W.Va. Black Bears Become a Pipeline for Pirates

Club Kicks Off Season Monday at Home Field

GRANVILLE, W.Va. — In just two short years, the West Virginia Black Bears have gone from a fledgling Class A franchise in the New York-Penn League to a major pipeline of talent for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor-league system.

When full-season minor league squads began play in the spring, 40 former Black Bears dotted rosters up and and down the Pirates farm system. And when the Black Bears open their 76-game season Monday night at home against the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, manager Brian Esposito hopes to get plenty more players on the way to achieving their major-league dreams.

”It’s just a matter of taking guys from different walks of life and molding them together,” Esposito said Saturday morning during the team’s Media Day activities inside the sparkling Monongalia County Ballpark, just outside Morgantown.

”This will be the first time a lot of guys will be playing together with players from a different country. So, there are a lot of things that go into it. It’s just a matter of how we assimilate the guys into the clubhouse and turn them into pros.”

West Virginia’s roster is filled with players from all walks of life — from Texas to California and from Cuba to the Dominican. No matter where they’re from, or what their skill level, Esposito is ready to welcome them into the Pirate family.

The challenge, he said, is not so much for him, but for the players to adjust to a new environment and continue to learn the nuances of the pro game.

”It’s fun to come in and it’s always a challenge when you have guys coming in and out,” he said. ”I like where we are in terms of getting guys that have been at Pirates City. We want to get them under the lights. They’ve earned the opportunity to play. We’ve signed some new guys through the draft and we’ll maneuver our roster accordingly.

”It’s a good opportunity for our young guys we’ve had come up to play here. We’ll see where we they go from here.”

While many of the Black Bears’ players are new to the region, Esposito is, too, sort of. In his fourth year in the Pirates organization, this is his first year as Black Bears skipper after spending last year guiding the Pirates’ Class A affiliate in Charleston — the West Virginia Power.

Esposito, also the organization’s minor-league catching coordinator, spent two seasons (2014-15) with the Jamestown Jammers.

He said he’s ready to offer any guidance he can, although it’s up to the players to put the work in.

”Ultimately, it’s their career,” he said. ”What I’ve done in my career is just information I can pass on to them.

”I’ll do the best I can to provide the best information and the best experiences I can, both positive and negative, to help the guys and get them going.”

Esposito praised his staff, which includes pitching coach Tom Filer and hitting coach Jonathan Prieto, on aiding with the development process.

”Our job is to not just identify problems, but to fix them,” he said. ”It’s an organizational effort.”

Filer is eager to get the season under way and is excited about the staff he’s been given to help mold.

”We’re very fortunate in the organization to get some good pitchers here and it’s very nice to see what can happen,” he said. ”We look beyond right now and try to look into the future. We’ve been fortunate with our kids.”

Edgar Santana, a member of West Virginia’s 2015 NYPL-winning squad, has played for Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis.

One player hoping to reach that level is right-hander Brandon Bingle. Bingle, a 5-foot-10, 185-pounder who was drafted in the 22nd round in 2016, is back with the Black Bears after working in 16 games last year.

”I’m just working on staying healthy and trying to craft my offspeed pitches in any situation in the count,” he said. ”I’m not trying to waste any pitches.”

While Bingle said he had some arm issues last year, he’s ready to go this summer.

”Attitude and mentality are big,” he said. ”Keep doing the same stuff every day, stay strong-minded and know what you’re working for.”

That’s the same attitude adopted by outfielder Ryan Nagle. The former West Virginia Power player was also a member of the Black Bears’ winning 2015 squad.

”It’s fun coming back and being around the new guys,” he said. ”I’m just trying to barrel the baseball a little more, hitting-wise. I just want to focus on hitting the ball, drive it around the park and try to hit a few more home runs, doubles, stuff like that.”

Andrew Walker, an infielder who’s also spent time playing in Charleston, is hoping the same attitude that got him to the minor leagues will translate to a career in the pros.

”I was just playing my heart out and playing the game the right way; doing the right things on and off the field,” he said. ”I just want to stay healthy and do my job.”

The Black Bears play two games vs. Mahoning Valley, a Cleveland Indians’ affiliate, before hitting the road for a six-game trip. West Virginia returns home for a three-game series against the Scrappers on June 28.