First Pitch: Filling the Biggest Needs in the Pirates Farm System

Over the last few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have had one of the top farm systems in the game. What makes that even more impressive is the fact that they’ve remained ranked so high, despite graduating top prospects every year like Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, and Gregory Polanco. That’s the sign of a strong system, when you can lose one of the top prospects in the game, and still remain in the top ten of baseball. Despite this overall strength, one thing I notice each year is the same complaint — pointing out the specific weaknesses of the system.

Farm systems are evaluated based on talent. That’s overall talent, and not the talent at each position. If you’re looking for a system that has a top prospect at every position, then you’re going to find zero results. And it’s that desire to have a prospect at every position that leads to wanting to draft for need, or wanting a player to play a position that he has no business playing, due to his horrible defensive skills at that spot.

The Pirates have two key weaknesses in their system — third base and left-handed pitching. I’d include first base, but that no longer seems to be a big weakness, since they have one of the top first base prospects after Josh Bell’s move from the outfield.

Today I wrote two articles from minor league camp, looking at some players who could help improve those weak areas in the system. The first article was a video feature on Connor Joe, who was drafted by the Pirates in the competitive balance portion of the first round in 2014. He missed the entire year with a back injury, and is just now getting into action. The Pirates announced when he was drafted that he would get time at first base. But today they had him working out at third base.

That’s a good thing, for reasons noted above. The only third base prospect the Pirates really have is Wyatt Mathisen, and he’s largely unproven. He was converted to third base last year after spending his first two seasons behind the plate. The Pirates also have guys like Dan Gamache, Eric Wood, and Chase Simpson, although they either look like future bench players, or in Simpson’s case, they’re too far off and too old for their level to be called prospects.

The Pirates will still be weak at third base if Joe starts playing there. But they’ll be taking the right step towards having a third baseman. Currently they don’t need a replacement until after the 2017 season, assuming Josh Harrison works out over the next three years. So they’ve got time to develop a guy. And Joe, just like Mathisen, has enough time and is close enough to the majors to be ready after Harrison leaves, assuming all goes well with his development.

The approach with Joe is similar to what the Pirates did with Mathisen. Draft an athletic player who has good hitting potential, and hope he can play a difficult position to fill. Mathisen started off at catcher, but quickly moved to third base after the catching position started filling up in the lower levels. Joe was drafted as an outfielder, but will have a hard time getting work at the position, especially after his back injury. So a move to third, where he might not work out defensively, but where he would have more value if he does work out, makes a lot of sense. The Pirates did the exact same thing with JaCoby Jones, drafting him as an outfielder and moving him to shortstop.

Left-handed pitching is another need, and that need was only made worse by a series of moves over the last year. The Pirates traded Blake Taylor for Ike Davis, and traded Joely Rodriguez for Antonio Bastardo. They also saw Wei-Chung Wang go to the Brewers in the Rule 5 draft. That depleted their left-handed starter supply, with the exception of Cody Dickson. This situation was improved when they traded Travis Snider to the Orioles, getting back Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault.

I wrote about Tarpley and Brault today, noting the changes they made last year, how they did against Pirates’ affiliates, and some of the differences they are noticing between Orioles camp and Pirates camp. As I’ve said many times about the trade, the verdict will highly depend on how Andrew Lambo does in the majors. If he does well, and doesn’t provide a drop off from Travis Snider, then the Pirates will have been able to land two good left-handed pitching prospects while staying the same in the majors.

It’s harder to fill that left-handed need, as opposed to the need at a specific position on the field. You can’t just move someone to the position. You actually need a left-hander. With the future rotation in Pittsburgh made up of a ton of right-handers, and with PNC Park being favorable to lefties, you kind of want a left-hander to step up.

The Pirates still have a strong system, all because of the overall talent. But if you were hoping to see them make some moves to fill specific needs (and I don’t think they made all of these moves for that sole purpose), then you’re getting your wish.

**We have about 100 paperback books of the 2015 Prospect Guide remaining from the most recent shipment. We’ve already sold more than last year’s total, and I don’t anticipate ordering another shipment this year. That means once the current batch is gone, the hard copy version will be sold out. You can order your copy of the book on the products page of the site.

**Every day I upload content on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and the video features on YouTube. Be sure that you’re subscribed to all of those sites to follow everything we upload throughout Spring Training (there is different content for each social media site).

**Meet Connor Joe: The First Round Pick You Know Nothing About. I caught up with Joe to get the latest on his injury, where he might be playing in 2015, and video of his progress on the field.

**Watch Josh Bell, JaCoby Jones, And Austin Meadows Taking Non-Stop Batting Practice. A fun video looking at all three taking batting practice at the same time in a split cage.

**Will The Snider Trade Result In The Pirates Finally Having A Left-Handed Starting Prospect? A look at Tarpley and Brault, what they were working on before the trade, what to expect from them in 2015, and some differences between how the Orioles and Pirates do things.

**Alvarez Beating The Shift, Cervelli’s Defense, Worley’s Improvements, Lambo Comfortable. Notes from today’s game, and where each of these players are at during this point in camp.

**Josh Harrison Leaves Spring Training Game With Left Ankle Discomfort. Harrison said he would give an update in the morning on his status.

**Pirates Agree To Terms With All 21 Of Their Unsigned Players. All of the players on the 40-man roster are now under contract.

  • Ok, I feel better now after I got hammered on the board when I suggested that if we HAVE to trade a starting pitcher to look for a top quality 3rd base prospect who is in the higher levels. See, maybe reading my “Pirate Prospects” is helping.

  • I don’t see Lambo being a sure thing going north. If the pitchers they got pan out, no one will remember Travis Snider, or his big toe.

  • I see the addition of Kang as a strengthening of the general weakness in the minor league system on the left side of the infield at the upper levels, even though Kang is going to start at the MLB level. It could turn out to be a brilliant move by Neil.

    • addict: Agree, and I was pleasantly surprised to watch Kang swing in the opener with a lot less height on his front leg lift, and staying well balanced as a result. However, I still see 3B as a place to get somebody ready for when JHAY goes into Free Agency in a few years. I still have a preference for a LH hitter, with a decent to + glove, and blocked from upward mobility, so here are a few folks to look at –

      **Rio Ruiz – 21, 6’2 215, Houston, a good glove, LH hitter who hit .293 at Hi A in 2014, decent power, 50 EBH, 82W/91K
      **Jake Lamb – 24, 6’3″ 220, D’Backs, exc glove, LH hitter hit .318 at AA in 2014, G to VG power, 54 EBH, .950 OPS. Got time in the majors in Sep.

      **Ryan McMahon – 20, 6’2″ 185, glove?, Rockies LH hitter had a monster year at Lo A for average and power, #95 of the Top 100 of BA, behind Nolan Arenado who is only 24.
      **Cody Asche – 24, Philly, 6’1″ 200, LH hitter played in MLB in 2013, 2014, but with Maikel Franco coming up, this kid could be available. Good glove, Good power.

      I am sure there are others, but these caught my eye, especially Ruiz and McMahon.

      • Darkstone42
        March 5, 2015 1:52 pm

        Kang actually tends to vary his leg kick, but the remarkable thing about him is that he’s always very balanced no matter how big a kick he takes. He’s just a really good athlete, I think, which allows him to get away with it.

        As for those third basemen, I would love to get any of them. The question would be which team best fits us as a trading partner, since none of them are in “win now” mode who would want one of our expensive but good roster players.

        • Dark: Most hitters try to reduce moving parts, but if it works for him, so be it. He sees the ball well and is not afraid to hit straight out with power – that RC stuff fits the prevailing jetstream at PNC.

      • Well, they all look intriguing, though the older two will probably be MLB ready ahead of when JHAY will be ready to leave. But the question is, who would you be willing to give up to obtain one? Would you trade JHAY with a year left of control for one of these plus compensating talent?

  • Lee Foo Young
    March 5, 2015 9:42 am

    I wonder if JaCoby Jones ends up at 3b if his SS experiment doesn’t pan out (AND he continues to hit at the higher levels).

  • Overall, the Pirates did well in their exchange of LH Pitching from 2014 to 2015. Justin Wilson’s control/command issues were wearing thin, and Joely Rodriguez was a good prospect, but somebody who was probably 2 years away. The Pirates had to have that second strong armed, MLB-experienced, LHRP, and Bastardo looks very promising. Blake Taylor was lost because nobody stepped up to claim 1B.

    We still have Cody Dickson and Orlando Castro and getting Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault from B’more adds promising prospect depth. Brault seems steady and uses everything he has in order to succeed; Tarpley, with that mid-90’s fastball has the much higher upside. High upside also applies to one of our own, 19 year old International signee Hector Garcia, who pitched well in 48 innings at Bristol in 2014.

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