Pirates' Prospect Spotlight: Spring Training Edition
With Spring Training moving into full swing, Pittsburgh Pirates Fans are going to be inundated with a lot of unfamiliar players’ names, some much more than others. Some of these names will come and go before you even learn how to pronounce them correctly. Others will stick around deep into Spring Training and certain ones might end up making the opening day roster; insert J.B. Shuck here. Even if they don't stick around this year, it's not the end for them. They still have time to showcase their abilities and, even if it's not with the Pirates, reach a major league team. This is the hope of all of these guys and many others as they enter the facilities at LECOM Park (aka McKechnie Field) this spring. Now I could tell you about all of the prospects and minor leaguers at Pirates' spring training this year, but that would probably turn into a novel. Also, there are already tons of articles out there, some by me, about the more well-known prospects: # 1 Mitch Keller, #2 Ke’Bryan Hayes, #3 Oneil Cruz, #11 Kevin Kramer, #12 Will Craig and #18 Jason Martin. These are the guys that most of us are already familiar with and/or have seen play for the big-league club over the past couple of years. Today I want to focus on some of the guys who have not gotten as much attention.
Jared Oliva, CF
Oliva is a currently the Pirates #13 Prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 30. After being drafted by Pittsburgh in the 7th Round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Arizona, Oliva has always been a consistent and solid ball player. The times that I have seen him play in Bradenton for the Marauders or in Altoona for the Curve, I always know what to expect, 110% effort all of the time.
Whether it is in the batter’s box, in the field or on the base paths, you it has always been the same. However, in the beginning of the 2019 season Oliva was struggling. Through the first two months hitting only .206, with a .603 OPS, 2 HRS and 3 extra base hits. Then Oliva literally turned the page. For the next two months he was on an absolute force. His average over June and July was .342, his OPS ballooned to .923, and he had 4 HRs and 23 extra base hits.
Towards the end of the season he cooled down a bit, but had already earned himself an invitation to the Arizona Fall League to play for the Peoria Javelinas, as well as the MVP award for the Altoona Curve.
After arriving in Peoria, he maintained the same mindset he has always had and continued to impress. He was one of the best hitters in the league and earned a spot in the Fall Star game. For the season he posted a .312/.413/.473 slash line, with 13 extra base hits. A huge strength throughout Olivia’s minor league career has been his speed, as he has stolen 87 bases across three levels and 36 alone last year in AA. Oliva’s impressive year was capped off as he was invited to Pirates Spring Training as a Non-Roster Invitee on January 20 of this year.
JT Brubaker, RHP
Brubaker is currently the Pirates #28 Prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 30. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 6th Round of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft out of the University of Akron. For the next few years Brubaker methodically moved up through the Pirates' farm system with little to no fanfare. Then in 2018 he burst onto the scene by leading the entire Pirates system in ERA for the season, dominating in his second year with the Altoona Curve (1.80 ERA, a 1.057 WHIP and 35 Ks in 35 Innings) and continuing to perform well after his promotion to the Indianapolis Indians (3.10 ERA, a 1.319 WHIP and 96 Ks in 119 innings).
There was a decent amount of hype and expectations for the young righty coming into 2019 and, in his first 4 starts, he didn’t disappoint. He posted a 2-1 record, a 2.57 ERA, a 1.095 WHIP and 20 Ks in 21 innings. Then came the forearm injury. At the end of April this past year, Brubaker was placed on the 7-Day Injured List with a right forearm strain. Less than two months later Brubaker got the OK to report to the West Virginia Black Bears for a few rehab starts.
In 6.2 innings over two starts he had a 1.35 ERA. However, he walked as many as he struck out, 4, and had a 1.350 WHIP. After these two starts he was shut down again for what would end up being the remainder of the season. On September 30, 2019 the Pirates selected Brubaker’s contract from the Indians and added him to the 40-man roster.
Blake Cederlind, RHP
Cederlind, the Pirates #30 Prospect on the MLB Pipeline Top 30, was originally drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 22nd round of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft from Merced College. He opted not to sign with the Twins and instead returned to college for his sophomore year. He gambled on himself and it paid off as he was drafted in the 5th round of 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft by the Pirates.
Cederlind struggled off and on for the first 3 years of his professional career before everything started to come together at the beginning of the 2019 season. After a very short stint with the Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh’s High A/Advanced Affiliate) of the Florida State League at the beginning of the season, his second straight year at that level, he was promoted to the Altoona Curve (Pittsburgh’s AA Affiliate) of the Eastern League.
At this point something just clicked. Over the next 45 innings (31 appearances) he struck out 42, while only walking 16. His ERA dropped to an elite 1.77 and his WHIP was 1.03. Toward the very end of the season, due to performance and also injuries at the AAA and MLB levels,he was promoted to the Indianapolis Indians (Pittsburgh’s AAA Affiliate) of the International League.
In a small sample size, he began to struggle again, but this is almost always to be expected when you jump two levels in one year. He pitched only 6 innings. His stat line was a 7.50 ERA, 5K/2B and a 2.17. In spite of his disappointing performances in AAA, but more than likely because of his impressive stint in AA with the Curve, Blake was assigned by the Pirates to the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League.
In this league he would face many of the top players in Minor League Baseball. In minimal action (8.0 innings pitched) he allowed only 1 run (1.13 ERA) and struck out 9 batters. On November 20, 2019 Cederlind was somewhat of a surprise addition to the 40-man roster at the deadline to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft. With this designation he earned an automatic invitation to Pirates' spring training.
Signed as a free agent in August of 2018, this young right hander seemed to come out of nowhere. Mears had pitched for two years at Sacramento City College, as well as two summers in the Northwoods League playing for the William Stingers. It was during his second summer there that he really hit his stride.
In 14 games and 19.1 innings he posted a 1.40 ERA, a .724 WHIP and 29 Ks. Due to being signed in August he was only able to appear in 3 games, but he continued to impress: striking out 8 in 4 innings. Last summer, Mears began the year with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s Low A Affiliate) of the South Atlantic League. It only took 11.2 innings to realize he was ready to move up to the next level, as he clearly outplayed his competition: striking out 19 with a 1.029 WHIP.
His stay with the Bradenton Marauders (High A/Advanced) lasted a little longer, but Mears continued his dominance. His strike out rate dropped slightly from 14.7 per 9 to 12.9, but his WHIP stayed steady (1.029 to 1.033). Toward the end of the year he was promoted for the second time in one season to the Altoona Curve (AA).
He was only there long enough to pitch 5 innings, but he once again impressed and earned an assignment to the Arizona Fall League where he would be teammates with Jared Oliva on the Javelinas. In the AFL he didn’t give up a run, struck out 11 in 8 innings. Mears’ whirlwind of a season with a non-roster invitation to Pirates' spring training.
On July 29, 2019 Cody Ponce was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Jordan Lyles from the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers had originally chosen Cody Ponce, a 6’5 240-pound junior right-handed starter out of California Polytechnic State University, in the 2nd Round (55th Player Overall) of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft. During his junior season at Cal Poly, Ponce posted a 5-3 record, a 1.44 ERA, a 1.091 WHIP, and 67 Ks in 62.1 innings. Based on this impressive resume, as well as stint in the Cape Cod League in 2014, Ponce earned a $1,108,000 bonus upon signing with the Brewers.
At one point during his stay in the Brewers farm system, just prior to the 2018 season, Ponce reached his highest spot on the Brewers MLB Pipeline Top 30 Prospects, landing at #17.
Since arriving in the Pirates Organization, he pitched briefly with the Altoona Curve (AA). In three appearances and 6 innings, he had 6 Ks and a .667 WHIP. From there he was promoted to the Indianapolis Indians (AAA). In 18.2 innings and 4 appearances as a starter, something he hadn’t done consistently since the middle of 2018 and hadn’t done exceptionally well at since at least 2017. Ponce had a 5.30 ERA and a 1.339 WHIP, but did manage 20 K’s.
At the end of the season he was assigned to the Peoria Javelina’s of Arizona Fall League, where he once again remained a starter. In 5 starts he put up an impressive 2.35 ERA, a decent 1.261 WHIP and had 27 K’s in 23 innings. Not bad at all for a mostly hitter-friendly league.
Immediately following the Fall League season, Ponce went on to start 3 games for Team USA in the Premier12, including the Bronze Medal Game against Mexico. In these 3 starts he had a 2.03 ERA and 11 Ks in 13 innings, including 6 in 5 innings in the game against Mexico. On November 20, 2019 Ponce was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from Rule 5, which came along with an invitation to spring training, as well as autographs for my three kids at Pirates’ Fest.
As spring training progresses and the regular season eventually begins, I look forward to watching these young men and many others like them as they work toward achieving their dreams and I wish them all nothing but the best.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement