First Pitch: What Got the Pirates Here and What Will Keep Them Here

Today, Bob Nutting met with the media, and one of the things he mentioned over and over was how the Pittsburgh Pirates need to continue to develop players from within. You’re not going to get any arguments on that approach from me. I’m a guy who believes that small market teams like the Pirates, Rays, and Athletics need to rely heavily on their farm system. They need to be giving chances to guys like Andrew Lambo, rather than signing guys like Kendrys Morales. They need to wait on Gregory Polanco to arrive, rather than signing someone to enter the 2014 season with a “guarantee” at right field.

Fortunately the Pirates are in good shape with their farm system. Baseball America has already rated them the top farm system in the game, and they’re anywhere from #1-3 based on the rankings that have already come out from various outlets. Tonight, Baseball America released their top 100 prospects, with the Pirates having seven guys on the list. The Pirates have had anywhere from 6-7 players on each list, with only’s list having six players in the top 100. A lot of the guys in the top 100 will be arriving in the next year or two, giving the Pirates a huge boost of young talent.

The Dominican Republic has been a big help in this area. Two of the top prospects highlighted by the top 100 lists are Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson, who both came out of the Dominican. I talked with Bob Nutting and Clint Hurdle about this topic today, and I wrote what I think is a great look at how the Dominican academy is paying off. The article is set to go up tomorrow morning.

Today, Hurdle mentioned that guys like Starling Marte, and soon guys like Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, and Joely Rodriguez give tangible evidence that the Pirates can develop players from other countries.

“The draft was our big event. It wasn’t the free agent market in the winter. And we were able to go outside the norms in some areas to go draft some people, and take advantage of the opportunities that we had that way,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “But now the brand adds tangible evidence that we’re moving the right direction. Tangible evidence that we can grow players up from different parts outside of the United States, and give them every opportunity to excel here as well.”

The farm system is obviously paying off. The Pirates saw Starling Marte in 2012, Gerrit Cole in 2013, plus guys like Jordy Mercer, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson play roles. In 2014 they should see top prospects Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon arrive, along with guys like Andrew Lambo and Stolmy Pimentel getting a shot. By the middle of 2015 they could see Nick Kingham, Alen Hanson, and Tyler Glasnow, along with Tony Sanchez getting a shot at the starting catcher’s job, and guys like Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, and/or Casey Sadler breaking into the back of the rotation or bullpen. In the years after that they could be looking at guys like Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, Harold Ramirez, Luis Heredia and Clay Holmes making the jump to the majors, not to mention all of the lesser role players or average starters.

The Pirates got here because of their farm system. They wouldn’t have been contenders in 2013 without Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, and all of the depth options throughout the year. They’re going to start relying more heavily on those internal options with those waves of prospects finally arriving. And I believe that as long as the Pirates stick to this approach, and don’t start selling off prospects and blowing things up like the Brewers did when they finally became contenders, that the Pirates will remain successful and won’t have to worry about “windows to contend”.

Links and Notes

**If you haven’t ordered your copy of the 2014 Prospect Guide, you had better act fast. I just opened up the last case of books today. I say that’s the last case because I don’t think I’ll be ordering more this year. Each year I order the books in bulk through the publisher, which allows me to save several dollars per book, and I pass that savings on to you to keep the price of the book low. You’ll still be able to buy the book from the publisher after I sell my supply, but the bulk discount price won’t be included, which means you’ll be paying $25, plus $3.99 for shipping. Right now you can buy the book for $25 shipped on the products page of the site.

**Baseball America Puts Seven Pirates In Their Top 100. Nice to see the Pirates getting consensus recognition for having so many top prospects.

**Bob Nutting on the 2014 Pirates, TV Deals, Prospects and Trade Deadline

**Andrew Lambo Doing Defensive Drills at First Base (Video). A few notes about this video. He was receiving throws from everyone who will be in the infield in 2014. Also, you don’t see this in the video, but Lambo actually made more plays than Gaby Sanchez. I’m not too worried about Lambo at first base. I don’t think he’s going to be a plus defender, but I also don’t think he will be a liability. The big question will be whether his bat can translate over to the majors.

First Pitch

  • The Pirate “system” is to SCOUT,DRAFT,DEVELOP OR OTHERWISE GET “PROSPECTS” ANY OTHER WAY THEY CAN. That is the system, buying players is very low priority for this organization, moving forward they expect it to become even lower in priority, they want to supplement the major league team from the farm period. People saying they are not going out after players do not know the system or the talent in that system. People saying the players are disappointed for the lack of movement by the Pirates in the off-season never heard a Pirate say that.
    The Pirates have one of the finest organizations in sports right now. The Yankees might be the richest, they spend nearly half a billion over the winter and don’t have an infield or a farm to get a good player from. Who has the smartest organization the one that spends the most money or the one that has the best system?

  • The Bucs should sign Aledmys Diaz, the Young IF from Cuba! (we should steal him from the Cards, who even had a private fielding workout at SS for the 23.year old).

    Sure, there’s always a risk, but I would rather throw $25M at someone with great potential who can play both SS and 3B (which are depth weaknesses for us right now), than spend $14M for 1-year of Morales or Cruz.

    These are the type of high-reward risks Small-market clubs have to take!

  • Who cares what the players think? The average MLB career is 5.6 years and these guys understand the window of opportunity to play in the World Series closes very quickly. I imagine Russell Martin, for example, who is over 30 and in his last year with the Pirates, is one of those players scratching his head that the front office didn’t do more this offseason to put a better team around him. After all, what difference does it make to him if the Pirates cash in their farm system to win now? What does he care if Nutting goes hog wild in free agency? It isn’t his money, and he won’t be here next year when the Dominican Academy has to be shut down because we blew the budget to support it by bringing in Robinson Cano?

    I appreciate the importance of keeping the players happy, but not at the expense of the team’s long-term success.

    • Fess up Jeff, you’re really the old, bald guy on Shark Tank, aren’t you?

    • You obviously haven’t been around,or listened to very many professional players when you say ” who cares what the players think “.

      • On the contrary. I started my career many years ago as a sportswriter, and I know quite well who cares what they think.

        They do.

        That doesn’t mean we should. Or at least it shouldn’t drive the decision-making process.

  • I don’t believe many “fans” continue to argue that trading away top prospects for high-priced superstars is a good idea.

    But I do wonder if the players themselves get concerned over not keeping a productive piece like Byrd (or even Morneau). The players know it’s a business and that Byrd could be flipped mid-season once Polanco is called up, but at least you’d have a guy who was nothing but a professional hitter and a solid contributor in his time with the Bucs.

    Morneau might not have hit any HRs, but re-signing him for a relatively cheap $6 mill/year wouldn’t have been the worst idea.

    It’s one thing for us fans to sit bit idly and discuss how Nutting should/shouldn’t spend him money. But for the players – who know they’re very close to having a WS-calibre team – I’d imagine the FO reticence toward signing talent that doesn’t cost draft picks is a head-scratcher.

    I’ll note again Nutting’s comment about how “the team” needs to understand our process and what got us here. Meanwhile, it’s entirely possible “the team” is wondering what the FO is going to do to put them over the top.

    • Very nice Scott. Agree 100%.

      • Scott I must respectfully disagree, though I give you a lot of credit for actually identifying the players you wanted the team to acquire. Few things are more annoying than bashing the FO for not spending any money without saying who they should have signed. That’s basically a “spend money for the sake of spending money” argument.

        As for the 2 players you identify, Byrd did contribute mightily to the team after he was acquired, and would have been a nice player on a one year or reasonable 2 year deal. Once the Phillies went all Phillies on him, forget him. You worry what the team might think about the FO not signing anyone. What would those same players think about paying Marlon Fricking Byrd more than Cutch? And you assume it will be easy to flip him mid season, but what if he goes back to being the pre-2013 Byrd? Then nobody’s trading for him with that albatross of a contract around his neck. Or the Pirates eat a lot of the salary to get rid of him, not something they can afford to risk when they only need a player for half a season.

        Morneau’s a different story, in that he wasn’t productive after he joined the team, and indeed hasn’t been very productive for 3 years now, but 1B is definitely more of a hole than RF. While he could certainly bounce back, why exactly would they want to bet $12 mil that he will? Especially when they have a Lambo that deserves a shot after his season last year. If Byrd is worthy of consideration because of his 2013, then Lambo certainly is too. And you do realize that making these moves would mean Lambo gets absolutely no shot with this team, right? Would you just DFA him or try to trade him? Back to the players feelings: wouldn’t they think Lambo deserves a shot after what he did last year? Or are you just going to tell your minor leaguers whatever they accomplish doesn’t matter, unless they’re annointed by BA or BP as a top 100 prospect?

    • Not only did Justin not hit any HR’s he had only 3 RBI. Lambo in 1/20th the playing time was as productive. He’s old & washed up. Byrd has 1 good year & is fast approaching 40. There’s no denying Byrd was great for us no doubt. Tabata’s 2nd half was right there with Byrd’s & he’s not pushing 40 & costing millions more. The extra money should be kept for ex. If Frankie can duplicate last year. Boras changes his way of thinking thanks to QO system/disaster & is willing to extend Pedro & Marte, Cole etc. Let the kids prove they don’t belong.

  • We need to flirt (or you can call it doing due diligence if you prefer) with guys like Kendry Morales to keep price on others down. I still think that Nelson Cruz or Morales will shake free Smoak, Moreland or Lind, and we’ll be able to acquire one from bullpen depth. And everyone will be able to come in off the ledge. There just aren’t that many landing spos for Cruz and morales, and if they come down cheap enough to the teams that made them qualifying offers, then someone will shake free.

  • The Masked robshelb
    February 20, 2014 7:12 am


    “Continue to develop players within.” Of course that’s important, but it isn’t everything. Not even for our Buccos.

    This year’s Opening Day SP wasn’t developed within the system.

    This year’s Opening Day catcher wasn’t developed within the system.

    Whoever starts at 1B wasn’t developed within the system.

    Assuming that for now Snider gets the nod over Tabata, Mr. Snider wasn’t developed within the system.

    Our closer (and a chunk of the rest of the bullpen) wasn’t developed within the system.

    Three of our five Opening Day rotation members (assuming that includes Rodriquez and Volquez) aren’t products of the system.

    Now, I’m not exactly saying we’re talking Urban Myth here, but there’s been a variety of ways we’ve accumulated talent. And all those different avenues have contributed and will contribute, to one degree or another, to past, present, and future success — if utilized properly.

    There’s nothing wrong with the idea of making an external acquisition, if the price is right and if the situation warrants it. And the PBC has indeed done that over the past few years. Sometimes with great results, other times . . . well, maybe not so inspired. Developing players from within is of course crucially important. But I doubt for any team it has ever been everything.

    • RobS…big difference between relying ‘heavily’ on your farm system and relying ‘solely’ on your farm system as you mentioned in your last statement.

      Without our good farm system, those acquisitions would’ve merely been place holders and not key wild card pieces.

      I don’t believe Tim is saying that our farm system will supply all of our needs. He is merely pointing out how vital it is to a small market team.

    • “well, maybe not so inspired…”

      You spelled Jonathan Sanchez wrong.

  • The next big challenge will be to continue to acquire young, controllable talent when they aren’t drafting in the top ten. I believe I read somewhere the Rays have only one top 100 prospect at this point. When this big knot of talent goes through, how do they replace it? The Dominican connection is one way, but I suspect they will have to trade players approaching free agency, and likely before the final year. A test will be whether management can do this – it will certainly be unpopular to be trading good players for prospects, but that may be an important path to talent.

    • Cato the Elder
      February 20, 2014 9:05 am

      Polanco, not a top 10 pick. Glasnow, not a top 10 pick. Hanson, not a top 10 pick. Kingham, not a top 10 pick. Heredia, not a top 10 pick. McGuire, Bell, not tip 10 picks (though I’ll admit they are boarderline cases). That’s pretty good if you ask me. And I could keep going, but I think that illustrates my point. And the thing is, that is the list w/o any first round picks (sans McGuire) so when evaluating the hypothetical you have to imagine a handful late first round picks included in that list.

      You are right, they need to continue to draft well and probably will need to trade impending free agents for prospects, but the evidence is there that they can acquire good talent outside of top 10 draft picks.

      • On the same beam, when the season of the Pirates was on the line last year we had Jeanmar Gomez, an undrafted free agent of Cleveland, Brandon Cumpton, Pirates 9th Rounder in 2010, Tony Watson, Pirates 9th Rounder in 2007, and Justin Wilson, Pirates 5th Rounder in 2008 combine for 250+ innings last year. Quite frankly, we do not get to the playoffs and .500 would probably have been in question if these guys do not step up. We have folks who major in finding “sleepers”, and this year we will be looking at Stolmy Pimental, who was all but dead in the Red Sox org.

        Just read the offering about the Pirate Facility in the Dominican, and the input of Ben Badler regarding how the Pirates rose from “middling” in the DR to the very top in the DR with their State-of-the-Art Academy which develops these kids in a lot more than baseball. A must read for any Pirate follower.

    • Another point is that as long as they offer these guys the QO when they are obviously heading out the door then the FO will accumulate decent draft picks to keep restocking the system. The system currently is stocked well enough to allow for FA departure then draft/develop and keep the pipe line rolling. It is amazing how much talent has accumulated in the last several years.
      People scoffed when Nutting called the current FO “the best in baseball”…. now, we are finding that perhaps he was exactly correct the entire time.

  • It has been great the past 6 or 7 years since Bob Nutting became the primary Owner and hired Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington. They had to dismantle and start to rebuild, and it is interesting that one of the first moves was to trade a Pittsburgh favorite, Nate McLouth. That trade got us Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, and a third player who eventually was part of a trade to bring in Gaby Sanchez. And, another of those early trades brought us JMAC, who helped us greatly for a few years in the Rotation, and a young kid named Andrew Lambo, who we hope will be the huge LH power bat we need to complement Pedro Alvarez, and provide more protection for Andrew. Along the way the Pirates were phenomenal in the Amateur Draft, and built a foundation as good or better than any other team in the Dominican Republic. Those drafts and International signings have produced quality ball players and pitchers who raised the entire level of play within the Pirate Developmental System.

    The Pirates are very well situated for 2014 and beyond, and there are still plenty of talented players and pitchers in the supply chain. IMO, the 2013 Draft was one of the best ever for the Pirates, and it is great to see all of that 18, 19, and 20 year old talent. It took some folks with vision and commitment who built the system and continue to influence development. We can still evaluate talent and draft and sign, but we must have those folks still in place who will keep the talent progressing through the feeder system. The ability to find sleepers and then to establish the best minor league developmental system is undoubtedly our best resource.