First Pitch: The Biggest Story in the Pirates Minor League System This Year

This afternoon I had a radio interview with Daniel Dudley of TribLIVE Radio, which has pretty much been a weekly thing each Thursday afternoon this season. Today Dan asked me a question I was all too prepared for, and not because I knew it was coming. The question actually surprised me, but it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot this year. I was asked how this season has felt as someone who has followed the farm system for so many years, and is now seeing a winner at the major league level.

For so many years, the focus of Pirates fans has been the future. Any prospect you talked about was in the context of “He can help in X years”. If a prospect was coming up that year, the conversation was “if they don’t extend him, then he’ll be gone before the team ever wins”. It was clear that the Pirates were rebuilding for so many years, and they weren’t going to be winning in 2009 or 2010. They weren’t expected to win in 2011, although they made it interesting that season.

The coverage on this site followed those trends. Any prospects that we talked about were in the context of guys who could help in the future. When Andrew McCutchen came up in 2009, the talk was largely about when the Pirates would extend him. There was a reason for this. At the time, when you talked about prospects in the Pirates system, the majority of what you talked about involved the future, with no help in the present.

Something changed last year. The guys we had been following so closely in Lynchburg in 2009 and Altoona in 2010 were making their way to the majors. The site name is Pirates Prospects, but I was left with a choice. Do I just ignore players once they’ve made the jump to the majors, or do we continue covering them on the site with their transformation as a major leaguer? I decided to go for the latter, expanding the major league coverage and looking at the organization as a whole, rather than just the farm system. It was an obvious choice, because you can’t accurately talk about the farm system without knowing what is happening in the majors, and what the team needs are, both short-term and long-term.

So how have things changed this year?

In the past, we only talked about the future, and guys who would help years down the line. This year there have been more opportunities to talk about players who can help this year. Look at some of the key players who have helped in the majors this season:

Starling Marte – He made his debut last year, but this has been the first full season in the majors.

Jordy Mercer – Didn’t get much playing time in 2012, but has taken over as the primary shortstop in 2013.

Tony Sanchez – We haven’t seen as much of him as the previous two, but he’s upgraded the backup catcher spot.

Jeff Locke – The second half of the season hasn’t been as good, but the first half was great in Locke’s first full season in the pros.

Gerrit Cole – The top prospect made his debut in mid-June and is now starting to look like an ace.

Justin Wilson – He has been a dominant reliever in his first full year in the majors.

Bryan Morris – The results have been good, although the secondary numbers suggest he won’t keep this up without changes to his game.

Brandon Cumpton Pirates
The biggest story in the Pirates minor league system this year? It’s not Tyler Glasnow or Gregory Polanco. It’s the immediate help that depth options like Brandon Cumpton have provided to keep the Pirates in contention all year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

And then there are the depth options: Andrew Lambo, Brandon Cumpton, Ryan Reid, Kris Johnson, Stolmy Pimentel, Phil Irwin, Vic Black, Duke Welker

There have been stories in the minors this year that have been big. We’ve covered all of them. Tyler Glasnow’s dominant season. Alen Hanson’s defense. Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon both developing to the point where they could help next year. The continued improvements of Nick Kingham. The amazing debuts from Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. All of these are the same types of stories we’ve covered for years — good players who will help the Pirates one day in the majors, just not this year.

Even though all of those are big stories, the biggest story in the minor leagues this year has been the major league team. Look at the list above. We’re finally to the point where the rebuilding has paid off. We’re to the point where the Pirates are winning thanks in large part to the help from their farm system. They wouldn’t be contending without free agent additions like Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, or the trades for Mark Melancon or the 2012 trade for A.J. Burnett. But you could also argue that they wouldn’t be contending without Marte, Locke’s first half, Cole’s second half, Mercer taking over mid-season at short, Wilson being dominant in the bullpen, and all of that depth.

The depth has been the biggest story, and that has also been the most fun to cover. You might remember throughout the summer that we had an article that seemed to run every two weeks, titled something like “After Injury to (Insert injured starter), Who Can Start For the Pirates on (Insert day they need a starter from the minors)?”. It seemed like the Pirates were having to go to the minors every other week for a starting pitcher. Sometimes they got guys who weren’t prospects, but were coming back from rehab starts. Other times it was a prospect, like Cumpton, Johnson, Irwin for one start, or Cole for good. No matter what, they never ran into a situation where they didn’t have a starting pitching option, or multiple options, ready in the minors.

We will always cover things with an eye to the future, focusing on prospects like Glasnow and Meadows, even though they’re a few years from the majors. But for the first time this year, we had a chance to actually talk about prospects in the context of providing help to the major league team immediately. And not only that, but helping the major league team to contend. That has been the biggest change this year, and has been one of the most entertaining aspects when placing the primary focus on the farm system.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates and Reds play this weekend, starting tomorrow. For more on how this weekend will determine the playoffs, here is Wednesday’s article: This Weekend Determines Home Field in the WC Game.

**Who Would Be On Your Playoff Roster?

**From earlier this week: Moneyball – The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Version.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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I see that Cumpton is throwing the circle change. Can someone tell me if that is the grip most pitchers use for their changeup? The circle change and the palmball are both very similar grips. I remember a guy named Dave Giusti who had a ton of success with the palmball.


Hey Tim! Continued great work on this site, find myself checking two or three times daily. I’ve been a bit caught up in the deeds and doings of the Major League club (a refreshing change in late September) but I was wondering if you will have any reports from Pirate City and instructs? Thanks again for the excellent work!!

Bruce Humbert

It would seem that there is an interesting story – post on just that sort of thing. Prospects who have lost their way – Presley, Matt Hague and there are probably a few others Tim could point to…

I am not sure what a team does with these guys – trade them to places where they might not be blocked? Use them for depth?

Israel P.

You mustn’t neglect players like Alex Presley whose future was considered good enough to trade for someone the major league club wanted now.


Robbie Grossman was the one who I hated to see leave, but with Marte already up and Polanco and a raft of others on the way, he would have become trade bait sooner or later. The two LHSP’s did not have very good years in the minors in 2013. Usually, when a team swaps new players into the starting lineup (Marte and Mercer), and two pitchers into the Rotation (Locke and Cole), it is called a re-building season where you are happy to get near .500. Mercer is a sleeper and his O seems to outweigh his D, but the stats say otherwise. His .961 fielding percentage needs to get up into the .970’s, but his Range Factor when using innings played puts him in the upper half of regular MLB SS’s.

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