One of the best ways to figure out when (or if) a player is going to be promoted is by looking at what the organization has done with previous players. For the most part, each player is an individual circumstance and should be treated with an individual approach. However, there are usually a lot of trends you can find with an individual team which can be used to predict the path of future players.
For example, the Pirates have established a trend with their prep pitchers out of the draft. Most of them spend their first full season in extended Spring Training, then go to the New York-Penn League. The following season they make the jump to full season ball, spending the entire year in West Virginia. From there, we don’t have a lot of precedent, mostly because the 2009 prep pitchers are the only ones who would have had a chance to move beyond the next step. We know the next step is Bradenton, but we don’t know if a promotion is in line.
There are a few players in the system who are putting up strong numbers and could be in line for a promotion this year. I will note that in almost every case, fans start calling for a promotion at the first sign of success, while the team usually waits to see if that success can be maintained. The end result is that fans want a promotion several weeks or months before a player is actually promoted, leading to claims that the team is conservative.
I’ve always found the “conservative” talk funny for two reasons. One is that the Pirates aren’t really conservative. They’ve made some pretty aggressive promotions, and almost have a standard for aggressive moves (prep pitchers in the NYPL their first year, for example). The other reason is that there have been cases against moving players too fast (Pedro Alvarez struggling in the majors, Jameson Taillon falling apart after seven strong starts to begin the year in 2012). The Taillon example is a prime example why more time is better. There’s also a quote along the lines of “a hitter can do anything in 60 at-bats”. Just because a guy is having success in the first 1-2 months of the year doesn’t mean he’s mastered the level. In general a larger sample size will tell you if a player is ready, rather than looking at 1-2 months worth of good numbers and hoping that those numbers are legit.
With that said, let’s look at five players who are putting up strong numbers this season, and going with the “if they continue with these numbers” line of thinking, let’s look at when they could be promoted based on precedent.
Level: Altoona (Double-A)
His Numbers: 2.91 ERA, 10 GS, 55.2 IP, 10.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9
Precedent: The Pirates have had a lot of good pitchers come through Altoona in recent years (The Altoona Four, Kyle McPherson, Gerrit Cole), but I don’t know if they have anyone like Taillon who started the year there after three starts the previous season. So I’ll be focusing more on innings pitched, and less on Taillon’s specific circumstance.
Gerrit Cole would be the most comparable to Taillon. He only threw 59 innings with Altoona before being promoted at the end of the season last year. However, the promotion wasn’t really an earned promotion, but something to challenge Cole (SEE: P.J. Forbes’ comments here). Based on his struggles so far in Triple-A, you could argue that Cole should have spent more time in Altoona. His numbers were almost identical to Taillon’s numbers right now: 2.90 ERA in 59 innings, with a 9.2 K/9 and a 3.5 BB/9.
Kyle McPherson moved up to Altoona in the second half of the 2011 season, put up strong numbers, then returned to Altoona in 2012. Overall he had 138 innings at the level, then quickly moved to Triple-A and the majors.
The Altoona Four (Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens) spent the entire 2010 season at Double-A (Morris and Locke started off back in high-A, and also started 2011 with Double-A). Altoona was also a good team that year, winning the Eastern League championship, which was a big reason those guys were kept together.
Potential Promotion: Cole would be the most comparable, but I’m not sure he would be a good precedent. He was moved up mostly because it was the end of the year and Indianapolis was in the playoffs. My guess is that he’d spend more time in Double-A if there was another month left in the season. I don’t think Taillon will spent a full season with Altoona like the 2010 group, or like McPherson did spread out over two seasons. So my guess would be a promotion for Taillon will come somewhere in the middle. Cole would be too soon (and probably was too soon for Cole), while McPherson and The Altoona Four would be too long if Taillon keeps this up. I could almost see a situation similar to Bradenton last year, where Taillon moves up at the end of July, then returns to the level to start the 2014 season.
Level: Bradenton (High-A)
His Numbers: 3.21 ERA, 10 GS, 53.1 IP, 10.3 K/9, 2.2 BB/9
Precedent: There are a few ways of looking at this. The first way is looking at Kingham as another prep pitcher. The only precedent there would be Quinton Miller and the 2009 prep pitchers. None of those guys have made it to Double-A and Kingham has been better. You could also look at the 2009 Lynchburg squad (aka, The Altoona Four, mentioned previously). Those guys spent the whole year in high-A, although for similar reasons as their full year in Altoona in 2010, since Lynchburg won a championship that year.
Kingham isn’t the same quality of pitcher as these two, but the best precedent might be Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. Cole was 21 in high-A, while Taillon was 20. Both were dominating the level just like Kingham is now, although Taillon had that two month struggle in the middle of his season. Cole was there for 13 starts and 67 innings. Taillon was there for 23 starts and 125 innings, due to the struggles in the middle of the year.
Potential Promotion: I could see Kingham falling between Cole and Taillon. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if he’s promoted on the same path as Cole (which would give him three more starts in high-A). I’d probably be a little surprised if he keeps up these numbers and sticks around for 13 more starts like Taillon. My guess is that it will be somewhere in the middle, with a promotion toward the end of June. It’s not like he’s being blocked in Altoona, as Luis Sanz is currently in the rotation.
Level: Bradenton (High-A)
His Numbers: .309/.372/.491 in 198 PA
Precedent: This is a tough situation to find any precedent. Pretty much every good Bradenton hitting prospect has missed the second half after getting hit with a pitch. Seriously. Starling Marte would be the best comparison, to Polanco, but he was hit in the hand and had hamate surgery after 253 plate appearances at the age of 21. Tony Sanchez was 22 in high-A, and was hit in the jaw with a pitch twice, limiting him to 250 plate appearances.
In 2011 Robbie Grossman had a huge year, but was kept back in high-A for a full season, which was a bit strange since he spent a full year at the level the previous year. There were also a lot of questions about Grossman’s future value and whether he was a starter. Those questions don’t exist for Polanco.
If we go back to 2009, Pedro Alvarez was at the level at the age of 22. He was there for 284 plate appearances before moving up, although he also wasn’t dominating like Polanco. Still, he didn’t exactly earn the promotion and was moved up more in a “challenge him” way, similar to Gerrit Cole and Indianapolis last year. It worked out, with Alvarez hitting for a .333 average and a 1.009 OPS with Altoona.
Potential Promotion: We don’t have much to go by with Marte and Sanchez, but we do know that they were at the level for around 250 plate appearances. Pedro Alvarez was there for 284 plate appearances. That would give Polanco at least half a month remaining in high-A. Of course only Alvarez was promoted after that time, while Marte and Sanchez went down with injuries. We hope the latter doesn’t happen with Polanco. If he keeps this up, I could see him being promoted in the coming month. A mid-to-late June promotion would give him two months in Altoona, and depending on how that goes, he could possibly start the 2014 season in Indianapolis. Also, you could use this same approach with Alen Hanson, who got off to a bad start in his first two weeks, and has been great ever since. I could see Hanson moving to Altoona at some point later this year if he keeps this up.
Level: West Virginia (Low-A)
His Numbers: 2.95 ERA, 10 GS, 42.2 IP, 13.5 K/9, 6.3 BB/9
Precedent: This is where we go to the trend of prep pitchers. The Pirates didn’t send Glasnow to State College last year, but he did make the jump to West Virginia this year. Pretty much every prep pitcher — from Jameson Taillon to Nick Kingham to the 2009 prep pitchers — has spent the entire season in West Virginia. The Pirates do this to get a pitcher used to throwing a full season, and to get them used to throwing a full year with the same team in the same league. As we’ve seen with other pitchers, there can be mid-season promotions in the upper levels. Taillon didn’t spend a full year in Bradenton, and probably won’t spend a full year with Altoona.
Potential Promotion: I don’t see Glasnow being promoted this year. He only threw 38.1 innings last year (plus whatever he threw in extended Spring Training). He’s been limited to 75 pitches and 4-5 innings per start. That’s very much like Jameson Taillon’s workload in West Virginia, which was criticized for being too conservative. I think a conservative approach would be good to take considering Glasnow’s high walk rate. He’s absolutely dominating hitters, but what happens when he moves up to a level where people have seen a plus fastball and a plus curveball? The walks will catch up to him, which means it’s better to fix those issues now in an easier level.
Level: West Virginia (Low-A)
His Numbers: .344/.426/.630 in 223 PA
Precedent: The obvious comparison here would be Matt Curry, who was moved up to Altoona at the age of 22 after dominating in 195 plate appearances in West Virginia. A key difference is that Curry had a low strikeout rate, which isn’t the case with Allie.
Aaron Baker was a 22-year-old first baseman in West Virginia in 2010, and spent the whole year there. However, he didn’t dominate like Allie currently is doing. He did have the strikeout problems though.
In 2009 the Pirates moved a 22-year-old Chase d’Arnaud up after 255 plate appearances. D’Arnaud played a different position, and didn’t have dominant numbers, but also had a good strikeout rate.
Potential Promotion: The only person who has dominated in the same way Allie has is Curry. Curry was moved up by this point, skipping over High-A because the Pirates had Aaron Baker at first base in Bradenton. The Pirates have Jose Osuna at first in Bradenton this year, and have a hole in Altoona due to Matt Curry being out with a hamate injury. So there’s an opening for Allie to make the jump to Double-A. That might not be advised, since Curry was completely over-matched with that jump, despite having considerably better plate patience. You could move Allie up to Bradenton and put Osuna in the outfield, where he played until last year. The two could also share DH duties. I’d expect Allie to move up at some point, possibly in the next month. The strikeout problems make him unlike Curry and d’Arnaud, while the dominant numbers make him unlike Baker. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets moved up right around the time Polanco gets moved up to Altoona.