SURPRISE, Ariz. — After missing the first two months with an oblique strain, right-hander Quinn Priester made 19 starts in the Pirates’ minor-league system and pitched seven innings three times.
Priester, a former Cary-Grove High School standout, hopes this is just the start of a lengthy career.
“In my perfect world, what Sandy Alcantara did this year is hopefully what I can give myself an opportunity to do in the big leagues,” Priester said last month while making up for lost innings by pitching for Surprise in the Arizona Fall League.
“Pitch 200-plus innings, take a load off the bullpen, make their lives easier, pitch a lot of quality innings and help the team. For me, it’s not as much focusing on the strikeouts but getting balls in play quickly.”
The 6-3, 210-pound Priester, 22, seeks a balance that has become increasingly difficult to achieve. Alcantara was one of only seven pitchers to throw at least 200 innings, pitching a major-league-high 228„ for the Marlins.
In an era in which strikeouts are rising, Priester said he’s more inclined to induce contact earlier in counts to help his chances of pitching deeper and to alleviate the workload of his relievers.
John Baker remembers one of his first days as the Pirates’ director of coaching and player development in the spring of 2021 when Priester, who missed all of the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, threw a bullpen session in which his fastball was clocked at 98 mph.
“If anyone has a chance to be an Alcantara-type pitcher, he has all the makeup components of that,” Baker said. “And when you see someone that young who can spin a breaking ball like he can, manipulate the ball in and out of the strike zone like he has this year, it’s a lot to dream on, for sure.”
Priester, the second-best prospect in the Pirates’ organization, according to Baseball America, had a 3.29 ERA in those 19 starts at three minor-league levels. The AFL is deemed a finishing school for some top prospects, but Priester likely will start the 2023 season at Indianapolis, where he threw five scoreless innings in his Triple-A debut Sept. 21.
Priester is grateful the AFL allows him to enhance his development and that he won’t be graded strictly on statistics. He has been victimized by big innings early in games that have inflated his ERA to 6.26 and forced him to pitch more economically while learning to work out of jams.
“There definitely is a weight off your shoulder that you don’t have to stare at your ERA or that those numbers are going to follow you along everywhere,” said Priester, who struck out 22 in 23 innings entering the last week of the AFL season. “It’s ‘get as good as you can, work on what you need to do and have the hitters that are here help you.’ ’’
Baker was eager to see how much Priester has improved with his four-pitch mix, particularly his two-seam fastball that he said produced a 60% ground-ball rate during the 2022 regular season.
“But he can still get better,” said Baker, who served as a catcher (2014) and as a mental-skills coordinator for the Cubs (2017-20). “I think Quinn can tell you he can still get better. And you still look at him, despite the polish, he’s still an unfinished product.
“He still has room to grow, which is so exciting for him and us, knowing when he comes in next year, we fully expect him to be better than he was this year based on what we saw last year.”
Despite not throwing more than 97‰ innings in a regular season, Priester has no doubts about his major-league readiness.
“I feel ready, but that’s not for me to decide,” Priester said. “I’m going to keep my head down, keep doing what I’m doing and give myself a chance of hopefully making the club at some point next year, whenever the team decides they’re ready for me.”
Priester grew up a Cubs fans and vividly remembers the hype of the young core that contributed heavily to a 2016 World Series title.
“Oh, yeah,” Priester said. “I was around for all of it.”
After two consecutive 100-loss seasons and four consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates hope to turn the corner soon with five players ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects while being ranked ninth in farm-system talent with Ke’Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz in the infancy of their major-league careers.
“Anything is possible, that’s for sure,” Priester said with a smile. “That’s the mentality we take. We’re all trying to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be, hopefully become a winning team in Pittsburgh, and we’ll help each other when we get there.”
At the same time, “you can get caught daydreaming, but we still need to put the work in, put one foot in front of the other, keep developing. But it’s super-exciting, no doubt.”
Priester felt guilty about not realizing outfielder Jack Suwinski was a Chicago native until the midst of Suwinski’s 19-homer season as a rookie.
“I should have known who he is,” Priester said sheepishly.
Priester, however, was in the midst of his own mission after suffering the oblique injury toward the end of spring training.
“This is somebody who wants to compete against the best people in the world,” Baker said. “He has that hunger. This is a guy who wants to pitch against a red-hot Phillies lineup. That’s what he wants to be. That, to him, is a reward for all the work he’s done. And that’s not something you see every day.”