First Pitch: Pirates Don’t Need Many Minor League Free Agents This Off-Season

The Pirates have seen a slow and gradual build to their farm system over the last 7-8 years. For some, this build has been too slow, although that kind of pace is expected when you spend so many resources on very raw prep players. They’ve seen top guys get promoted to the majors the last few years, such as Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. Those guys have been joined by players with smaller roles, like Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, and Jeff Locke.

You may have noticed a trend in my early previews of the 2016 minor league rosters (if you missed them, you can read the pitching, outfield, and infield articles at those links). At almost every position in the full season leagues of the Pirates’ system, there is a logjam of talent. The Pirates are left with a lot of tough decisions, and are basically forced to aggressively promote a lot of players, at the risk of holding back talented players at the same position below those players.

This creates a bit of a sink or swim situation with some guys. It also keeps pushing talent up closer to the majors, meaning we’re getting close to seeing the farm system start to really produce from that heavy focus several years ago. That can be seen in the potential promotions this year. While the 2012-14 seasons saw Marte, Cole, and Polanco, the 2016 season could see Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, and Elias Diaz moving up, which would be five of the top ten prospects in the system. And that doesn’t even consider all of the role players like Keon Broxton, Gift Ngoepe, Chad Kuhl, or others who could make the jump this year.

But to get to this point, the Pirates are going to have to move away from an approach they’ve taken the last few years — signing minor league free agents for early season depth. It’s a process that every single team practices, and I’m not saying the Pirates should abandon it completely. That said, they’re getting to a point now where they are some positions where they need to rely on the prospects, rather than having an experienced veteran who is more of a “safe” option than a quality option.

At some positions, it would make sense to add the minor league free agent. At others, it makes no sense at all. To get an idea of which position is which, I broke down each spot for the expected 2016 Indianapolis Indians roster, looking at where the Pirates could seek outside help this off-season, and where they can’t afford to block players.

Pitching

The Pirates could have an all-prospect pitching staff, going with Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, and Steven Brault. The only problem with this is none of those guys will be ready for the majors in April. Even a spot start would be difficult, especially since the last three have a combined four starts in Triple-A, when you include the post-season.

In previous years, the Pirates have left some prospects down in Double-A at the start of the year, even though they looked ready for Triple-A. This was due to a numbers crunch, with the team wanting early season depth for the majors. I see the same thing happening again this year.

The most likely candidate to be left in Altoona would be Steven Brault. He could come up to Indianapolis by mid-season, and keeping him back in Altoona won’t hurt him. If he’s needed in the majors, he’ll get his shot, although his need in the majors means that the Pirates would be at least on their 11th starting pitching option.

I could see the Pirates adding several pitchers to compete for the MLB bullpen and the Triple-A rotation, with most of them ending up pitching in relief in Triple-A. If there’s one area where the Pirates will probably go big on minor league free agents this off-season, it would be pitching, in order to add bullpen depth. That would especially be the case if Mark Melancon was traded.

Overall, with the pitching, I see a starter and several bullpen options coming from the minor league free agent side.

Infield

The Pirates have a lot of prospects in their infield, to the point where they might have to shift some guys around just to find playing time. Unlike the rotation, I don’t see a need for early season depth. Elias Diaz could take over at catcher if Francisco Cervelli or Chris Stewart go down. Josh Bell won’t be ready at first if an early season injury occurs, but I see the Pirates going with multiple first base options in Pittsburgh. Alen Hanson would probably be the top depth option at second or third, with Gift Ngoepe taking the shortstop depth. Here is a breakdown of each spot:

Catcher – Elias Diaz will be the starting catcher. I doubt Tony Sanchez makes it through waivers to join him in Indianapolis, so I could see Jacob Stallings backing him up, with a minor league free agent serving as the third catcher and allowing Diaz to DH on occasion to give Stallings some additional time.

First Base – Josh Bell will be first baseman in Indianapolis until he is called up, and there would be no need for a minor league free agent, or a minor deal like last year’s addition of Hunter Morris. When Bell goes up, Jose Osuna can take his spot at first, with Osuna potentially being blocked in Altoona until that happens.

Second Base – Alen Hanson will be the starter here, and Max Moroff could also get some time at the position. The Pirates will have no shortage of prospects for second base, with Erich Weiss expected to return to Altoona after moving up at the end of the 2015 season.

Shortstop – Gift Ngoepe is on the 40-man roster, and assuming he doesn’t make the MLB roster, he would be a top candidate for shortstop work in Triple-A. Adam Frazier could also get time here, along with some time at other positions, including the outfield.

Third Base – I’d expect Hanson or Moroff to get some time here, just to get everyone in the lineup. You could also see Dan Gamache at third.

Outfield

A lot of this will depend on how the MLB roster shapes up. The candidates would be Keon Broxton, Jaff Decker, Willy Garcia, and possibly Jose Osuna. Adam Frazier could find time in the outfield as well.

Not all of these guys will make it to Indianapolis. One of them could end up in Pittsburgh. Decker is out of options, and could be lost to waivers. I think Garcia is the most likely to start the season in Triple-A, and it could be him and two open spots. In that scenario, I think Osuna would be promoted, rather than keeping him in Altoona to split with their crowded outfield and Edwin Espinal at first base.

I’d expect at least one minor league free agent signed to play a somewhat big role in the outfield. This is what the Pirates have done the last few years with Gorkys Hernandez, Chris Dickerson, and Felix Pie. It doesn’t look like they’d be blocking anyone on Opening Day if they took the same approach this year. You can also expect some minor league free agent outfielders to be signed to compete for the bench outfield spots.

Minor League Free Agent Needs

Overall you’ve got 1-2 big needs in the rotation and the outfield. The rotation could be less of a need if they decided to go with all prospects, but the reality is that those guys won’t be ready on Opening Day, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a minor league free agent adding early season depth.

There would also be a need for minor league free agents in the bullpen, along with a third catcher and another infield or outfield bench option. The latter spots could be filled by upper level organizational players, although it seems like this would be a prime spot for the fallout from the MLB outfield bench battle.

**Pirates Release 2016 Spring Training Schedule. They finish up with a home game against the Reds in Indianapolis, which will be cool. I guess we know where Ryan Palencer will be on April 2nd.

**The Pirates Have a Lot of Talented Players to Protect in the Rule 5 Draft. This will lead to a lot of moves later in the week, and several talented players getting added to the 40-man roster on Friday.

**AFL: Steven Brault Retires Final Eight Batters in Last Fall Start. If you missed it, check out my article on Brault from the AFL from last week.

**Winter Leagues: Harold Ramirez Moves to Colombian League. One of the guys who needs to be protected on Friday.

**Early Look at the 2016 Pirates Minor League Rosters – Pitching Edition. From Sunday, the early breakdown of the minor league pitching staffs in 2016.

**Using the Craig Kimbrel Trade to Figure Out Mark Melancon’s Trade Value. From Saturday, a look at what the Pirates could expect from dealing Melancon.

First Pitch

  • Ok, pick a winner. Which of the following will be the first to play a game at PNC park in 2016? Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, Elias Diaz, Keon Broxton, Gift Ngoepe, Chad Kuhl, Max Moroff (had to throw him in)?

    Guesses?

  • Just like the Pirates executed last year, *quality* early season rotation depth comes from stashing your pseudo-6th starter in the bullpen. I feel the Pirates need to make two additions to the 25-man rotation, a quality starter such as Happ, and a reclamation guy that would also profile as a good bullpen arm a la Bud Norris/Brandon Morrow. They have a bunch of bullpen spot to fill plus early season rotation depth, and this second starter could theoretically kill two birds.

    I think the biggest minor league FA need is at catcher. Getting a quality guy in Indy as *emergency* depth will allow them to get Elias Diaz the at bats he needs before sinking or swimming in 2017. He should be in Pittsburgh by the All Star break.

    • They did have their sixth starter in the bullpen, but they also signed Clayton Richard as additional depth in Triple-A.

      I do think they will add a minor league free agent catcher. They tend to do that every year. And aside from having a guy in Triple-A, you need a lot of catching in Spring Training to catch all of the bullpens and handle all of the pitchers you’ve got.

      • Will we find a better replacement for Sanchez than Sanchez?

        Any guess where he ends up in 2016?

  • I’d hate to lose Decker. He is a nice OB option as a 4th OFer.

  • Alen Hanson will be the starter here, and Max Moroff could also get some time at the position.

    I am higher on Moroff than Hanson.

    • I didn’t realize Moroff was younger than Hanson. You may be right. Moroff has way better strike zone judgment. I think Hanson is usually higher because he’s a better athlete and has more power potential.

      • Another year like Moroff had on offense, or even half a year, and id suspect he’ll get a ton of buzz like Hanson did after that big year awhile back.

        • It is a good thing to have them both. I think Hanson is the better defensive 2B with better range & better foot speed that carries over to being more of a threat to steal bases – 35 in AAA with 12 CS. Moroff stole 17 but had 13 CS. Moroff hit better with a .293 in AA/Hanson .263 in AAA. Moroff 70 W to 37 for Hanson. If I had to pick one for power it would be Hanson based on numbers posted in previous years 16 at Lo A in 2012 and 11 in AA in 2014

          Hanson is being challenged for PT in the DR this Winter and it is up to him to force the Pirates hand with a strong showing in ST.

    • I do think that the time has come to plug Moroff and perhaps Frazier into starting spots in Indy and give them a chance to prove what they can – and can’t do. Hanson needs to packaged in a trade and moved on IMHO

  • Is Stallings subject to the Rule 5 this year? If so, any chance we should be worried about a good defensive catcher getting picked up?

    • He is rule 5 eligible and I’d recommend never worrying about a 26-year-old defense-first AA catcher getting picked. Even if he does, you could sign similar AAA vets by the dozen

  • You mentioned a logjam – do you not think that the system needs to be tweaked? The Pirates method of development is methodical and completely management driven, but, IMO, too slow in today’s workplace. Kids do not want to wait until they are 23, 24 or 25 before they have an opportunity to contribute at the MLB level.

    I see other successful teams in our Division working on more of a player driven system for promotion whereby they earn promotions by their performances, and promotions are not artificially delayed. Play hard, do the best you possibly can, and if the numbers are there, the promotion will come – that’s the carrot, the incentive to excel. Did it take 26 starts, 153 IP with an 11-5 record and a 2.48 ERA to realize that maybe Chad Kuhl at age 22 could have been promoted to AAA last year for possibly 6 or more starts? He has no starts at AAA because management made the decision before the season began that he needed a full year at AA.

    In an age where 21 and 22 year olds are impacting pennant races and hitting in the middle of the order or pitching big games, I would like to see more of an effort by the Pirates to reward player performances.

    • Not sure its fair at all to act like its a regular practice to have 21 year olds in the majors. You look at the league as a whole, in all players, and the 21 year old isnt exactly the rule, its far closer to the exception.

      More rare to have a 21-22 year old in the majors than it is a 23-24 year old. Also doesnt hurt PGH from an overall standpoint to have a guy show up at 24-25, and have 6 years of service on the cheap. Kid still gets plenty of ML time, and hits FA around 30.

    • You left out the weee little part about those specific 21 and 22 year olds being really f*cking good.

      Gregory Polanco was 22 when he debuted. Gerrit Cole was 22 when he debuted. They both were really f*cking good.

      Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell are likely to debut this year at 22 and 23 respectively. Guess what, they’re also really f*cking good!

      Kingham and Taillon would’ve both debuted as 23 year olds, if they hadn’t blown out their elbows. I think you can guess whether or not those kids were good at this point.

      I see absolutely no logical reason to push young, marginal prospects into a roster that’s averaged more than 90 wins per season over the last three years. The good prospects *are* being promoted aggressively.

      Folks are going to start giving actual, concrete examples of how the Pirates are failing at their prospect promotions at this point rather than rambling on about generalities and “what other teams do”.

    • In short, no, I don’t think the system needs to be tweaked. I’ve heard this argument for years, that there are other teams that promote guys to the majors at ages 21-22. It always ignores a few key details.

      1. Sometimes those players are up at a young age because they were one of the best prospects in the game, and ready for the majors at a young age. The Pirates have these types as well in Polanco and Cole, who were both promoted at 22. Glasnow will also be 22 when called up.

      2. Teams always get credit for promoting players at a young age, but then no one checks back to see the progress. The Tigers rushed pitchers to the majors for years, and might have ruined a lot of young arms in the process. The Orioles have had some great pitching prospects, but they tend to promote them too early, and as a result don’t get good pitching in the majors from their prospects.

      3. Looking at stats alone ignores why a player is in the minors. In Kuhl’s case, he needs to improve the slider. He saw some improvements in the second half, and also saw some improvements with his velocity and fastball command. If you look at the breakdown, he had a 3.29 ERA the first three months, and that was higher thanks to a strong start in April. The league adjusted to him in May and June. He adjusted back in the second half, with a 1.38 ERA in his final 11 starts, along with improvements on his slider and fastball.

      So the result was that he had good overall numbers, but that was due to a strong finish. If he’s promoted in June, he’s coming off his worst month, with questions about his secondary stuff. If he’s promoted in July, you get him up one month earlier, but no idea if he has actually adjusted back to the league. And that one month really won’t tell you much about whether he’s actually ready for the jump (he had a strong April and followed that with two weak months). But the most important thing is the stuff. It just wasn’t ready, and it still isn’t ready, but it’s to the point where he can move up to Triple-A and work on it.

      • I mentioned 6 or more starts which could have been accomplished in the late Jul and Aug timeframe. We did not have a need to get anybody to the majors in 2015, but we knew early enough in 2015 that there could be a need in 2016 with AJ definitely not returning and JA possibly yay or nay. To say now that we are short on experience at AAA is sort of self-fulfilling, because we opted not to take a chance on a promotion to a SP having his 2nd straight year of very solid numbers. It is not just this one kid – he just has excellent numbers and has been a real find for the Bucs. I just think when a kid excels he deserves the pat on the back and the move up to the next level.

    • Emjayin, we had similar debates back in the days of cbs sportline….my answer back then and still the same, get the best 6 years out of that player, whether it’s from 21-26 or 24-29.

      • ‘rican21: Good memory and I can see we have made zero progress on convincing one another to change our opinions!

    • >>In an age where 21 and 22 year olds are impacting pennant races

      How many seasons define an age? This year was one of the greatest ever for rookies. Not sure I’m ready to call it a trend.

  • On an unrelated topic, isn’t it great the Pirates won 98 games and Hurdle finished a distant 4th in MOY balloting!

    We really are living in the best of times as Pirates fans. Enjoy it while it lasts fellas!

    • It’s the year of the Cubbies. 🙁

    • But long-time Bucco Jeff Banister won in the AL. No surprise other teams continue to cherry-pick the Bucs organization. I expect we’ll lose a few in the Rule 5 draft. We’ve got a lot of talent in the minors. We can’t protect them all. I hope we’re projecting and protecting the right ones.

      • In theory I agree with you about having a lot of talent…but I think they’ll protect the right ones that’ll keep any team, even the bad ones, from being able to hide a 1B or a low level pitcher for the 162 game season. Yes, the Brew Crew did it with Wang in 2013…then eventually DFA’d him (when anyone could have went after him), and brought him back. Will be interesting to see if they add him to their 40 man roster again…he bounced back quite nicely when he resigned with the Brewers.

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