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First Pitch: The Pirates’ Farm System is Off to a Great Start

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The 2016 minor league season is almost a month old, and according to every new mom that I know on Facebook, that means it’s almost time to dress it up in a special onesie with the number “1” on it, and take the first of many monthly snapshots to come. Unfortunately, they don’t sell onesies for the first month of a baseball season. I checked around, and as Babies ‘R Us put it, “Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave the store”. This seemed like more of an Etsy project anyway.

So for now, we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way, with an article. And this would be a great time to bring back First Pitch, after a brief break from the article so that I could fix some subscriber issues.

The Pirates’ minor league system is off to a great start. Guys who are needed this year and in the upcoming year are producing. Some of the top guys in the lower levels are off to hot starts, which will keep the system strong even after top prospects graduate this year.

At the top of the system, all eyes are on Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon — especially during every start made by Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio. Glasnow and Taillon are putting up strong numbers in their first three outings. Glasnow has a 3.60 ERA and a 19:6 K/BB ratio in 15 innings. Taillon has a 1.65 ERA and a 16:0 K/BB ratio in 16.1 innings.

Both are off to good starts, but neither pitcher is ready for the majors right now. Glasnow is having success against Triple-A hitters, but needs to improve on dropping his curveball in for strikes early in the count. Without that, he relies on the fastball alone to get ahead, and sometimes the fastball is off, leading to a rough outing with the control. That’s hidden behind the numbers in the minors, but he wouldn’t have the same success right now in the majors. He also needs to improve with the changeup, which he’s currently not throwing often enough right now.

Taillon just needs to get adjusted back to the game after missing the last two years. The Pirates are limiting his innings and pitch counts right now, making sure he has innings remaining at the end of the year. He also needs to adjust to upper level hitters again. This stood out in his second start, more than the first and third outings.

I think Taillon has less to work on than Glasnow, but each guy has a reason to be in Triple-A right now.

Behind those guys, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault are showing potential in their first few outings, with some good results from each pitcher. They also each have something to work on, so you’re not getting immediate help from the minors in the rotation right now.

On the offensive side, Josh Bell is playing about as well as you could ask him to be playing. During Spring Training, I broke down the changes to his swing, and noted why we could see more power from him this year. He’s off to a great start in that department, with four doubles, a triple, and three homers in 56 at-bats, leading to a .321/.424/.589 line.

The Pirates certainly shouldn’t be in a rush to replace John Jaso right now, as he has a .344/.403/.469 line in 72 plate appearances. But if things continue with both first basemen, the Pirates will have an interesting decision to make this summer. It’s certainly a welcome “problem” when you consider their recent history at first base, and lack of good options at the position in the past.

The other big guy to watch in the upper levels is Alen Hanson, who is hitting for a .327/.353/.408 line in 49 at-bats. Once again, the Pirates don’t need Hanson at the moment. Josh Harrison has almost identical numbers in the majors, with a .329/.359/.425 line in 79 plate appearances. Hanson might have an easier path to the majors than Bell, as he could help off the bench as a super utility player, or at another position if needed.

Below Triple-A, the Pirates are getting more good results than bad results. Reese McGuire is finally showing off his bat at times this year, with a .781 OPS in 42 at-bats. Stetson Allie and Erich Weiss are both off to hot starts at the level, although both would be bench guys if they ever made it to the majors with the Pirates. Tyler Eppler is showing why he has been getting an aggressive push, with a 3.00 ERA and a 14:3 K/BB ratio in 18 innings. Austin Meadows will make his debut on Monday, which will boost this team even more. On the downside, Harold Ramirez, Barrett Barnes, and the other members of the rotation have struggled.

Bradenton is getting some great early results from the 2015 draft class. Kevin Newman is hitting everything he sees, posting a .379/.439/.431 line in 58 at-bats. Brandon Waddell is the next college drafted pitcher getting an aggressive push, and has responded well, putting up a 1.17 ERA in 23 innings, with a 19:2 K/BB ratio. The downside is that Yeudy Garcia, Connor Joe, and Kevin Kramer are off to slow starts at the level.

As usual, West Virginia is where things really get exciting. Somehow, the Pirates always have a breakout guy at that level, and this is definitely not a common thing for a team to have a breakout guy at the same level each year. The list includes huge breakouts like Gregory Polanco, Tyler Glasnow, and Alen Hanson, to smaller scale guys like JaCoby Jones and Yeudy Garcia.

This year, the Pirates are seeing two of their top draft picks from recent years putting up great results. Ke’Bryan Hayes was a first round pick last year, and currently has a .962 OPS in 56 at-bats, while showing off a great glove at third. Mitch Keller, drafted in the second round in 2014, has yet to give up a run in 15 innings over three starts, with a 23:0 K/BB ratio.

I talked with a scout this week who saw West Virginia recently, and really liked Keller and Hayes. The scout was amazed at how West Virginia has a new breakout guy to follow, noting that every year when he sees that team, there is a new top prospect to follow in the system.

This is the most encouraging thing for the Pirates so far. They’re set up well for the short-term and the next 7-8 years with all of the talent they have in the majors, and the upper levels of the system. But they need talent to keep flowing through the system, and that’s going to be difficult when drafting lower each year. Hayes was drafted 32nd overall last year. Keller was drafted 64th overall in 2014. And even Kevin Newman was drafted 19th overall, and is looking like a potential starting shortstop in the future.

The Pirates didn’t just build their system on first round picks in the past. They were always boosted by breakout guys. But with the changes to the draft rules in recent years, there was a question as to whether they could continue this trend, even with less money and a lower draft position. It takes a few years for those types of questions to be answered, so we’re just now getting the early results. Those results are looking good to start the 2016 season.

The first month has exactly what you want from the farm system. The most important prospects in the upper levels are performing. You’ve got some breakout guys emerging in the lower levels. And overall, there are more people showing positive signs with their development than people struggling. If the rest of the season goes this way, the Pirates will have a lot of prospects who could make an impact in the Majors this year, and a lot of good prospects still remaining in the system after the top guys have graduated.

**Speaking of West Virginia, I’ll be heading up there for five games this week, and will have features on Keller and Hayes, along with other players.

**Prospect Watch: Holmes Overcomes Slow Start, Shaky Outings for Hughes and Luebke

**How Being One of the Most Athletic Pitchers in the System Helps Steven Brault. Ryan Palencer looks at Steven Brault’s athleticism, and how that is helping him this year.

**Over the last three days, John Dreker broke down the progress of the 2015, 2014, and 2013 draft classes.

**Giles: Looking at Jason Rogers’ Role With the Pirates. Ed Giles takes a look at Jason Rogers and his role now that he’s up with the big league club.

**Pirates Trying to Make David Whitehead More Than Just a Sinkerballer. My feature this weekend on David Whitehead, who the Pirates acquired in the Charlie Morton trade.

**Site Updates: What To Do If You Have a Problem With Your Subscription. Important site updates for anyone who might be having a problem with their subscription.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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