Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.
Prior to and immediately following three straight playoff appearances from 2013-15, times were tough for the Pirates. There is, however, hope on the horizon.
Pittsburgh's farm system boasts five of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects, led by No. 22 Henry Davis, who hit the ground running after his selection as the first overall pick in the 2021 Draft. No. 49 Quinn Priester, No. 52 Oneil Cruz, No. 62 Nick Gonzales and No. 85 Liover Peguero round out the list. All told, 15 of the organization's Top 30 prospects have yet to reach Double-A.
Pittsburgh's six domestic affiliates posted a collective 313-257 (.549) record, the best winning percentage in the National League and the fifth-best mark in baseball. Bradenton took home the Low-A Southeast championship while Greensboro led the system with 74 wins before succumbing to Bowling Green in the High-A East Finals.
The talent is noteworthy, and some prospects could move fast, but with the majority yet to set foot in Double-A, patience is a must. That might be a hard sell for fans who haven't seen their club win a World Series, much less play in one, since 1979. But the ship is pointed in the right direction.
Pirates Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Endy Rodriguez , Bradenton (98 games): A linchpin of Bradenton's offense, Rodriguez's transition to full-season competition went without a hitch. Obtained in a three-team, seven-player trade that involved the Mets and Padres last January, the 21-year-old established himself as a legitimate offensive force this season. Rodriguez overcame a slow start to finish with a .294/.380/.512 batting line, 46 extra-base hits -- including 15 homers -- and 73 RBIs. The system's 19th-ranked prospect figures to open 2022 with Greensboro.
First baseman -- Mason Martin, Double-A Altoona (112 games), Triple-A Indianapolis (eight games): Checking in at No. 17 on the list of Pirates prospects, Martin proved his powerful 2019 campaign was no fluke. After blasting 35 long balls two years ago, the 22-year-old led the organization with 25 homers in 2021, as well as doubles (29) and RBIs (81). A 17th-round pick in 2017, Martin's power is Major League-caliber, but strikeouts remain an issue. The Washington native whiffed in 37.5 percent of his plate appearances while his walk rate dropped below 10 percent for the first time as a professional.
"Mason exemplifies what someone with a strong work ethic can do," Pirates director of coaching and player development John Baker said. "He's a hardworking guy who is focused on what he needs to do in order to be successful and that has made him a favorite of our Minor League coaches. He has monstrous power and we're looking forward to see what he does in 2022 against Triple-A pitching."
Second baseman -- Nick Gonzales, High-A Greensboro (80 games): That Gonzales is "only" deemed Pittsburgh's fourth-best prospect speaks to the organization's top-level talent. In his first season after being drafted seventh overall in 2020, Gonzales put together arguably the best all-around season by a Bucs farmhand in 2021. The 22-year-old batted .302/.385/.565 with 51 extra-base hits, 18 homers, 54 RBIs, 53 runs and a 150 wRC+ across 369 plate appearances. Gonzales put an exclamation point on his season in a two-game stretch at the end of August when he hit a grand slam as part of a three-homer, eight-RBI performance. His encore featured two more jacks, including a walk-off slam.
Unsurprisingly, the New Mexico State product was all over the organizational leaderboard despite missing more than a month due to a hand injury. But the Arizona native shook off the rust and finished on a high note, batting .364 in August with 10 roundtrippers and 28 RBIs before closing the book on the season with a .298 September. Gonzales carried his success over into the Arizona Fall League, where he earned a spot on the AFL Rising Stars squad and finished with a .380/.483/.549 slash line in 19 games for Peoria.
"Nick is a stud," Baker said. "If not for his injury, his numbers would have been even more prolific. Even though it was his first year, he's already an excellent all-around player and showed a quiet leadership teams look for in high Draft picks. Nick is one of those unique cases who can turn on a 97-mph fastball and then punch a down-and-away slider into the opposite field in his next at-bat. He's really something special."
Third baseman -- Jared Triolo, Greensboro (108 games): Triolo was a steadying influence on both sides of the ball in 2021. The 23-year-old finished tied for the organizational lead with 29 doubles while finishing second in batting (.304) and RBIs (78). Overall, Triolo posted a .849 OPS, went deep 15 times and swiped 25 bases in 31 attempts across 473 plate appearances. In addition to his offensive exploits, the University of Houston product was a stabilizing force at the hot corner. Triolo committed only 10 errors in 254 chances and showed good range en route to earning a 2021 Minor League Gold Glove Award.
Shortstop -- Oneil Cruz, Altoona (62 games), Indianapolis (six games), Pittsburgh (two games): If physical size was a barometer for a player, the third-ranked Pirates prospect would be head and shoulders above the competition. Standing 6-foot-7, Cruz overcame a slow start and a six-week stint on the injured list to put up the best numbers of his career. The 23-year-old batted over .300 for the first time (.310) while compiling a .970 OPS on the strength of 38 extra-base hits, including 17 home runs. Despite playing in just 68 Minor League contests, Cruz scored 62 runs, drove in 47 and stole 19 bases in 22 attempts. That performance earned him a promotion to the Majors, where he homered and drove in three runs in nine at-bats.
"To say we're excited about Oneil is an understatement," Baker said. "You can see the physical tools when he's playing, but his focus and energy really turned a corner this year. When he missed time with his injury, he worked very hard to ensure a seamless transition once he returned. It showed a new level of maturity and work ethic. There were so many things to be excited about this year with Oneil. ... We think a great Major League player has arrived."
Matthew Fraizer, Greensboro (75 games), Altoona (37 games): An offensive centerpiece of Greensboro's lineup most of the season, Fraizer found the transition to Double-A equally as appetizing. Pittsburgh's 23rd-ranked prospect put together an all-around season that placed him among the organization's top 10 in every primary offensive category except for stolen bases. The 23-year-old led the Pirates in hitting (.306), total bases (240), hits (133) and runs (84). Overall, Fraizer batted .306/.388/.552 with 55 extra-base hits, 23 homers and 68 RBIs in 435 at-bats on his way to claiming the organization's Minor League Player of the Year.
"Our [Minor League] player of the year, and deservedly so," Baker said. "Matt dominated with Greensboro and continued to perform after we moved him up to Altoona. It was such a treat to see him unlock that potential while letting let him just be himself. And when he's himself, he's a bad man to play against."
Lolo Sanchez, Greensboro (104 games): Sanchez began to put everything together in 2021 after showing flashes in his first three Minor League seasons. Although the 22-year-old is not ranked among the Bucs' Top 30 prospects, his breakout performance featured a .826 OPS, 35 extra-base hits and 30 stolen bases.
Sanchez slugged 17 home runs across 396 at-bats after going deep 13 times in more than 1,100 at-bats his first three years. The Dominican Republic native is developing a reputation as a five-tool talent who supplements his developing power with an ability to walk (12.6 percent) while keeping his strikeout totals at an acceptable level (16.5 percent).
"Lolo is a fantastic talent and someone who is starting to open some eyes," Baker said. "He's a stolen-base threat all of the time and has that rare combo of power without striking out a lot. He has a good grasp of the strike zone, takes his walks and adds excellent defense in center field. He was a big part of the success our Greensboro club had."
Anthony Alford, Indianapolis (56 games), Pittsburgh (49 games): Alford's injury woes have been the primary roadblock to him realizing his potential. The former third-round Draft pick has played more than 100 games just twice since debuting in 2012, but the Pirates hope a change of scenery will alter his fortunes.
Plucked off waivers from Toronto in 2020, Alford was the Pirates' Opening Day center fielder but couldn't stick in the Majors. After clearing waivers in April, he tore apart Triple-A pitching, batting .307/.420/.593 with 14 homers and 41 RBIs in 56 games for Indianapolis. Now 27, the Mississippi native amassed a .717 OPS in 49 games with the Pirates after his promotion in August. He went deep five times among his 17 extra-base hits.
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Adrian Florencio, Bradenton (20 appearances, 19 starts): Tall and intimidating with a fastball to match, Florencio put together a dominating campaign with the Marauders. The 23-year-old led all Pirates Minor Leaguers with 117 strikeouts, averaging more than 11 whiffs per nine innings while cutting his walk rate nearly in half, from 4.6 per nine to 2.8. Florencio didn't give up more than one run in 10 of his 20 appearances, propelling him to a 2.46 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP and the nod as the Low-A Southeast Pitcher of the Year.
"Any time you can find a guy who throws strikes with all of his pitches, you're in for a treat," Baker said. "He doesn't come in on many prospect lists, but he's getting some deserved attention after a great season. Given his size, strength and repertoire, we expect him to move quickly."
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Omar Cruz, Altoona (14 starts), Greensboro (seven starts): Another piece of the three-team, seven-player deal last winter, Cruz impressed his new organization with a strong 2021. The southpaw set career highs across the board, starting 21 times and posting a 3.44 ERA in 99 1/3 innings, nearly as many as he had thrown his first two seasons combined. Cruz ran a strong 98-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio and limited opposing hitters to a .235 average, likely putting him on track to start at Triple-A in 2022.
"Omar did a wonderful job in his first year with us and really impressed with his ability to pitch," Baker said. "He's a soft-spoken guy off the field, but when he's on the mound, he's a completely different animal. He's locked in, works quick and has a terrific ability to execute his gameplan. We're very happy we picked him up."
Relief pitcher: Enmanuel Mejia, Bradenton (21 appearances), Greensboro (11 appearances): While his 32 appearances and 42 2/3 innings might pale in comparison to other relievers, it's fair to say Mejia might have had the most dominant season out of the bullpen in 2021.
The 22-year-old surrendered an unearned run in his first appearance on May 21. He did not allow another until July 22 and took an unblemished ERA into his 27th outing on Aug. 31, when he surrendered the only two earned runs of his campaign. Mejia's dominance included an 0.42 ERA, a .173 average-against and 53 strikeouts. The right-hander sports an 0.85 ERA and 16 saves in his first 50 career appearances.
Michael Avallone is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.