First Pitch: The Importance of Having Plenty of Pitching Prospects

I’ve never really believed in the “TINSTAAPP” line of thinking. That’s an acronym for “There is no such thing as a pitching prospect,” and maybe I don’t believe in it because some people take it too literally to avoid pitchers entirely. I also don’t like it, because I feel that pitchers are unfairly classified here. The idea behind this is that pitchers are no sure thing, in large part due to the injury risk that they come with. But no prospect is a sure thing, and hitters can be just as injury prone as pitchers at times. You win with pitching, which means you need to invest in pitching prospects, and since they are risky, you need to invest in a lot of pitching prospects.

Today we kicked off the top 20 prospect countdown with Luis Heredia. When he was signed in 2010, Heredia was seen as a guy who could be a future ace. He has been in the top ten in our rankings every year until now. At this point he looks more like a projectable starter out of high school, rather than a future top of the rotation guy. That drop in value got me thinking about an article I wrote in the 2012 Prospect Guide. Well, the fact that I found a stack of 2012 books while cleaning out my office last week also helped (you can buy them for $1 each here). The cover of the book featured Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, and Stetson Allie all featured on each suit of aces. The article in the book was called “The Four Aces.” I’ve included the article below, if anyone wants a jump back to pre-2012, when Cole hadn’t thrown a professional pitch, and Taillon, Allie, and Heredia were all coming off their first seasons. If you want to skip it, join me below the article.

The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had an ace in the majors was 1992. Doug Drabek, in his final year with the team, put up a 2.77 ERA in 256.2 innings. He finished fifth in the Cy Young award voting just two years after winning the award. Since that point the Pirates haven’t had a pitcher put up strong back to back seasons. They’ve had a few one year wonders, but those have usually been followed up by a regression.

The Pirates added Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, and Stetson Allie to the organization in the span of one year between August 2010 and August 2011. All four players have top of the rotation stuff, with Pirates fans hoping that at least one of them emerges as an ace in the majors. If that happened, it would give the Pirates their first ace since Cole, Taillon, and Allie were toddlers, or – in another way to put it – their first ace of Heredia’s lifetime.

The top prospect of the bunch was taken with the first overall pick of the 2011 draft. Gerrit Cole has an arsenal of pitches that could potentially make him one of the best in the game. He throws his fastball in the upper 90s, constantly hitting triple digits, and sitting 98 MPH even after 100 pitches. One of the special things about Cole is that he tends to add velocity as the game goes on, rather than seeing a drop in velocity. There’s no explanation for it, and he insists that he’s not holding anything back early in the game. The same thing happens to Justin Verlander, who Cole often gets compared to.

Aside from Cole’s plus fastball he has a plus slider and a plus changeup, both of which sit in the mid-to-upper 80s. The changeup drew a lot of attention in 2011, and is part of what put him in position to be taken with the first overall pick.

“I never really thought it made such a drastic change as a lot of other people thought,” Cole said of the pitch. “I think I used it in different counts. And I just threw it with more conviction.”

Cole has the build to be a work horse starter, capable of 200 innings a year. The whole package suggests that the right hander from UCLA could be a candidate to move quickly through the minor league system. However, the Pirates don’t like to label anyone as a fast track candidate.

“I think the biggest separator for him is going to be how his fastball plays,” said Kyle Stark, the Pirates’ Assistant General Manager and 2011 Director of Minor League Operations. “Obviously it’s got the velocity, with the ability to have angles and deception. And then the command that comes with it I think is going to dictate what type of starter. We obviously think he has the potential to be that front end guy.”

Cole has a great mix of pitches, and doesn’t have much to work on, as he was good enough to be taken first overall. The adjustments the Pirates are making are minor, meant to give Cole better extension so that he can drive the ball down through the zone, rather than leaving it up to get hit, which has been a concern in the past.

If there’s any indication on how highly regarded Cole is by the Pirates, it comes during the video sessions. The team has been known for grabbing film of other pitchers and using the film to teach their own guys. For Cole, the Pirates have been putting on films of Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling. It says a lot about a young pitcher when the organization has them learning off of video featuring some of the best pitchers in recent history.

Cole might end up in Bradenton to start the 2012 season. That would put him on the same team as Jameson Taillon, who is very similar to where Cole was three years ago. Taillon has a great fastball, sitting in the mid-90s, even getting it as high as 99 MPH. He’s also got a plus curveball that one American League scout called the best in all of baseball.

Those two pitches from Taillon made it so that he didn’t have to use his changeup much prior to being drafted. For that reason, the changeup is a work in progress. Taillon was comfortable throwing it in hitter’s counts in 2011, but the pitch has a ways to go. That could be an area where Cole and Taillon on the same team could provide a huge benefit.

“Personally I’m excited,” Taillon said of the chance to pitch on the same team as Cole. “He’s a good guy to learn from. I know he’s got a good changeup, so I can see how he throws that.”

Just like Cole, Taillon also suffers from leaving the ball up in the zone. That takes his excellent stuff and makes it hittable. The Pirates have been working with similar minor adjustments with Taillon, trying to remove an unnecessary hop in his delivery, and they seem to be paying off based on the 2011 results.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at (keeping the ball down), and I see the importance of pitching for effect, pitching not to throw strikes all the time, pitching in for balls, brush them off, as well as being down in the zone,” Taillon said. “I’m still getting better on it. There’s always room for improvement, but I feel I’ve gotten a lot better.”

Taillon pitched 92.2 innings in his first professional season. That innings total drew some concerns that the Pirates were being too conservative, and not setting Taillon up for long term success. The Pirates realize that pitchers are vulnerable, especially in the 18-22 ages. Their approach is that they’d rather be more aggressive on the back end of that scale, rather than pushing someone at the age of 19.

No prospect is a guarantee to live up to his potential. Cole and Taillon are not exceptions to this rule. Yet of the four top pitchers, Cole and Taillon are more polished and have less risk of failing to achieve their upside. By comparison, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia are both very raw. Both pitchers have a lack of experience pitching, which leads to control issues.

Heredia might eventually become better than Cole or Taillon. While Cole gets Justin Verlander comparisons, and Taillon gets Josh Beckett comparisons, Heredia is talked about in the same sentence as Felix Hernandez. Part of that is because they were both top prospects out of Mexico. It is also due to Heredia’s build and his potential mix of pitches.

At 17 years of age, Heredia stands 6’ 6”, and already has a frame that makes you think he could one day pitch over 200 innings a year without filling out any further. He throws his fastball as high as 96 MPH, and could eventually sit at 96 as he gets older. The Pirates put him in the Gulf Coast League in 2011 for his pro debut, which was a very aggressive placement for a 16 year old.

“He fit in, and that’s what’s encouraging,” Stark said about Heredia’s season. “I think sometimes you forget that he’s that young.”

The interesting thing about Heredia is his potential for several plus pitches. He has a good feel for a changeup, and knows how to spin a curveball. Both pitches currently show promise, with the possibility of each becoming a plus offering one day. But Heredia is young, and with his youth comes inexperience. He needs work to develop those pitches, but perhaps more importantly, he needs work to fix the control issues that bothered him in 2011.

“Our focus is on solidifying a repeatable delivery, which will lead to fastball command, but it’s going to lead to better secondary stuff as well,” Stark said. “We’re excited about the foundation we’ve been able to establish here. It’s going to be exciting to see how this young man matures.”

Heredia being a raw product with a lot of upside is understandable to most people considering his age and background. People don’t think of Stetson Allie in the same way. Allie isn’t 16. He came out of the draft. The expectation is that Allie should be further along in his development. What gets forgotten is that Allie’s first professional season was only his second season as a pitcher. He’s a few years older, but like Heredia, Allie is very raw.

“I think people have to remember that just because somebody gets a significant investment in the draft, it doesn’t mean we think they’re good today. It means we think they’re going to be good at some point,” Stark said of Allie’s $2.25 M bonus in the 2010 draft.

The focus in 2011 was on fastball command, specifically on learning to repeat his delivery. In Spring Training, Allie’s control was horrible. His control improved some by the time his pro debut came around in June. He still needed work, and was eventually moved to the bullpen so that he could focus more on his mechanics over one inning, rather than focusing on spreading his stuff out over four or five innings. By the end of the season, there were some clear changes, especially if you saw Allie from start to finish.

The highlight at the end of the season came with his final batter of the year. Allie started off with a pitch way inside, hitting 95 MPH, and brushing back the right handed batter. His next pitch was a 93 MPH fastball to the outer half of the plate, which was out of reach for the swing attempt. Allie returned inside with a 94 MPH fastball, again pushing the batter off the plate. His next pitch was a 92 MPH fastball over the outer half for a called strike. He finished off the at-bat with a nice 94 MPH fastball on a downward plane, sitting on the outer half of the plate, and getting a swinging strikeout.

“That’s something we couldn’t do early on in the season. We were just worried about throwing strikes,” said State College pitching coach Justin Meccage.

At the start of the year, Allie had trouble just throwing the ball across the plate. By the end of the year he was able to control his pitches enough to push batters off the plate, only to follow up with a fastball away. He still had control issues, but the change from the start of the year to the end of the year was very encouraging, and could be a good sign of things to come.

“Given how hard Stetson throws, if he can establish (pitching inside) to right handed hitters, he’ll start moving up the ladder really quick,” Kimera Bartee, the Spikes’ manager in 2011, said.

There was such a focus on Allie’s fastball this year that people forgot about his plus slider, which he throws in the mid-to-upper 80s, rivaling Cole for the best slider in the system. The fastball/slider combo has some taking the easy way out and projecting Allie as a future star closer, writing off any possibility that he can become a starter.

The Pirates still believe he can be a starter. He might continue pitching in the bullpen for the next year or two, but his role during this time won’t have any indication of his future role. The main focus is fastball command and repeating his delivery, and that goal is the same regardless of whether he is in a minor league rotation or bullpen. Allie is almost hurt by the presence of Taillon, Cole, and Heredia. Without those three, Allie might be counted on more as a future ace, and probably wouldn’t be written off as easily. Because there’s less of a need for Allie to become that ace, people are more comfortable mentioning him as a bullpen arm.

What the Pirates have is very rare. Very few teams have more than one pitching prospect who could be considered one of the best in the game. Some teams don’t have any potential aces. The Pirates have Cole and Taillon, who will easily end up in a lot of top 20 rankings next year. They also have Heredia and Allie, who are both raw, but both have plus pitches at their disposal if they can successfully fix their mechanics.

The depth is great, because pitching is a game of attrition. Odds are that only one of these four pitchers will live up to their expectations of becoming a top of the rotation starter. If the Pirates see two of these guys eventually become top of the rotation starters, it would be a huge success. It’s impossible to say which pitchers will make it at this point. You don’t have to explain to Pirates fans all of the things that could possibly go wrong with pitching prospects. That just makes it more important to have multiple guys with top of the rotation stuff. In the Pirates’ case, it puts them in a great position to get their first ace since 1992.

As I pointed out a few times throughout the article, the hope was that one of these guys would have ended up a top of the rotation guy. That won’t be Allie, who is now a hitting prospect. The odds of that being Heredia are much smaller today than they were in 2011-12. Jameson Taillon still has that potential, but will probably settle as a number two starter. Gerrit Cole has made the successful jump to the majors, but hasn’t quite reached that top rung yet. He’s still just 24.

Heading into the 2015 season, the Pirates have another future rotation to dream about: Cole, Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Nick Kingham. It’s a bit different than the 2012 group. For one, these are all upper level guys, so they’re a bit safer, and a bit easier to project. They’re not all “aces”, as Kingham projects to be a middle of the rotation starter. Cole is in the majors, and just needs that last step to becoming an ace.

That rotation is something to dream about in the future, possibly as soon as the middle of the 2016 season. But as we learned from the 2012 group, we don’t know which ones will reach their upsides and which ones will struggle. As an interesting note, Kingham was the number 10 prospect in the 2012 book, and that was due to us giving him an aggressive ranking. Glasnow was number 38 in the top 50. It makes you wonder which pitchers currently outside of the top 10 we will be talking about as future rotation studs in 2018?

The important thing here is having plenty of pitching depth. The Pirates definitely have that. They’re entering a season where they have 12 legitimate starting pitching options throughout the year. If you give Cole, Liriano, and Charlie Morton spots, then they don’t need all three of Taillon, Glasnow, and Kingham to work out in the next few years. That’s not even counting on upper level guys like Adrian Sampson, or lower level sleepers like Cody Dickson. The Pirates have plenty of pitching prospects, which should eventually allow them to put together a nice rotation with a lot of home-grown talent.

Links and Notes

**The 2015 Prospect Guide is now available on the products page. The book features our full top 50 prospects, plus profiles for every player in the system. I’m on vacation this week, which means all book orders placed will ship out on Monday morning, January 12th. All eBooks will be available for download immediately.

**Rob Biertempfel mentioned today on Twitter that the Pirates have until January 20th to negotiate with Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang. There hasn’t been any news to report on the negotiations.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 Prospects: #20 – Luis Heredia

**Winter Leagues: Alen Hanson Gets Permission to Continue Playing, Sebastian Valle Homers

  • Nothin’ beats home cookin’ !

  • The thing is: most of our above average ability to coach and develop prospects in the pitching arena. We know how to make them successful, but have had a bad track record of drafting position players high and having them reach potential. So…..we draft more pitchers because we get more value out of them. The problem is, you get to a point where you have 20 legit pitching prospects and 1 third base prospect, 1 short stop prospect, 0 first base prospects. To me, this is not a success, because when you eventually go to trade these prospects, John will tell you, you very rarely get a prospect for a prospect in a trade, and we can’t afford the contracts of top of the line infielders, even in a trade…….so eventually you will have holes you can’t fill, a pitchher is only 1 spot on the diamond, and while our outfield is set, other than catcher, our infield prospect list is pathetic

    • Which pitchers have the Pirates actually successfully drafted and developed again?

    • Actually, the current ML team offers the exact opposite results that you claim. We have 2 OFers we developed in house, a SS we developed in house, a 2Bmen we developed in house, and arguably a 3B we largely helped to develop in house. Even Pedro counts at 1B as a guy we developed and made into at least a ML average regular. We filled at least 6 position spots with guys that spent time in our farm system from early ages.

      Pitching, we have Cole. Taillon is close, Kingham is close, but in terms of hard results we have Cole as our best in system result. Locke is an okay back end man, and the rest of the rotation came from the outside. Morton came from ATL, AJ came from NY, Liriano is obvious. You could argue that if Taillon were to recover badly from TJ and be merely a mid rotation arm, we have not been able to draft and develop upper rotation arms as well as we could have. The team focused on pitching for multiple years because they felt comfortable with the amount of talent in position players they had. At this moment, Pit should be considered a solid organization for developing hitters as well as very good at taking other teams struggling pitching and tweaking them to be useful.

      • I think Locke and Morton came here in the same deal. And neither one is all that good.

        • Apologies, i forgot Locke came over. Either way, you get my point. I will say that its statistically false that Morton “isnt all that good” as of the last few years. He isnt all that healthy, but he is a pretty solid middle rotation guy. Just not healthy.

  • Very nice article, all around. Lot of fun to read.

    “By the end of the season, there were some clear changes, especially if you saw Allie from start to finish.”

    Allie would go on to record exactly 2 more outs in his professional pitching career.

    This will give me pause next time I read about how much Tyler Glasnow progressed throughout the year. So much of the art is he ability to repeat learned skills. Not sure you can really say a guy has improved until he demonstrates that ability. Let’s hope Glasnow maintains those small sample gains.

  • Lee Foo Young
    January 6, 2015 9:11 am

    Odds are that only one of these four pitchers will live up to their expectations of becoming a top of the rotation starter. If the Pirates see two of these guys eventually become top of the rotation starters, it would be a huge success.

    So we’re talking a potential HUGE success here, then?

    Btw, I mentioned this then and will ‘re-mention’ it. Your cover on the 2012 book reminded me of the Baseball America “4 Aces” cover with Oakland A’s Dressendorfer, Van Poppel and two other guys I forget. However, NONE of those guys made it big.

    Pitching, pitching and more pitching. You never have enough!

    • This article’s subtitle should reference how silly it is to call prospects like Allie and Heredia potential aces.

      Not a knock and Tim & Co specifically. They’re hardly alone.

    • Foo: Don Peters and Dave Zancanaro, and I think all 4 were First Round Draft Picks of the Athletics. How about John Van Benschotten and Bryan Bullington. All of them are risks, and the only way to try to offset or improve your odds is to have numbers. A look at the position strength of the Pirates in the Minors means that they are able to continue to layer in another large group of pitching prospects. Pitching depth can be impressive and young, hard throwing prospects are the most liquid resource in MLB.

  • Lee Foo Young
    January 6, 2015 9:06 am

    Welcome back, Tim. I hope you had a restful vacation!

    • Tim isn’t back foo, he just left. he wrote these articles before he left and is having them posted while he is gone.

      • Yup, Tim is still gone until sometime Sunday. I added the links at the bottom, but he wrote the article and some others ahead of time that will be posted over the following few days. Looks like he picked a good time to go because I’ve been here doing almost nothing since Thursday.

  • The Pirates have a ton of pitching prospects. Might be the deepest in all of baseball. I have been saying for the last few months I think its just a matter of time befor NH trades some of these upper level pitching prospects. I thought that it was going to happen with Tampa Bay or Boston last year. He has been real close in the past and it could happen in 2015.

    • Kenny: I think the Pirates need to see some long term promise from “the next guys up” like Jameson Taillon/Nick Kingham, and Tyler Glasnow before they start to think about using some of the herd of young pitchers as trade bait. That is one of the primary reasons I recommended trying to sign Cole Hamels and his locked-in 5 year contract. His presence in the Pittsburgh Rotation brings the Pirates up to the St Louis level, and would also allow more time for the kids to mature. The article talks about 4 guys in the Rotation, and 6 or 7 others fighting for the #5 spot. Vance Worley started 17 games for the Pirates last year and his numbers were the equal of a #2 SP. Jeff Locke started 21 games last year and his numbers were the equal of a #4 or a very good #5 SP. If we do not have a place for guys like that, then why not try to move them in a trade?

      The Pirates took a year off in 2013 but still added pitchers like Blake Taylor, Cody Dickson, Buddy Borden, Neal Kozikowski, and Chad Kuhl. They got back to their trend in 2014 by drafting 3 HS big arms in Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, and Gage Hinsz, and also added a young college kid in Tyler Eppler – all 6’6″ and 220 of him. Keller is the short guy at 6’3″ with Supak at 6’5″ and Hinsz at 6’4″. I think Kuhl has been the most polished & successful of the group, pitching very well in Hi A last year with a 58% GB Rate. He throws mid-90’s and has an awesome sinker; much better than expected from a 9th Round pick. He will be at AA this year in his age 22 season.

      • Hamels works if they eat about half that contract in the move, but dealing for Hamels because the young guys are unproven isnt why i make the move. The trouble with “these young guys are unproven” is that any young stud player will be that until you give him the call up. Taillon has a ton of promise and is in AAA, so the floor is less unsure. You could, without really anything more than Taillon recovering like a ton of TJ guys do, have a rotation of Liriano, Cole, Taillon, Morton. Adding Hamels to that makes us one of the more lethal rotations, but also causes some financial issues that makes guys like Walker problematic. Without Hamels, we can actually have a good rotation that compares decently with STL while having a top tier offense. Adding Hamels almost makes trading Pedro, losing Snider, and possibly moving Walker necessary. The arb price increase for some of the young guys is something the team will be aware of, along with the impending “how much are we wanting to offer Cutch”.

        • If getting Hamels means you have to get rid of those 3 I’m fine with that. Pedro’s a catch 22 guy, if he’s good Boras will take him to FA. If he isn’t you don’t want him. Snider ? I can live without him as well. Polanco is the future in RF and you can find a 4th OF. I’d like to see Walker stay. But it increasingly looks like that isn’t going to happen and you keep hearing stories about the PIrates not really being all that interested in him long term.

          • Which is fair, but it means for the team to continue to be offensively solid that Bell has to be the guy we want him to be and Hanson has to step into 2B well enough. Until we sign Kang (and even then he is more of a lotto ticket than assurance) moving Walker leaves us weak at that spot with no real cheaper option to fill it with. We can do without Pedro and Walker, but we could also see lesser offensive production as a result. Which, depending on the severity, negates the positives of Hamels. I would prefer Hamels if he had 1-2 years less left on his deal.

    • IMO, the only reason we didnt see that happen was the market said “we want ML talent in return for trades, and we are lukewarm to a deal where we give up a talented arm for a prospect heavy return”. NH seemed all in on Price while giving away upper level type stuff, but nearly every trade made included at least one decent to above average ML player.

    • As i am saying above Kenny the issue is, what do you trade them for when your major league team is set and teams don’t trade prospects for prospects. In the current economic climate we find ourselves in, we have the talent to trade, but we can’t afford the contracts of these players we’d want for more than a rental. So either we need to even out our approach and focus more on development and scouting of position players to lessen our need to depend on other teams to help us fill our needs, or we eventually we be back where we were in the 00’s

      • There is almost no chance we work our way back to where we were in the 00s unless we start operating like monkeys operating large sums of money. Even if we do slightly even out our approach and take more position players in the draft (which we already do at times, we drafted a SS the past year and took Bell a few years ago) we are fine at many spots. Mercer is the SS until at least 2019, Marte and Polanco are highly talented and here for that length, Bell is looking like at worst a league average hitter in both power and BA.

        So we have arguable depth holes at 3B, 2B, and C. We arent void of options at C with guys like Diaz in AAA, and Hanson (with all his possible faults) does profile as a useful 2Bmen if he continues on his path. Signing Kang would help our depth at 3B. Id say the team has a good number of upper level options that could step in and help out soon, obviously with the notion that not all may work out. I see no reason to think if we dont change our approach we will have to lean heavily on other teams to fill our voids. This team could continue to take what they feel is the best player available in draft and latin america and not have to fill 2-3 spots most years in FA. Only way we slide back into early or mid 2000 territory is if our scouts miss on 75% of their guys and we draft like….well PIT from 1995-2003 or 2004.

      • Y2J do you think we have a true ace because I say we don’t? I know some Pirate fans will say Cole is but I would disagree. He is close but not there. The closest we have is Frankie but he to falls short of being a ace.

        Whenever these type of P hit the trade market like last season I think/hope that NH and the Pirates get involved because we have the prospects to swing a trade.

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