All too often baseball fans casually glance through each teams’ Top 30 Prospect List and assume that these are the only guys that matter; that these are the only ones that are going to make it. Pittsburgh Pirates Fans are no different, and, if I'm being honest, I was as well. However, we need to start to understand that not everyone that makes it to the major league team is some highly touted prospect from the moment that he was drafted or some guy that splashes on to the scene and flies up these lists with reckless abandon. Sometimes the guys that end up contributing are the guys that never make this list, that fly under the radar, working hard behind the top prospect curtain to make it. I am not a betting man, but if I were I would put my money on Bligh Madris to be one of those guys.
In the 9th round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted outfielder Bligh Madris from Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University). In his final season with the Mavericks, Madris batted .422, with a 1.270 OPS and 17 Home Runs in 62 games. Immediately after being drafted Madris was assigned to West Virginia Black Bears (Pittsburgh’s Short Season Low A Affiliate) of the New York-Penn League. He struggled a bit in the beginning but finished strong at the end with a slash line of .270/.344/.429, with 5 HRs and 22 Extra Base Hits; including 4 triples. He seemed to have very little difficulty with his transition into professional ball; then came his 2018 season.
In 2018, due to his success with the Black Bears, he was promoted straight to the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A/Advanced Affiliate) of the Florida State League, bypassing what could have been a stop with the West Virginia Power (Pittsburgh’s Low A Affiliate through 2018) of the South Atlantic League. Madris started out the season on a very similar path as he had the previous year, batting .274/.326/.393 with 3 HRs in the first month. Then the steady decline began, which lasted for the rest of the year. He hit only 6 more HRs the entire rest of the season, his batting average dropped to .238, his strike out rate rose to 21.4% and his wRC+ declined from 131 to 89. Near the end of the season he was placed on the 7 day IL for a minor injury, but it was apparent that his first full year in pro-ball had taken its toll on him. His defense was as sound as it’s ever been, as he posted a .989 Fielding Percentage, only 2 errors and a 2.16 RF/9 (Range Factor per 9 Innings). RF/9 is a fielding metric that evaluates putouts and assists to the number of innings played. For comparison the league leader for right fielders, Madris’ primary position, in MLB last year had a RF/9 of 2.28.
In spite of his struggles at the plate, and maybe a little because of his ability in the field, Madris earned a promotion to begin the 2019 season to the Altoona Curve (Pittsburgh’s AA Affiliate) of the Eastern League. Once again Madris got off to a pretty hot start. He slashed .309/.323/.415 for the month of April, but then the decline started again as he slashed .176/.293/.212 for the month of May. Through the first two months of the season he only had 1 HR and 11 Extra Base Hits. It looked like he was in for another long year at the plate. However, this time Madris did something that he hadn’t done before; he got himself back on track. Over the remainder of the season his batting hovered around .270, he hit 7 HRs and 25 Extra Base Hits, His strike out rate decreased and his walk rate increased and one thing never changed, his defense. He committed only 3 errors and his RF/9 rose to 2.26.
So where does a defensive minded, left handed, 6’ 208 lb right fielder with some pop in his bat fit into the future plans for the Pittsburgh Pirates? I would say the sky is the limit right now. He is currently the only RF on the Altoona Curve roster and, as of right now, Pablo Reyes is the only OF listed on the Indianapolis Indians roster. I know that a lot of this is going to change. Jared Oliva (Pittsburgh’s Current #13 Prospect) is more than likely going to start the year patrolling CF for the Indians, Kevin Kramer (Pittsburgh’s Current #11 Prospect) is currently listed as an OF on the Pirates’ active roster, Will Craig (Pittsburgh’s Current #12 Prospect) started playing a little RF last year in Indianapolis, the Pirates just added OF Guillermo Heredia as a free agent over the off-season and Gregory Polanco is scheduled to return from injury to begin the season. However, it seems as if the new Pirates’ General Manager Ben Cherington is putting an emphasis on defense with many of the signings that he has made this off-season and Madris fits right into that mold. This is not to say that he does not have the offensive potential. He has proven that he has the pedigree of a would-be power hitter from his days back in Colorado. It is just that as of right now, his defense has outshined his bat. Can he change this? Of course he can. Just look at him getting back in the batting cage to “get it poppin."
After all of the changes happen and everything shakes out throughout spring training, it is still likely that Madris starts the season back with the Curve in Altoona. However, if there are any trades, injuries, or players under-performing, it is probable that Madris ends up with the Indianapolis Indians (Pittsburgh’s AAA Affiliate) sooner rather than later and definitely by the end of the year.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement