Grouping the Pirates’ Top Prospects in to Tiers

Earlier we posted our updated top 10 prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.  Ranking players is something I’ve been doing for a long time, even before running this site.  Prior to running this site, I provided content to various national media outlets, but also wrote about fantasy football and fantasy baseball.  Every year I would gather about 500 baseball players, and through hours of number crunching, formulas, practice drafts, and editing, I would come up with a draft cheat sheet that would end up being distributed by the company I wrote for.

The numerical rankings are convenient, but at the same time, they can be misleading.  They paint the picture that there’s a difference between two players ranked side by side, or that there’s a major gap between a guy ranked 10th overall, and a guy ranked 20th overall.  Because of this, I always found tiered rankings to be a better method of ranking players.  In each tier there will be subtle differences, but ultimately you’re talking about a group of guys with the same talent level.

We posted the top ten prospects earlier, but how does the system break down in to tiers?

Tier 1

Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon

These two stand above the rest.  I’ve said many times that they’re pretty much the same pitcher.  In fact, it’s almost scary how similar they are.  Both are big framed pitchers.  Taillon is 6′ 6″, 225 pounds.  Cole is 6′ 4″, 220 pounds.  Both have upper 90s fastballs, and despite those fastballs, both have been hit around more than they should due to leaving the ball up in the zone.  Both have exceptional breaking pitches: for Taillon it’s a curveball, and for Cole it’s a slider, both grading as plus offerings.

The main difference is that Gerrit Cole has a plus changeup, while Taillon is just starting to develop his changeup.  That’s not a huge concern.  Cole came out of high school in 2008, and didn’t fully develop his changeup until before the 2011 season.  Under the same time frame, Taillon has until before the 2013 season to develop his changeup.

Both pitchers profile as top 25 prospects in the game, and maybe even top 10 overall prospects.  They also both profile as ace starters, giving Pirates fans a rotation to dream about one day.

Marte falls in tier two thanks to his hitting and added power in Altoona.

Tier 2

Josh Bell, Luis Heredia, Starling Marte

This group features three young players who are all on the verge of top prospect status.  Some might disagree with Marte being in this group, but we’ve always been higher on Marte than everyone else.  This group has three guys who profile as potential above average starters, with the outside chance of becoming star players.

Bell has plus power potential from both sides of the plate, and could eventually develop in to a .300 hitter with 30 home run potential in the majors.  Heredia has the makings of four plus pitches, and can already throw in the mid-90s, even though he just turned 17 last week.  He could develop in to an ace, and might even be better than Taillon and Cole in the long run, although he’s raw, and thus, less of a guarantee than the guys in tier one.  Marte plays outstanding defense, and has great speed.  He’s also shown a good hitting ability, has lowered his strikeouts this year, and is hitting for power.  The lack of walks are what hold him back from the top tier, although that shouldn’t hold him back from success in the majors one day.

Putting these guys in perspective, I’d say they rank up there with guys in the 26-75 range in national prospect lists.  Again, Marte might not make that cut, but we’ve always been higher on him.

Tier 3

Stetson Allie, Robbie Grossman, Tony Sanchez

All three of these guys have the potential to become above-average players in the majors.  They fall out of the second tier either because of their raw stuff (Allie), their down years (Sanchez) or a simple lack of playing time in the upper levels (Grossman).

Allie is a guy who has top of the rotation stuff, just like Taillon and Heredia.  The problem is that Taillon’s fallback is his lack of a changeup.  Heredia’s fallback is his raw abilities and the control issues that come from his lack of experience.  Allie has both fallbacks.  He lacks a changeup, and he struggles with control, at an older age than Heredia.  He’s not a guy who is counted out yet, but those drawbacks drop him down a tier.

Sanchez would probably be in tier two, and maybe in the top tier, if he was hitting like we saw in 2010 in high-A.  A college hitter like Sanchez is obviously going to have an easier time in high-A than AA, but his troubles this year have exceeded the expected drop off.  If he was hitting for power at least, he’d be in tier 2, thanks to his defense.  If he was hitting for average, power, and continuing to improve his defense, he might have a shot at tier one.

Robbie Grossman has fewer question marks than the previous two players.  He’s stepped up his game this year, with a much lower strikeout rate, an extremely high walk rate, and he’s also hitting for average and a bit of power.  Defensively he won’t be as strong as Starling Marte, and offensively he won’t be as good as Josh Bell, so his upside is more of an above-average starter, with little chance to be more than a strong support player, unless he somehow adds more power to his game.

These guys would probably contend for the 76-100 spots in top prospect lists, and I’m sure would all at least draw consideration for top 100 lists.

Cain is part of the group of depth prospects, although he's still valuable, with the potential to be a #3 starter.

Tier 4

Colton Cain, Matt Curry, Alex Dickerson, Zack Dodson, Nick Kingham, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jordy Mercer, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Mel Rojas Jr., Zack Von Rosenberg, Justin Wilson

You could probably break this group up in to smaller tiers.  This just makes up the group that battled it out for the final two spots in the top ten rankings.  This group includes the Altoona Four, all of whom have had down years this year.  It also includes a few of the top 2009 prep pitchers.  It includes the top two first base prospects in Alex Dickerson and Matt Curry, who both make the list due to their ability to hit for power, and hit for power to all fields.  Then there’s more top prospects, like McPherson, who is having success with good stuff in AA, Mercer, who is hitting for power from the shortstop position, Rojas, who is a projectable hitter with a lot of upside, and Kingham, who is one year behind the 2009 prep pitchers, but easily ranks right there with them, if not above them.

You won’t find any current top 100 prospects here, but this is a group with guys who can easily make the jump to the next level.  There might not be any potential tier one players in this group.  Not unless Alex Dickerson becomes a 40 homer a year guy, Zack Von Rosenberg discovers a 97 MPH fastball, or Mel Rojas Jr. takes his batting practice power and becomes the internal version of Josh Bell, only with Starling Marte defense.  However, some of these guys could jump to tier two, being above-average players with the potential to be more.  The conservative approach is that this is a group of guys who will be no better than #3 starters or average to above-average position players.

Basically, this is the top level of depth in the system, and it’s nice to see that the group takes the Pirates from their 9th best prospect to their 21st best prospect.  When you’ve got guys like Taillon and Cole who are blue chip prospects, and even when you’ve got guys with question marks, like Allie and Sanchez, this depth group can pale in comparison.  The reality is that this is an important group to have, and it’s important to have a lot of these players in your system.


  • Grew up a Pirates fan, living in Pittsburgh. But I’ve given up. McCutchen will make a good addition to the Yankees or Mets. Walker will be a good Cub or Cardinal. Cole will be a Yankee. Taillon will be with Boston when he’s an ace. Uh, let’s go bucs to nowhere. 

  • poor Gorky is now tierless

  • The short sightedness of many commenters on this post is absurd, although it does mean more people are reading this site.

    Great article Tim.

  • Btw, I loved the idea of Tiers…….still creates room for arguments, but makes the system a lot clearer.

  • I sure hope they can fix Cole and Taillon’s ‘elevating the Fb’ problem. If not…….

  • and Harrison and Fryer – same question

    • See above for Harrison, but he wouldn’t make the 4th tier.  Every team has an Eric Fryer around their minors.  He’s a potentially interesting good backup catcher, but nothing super prospecty.

      As Tim said, the 4th tier takes you to his personal 21 prospects.

  • d’Arnaud and Presley will be considered by many other groups such and BP and BA.  Where would they fit?

    • We all collectively agreed on our “after the draft” lists to not include d’Arnaud/Presley/Harrison, etc. because they are very close to exceeding the 130 AB threshold for prospecthood.  By the end of September all 3 will no longer be prospects.

      Watson and Moskos are trickier…for relievers the accepted standard is 30 appearances because it takes a while for a rookie reliever to hit 50 innings.

  • The only thing holding Marte back from tier one is the ability to take a few more pitches. One more walk a week would make all the difference.

  • I think most of this seems pretty accurate… I will say this tier thing has so much to do with perceived potential, for that reason alone Allie has to be in the tier he is in.  Grossman is a tough call for me, he almost belongs halfway between tier 3 and 4, but if he can produce the same way next year than he will solidify that spot in my eyes….

    Also I believe Dickerson will eventually be considered a tier 3 player.  

    Thing to add… Bell could eventually become a tier 1 player but he has a couple things holding him back, he hasn’t even played minor league ball yet, and also he profiles as a left fielder… after his second year in the minors I think we will have a much better idea about him…

  • Cain should be ahead of Allie. How about this guy gets someone out before we give him tier 3. Wilson and Locke also should get consideration for tier 3.

  • i hate the tiers b/c we won’t be seeing tier 1 talent for a while after this year b/c our ML club will be improving…that’s why Bell signing was so clutch. Plus, your tiers are not accurate. I like these rankings: Cole, Taillon, Bell, Heredia, Marte, Sanchez, Kingham, Allie, Cain, McPherson, Wilson, ZVR, Owens, Grossman, Locke, Morris, Gorkys, Lincoln, Mercer, Dickerson, Dodgson

    Hague is 22, Rojas 40+, Curry 30+

    Please stop with the Grossman talk. He’s been pussy footing around for a while in the system. If he does this next year in AA, (like Marte proved me wrong this year) then yes he’s a top 10 prospect. All i see with Grossman is a Jordan Schaefer and that doesn’t excite me at all. 

    Yeah, so please don’t ever have Grossman within one ‘tier’ of my boy Josh Bell ever, EVER again. Josh Bell is tier 1 all day and Grossman is tier 4.

    • jordan schafer is solid… had some injuries that slowed him down, if we have a healthy version of schafer in our system that’s quality and that is considered tier 4 in our system we have the best system in all of baseball

  • Hague continues to get no love even though all he does is hit.

    • plays first and doesn’t hit homers… dime a dozen, you can get a guy like him in every draft after the 5th round… i have nothing against him and he’s quality but without power he doesn’t belong near the top of a prospect list

  • I like the tiers. Only question i have is tier 3 and tier 4

    I think Jeff Locke belongs in Tier 3 and Allie until his control is under wraps in tier 4. One other guy who belongs in Tier 3 is 99 mph max heater Justin Wilson until Anthony Sanchez can find his bat. outside of that i agree on everyone else.

    • im still not buying that 99mph stuff from Wilson.  we should wait and see how other radar guns are scoring him until we believe that hype.

    • I don’t agree with your assessment of Sanchez.  If he’d only be a .220 hitter, I’ll take that with exceptional defensive play, that’s why a catcher’s there; you need to be strong up the middle.  I think in the long run he’ll prove to be much more of a contributing offensive factor than he’s shown this year in AA.  He’s still young though, and I’d definitely be more focused on his play during the last two months of the season compared to the first two months, as he’s still a work in progress.  I’d also wager that he’ll only benefit as he continues to build a gap in time away from having his jaw broken last year.