fourth-round pick by the Bucs in 2009, Dodson pitched a total of 650.2 innings in affiliated ball. The southpaw turned in an unimpressive 4.23 ERA, 4.41 FIP, and 1.37 WHIP. While he had a solid 7.5% walk rate, he only struck out 14% of opponents with a HR/9 rate approaching 2.0 at 1.86. Dodson's best season came in just his third year in the pros, owning a 3.10 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 93 innings between Low-A and A-Ball.
Since the Pirates released him following the 2015 season, Dodson has bounced around between foreign leagues and Independent Leagues. He's still active and last pitched 8.1 innings for the Atlantic League Kentucky Wild Health Gnomes. Technically, there's still a chance that Dodson makes his way to the Major Leagues. It's nearly impossible at this point now that he's 32 and nearly a decade out of affiliated ball. So if you want a guy who spent his entire professional career, from start to end, in the minor leagues, then Eliecer Navarro is the guy.
Navarro pitched a total of 580.1 innings, working to a 3.29 ERA, 3.34 FIP, and 1.16 WHIP. Navarro had some respectable peripherals, including a 23.2% strikeout rate and .74 HR/9. However, he limited batters to a walk rate of just 5.8%. The left-hander had a very impressive showing at the Pirates' Dominican Summer League affiliate back in 2008 when he owned a 1.42 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, struck out 37.5% of opponents while having a pristine 2.8% walk rate, and 0.12 HR/9 through 76 innings.
There's almost no information about Navarro. He became a minor league free agent following the 2013 season but was not re-signed by the Pirates. Navarro would make a few more appearances in the Puerto Rican Winter League, but his last foray into professional baseball was in the 2014-2015 season. The left-hander was only able to manage to make it to Double-A.
The best-performing career minor league pitcher in terms of ERA is Orlando Castro. A native of Honduras, Castro was part of the organization from 2010 through 2014. Through those five seasons, Castro racked up 373 innings, working to a 2.99 ERA, 3.42 FIP, and 1.12 WHIP. Castro's strikeout rate clocked in at just 18.7%, but he had a strong 5.2% walk rate and .51 HR/9. The right-hander's best season was his first year in the pro circuit, as he worked to a 1.17 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, while not allowing a single home run in 54 innings of work at the Pirates' Venezuelan League affiliate.
Castro underwent labrum surgery in 2014 and was not re-signed following the 2015 season. This made 2014 and his age-22 season his last year in professional baseball. Castro had made it to Double-A in his final year but only pitched eight innings.