There was a discussion the other day in one of the comment sections about the abilities of the Pittsburgh Pirates developing hitters. The idea was that the Pirates haven’t done a good job of developing hitters through the draft, as evident by most of their big breakout prospects being on the pitching side. The counter to this argument is that they’ve focused more on pitching, leaving fewer opportunities for a breakout hitter. With the 2015 MLB draft less than a month away, I thought this would be a perfect time to look into this debate.
Just to make things clear, I fall on the side of the argument that says the Pirates haven’t had many opportunities for a breakout hitter, due to their drafting trends. I also think that they’ve shown a good ability to develop hitting prospects, all things considered. Allow me to go through each draft to illustrate my points.
2008 – This one was very heavy on the hitters. Pedro Alvarez went in the first round, but they didn’t stop there. Jordy Mercer went in the third round, and Chase d’Arnaud and Matt Hague were top ten round picks. That’s two starters, plus two guys who made it to the majors as bench guys, which is a strong result from one draft. That doesn’t include Robbie Grossman, who has also made the majors, and was the key piece to acquire Wandy Rodriguez.
Verdict: This Pirates group started off their drafting by focusing heavily on hitters, and it has worked out well so far.
2009 – This draft was all about pitching, and it didn’t work out. Tony Sanchez was the big hitting prospect, with hopes that he could be the catcher of the future. Now the hopes are that he can just make it as an MLB backup. He has made the majors, but that’s more of a consolation for a number four overall pick. One of the few hitters taken with a high pick was Brock Holt, who was traded in the deal to bring in Mark Melancon. Holt is turning into a nice utility player in the majors, after showing some good hitting skills in the minors with the Pirates.
Verdict: The most important hitter didn’t work out. The Pirates did get a small success story in the top ten rounds, although he’s playing for another team now.
2010 – This is another year where they focused heavily on pitching, and a lot of those pitchers went on to college instead of signing. The lone position player in the top ten rounds was Mel Rojas, taken in the third round. Rojas is currently in Triple-A, with the chance to reach the majors as a bench option, and the upside of a fourth outfielder who can play all three positions, while adding some power and speed. One twist here was that they drafted Stetson Allie as a pitcher, then quickly converted him to a hitter. He’s in Double-A now, although his upside is limited due to his strikeouts. They did go over slot on Drew Maggi and Jared Lakind. Maggi topped out at Double-A before being released and joining the Angels. Lakind converted to a lefty reliever.
Verdict: There wasn’t a big focus on hitters at all here, and the few guys they heavily targeted haven’t worked out, or don’t have big upsides.
2011 – This wasn’t as extreme as the previous two years, but they once again loaded up on pitchers. The big exception here is that they drafted Josh Bell and gave him $5 M. Other top ten round picks included Alex Dickerson, Dan Gamache, and Taylor Lewis. Dickerson was traded for Jaff Decker and what eventually became Chris McGuiness. He showed good hitting skills with the Pirates, but was limited with back problems, which have followed him to San Diego. Gamache looks to be topping out at the Double-A level, and Lewis was released. Bell is the big name, and has developed to the point where he’s seen as the first baseman of the future.
Verdict: It’s too early and there aren’t many guys to focus on from the hitting side. Bell will make or break the draft for the hitters.
2012 – This draft was all about Mark Appel, with the Pirates going signability with their round 6-10 picks in order to get extra money for the first round pick. They did take several hitters, including Barrett Barnes and Wyatt Mathisen, who have both dealt with injuries and/or struggles. Barnes is hitting this year, but has dealt with a constant string of injuries. Mathisen struggled at catcher, and was injured. He moved to third base, and has shown more potential and a better ability to stay healthy there. Eric Wood and Jacob Stallings, two of the signability guys, are currently in Altoona. Both have a small shot at being an MLB bench player, with Stallings fitting the mold of Chris Stewart.
The interesting case here is Max Moroff. When Appel didn’t sign, the Pirates turned their money to three middle round guys, including giving Moroff $300,000 to break his commitment to Central Florida. He’s now having a breakout year in Altoona, and as Sean McCool wrote today, raising the idea about whether he can be an MLB starter at second.
Verdict: Way too early. The Barnes and Mathisen progressions aren’t encouraging, but the Moroff breakout this year is something to watch.
2013 – This is the first year since 2008 where the Pirates really focused on hitters. They took Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire in the first round, then followed with JaCoby Jones, Trae Arbet, and Adam Frazier in the early rounds. They also went over-slot on Erich Weiss in the 11th round. Meadows and McGuire are living up to expectations so far as top prospects. Jones had a mini-breakout year last year, and is showing potential at shortstop. Frazier is off to a good start in Altoona. But it’s way too early to evaluate this group.
Verdict: Way, way too early.
2014 – The Pirates went heavy on position players in this draft, which is part of what sparked this topic. But if it’s way, way too early for 2013, then there’s no use discussing the results from last year’s draft.
Verdict: See me in a few years.
Can the Pirates Develop Hitters?
Looking at the breakdowns above, the Pirates have focused heavily on pitching, which explains why there have been more pitching breakouts. Their big focus on hitting was limited to the 2008 and 2013 drafts, plus a few big picks along the way. The 2008 results look great, and it’s too early to judge the 2013 group. The other three drafts have seen some good (Max Moroff, Josh Bell, Brock Holt) and some bad (Tony Sanchez). I don’t think either one is enough to say conclusively that the Pirates are good or bad at developing hitters, especially since Jordy Mercer is the only middle round guy to play a big role in the majors. You could chalk that up to a lack of middle round picks who could realistically be expected in the majors at this point. Overall, I’d say that their development skills look more optimistic than anything else.
The concern here seems to be that the Pirates just haven’t displayed the skill, not because they’ve tried and failed, but because they haven’t really tried. They have a great system for developing pitchers, and that system has produced a lot of pitching prospects. They haven’t produced as many hitters, but that’s simply because they haven’t devoted as much in resources to the hitters. Even with that, they have a few success stories on the development side to give hope that their offense-heavy approach in 2013 and 2014 (and maybe beyond?) will work out well, especially in cases like 2014 when they go against the grain.
I’d also point out that when we’re talking about development, it’s pointless to only focus on the draft. The development system works the same for all avenues of talent. You’d have to include Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, and others in this group, since these guys were developed by the current system. If you’re going to only focus on the draft, then this becomes a scouting thing, and not a development angle. And then the discussion gets broken open to include unsigned talents like Trea Turner and Matt den Dekker, as those picks would reflect the scouting, even if they didn’t sign. That would tip the discussion even more in favor of the drafting skills.
Again, I don’t think there’s anything conclusive here, but I think the evidence points more towards the Pirates showing an ability to develop hitting prospects.