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.