First Pitch: This Strong Pirates Farm System Will Keep the Window Open For Years

I’ve believed for a long time that big market teams have an advantage in Major League Baseball. They have the advantage of a safety net, with the ability to make any move they want, knowing that if it doesn’t work out, they won’t be crippled for years, and will be able to recover from the move. The bigger budget the team has, the bigger the safety net gets.

As I noted earlier this week, small market teams have an advantage as well. Big market teams take chances, but they don’t have the luxury of giving those chances multiple years. Typically you’ll find big market teams looking for “sure things” by paying big on the free agent market, rather than taking the higher risk approach of finding value. Meanwhile, small market teams that are good at this can still contend, even when spending almost half of what the biggest markets spend per year.

The Pirates have been competitive for the last few years due to this approach. They’ve built from within (7 of their 8 Opening Day position players in 2015 were mostly developed in the Pirates’ farm system, and number eight — Francisco Cervelli — was acquired for a player developed in the system). They’ve added value on the trade and free agent markets to help support those home-grown players. And the end result is that you’ve got a team that won 98 games last year, and doesn’t look to be going anywhere any time soon.

That last statement isn’t held by every Pirates fan. There are concerns that the window is closing for the Pirates, with just a few more years to compete. There are also concerns that the Cubs and Cardinals will make it so that the Pirates won’t be able to contend in the future.

Those concerns seem to ignore that the Pirates will be returning most of the same team that won all of those games in 2015, with room in the budget to add some additional pieces to replace the guys that left. There’s also the fact that the farm system has a lot of top talent ready to jump to the majors, with Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson, and Elias Diaz all projected to arrive as early as mid-season. Those guys are among the best prospects in baseball, and will not only boost the Pirates in the short-term, but extend any “window” they might currently have in place.

But the talent doesn’t stop there. As I noted last night, we’ve been working on our top 50 rankings this week, and what I’ve noticed early is that the amount of talent in the system is astounding. We grade on a 2-8 scale, with 2 being a career minor leaguer, 3 being an up-and-down player (“AAAA” player), and going all the way to 7 (All-Star) and 8 (Elite Talent). We’re pretty conservative with that last one. Very few get a ceiling of an 8, and to date, no one has gotten a likely upside of an 8 in our seven years of ranking players.

This year, when averaging all of the rankings together, we have over 75 players who have an average likely upside of 3 or greater. That means there are at least 75 players in the system right now who could reach the majors, even in a small role. That doesn’t include about 25 more players who have an average rating of 2.5-2.99, who are borderline career minor leaguers and Quad-A players.

That kind of depth is huge. And the best thing is that it’s very well mixed. Sure, you’ve got some guys who are actually Quad-A players, or strong bench players at best (4 rating), and they won’t see an increase over that. But you also have some guys in the lower levels who have ceilings much higher than their current 2.5-3+ likely upside.

That’s been the strength of the Pirates system the last few years — breakout candidates. We cover it a lot, and there’s a reason for that. The Pirates load up on high upside talent, and the numbers game usually results in a few players breaking through and becoming top prospects. Tyler Glasnow and Gregory Polanco are the biggest examples. Alen Hanson and Elias Diaz are two other examples of breakout prospects. There have been smaller scale stories, like JaCoby Jones, Yeudy Garcia, Max Moroff, and so on.

The system still has a lot of high upside talent in the lower levels, with a lot of guys who are still seeing their prospect status trend upward. But it’s not just a bunch of talent in the lower levels. The upper levels are starting to get full as well, and you can really see that with the pitching.

A quick look at the Indianapolis rotation next year shows a crowded rotation that will probably leave some prospects in Altoona. Glasnow and Taillon will definitely start in Indianapolis. If Casey Sadler is also healthy, then he will start at the level. If the Pirates don’t sign any minor league free agents, then they’ll have two spots for Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, and Trevor Williams. At least one of those guys will be left in Double-A, along with talented starters like Tyler Eppler and Clay Holmes.

With that Indianapolis group, you’ve got six starting pitching prospects who could realistically pitch in the majors at some point next season, and that’s after a few others — Nick Kingham, Angel Sanchez, Brandon Cumpton — went down with injuries that will put them out for most or all of the 2016 season.

The position player situation is similar, as I noted in my breakdown of the infield last week. Aside from Bell, Hanson, and Diaz, the Pirates have guys like Max Moroff, Jose Osuna, Adam Frazier, and others who could make the majors from the top two levels. And the thing is, they won’t need all of this, because their Major League team is already strong. But for those of you who want to see more home-grown depth options coming up, like the Cardinals have seen, then you’re going to get your wish.

Why has it taken this long to get to this point? A wave of top prospects coming up, and a lot of depth building in the upper levels. Part of it was because of how the early drafts went down. The 2009 draft was a bust, and the 2008 draft produced talent, but most of that arrived several years ago and hasn’t lasted until this point, or hasn’t produced any star power (with Pedro Alvarez being the big culprit here). But after that, the Pirates stuck to their high upside approach and started loading up on prep players. That’s a process that takes time to play out, and it’s now getting to the point where the results will be reaching the majors.

If all goes well with this approach, then you can throw all of that talk about “windows” right out the…well, let’s just say that there won’t be any concerns about that. The Pirates will reload and get stronger going forward, leading to a very exciting team for a few years, and then hopefully a team that can maintain that excitement as more top guys follow the 2016 class.

**Would Byung-ho Park Make Sense For the Pirates? Speaking of talent, I looked at the situation with Byung-ho Park, who the Pirates have been connected to, and their internal option in Josh Bell. There’s no clear-cut answer to whether they should try to sign Park — mostly because it’s hard to say what he’ll get. I will say this: Josh Bell, like any other prospect, is no guarantee. But if the Pirates can’t trust Bell as their first baseman of the future, then there aren’t many prospects they can ever trust with a job. This isn’t “let’s finally see what Andrew Lambo can do in the majors” or “this platoon works on paper.” Bell is one of the best pure hitters in all of minor league baseball, and we haven’t even seen the end of his improvements at the plate, or on the field.

**Rick Sofield is One of Two Finalists For the Padres Manager Job. The decision could come tomorrow with an off-day in the World Series.

**Mark Melancon Wins NL Reliever of the Year. Not a surprise here, as he was one of the top relievers in baseball, continuing a trend since 2013.

**AFL: McGuire Triples, Eppler Struggles in Glendale Loss. John Dreker breaks down today’s AFL action.

**Winter Leagues: Alen Hanson Off to a Slow Start in the Dominican. A slow start for Hanson, which has been a bit of a trend for him in every league he joins.

  • I respect your work Tim–and benefit from it, too–but have to question whether being good enough to a WC slot get in the playoffs is satisfactory any longer, if it stops there? Been there and done that for three years now.

    The next step up the ladder, i.e. winning a post season game or series, needs some outside help, IMO. This lineup needs power and needs to see Cutch as possibly aging and out of position in CF.

    A big thumping 1B (Chris Davis or even Park?) would be nice and the revenue should be there if the PBC gets serious; ditto re-signing JHapp or the best FA pitcher they can attract.

    This goes back to the “minors,” which seems to have few outstanding hitters or hitters with power poised to enter the majors.

    • I have a question for you. Who is the ” big thumping ” position player the Kansas City Royals, probably the best contact hitting team in MLB, have in their lineup ? Next comment for you is, do you really read any of the columns posted here by Tim and his other correspondents ? When you say ” they seem to have few outstanding hitters ” in the minors, I have to wonder just what you are reading.

  • Clay Holmes in AA! Hope he gets there this year, what was his final innings tally?

  • I’ll be happy if we graduate a position player from the system who can match the WRC+ of Grichuk, Piscotty or Pham next year (137, 133, 125 respectively). No, that’s not looking at defense but it’s a little crazy how their prospects seem to fly past their ceilngs. When is last time we graduated someone with a 130 WRC+ from the system? Has there been anyone besides Cutch?

    • I mean to add, I’m really interested in some of our draft picks to start producing. Gayo has done a tremendous job(Marte 130 WRC+ in 2014) but it would be nice to see guys we draft be similar to the Piscottys. For example Newman, it would be nice to see him ready to contribute in 2018 and be a big part of our success.

    • Marte, Walker, and J-Hay all were above 130 in 2014. They all regressed. Actually, the entire offense regressed yet they won 10 more games.

  • the Pirates will be returning most of the same team

    Unfortunately, that includes Morton and Locke….lol.

    But, seriously folks….we need a couple of pitchers to get us to Taillon and Glasnow, IF they are ready mid season. Otherwise….

    We may, indeed, take a step back in 2016, depending on NH’s offseason success at filling the holes.

    Anyone got a spare $300 mill they can lend NH, so that we can buy Price?

    • Price proved YET AGAIN that he can’t pitch in the playoffs. I want a good pitcher, to be sure, but Price is not the answer. Any team that picks him up again midseason for the playoffs is insane.

      • I remember when people who didn’t understand sample sizes said that about Kershaw.

      • But using that logic, you almost have to be able to tell the future to correctly pick which “ace” is going to be great in the playoffs. You look at the “aces” around and a ton of them had shaky postseason performances at some point.

        Madison Bumgarner was anything but lock down in the playoffs until last year, Cueto is Cueto, etc etc. All great arms, all worth considering going after. But if past playoff issues is a deal breaker, your list is real short.

  • Tim: Have some time in FLA in Feb and Mar – any info out regarding the Spring Training schedules?

  • The makeup of the Pirate team could look dramatically different from April and May to June when Glasnow, Bell and a few others show up.

    • taylor: I agree it should change dramatically. How the team is playing will have a major impact, trades may still have to be made that may have an effect on the timing, and how well Jung Ho Kang rehabs is still another consideration.

      Bell is for sure for June, and I think that barring any further injuries, Jameson Taillon will be with him. Tyler Glasnow will make the decision for the FO by his performance – velocity, secondary pitches, and above all, Command. Does Chad Kuhl pitch as well in AAA as he did in A+ and AA? As a GB pitcher with hi velocity and good command, may he be an early season option as a SP and/or RP? Does Alen Hanson grasp the opportunity that is already in front of him? Lots of balls in the air right now.

      • Bell is for sure in June? You sure? 🙂 🙂

        Like you, I am going to be watching Kuhl’s progress. It will be nice to have a Cole Train and a Kuhl Train?

  • It will be interesting to see just how many minor league free agents are signed for Indianapolis. That number should dictate how they feel about the talent starting at Indy.

    • I can’t imagine there will be many. I think this is the most loaded with prospects that AAA squad will ever have been.

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