First Pitch: Strong Year From the Farm System Gives Pirates Trade Chips

There has been a growing narrative in Pittsburgh over the last week that the Pirates are having a down year in their farm system. The narrative also says that the Pirates don’t have prospects to trade, or that they have done a poor job drafting, which is why they don’t have any help coming up this year at their specific area of need.

I specify that this narrative only exists in Pittsburgh, because the Pirates continue to get great ratings for their farm system and prospects from national evaluators outside of Pittsburgh. Keith Law had the Pirates just outside of his top five farm systems this week, and that was after ranking four Pirates in his mid-season top 50. Baseball America only had two in their top 50, but Baseball Prospectus had four. Both left off Jameson Taillon, due to his injury, although when healthy, he would have most likely ranked in the top 50.

And then there’s this site, which covers the Pirates’ system closer than any other outlet. We see every player, and talk with scouts regularly. Nothing we’ve seen supports the claims that the Pirates are having a down year, or won’t be able to help their MLB roster. In fact, I’m here to tell you the exact opposite. They’re having a good year, and they’ve got guys who could be traded who add an upgrade to the MLB roster.

The biggest knock on the system this year has come from injuries. Nick Kingham underwent Tommy John surgery. Jameson Taillon had a long return from Tommy John, and then went down with hernia surgery. Tyler Glasnow missed some time with an ankle injury, although he has been absolutely dominant outside of that injury period.

The losses of Kingham and Taillon, combined with injuries to Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler, mean that the Pirates are weaker with their starting pitching depth than they would have been if just a few of those guys were healthy. I doubt this impacted their trade chances. For one, they’ve got plenty of prospects of value at other positions. They also don’t tend to trade top pitching prospects.

As for the prospects the Pirates could trade, it definitely helps that they’ve had very few players lose value, and a lot of players see an increase in value this year. There might be some who disagree with this, especially when it involves the power department. The Pirates have aggressively pushed a lot of young players (Reese McGuire, Austin Meadows, Cole Tucker) while stressing hitting for average, using the middle and opposite fields, limiting strikeouts, and getting on base. The result is that you’re not seeing a lot of home runs, but you’re seeing a lot of guys being developed to be well-rounded hitters who can add some power as they get older and more mature.

Looking at the trends in the game today, power hitters can be neutralized by the shift, and there are very few power hitters who can hit to all fields. It seems like the more valuable skill would be putting the ball in play to all fields, with the ability to hit for some power as well. The Pirates have bought in defensively to the shift. It seems the solution for the offensive side is developing players who don’t have strong shift tendencies, and the Pirates seem to be taking this approach.

That’s why I’m not worried about the upsides of Meadows, McGuire, Tucker, Harold Ramirez, or anyone else hitting for a high average, getting on base, limiting strikeouts, but not hitting for a ton of power. The steroid era is over, and the advanced stats era is in full swing. The Pirates are working to develop the type of hitters that will be successful in the modern version of Major League Baseball, and if those guys do end up adding power to the rest of their game, then you’ve got a star in today’s MLB.

Then we’ve got the success stories. Harold Ramirez has really impressed me this year, looking like one of the best pure hitters in the system. Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault have both been fantastic since coming over in the Travis Snider trade. Alen Hanson’s biggest drawback was his defense at shortstop, and he’s been much more consistent at second base. Max Moroff is having a breakout season in Altoona, and could emerge as a starter. Barrett Barnes is showing off some nice raw power, and is finally staying healthy. JaCoby Jones continues getting more comfortable at shortstop by the day, which is extremely valuable with his power stroke. Yeudy Garcia has emerged as a guy throwing an easy mid-90s fastball, along with some potential for his secondary stuff. Then you’ve got promising stories, like the emergence of Adam Frazier, or the fact that the Pirates have so many teenage arms touching or even sitting in the mid-90s with their fastballs (Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, Gage Hinsz, Billy Roth).

There have been things that have gone wrong. Luis Heredia continues trending down. Some of the toolsy young players in the lower levels haven’t worked out yet. And then there’s the injuries. But these are just common stories across all of baseball. Not every prospect will succeed, and these days it seems injuries are impossible to avoid for pitchers. The Pirates are among the norm with the downsides in their system this year, and they’re above average with all of the guys trending upward.

If you’ve been following the system closely, and we have been, then you’d see that the Pirates have a specific plan to develop well-rounded hitters, while putting power on the back seat for now. They’ve got a lot of prospects trending upwards, and very few on the way down. The guys who have been injured haven’t lost a lot of value. The main guy who is still uncertain there is Nick Kingham, as we don’t know how he will return from Tommy John surgery yet. But Taillon returned better than ever, and Glasnow’s ankle injury is a blip on the radar.

All of this means that the Pirates are in a great position when it comes to the upcoming trade deadline. They’ve got a very young team with a lot of core pieces under team control for several years. They have very few long-term needs, and top prospects in the upper levels to fill those needs they do have in the next year or two. They have excess talent at certain positions, which means they could trade promising prospects like Harold Ramirez or Barrett Barnes and they wouldn’t be hurt in the short-term or the long-term.

They didn’t give up anything they’d miss when they acquired Aramis Ramirez, sending out Yhonathan Barrios. He was one of many hard-throwing right-handed relievers who can hit the upper 90s, while currently lacking good secondary stuff. Today’s rumors had them looking at Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, who are both along the same lines of Ramirez. They’re older players, and the best years are in the past. The Pirates would be taking on salary, giving up a Grade C prospect that they won’t miss, and hoping to get a few more good months out of these guys.

But the Pirates don’t have to go that route. They don’t have to take this type of gamble. They’re in a better position this year to trade prospects away than they have been during each of the last few deadlines. And a big part of that was because they didn’t trade guys like Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, or others in previous years.

I know that the knock on this article will be that I’m biased, because I cover the Pirates’ farm system. Never mind that this same argument isn’t used for people who cover any other topic. The argument ignores a few key points, such as the fact that people have been interested in the prospects even in the dark days when there were no prospects in the Pirates’ system. It also ignores the biggest point: negativity sells. A lot. You can write a negative article that’s total bullshit, and it will get more attention than a positive article that is well researched and right on the mark.

And of course, I spent years saying the exact opposite, that the Pirates shouldn’t trade prospects, and they should instead just take on cash and go with gambles like Napoli. Those arguments were all seen as biased, because I cover the Pirates’ farm system. Basically, that’s a lazy way to try and dismiss an argument.

The truth is that the Pirates spent years building up their system, and during their early years of contending it didn’t make sense to deal a lot of top prospects. They’ve now got a team that is mostly under control for several years, and a lot of top prospects ready to come up and help fill the weak spots. Beyond that, they’ve got a few areas where they have long-term options in the majors, top prospects in the minors, and several other good prospects who they could trade at the same positions.

The Pirates still have a strong farm system. That system is having a good year, with a lot of guys seeing an increase in their prospect values. And it makes sense now more than ever to dip into that farm system and add a few pieces for the MLB club.

**I was debating between making this a free article last night, or keeping it for subscribers. I decided to keep it for subscribers at first, but then decided there was enough bad information out there for free from people who spent zero time covering the prospects in the farm system. Might as well put a view out there from a site that is fully dedicated to covering every prospect in the system. You can get this coverage for the low price of $2.99 per month, or less under an annual plan. Or you can participate in our DraftKings promotion and get a year for free with a $5 deposit in a new DraftKings account. All of the details can be found on the subscription page.

**I’ll be heading up north tomorrow, starting a two-week stretch of live game coverage throughout the minor league system. I’ll be covering Bristol, West Virginia, Morgantown, and the Pirates during their Sunday night game on August 9th. That live coverage is in addition to our normal live coverage from Ryan Palencer in Indianapolis, Sean McCool in Altoona, and Pete Ellis in Pittsburgh. At the end of that stretch, I’ll have a day off before a five game stretch in Bradenton, followed by a few GCL games. Over the next month we will have live coverage from every team in the system.

**Prospect Watch: Glasnow Strikes Out 12, Bradenton Hitters Stay Hot. Subscribers can now check out our new and improved Prospect Watch, giving you everything you’d want to know on the system each day, all on one page. If you missed it, our site updates had all of the details of the new Prospect Watch, plus details on the travel schedule, and more upgrades.

**Pirates Continue to Roll, Led By More Strong Pitching. Sean McCool’s live game report from PNC Park tonight.

**Pirates Could Be Interested in Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino. I think they could do better. Napoli would make some sense if they think he could bounce back, but it’s hard to argue that he’s a better option than Pedro Alvarez at this point.

**Justin Sellers Outrighted to Indianapolis. Kind of a minor move, leaving one spot open on the 40-man roster.

**Injury Updates: Harrison, Sadler, Hernandez, Lambo, Scahill, Taillon. A lot of injury updates here, including somewhat good news for Casey Sadler.

**Morning Report: Jin-De Jhang Leads a Group of Players That Are Tough to Strikeout. Seems to be the focus in the minor league system lately.

 

  • David Darlington
    July 27, 2015 2:40 pm

    How I miss PP. Not a complaint, more like a fond remembrance of great writing and analytical thinking. As I have decided not to pay a subscription, I’ve been in the dark about the farm system this year. Recently, I read an article from Cook or Smizik (one of those habitual naysayers) about the state of the Pirates farm system and how they couldn’t swing a deal because of the current low opinion of their prospects. Leave it to PP to save the day with a reality check. Thanks Tim! Miss you guys but keep up the good work (and thanks for sharing this article!)

    • You’re welcome to come back and join us any time! The subscription isn’t much, and if you do the DraftKings deal, it’s like you’re not even paying for a subscription (mostly because you’re paying for a fantasy baseball game and getting the subscription for free).

  • My top trade candidates right now for the Pirates:
    1. Adam Lind
    2. Tyler Clippard
    3. Will Smith
    4. Jake McGee
    5. Ben Zobrist
    6. Mike Napoli
    7. Neal Cotts
    8. Jim Johnson
    9. Mark Lowe
    10. Mark Rzepczynski
    (BONUS: Jeff Samardzija, James Shields, and Joaquin Benoit)

      • I wouldn’t be so flippant about that “minor” back injury.

        Lind has missed time due to the same chronic back problems in four of the last five seasons, by my count.

        • What are your thoughts on Chris Davis if the Orioles put him on the block?

          • I’d love it, just to see Clint Hurdles head explode…

            “No no, Chris. Make more contact and stop pulling the ball so much.”

            Chris Davis is the hitter a decent hitting coach would be trying to turn Alvarez into. A deeply flawed, but hugely powerful guy that should be doing everything he can to put the ball in the air.

      • I see that as potential pricing driving for us, a little NL Centeal gamesmanship

        • Yeah if i was NH, id be calling MIL a ton and trying to drive up interest and the price even if i dont have actual interest in making that move.

          Mostly because Lind to STL makes way too much sense.

          • The Pirates have not been linked to Lind, which means we have probably talked to Mil about him, since our rumors don’t get leaked much.

            • Lol thats not bad logic with the way we operate actually.

              Lind would be great, and id feel content if the worst case was we drove up the price enough that STL parted with more than marginal prospects.

    • I’d love to see Jake McGee as the other lefty in the pen. Tim, any thoughts on what it would take to get him?

  • Great stuff, as always Tim. Enjoy your adventures up north!

  • Wilbur Miller
    July 27, 2015 9:04 am

    So . . . this is what the system is like if you’ve actually seen the prospects, talked to scouts who’ve seen them, and read what other experts are saying . . . .

    • WTM…isn’t it amazing how that works?

      I’m surprised that Tim even listed Reese McG above, since he is a bust!

      • Interestingly enough, about McGuire, we already see what McGuire’s floor is…it is Chris Stewart. A singles-hitting, defensive catcher. That is McGuire’s floor. A guy who has a positive WAR every year he’s been in the majors for more than 17 games…and is normally worth right around 1 WAR a year without collecting more than 200 ABs! If that’s his floor I am more than OK with that.

  • Talk to AJ Prellar. Go see what it would take to get James Shields and Benoit?? I, too, believe they need another frontline starter (AJ’s regression has already begun) and another bullpen guy. Add Napoli as a RH platoon with Alvarez, get back Jay-HAy and Mercer. And this team is more than well balanced not only for a 1 game wildcard but for a run towards a World Series title.

    • I actually think that going after Padres players makes a huge amount of sense. AJ Preller might have had the worst offseason of any GM ever…yes, I am serious. He is desperate to trade players and he is desperate to clear salary. This could be an opportunity to really make something happen below value.

  • Tim, as always. a very good in-depth look at the system as a whole. It’s to bad that some Pittsburgh “writers”/”bloggers” only consider a good strong farm system to be one that can just plug in a major league ready/above average replacement any time the major league club needs one. Injuries have had a huge impact on the upper level pitching prospects, but you just have to move on. As you stated they are still in a good position to use some of the above mentioned players as trade chips. Thanks again for providing an excellent site as well as all of the excellent comments/discussions that take place here.

  • needz moar hottakes.

  • A couple of things.

    1. It’s irrelevant to worry about Taillon’s and Kingham’s injuries as far as trade value goes, neither was ever getting traded unless the Phillies volunteered to pay $20 million a year on Hamels. The same goes for Hanson, Meadows, McGuire, Bell, or Glasnow.

    2. The trade chips everybody except Tim is ignoring are Frazier, Moroff, Barnes, etc. who must be added to the 40-man or exposed to the Rule 5 draft. I can’t imagine all 3 of those guys being in the system on Saturday. And based on the current trade market, any one of them will bring back a very nice piece, not Victorino or Napoli. I could see one of those guys and maybe Chad Kuhl going for a pretty good starter.

    See Tim’s article on the Rule 5 crunch. (This is not a paid advertisement.)

    • AT this point I don’t see Chad Kuhl bringing anything back He might be a part of a package, but not himself alone I do however agree that guys like Moroff would get us a return. Left handed pitching is what people want. This is the reason NH made that trade for the two lefty starters. Brault could be a part of a package. I really think this team need pitching help. Both Starting and in the bullpen I;m positive the Pirates could have put together a better package than both the Royals did for Cueto and the Astros did for Kazmir, If they don’t do it they are crazy. It’s not a real expensive asking price

    • Frazier doesn’t have to be added yet. He was a college bat from the 2013 draft, so he has to be added before the 2016 draft.

  • Tim, The market for starting pitching looks reasonable. If the Pirates were the ones to get Cueto what would the package look like compared to the package the Royals used to get Cueto

    • I haven’t really had a chance to look at what the Royals sent, outside of Finnegan, who is on my dynasty team for fantasy baseball. I’m planning on taking a look at that soon, along with looking at the topic of the starting pitching market.

      • They gave up three top 200 prospects for 2 months of Cueto. Not a ton, but not nothing either.

  • Tim, will you be in Bristol August 1-5? My wife and I are thinking about going to see a game during that time. (truth to be told, I haven’t told HER that yet, she likely will go shopping for antiques…)

  • Tim, will be in Bristol August 1-5? My wife and I are thinking about going to see a game during that time. (truth to be told, I haven’t told HER that yet, she likely will go shopping for antiques 🙂

  • Tim, please make this a free article, so I may send to all my compadres that “follow” the naysayers on Twitter that are nothing more than carnival barking, pro wrestling, gasoline throwing, snake oil selling bullshitters. These folks (the MM of the world) know that our fans are reacting after every game as if it is Steeler Monday. They know we are bought into, as a whole, the winning “window.” Great job calling this out and giving me, and US, a perspective that allowed me to buy what NH is selling. I’ve been a much more satisfied pirate fan these last few years… And content to know that what they’ve built will still be here in 5/7 years… Even if some folks say cutch stinks after every strikeout.

  • Maybe I’m mistaken, but all I remember are the epic failures of teams like last years A’s team who went all in to win it all. While conversely, teams like the Giants go on to win the title when their biggest deal is for an aging vet, complimentary piece, like Jake Peavy.

    The whole notion a team good enough to play at a .580 clip for 4 months needs a major upgrade to be a championship team is lost on me. I’m a much bigger fan of the low cost acquisitions like ARam at this time of year.

    I am in favor of trading prospects for proven MLB players when it makes sense. To me it makes more sense to do this in the winter.

    • I think it makes sense to do it now if you can get someone who helps beyond 2015. For example, Adam Lind would cost prospects, and would fill the first base need through 2016. And that’s basically the same as adding a player over the winter, except you get the added bonus of help down the stretch this year.

    • This is why, if we aren’t trading for someone like Lind, Napoli is such a good option. Proven championship veteran with a low cost and upside where we need him 1B/RH bat.

    • Hamels might provide two additional wins at the margin to the Pirates for this season. Since the Cards refuse to falter and the Cubs seem unable or unlikely to catch the Pirates, Hamels may be a luxury or a bet hedging acquisition for the Pirates for this season. The Pirates will make the playoffs with or without Hamels. Once in the playoffs, Cole and Liriano become the key pitchers in the Pirates rotation. Hamels, on the other hand, may not provide an edge relative to those two or even with respect to Burnett.

      Briefly put, the Pirates do not have a compelling need for Hamels. Quality bullpen pitchers, middle relievers — they do need those given the injuries and struggles of their middle relievers not named Hughes.

  • Given the trades that have happened so far this trade deadline period, Locke, Ramirez or Barnes, Garcia or Tarpley, and Jhang or Frazier or Moroff should be enough to acquire Cole Hamels. The Phillies would receive a package of up-the-middle players who are talented, productive but not one of the organizations top prospects. Moreover, Locke is a ML pitcher, while the others are the player types a rebuilding organization should target when trading a top pitcher like Hamels. Plus, not one of these players can be considered filler. Nor are on the DL. Each, in fact, has a ceiling of ML starter. Finally, they are not members of the organization’s can’t-shouldn’t-won’t trade list. This list likely includes:

    Glasnow
    Taillon
    Diaz
    McGuire
    Hanson
    Bell

    Glasnow and Taillon project to be number one or two starters. They are the kind of pitchers an organization won’t and should not trade. Diaz provides a bridge between Cervelli and Stewart and McGuire. McGuire’s defense, when coupled with adequate hitting, makes him too promising to trade. Of course, one could make the same claim about Diaz. Bell is the first baseman of the future while Hanson provides infield depth for the major league team and may become a starter in any case. Meadows will replace McCutchen when the future HOFer cashes in on his next contract. And, again, one can make the same claim about

    This trade scenario, which passes any reasonable feasibility test, easily demonstrates the strength of the Pirates’ development system.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      July 27, 2015 4:54 am

      Ramirez is one of our top prospects….I would not include him in any trade for Hamels.

      • Phillies won’t deal Hamels for anything less than high impact talent, either in or near Major leagues. And I can’t see Pirates giving up a package that includes guys like Taillon, Hanson, Bell or Glasnow, while I think a team like Texas will give up their top prospects to acquire him.

        • Scott: Trades like the one the Reds just pulled off getting 3 strong pitching prospects from KC for a short term rental on Johnny Cueto should be an indication there are plenty of teams willing to buy top talent. KC has a need and are almost assured of playing deep into the playoffs this year.

          Texas did not hire Jeff Banister to start trading prospects – they are building for the future, and may opt to trade for better pitching, but not at what the cost will be for Hamels

          • I dont see why its clear KC will go deep into the playoffs. I say that thinking KC is the best team in the AL, but comments like that just dont seem smart for me. Teams routinely struggle for no reason in the playoffs, while others find offense from nowhere (KC last postseason) and surge.

            I think KC is far from assured anything, even with good defense and enough offense. Big trades dont assure teams of anything, even already quality teams.

        • BuccosFanStuckinMD
          July 27, 2015 8:08 am

          I’d pass on Hamels then – no way I trade Ramirez – I think he’s a better prospect than Hanson or Bell.

        • BuccosFanStuckinMD
          July 27, 2015 8:09 am

          Given the size of his contract and the fact that the Phillies are wanting way too much for Hamels, I would not be shocked to see Hamels stay in Philly.

          • His contract isn’t very prohibitive, considering he’s been a 4.5 WAR pitcher consistently, and is paid close to market rate for a top starter. With no salary relief, and adjusting him to a 4.0 WAR the final two years (also picking up his option), I’ve got his trade value starting at $35.4 M. And that’s without inflation for the trade deadline.

            Any salary relief drives that price up. An extra $5 M off per year means a top 50 prospect, or a top 100 guy and a Grade B prospect.

            Hamels is going to cost a lot.

            • BuccosFanStuckinMD
              July 27, 2015 9:21 am

              Wouldn’t he be, by far, the highest paid player on the Pirates roster, with no one else coming close – including Cutch and Cole?

              • Yes, by far.

                • But can’t the Pirates, also, afford it? Whether they want to spend both the money and the insane prospect request is another story…

                  • In prospects, possibly.

                    In money, it’s hard to say. You’d have to project out their long-term payroll. They might be able to afford Hamels, but that might restrict them from other things in the future.

                    • I am not suggesting we trade for Hamels. Just wondering your thoughts on the money vs. prospects. I think we could afford both, but I would have a much harder time with the prospects then the money I would think.

  • Outstanding article Tim. Maybe the best you’ve done.

    And for a certain naysayer, it’s well worth the $2.99 a month.

  • Tell us how you really feel tim, go on let it out we are listening.

  • The only problem I see with all of this, Tim, is that almost all of these good prospects and depth is in the lower levels because of injuries. Kingham would have been a nice piece to trade or upgrade the major league roster…same for Taillon. They also would have been great trade pieces that are off the table. We seem to be heavily weighted in the lower levels right now, which likely means we will have the opportunity to compete for years to come if everything works out…it also might mean we are lacking in what teams want at the deadline.

    Nice to see that you’re high on Harold Ramirez too…love what we are seeing from him. He’s destroying the league and now showcasing some good power too. He could be a decent trade chip if a team thought he should already be in AA, like I do…but I actually really like him and want to keep him. That also happens this time of year…we over value prospects and do not value enough how tough it is for these prospects to ever amount to more than passing big leaguers, if they make it that far at all. That’s why a deep system is needed…and why trading from that depth isn’t so bad.

    • First of all, thanks.

      I disagree with the idea that you need upper level talent to make a trade. The Athletics just traded Kazmir for two lower level guys. The Pirates got Byrd for Dilson Herrera, who was in West Virginia at the time. They also got Wandy Rodriguez a few years ago for a package where the biggest piece was in Double-A.

      There will be some teams that want guys closer to the majors. But mostly teams just want talent, and a talented player in A-ball isn’t going to prevent the Pirates from making trades.

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