Henry Davis is tearing up the Eastern League at Double-A Altoona. Quinn Priester is arguably the hottest pitcher in the International League with Triple-A Indianapolis.
Those are two of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ prospects that fans are clamoring to see called up to the major leagues. The Pirates have lost 16 of their last 21 games following their surprising 20-8 start and talk-show callers and social media want changes.
So, when does the time come for general manager Ben Cherington to try to shake the Pirates out of their doldrums and call up someone like Davis or Priester? The answer is a bit complicated.
“It really depends on the particular case that we’re talking about,” Cherington said. “Then, there’s a number of variables with that. Start with the individual players themselves, whether they’re a player on the major league team or the minor leagues, where are they, what is the performance? Where are they working on? Trying to get under the hood on that as much as we can, what are the skills that may or may not translate as smoothly to their environment?
“The simple way to answer is, is a particular player actually going to help us have a better chance to win a game? And if so, when is that? What is the answer you asked to that question? That’s kind of what we focus on.”
Davis would seem to be a logical upgrade for the Pirates.
The 23-year-old has hit 10 home runs in 33 games at Altoona with a .299/.457/.615 slash line. Pirates catchers are hitting .227/.291/.307 with one home run in 49 games. Primary catcher Austin Hedges has a .154 batting average through 28 games.
However, Davis is also considered a below-average defender. In 23 games behind the plate so far in 2023, he has two errors, one passed ball and thrown 3 of 14 runners attempting to steal – 21%. Many scouts feel he will eventually settle in at first base, right field or designated hitter in the major leagues.
Conversely, Hedges has three defensive runs saved this season after notching 75 over the previous five seasons. He rates even higher in the Pirates’ proprietary defensive metrics.
The Pirates signed Hedges to a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent in December specifically for his defense and ability to work with pitchers. They knew he was one of the worst hitters in the big leagues.
“Catching defense is part of pitching,” Cherington said. “In our internal stuff, we believe our catching defense has been a strength. We’ve been one of the better teams in baseball in catching defense. If you believe that contributes to pitching performance, we believe it does. Well, that’s something we have to be mindful of.
“It’s a long answer. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it. But we want to keep getting better. We want to keep finding ways to do that. If there are players in the organization who can help us do that in some way, whether it’s short-term or some point in the season, we’re not going to be shy about trying to make that happen.”
Cherington says the same mindset applies to the pitching staff. Right-hander Luis Ortiz was promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis earlier this month when Vince Velasquez was placed on the injured list with elbow inflammation and has made three starts for the Pirates.
Priester has won each of his last four starts with a 1.13 ERA after going 1-3 with a 7.78 ERA in his first five outings of the season. Ortiz was 4-1 with a 2.23 ERA in six starts at Indianapolis when he was called up but also made four starts for the Pirates at the end of last season.
“I think he’s a young pitcher who’s making the adjustment at Triple-A for the first extended stretch of time that he’s had there,” Cherington said of Priester. “And he’s learning how to use his pitches against a little older version of hitter and one of his, he’s got a lot of strengths, certainly one of them is just his success comes in part from the assortment of pitches and the mix and the sequencing of that mix and the execution of that mix.
“He is a pitcher. He’s got lots of pitches and he’s got to use all of them and he’s learning how to do that successfully at the Triple-A level. So, it’s been fun to watch.”
When will the fun of watching Davis or Priester develop come to Pittsburgh? It’s a tricky question to answer.