On November 14, 2018 then Pittsburgh Pirates’ General Manager, Neil Huntington made a trade with the Cleveland Indians. The major pieces of this trade at the time were the Pirates part time OF Jordan Luplow and utility IF Max Moroff for the Indians super utility IF/OF Erik Gonzalez, who we now know the scouts were “banging the table” to acquire. However, the Pirates did acquire a couple of other players in this trade as well; right-handed pitcher Dante Mendoza and right-handed pitcher Tahnaj Thomas. Both Mendoza and Thomas started and finished their 2019 seasons with the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s rookie level affiliate) of the Appalachian League, but their journeys to this point couldn’t have been more different.
Dante Mendoza was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 12th Round of the 2017 MLB June Amatuer Draft from Torrance High School in Torrance, California. The tall (6’5”) and lanky (186 lb) right-hander possesses all of the skills of a top high school pitching prospect; an above average to elite fastball and two above average secondary pitches.
Tahnaj Thomas on the other hand was selected by the Indians via international free agency in December of 2016 as a 17 year old 3rd-baseman/shortstop out of the Bahamas and was signed for $200,000. After recognizing his raw talent the Indians had Thomas begin to focus on pitching. To begin the 2017 season he was sent to the Dominican Summer League to begin his professional baseball career as a pitcher with the DSL Indians. After only 3 games started and 5.1 innings, Thomas was quickly moved up to the Arizona League Indians (Cleveland’s rookie level affiliate) where he would join Mendoza in a starting rotation for the first time.
The rest of the 2017 season was uneventful for both Thomas and Mendoza. Thomas finished the season with 5.63 ERA, 34K/33BB and a 1.852 WHIP between the two league last in 38.1 innings pitched. Mendoza began his professional career 6.00 ERA, 2K/2BB and a 2.333 WHIP in only 3 innings.
Because of Thomas’ pitching inexperience and inconsistency he returned to AZL Indians for the 2018 season. Mendoza joined him after only pitching 3 innings during the previous year. 2018 was a better year for both Thomas and Mendoza, although Thomas’ improvements were only in limited action. Thomas finished the year only appearing in 8 games, 6 of which he started. He did strike out 27 batters while only walking 10 and lowering his WHIP to 1.169 in 19 innings.
Mendoza had a little more exposure as he pitched in 10 games, 3 of which he started, for a total of 37.1 innings. He improved his WHIP to 1.420, his ERA to 4.58 and 37 strikeouts, but still struggled with control by giving up 20 walks. Then came the off-season between the 2018 and 2019 seasons when both Thomas and Mendoza were sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates as part of the Gonzalez-Luplow trade. Two pieces of the trade that went unnoticed by many people in both fan bases.
Upon arriving with the Pirates they were both assigned to the Bristol Pirates, which is where this story began. Both starting their third professional seasons at the rookie level, both starting off with a new organization. However the 2019 season was completely different for one of these young pitchers.
Tahnaj Thomas started to put everything together, while it was much of the same struggles he experienced in previous years for Dante Mendoza. The raw talent that had been discovered by the Indians had been polished and was starting to shine. In his first season in a Pirates’ uniform Thomas struck out 59 batters while only walking 14 in 48.1 innings. He posted career bests in both ERA (3.17) and WHIP (1.117). It was a coming out party for the young right-hander from the Bahamas. Mendoza put up very similar numbers to the ones he had posted the previous two years. He ended the year with a 5.82 ERA, a 1.523 WHIP and 39K/28BB, as his battles with control continued.
With the 2020 season on the horizon the projected outlooks for Thomas and Mendoza are very different and they could soon break from the similar path that they have followed over the past 3 seasons. Thomas is now the Pirates seventh best pitching prospect (#18 overall). He has a plus fastball (60 grade) that regularly reaches 92-96 mph, with a lot of movement up in the zone. His slider (55 grade) is in the low 80’s and flashes some pretty elusive action. He has recently added a changeup that clearly needs some work, but at only 20 years of age he has time to develop it.
Mendoza on the other hand has yet to take that first big step forward and is probably still an unknown to even some of the most dedicated prospect analysts (pro and amateur). So I guess the real question is, where do each of these “throw-ins” from a pretty memorable trade for Pirates fans fit into the future of the team? For Thomas I believe his journey will continue with the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s high-A affiliate) of the Florida State League to begin the 2020. If he has success that is similar to what he experienced last year for Bristol he could easily be donning a Curve jersey in Altoona for the Pirates AA team in the Eastern League. As for Mendoza I see him starting out the year with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s low-A ffiliate) in the South Atlantic League. The only hope he has of moving up to Bradenton by the end of the year would be to gain more control/command of his pitches and reduce the number of free passes he allows to opposing batters.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement