If you’re setting up a dream rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the not-too-distant future, then you’re going to be throwing out names like Tyler Glasnow, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and in the short-term, Francisco Liriano. The Pirates have collected a strong group of young pitchers, with Cole and Taillon being big-name first round picks, and Glasnow and Kingham developing from just another over-slot prep pitcher status to becoming top prospects.
Cole and Liriano are already members of the Pirates’ rotation. Kingham and Taillon could join the mix this year, while Glasnow is on pace to join the Pirates in 2016. But there’s another name who could factor into the rotation in the next two years, and he’s a guy who gets lost in the mix of all of these marquee names — Adrian Sampson.
The Pirates drafted Sampson in 2012 out of the JuCo level. He kind of flew under the radar in that draft for a few reasons. For one, he didn’t come in as an over-slot prep pitcher, but instead was a fifth round pick who signed for $2,000 under slot. He also was over-shadowed by first round pick Mark Appel, who didn’t end up signing. Sampson put up strong numbers in his first season, and looked like a sleeper.
His experience above high school, and his strong numbers in State College led the Pirates to push Sampson to Bradenton in 2013. It was an aggressive push, and it also came with the challenge that Sampson would be learning a changeup, and being forced to throw the pitch much more often than he was used to. The results weren’t pretty, and Sampson’s sleeper status quickly faded.
Lost in the numbers was the fact that he finally learned that changeup. His fastball was already a strong pitch, thrown with great command at a downward angle. The Pirates made an adjustment in 2013 to move him to the third base side of the rubber, adding more deception by giving him an angle from the side, to pair with the downward angle. The combo of the fastball and the changeup led Sampson to have a breakout season in Altoona in 2014, and also led to him reaching Indianapolis in the second half of the season.
Sampson credits the changeup improvements as being the biggest factor, along with good command and good plane on his fastball. But in the process of focusing on these two pitches, he lost his third pitch.
“Since I had those two working together, I was able to get away with what I didn’t work on in High-A, which was the curveball,” Sampson said. “I kind of lost it a little bit, and brought it back towards the end of the year in High-A. I wasn’t thinking about it much in Double-A.”
The pitch turned into more of a slider and got sweepy, which isn’t what it is supposed to do. His focus going forward is to add more depth to the curveball, throwing it with 12-to-6 movement, and aimed at getting more strikeouts. He had a good strikeout rate in State College when he first arrived in pro-ball, with a 9.3 K/9. In the last two years, his best rate has been his 6.0 K/9 in Altoona last year. When we saw the curve working in 2012, it looked like a pitch that could generate strikeouts, with good depth on the pitch. He showed that occasionally the last two years, and with more of a focus on that pitch, the strikeouts could increase.
The other key for Sampson will now be focusing on when to throw his pitches. He spent most of his time in High-A learning how to throw them, and a lot of his success in Altoona was due to the fact that he had the pitches, and learned when to throw them.
“Once you know how to throw these pitches, you know how to game plan around them,” Sampson said. “You feel like you’re almost ready to have the three-pitch arsenal with the game plan around it. And learning how to throw those pitches in certain counts, and throughout a game, it’s a hard process.”
Sampson credited his catcher, Elias Diaz, for help with this process. He has worked with Diaz in each of the last two seasons, and the relationship between the two really grew in Bradenton. They’re comfortable talking about hitters, game plans, and what is working and not working with Sampson’s individual pitches.
“I give him praise for learning English really well, because communicating with the catchers is one of the most important things,” Sampson said of Diaz. “Being able to communicate with him, and not having that language barrier was huge.”
Diaz and Sampson were both with Indianapolis by the end of the season, and will both return to Indianapolis in 2015, with Sampson in the rotation and Diaz as the starting catcher.
The initial run through Indianapolis didn’t go well for Sampson. He posted a high ERA, a low strikeout rate, and his walks spiked through four starts. He had two strong outings, and two outings that were a disaster, including his first appearance where he gave up five runs on ten hits in 3.2 innings. Sampson said one problem when he made the jump was that he got away from what worked for him in Altoona.
“I know last year when I got called up to Triple-A, I was trying to impress the guys,” Sampson said. “I didn’t know a lot of them, and I just got way outside of what I was doing in Altoona. I got off of my routine, and it showed in the first game, but I kind of bounced back and got to what I know best, and go to my strengths instead of trying to pitch to their weaknesses. Eventually I found success.”
He finished the season strong, giving up one run on four hits in 5.2 innings in his final start, along with five strikeouts and two walks. He followed that up by going to the Arizona Fall League in the off-season, where he threw 12 innings with decent results. In total, Sampson threw 179 innings between the Altoona, Indianapolis, and the AFL. That has continued his steady progression, jumping from 140 innings the season before. He’s capable of handling 200 innings a year, and could make that jump this season.
“I’m ready to be a workhorse for this team,” Sampson said about an increase to 200 innings in 2015.
Sampson isn’t quite on the same level as the other top pitchers in the system. Cole, Glasnow, and Taillon all have top of the rotation upside. Nick Kingham has the upside of a strong number three starter, with the chance to be better if he improves the quality and consistency of his secondary stuff. Sampson is closer to Kingham in terms of upside, with the chance to be a solid middle of the rotation starter who can throw 200 innings per year.
If you’re setting up a dream rotation, Sampson probably doesn’t make the cut. He most likely would end up sixth overall, with the chance to crack the rotation after Francisco Liriano leaves the team in a few years. But the reality is that dream rotations never work out as expected. Pitchers get injured. Pitchers fail to reach their upside. It’s possible that Sampson could fall victim to one of those setbacks, and fail to reach his upside in the majors. But if he does work out, there’s a strong probability that he’s going to find a rotation spot in Pittsburgh. And that could come as early as the 2015 season.
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.
Just don’t see what there is about Sampson that gets him to being much more than passable back-end depth in the show. Even his AA “breakout” wasn’t supported by advanced metrics. Without a real out pitch, he’s going to constantly have to prove he can get by as he goes along. A Brandon Cumpton sort of pitcher.
Those guys are needed. They save you money. Just not sure he’s the type of guy you want to be thinking about including in a “dream” rotation.
I’ve dreamed up our 2016 lineup for a long time. That was before Glasnow was a top prospect.2016 is when I think we will be at full strength. The question is whether Walker and/or Alvarez will still be around. Also will Josh Harrison be good enough offensively to stick at 3B. If not we either have to have Kang be for real ,move Walker there or get one back in return for Walker or Alvarez. I think Walker will be here through next year and Pedro is traded after this season. In a perfect world We will have this 2016 rotation
Nothing against Sampson, but if he is ever more than a #4 or #5 in the Pirates rotation it is because of something going wrong with other guys. Cole, Liriano, Taillon, Kingham, Morton, Glasnow, all guys with higher ceilings/more talent.
One could debate the Morton thing but i really dont disagree enough to do it, but i think a key part of the situation is that since Glasnow will take a few years, its highly likely the team needs Sampson and he has the ability to be a middle rotation type. Not the upside of the others, but a solid idea of how to generate outs with his stuff effectively.
Maybe they dont need him a ton if all goes right, but with a few guys on that list that havent been the healthiest in their careers, id say Sampson will see the bigs a decent amount in the next few years. Cole-Liriano-Taillon-Morton-Kingham allows Sampson to be a really solid 6th man that pushes Kingham if he struggles and spots Lirano/Morton in case of injury. Thats without any continued contributions from Worley/Locke beyond this year.
Great part of it is, even if one or two of these guys fails the expectations or busts out somehow, the depth allows the team to not really be screwed.
Your last sentence, that’s the best part of all of this. Odds are, between injuries, ineffectiveness, etc. not all of these guys will be able to be counted on every year they are in the Majors. That’s why having this depth is such a great thing. And let’s be honest, odds are, not everything will go right. It’ll most likely be far from that.
I like Sampson – and he does kind of fly under the radar and gets overlooked because of the likes of Glasnow, Kingham, etc. I was in Altoona and saw him throw the 1 hitter last year against Bowie.
He doesn’t throw 100mph and doesn’t dazzle you, but the kid seems to really know how to pitch – good control, changes speeds, mixes in the off speed stuff, etc. He kind of fits into that group of other similar young pitchers – like Cumpton and Sadler. Not overpowering, but generally have good control and will always compete well.
Its nice to know we have these other young pitchers available, because you never know what a season will bring in terms of injuries, unexpected poor performances, etc.
I read the headline and I saw the “SA” uni letters in the photo and I was terrified this was going to be an article on Casey Sadler.
IMO, Sampson will join the long list of NO.3 pitchers that the Pirates have, the Pirates have no 4’s and 5’s starters in Pittsburgh and not many in Indy if at all, on the other hand IMO, they don’t have any 1’s in the organization either.
Not too nit pick, but i would not currently consider Locke or Worley higher than a 4 or 5. And, for most of his career, Morton has not pitched like anything higher than a 4. At his best he may be a 3, but he isn’t consistent at that level.
How do you define a “1”? Isn’t everybody’s definition of an ace starter a bit different?
Gerrit averaged 1 strikeout per inning last year, with a low BB rate (2.61/9ip) and few HR (0.71/9ip). If a pitcher needs to be better than that to qualify as “a 1” then how many “1s” are there?
The business of defining pitchers as “1” through “5” is silliness.
By definition a #1 Starter would be the best SP for each team by whichever statistical measures you choose, I.e. FIP, xFIP, ERA, etc. Now an Ace, is an entirely different classification. That would be more aptly described as a SP who is in the upper echelon of #1 SP’s by the same stats used to define #1 ’s.
What may be interesting to note, is each team can only have one #1 , but they can have numerous Aces!
Made the argument elsewhere, but assuming that a guy that isnt an ace in his first 2 years wont be an ace at all doesnt meet the historical tape. Plenty of future ace arms took a few hundred innings to take that big step, so Cole being a sure thing 2-3 guy this early isnt really indicative of him going forward for sure. Increase in his K rate with a decent BB rate was big last year.
True. He has the physical tools to be a #1 . Right now mentally he isn’t there yet. His bulldog, strike everyone out mentality hurts him 3rd time through lineups. I wish he could take lessons from 2011, 2012 Jeff Karstens. Prior to 2011 Karstens stunk. Then somehow Jeff figured out how to pitch (pitch fast, change speeds, vary pitch selection, change location) and kept hitters off balance resulting in the lowest WHIP for Pirates’ starters in 2011 and 2012. If Cole could learn that mentality, combined with his natural stuff, he’d be a dynamite #1 . Hope he does it.
I see no way anyone can prove its the mental side of things that causes issues for Cole, apart from what every rookie goes through in adjusting. He doesnt show clear signs of wear and tear in terms of his ability to mentally handle things, i just see a guy that is still finding himself while being a solid 2-3 guy.
If he didnt make adjustments year to year id be worried, but the K rate went up to 9 last year and thats a key improvement. I dont agree Cole lacks a #1 mentality, but just lacks the experience.
Cole was perhaps too confident his first year. But I do think he’s making progress in realizing that he’s not going to beat great hitters with stuff alone. He needs stuff and smarts.
IMO, Cole’s problem with reliably getting into the 7th and later innings has less to do with tiring and more to do with not having executed a better game plan.
Yes! Better game plan: mix of pitches, speeds, locations detailed to each hitter, setting each one up in the 1st and 2nd AB with what will get them out in the third. It’s not that Cole lacks intelligence at all. To hear his interviews, he is a bright guy. He just hasn’t learned the mental aspects of good pitching yet. Hopefully Cervelli is good with game calling and develops a good relationship with Cole. It seemed that Cole often pitched to Stewart last year, almost as if he were avoiding Martin. Don’t know why. But it appears to me that Cole gets his adrenaline going and just tries to throw the ball past the hitters too often. Even with his stuff that just isn’t going to work in MLB.
Cole and/or Liriano aren’t number 1 starters?
Granted we don’t know how good or bad Taillon or Glasnow will end up in MLB, but I’m pretty sure number 1 starter is within their projections.
Cole should and could be a 1, but I don’t think his overall performance has been consistently at the level of a 1. But, he could still become that – and hopefully in 2015. Liriano can be nearly unhittable at times – and you would think that he is a 1 – but again, his control isn’t always there and he has been spotty at times. But, even if they are 2s – not a bad set of 2s.
A projected 1 and real 1 are two different things.
NO, Cole and Liriano are not No.1’s, Cole has the upside, but he has not done it yet, not even a 2 at this point. Liriano is too inconsistent for a 1. Cueto, Kershaw and Bumgarden are true ones, just a cut better than anyone the Pirates have. Taillon and Glasnow have the upside, but Taillon has not shown it yet in his career and Glasnow is just starting to pitch against better competition, their ceilings might be as high as a 1, but their floors are low enough to rank them as 3’s.
Chris Sale is right there with anyone you mentioned. As a matter of fact, I don’t think Bumgarden is on his level most of the time.
Thing is, you can only say that about the past, you can’t say that about the future. Any #1 for 2015 has to be a projected #1 . Even MadBum and Kershaw. Last year they were #1 s; next year they are projected #1 s. Semantics? Maybe, but words have meanings. Absolutely some projected #1 s are more a sure thing than others, but Lincecum was a projected #1 going into 2012. It happens.
Roark is not a true #1 starter. He could become one at some point, but if Samardzija is not one, then Roark definitely is not one.
Take out the first half of 2014 and Liriano is definitely a #1 . At least #1 ish numbers. When he’s pitching like he was in 2013 and later in 2014 we can beat anyone. His stuff is lights out. 93-95 tailing fastball and a slider and change up that gets more out of the zone swing and misses than just about anybody. If I’m facing Kershaw in a game 7 I want Liriano pitching. Our rotation this year to start will be 1. Liriano 2. Cole 3. Burnett 4. Worley 5. unfortunately Charlie Morton.
But how can you legitimately take out his 1H2014 when he has a career of inconsistency? If he showed a clear arc of improvement or had solved an issue I could agree (like Marte at the plate). But in Liriano’s case he seems to be up and down (granting him some slack he may have been sub par due to injury early in the year). I agree with you that when he is on he is tough. We can only hope he can do that more consistently.
I would say “unfortunately AJ is #3 ”. AJ is not a #3 any more.
If A.J pitches like he did in 2012-13 then He is a viable #3 option. That’ not out of the realm of possibility.
Difference of opinion on Cole and Liriano. They are both good enough to be a number one on a lot of staffs. Maybe not among the top 20 starters, but they’re up there.
But you said that they don’t have a number 1 in the organization. It makes no sense to say that and then turn around and say that “projected number 1’s are not number 1’s.” No prospect is a number 1 starter until they do that at the MLB level; but there are prospects who can be projected as number 1’s and Taillon and Glasnow are 2 of those guys. That, to me, means we have some number 1’s in the organization.
Maybe if the word ace is used rather than #1 it would clarify things. Obviously each team has its own #1 starter but not every team has an ace and some teams have more than one ace.
Being the best on a team’s staff isn’t a qualifier for being a #1 . While any numerical measure can be faulted I look for a true #1 to have stats that approximate an ERA below 2.75, durability of 200+ innings/year, and WHIP below 1.1. Can Cole achieve these marks eventually if he learns how to pitch better? Yes, he certainly has the natural stuff, but he wasn’t close last year as his performance was more of a #3 nature (as I think he would admit to himself). Regarding Liriano I think the Pirates should be ecstatic if they get #2 performance (ERA: 2.75 to 3.25, 180 – 200 innings/year, WHIP: 1.1 to 1.2. over the course of his contract as this will greatly exceed his MLB record to date.
While any numerical measure can be faulted I look for a true #1 to have stats that approximate an ERA below 2.75, durability of 200+ innings/year, and WHIP below 1.1.
There are 4 guys in all of MLB who fit that criteria in 2014: Felix Hernandez, Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, and Corey Kluber.
All teams have a number 1 starter but neither the definition nor potential make anyone a true star, stopper or ace. Consequently the Pirates have no true #1 pitchers
Maybe we miscommunicated about the meaning of approximate.
Take MadBum as an example: ERA: 2.98, Innings: 217, WHIP 1.09. He would certainly make my list of #1 s even though the ERA is strictly below the 2.75 cutoff (and he pitched better than his line during the Playoffs). Or Jon Lester: ERA: 2.46, Innings 219, WHIP: 1.10 (actually I don’t see why he didn’t make your list. Or Jordan Zimmerman: ERA: 2.66, Innings: 199.2, WHIP: 1.07. I am not going to disqualify Jordan from being a #1 for lack of 1/3 of an inning.
I am not going to go through all of MLB to cite all of the other examples, but I hope you see that point that while there may not be 30 true #1 s in MLB there are certainly far more than your reply implies.
I pretty sure this is how scouts think of it when doing future projections. There aren’t 30 #1 starters there are like 10-15, then 20-30 #2s, then 60 plus middle of the rotation pitchers, then a whole mess of back of the rotation guys.
But I don’t think there is a universal agreement and we are now just arguing over definitions.
Actually, I aroused my own curiosity a took a quick spin through MLB and I would certainly add the following names to the #1 list: Teheran, Richards, Greinke, Tanaka, Hamels, Fister, Roark. So I see 14 definite #1 s in MLB. Plus, I have a list of pitchers that are very close: Samardzija, Price, Keuchel, McHugh, Duffy, Shoemaker, Fernandez, DeGrom, Pineda, Cashner, Lynn, Cobb, Straburg. Some of these are hurt and may not recover, but if they do that would be an additional 13 names that are close to #1 status. So if they all made it there would be 27 in the league. And all of these have performed substantially better than Cole has to date. Not that Cole can’t join the list this season!
One last depressing thought. This exercise reminded me of how strong Washington’s starting rotation was last year. Gio Gonzalez as your #5 ! What an embarrassment of riches!
Half the pitchers you mention couldn’t carry Chris Sale’s glove, and I see NO mention of Wainwright anywhere but Steve’s list ! Are you kidding me ?
Oversights by me, went through the exercise too fast I see.
Sorry for being so quick to jump you, but Sale gets shortchanged by a lot of people, and it annoys me. He is tougher than nails.
I was lucky enough to see Sampson pitch a couple of times last year. He seemed to produce quite a few awkward swings which led to very weak contact.
I have commented on Liz before Brian, but I saw him start a game in Altoona last season, and his stuff was terrific. Having seen him as an Oriole prospect in ‘ 06, I was wondering why he was in AA. I would think Colin Balestar, though no prospect, just might wind up being a depth option at some point this season also.
What has kept Liz from having a more successful career to date leo? What is his Achilles Heel?
Luke Sutton has it piraddict. I can’t add anything to that.
Always has had the electric stuff, has had moderate to downright severe issues at times with control. Which makes it easy to see why PIT would be interested, a guy with the pure stuff to dazzle but issues with command and control.
Really high quality stuff this spring Tim. Just outstanding insight. Not that it hasn’t been in the past, but the volume and consistently excellent quality is over the top. Thanks.
With ability to hit 100 mph as recently as last year he’s got what it takes to be anything from starter to reliever. Searage should have fun with this guy I’d think.
Sampson hit 100?? I find that hard to believe….when I saw him pitch in Altoona, he was 90-92 for almost the entire game – he may have hit 93/94 once or twice, but that was it.
He was talking about Liz, didn’t use the reply button
Thanks…I wasn’t sure….I could not imagine he was referring to Sampson.
Sampson is another in a strong group, but one name that hasn’t been mentioned much is Radhames Liz. What is the history and arsenal of this guy- potential?