Williams: Pirates Have Another Strong Group of Pitching Prospects in the Lower Levels

You’ll never hear me saying that the Pirates have too much pitching depth.

That’s actually an impossible thing for a team to have. Pitching depth can be incredibly fleeting, and the attrition rate of pitchers is so high that you need several of them in the lower levels just to get a good chance of one or two of those pitchers to become viable MLB options. And the hope is thatĀ of the many pitchers breaks out and becomes a top of the rotation candidate.

The PiratesĀ have always been an organization looking to bring new pitching depth into the system. They did this in a big way between 2008 and 2011, spending a lot of money on over-slot prep pitchers. That approach didn’t work as well the first few years, but led to prospects like Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Clay Holmes. Granted, none of those guys have done anything noteworthy at the big league level yet, but they helped build a reputation.

Around the game, and definitely outside of Pittsburgh, the Pirates are seen as an organization that knows what they’re doing when it comes to developing young pitchers. Scouts I talk with from across the game praise their approach. New pitchers who come in to the system discuss the positive things they’ve heard about the organization. It happened again yesterday with first round pick Shane Baz, who had a lot of praise for his potential new system.

When MLB changed the draft rules to limit spending after the 2011 draft, they removed an advantage the Pirates had to stock up on pitching. But they have still managed to add pitching along the way. They hit on a few mid-round picks out of college, most notably Chad Kuhl in the ninth round in 2013, and Tyler Eppler in the sixth round in 2014. They have also continued to load up on prep pitchers.

The 2014 draft saw them go big on prep pitchers, taking Mitch Keller, Trey Supak, and Gage Hinsz. They did it again in 2016, drafting Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, and Austin Shields. Out of this group, Supak was traded, and the 2016 group is largely valued on projectability and upside. But the Pirates have still found a way to amass a young group of arms, and they added two more yesterday in Shane Baz and Steve Jennings.

Of course, the Pirates don’t just rely on the draft to gather pitching depth. Their current rotation shows that. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Chad Kuhl were all drafted, but Ivan Nova was originally acquired in a trade (sending out minor league pitcher Stephen Tarpley as part of the deal, who was acquired with Steven Brault in an earlier trade for Travis Snider), and Trevor Williams was compensation for losing pitching guru Jim Benedict. The Williams addition was especially interesting, as the Pirates had plenty of upper level pitching depth already, but still sought a pitching prospect as compensation.

Williams also shows why you need so much pitching depth. He was supposed to be behind Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, and Chad Kuhl. The first two are currently in Triple-A, and Kuhl has been struggling this year, while Williams is having some early success in the rotation.

The Pirates have a lot of pitching depth in the upper levels, but most of that depth is like Williams — capable of pitching in a major league rotation, but unlikely to be more than a back of the rotation starter or a strong depth option. The exciting development lately is the depth that is growing in the lower levels.

Mitch Keller has obviously been a big story, emerging as a top prospect in the last year. The way he has been treated in terms of promotions, and when evaluating his stuff and maturity on the mound, he looks more like a first round pick out of college last year than a former prep pitcher a few years into his career. I see more similarities between Keller and Gerrit Cole — at least in terms of development and prospect status at this point in their careers — than I see between Keller and other mid-round prep pitchers who have come along.

Likewise, it’s hard to avoid drawing comparisons of development between Baz and Jameson Taillon. Both were drafted out of high school in the first round, both have the potential for multiple plus pitches out of the draft, and both will likely be moved more aggressively than your standard prep pitcher.

Keller and Baz should lead the way with the next wave of pitching prospects, and if the Pirates can get a result anything close to what they’ve seen so far from Cole and Taillon, then they’ll be in good shape.

But prospects are far from guaranteed, especially when talking about pitchers. That’s why it’s good that the Pirates have other options. Gage Hinsz has looked like he’s a step behind Keller every stage of his career, and has top of the rotation stuff, with the potential for at least two plus pitches. Taylor Hearn has an electric fastball from the left side, and the potential for two plus pitches when his slider is on. Luis Escobar is another hard throwing pitcher who has the potential for two plus pitches, along with a good changeup.

Then there’s the group of Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, Austin Shields, Ike Schlabach, Nathan Trevillian, and now Steve Jennings. Those prep pitchers drafted in recent years give the Pirates additional depth in the lower levels, and a lot of lottery tickets. If just one of those pitchers can emerge to join Keller and Baz as top of the rotation prospects, then the Pirates will have another nice wave of pitching depth emerging from the lower levels, just like they had a few years ago with Cole, Taillon, Glasnow, and all of the guys who make up the rest of the current rotation or rotation depth.

I don’t expect the Pirates to stop there. I’d expect them to continue adding pitching, either tomorrow in the draft, or on the international side, or in future trades. You can never have too much pitching depth. What you want is strong pitching depth that you can build upon. The Pirates have that, and they are definitely still working to add to the group.

  • michaelbro8
    June 13, 2017 2:11 pm

    I’m betting on Travis MacGregor to make the next jump as a prospect

  • Is it too much to hope for a lefty? It feels like every year we draft 15 righties and 2 lefies. Obviously there are fewer of them, and I do think it’s wisest to get the best talent available, so if that means 10 righthanders in a row, I’m all for it. But if there isn’t much separation all things equal, it’d be nice to snag a lefty with a high pick and a few more in later rounds. Too bad we missed on Lodolo last year. Ogle seems very interesting. Just hoping to sprinkle in a few more lefties to balance out the system.

  • When is the date Baz has to make a decision between TCU or the Buccos?

  • Yes, the Pirates have drafted several kids whose arms have fallen off. It’s a tough jump to professional baseball and learning how to take care of yourself.

  • Nathan Trevillian is a name who has been injured and not pitched since being drafted 2 years ago. Is he ready to debut soon?

    • Just asked about him yesterday and I was told he isn’t throwing yet, so we might not see him at all this year. If we do, it will be late in the GCL season and possibly not until the Fall Instructional League. He had Tommy John surgery late last April

  • WillyMoGarcia33
    June 13, 2017 10:15 am

    Is it wrong I chuckled at “But prospects are far from guaranteed”, given the back and forth in the comments in regards to prospects predictability, and call for it to be included more often?

    • I do include it often, and included it in the article the other day. I even had something about Meadows where I wrote about him in a non-guaranteed way a paragraph earlier, talking only about his upside.

      But there will be some instances where I don’t include it. You might even be able to find one in this article, or something that reads differently if you don’t assume that disclaimer is built in.

      I do mention it a lot more when talking about lower level guys, just because I’m projecting out many years in advance, with so much that could go wrong. A guy like Meadows, who is much safer than a low level pitching prospect, I don’t feel the need to mention as often and as explicitly.

      • WillyMoGarcia33
        June 13, 2017 12:00 pm

        No, I understand. I saw it in this article, and thought of the comment section a day or so ago where there was a relatively heated exchange over it’s omission in regards to Meadows. Just thought it was funny cause it ruffled some feathers.

      • Darkstone42
        June 13, 2017 1:23 pm

        Honestly, it’s not necessary to explicitly state. If you’re reading about prospects, you should be reading about them assuming the paradigm in which most of them aren’t going to work out, and recognize the language surrounding prospects is strictly speculative by rule.

        You talk about the skills and tools guys have. When you do, it’s assumed that there’s still a question of how effectively the player can translate and apply them to the Majors. Most guys can’t–either completely or at all–and we should really all know that if we’re bothering to read this site.

        When writing a research article using quantum mechanics, you don’t have to rehash the theory and its assumptions. To me, writing about prospects should be treated the same way; you don’t need to rehash the concept that we’re talking about “could be” and potential future skills based on current tools, because that’s inherent in the theory in which we’re having these discussions.

        • This is the approach I take with the Prospect Guide. There isn’t enough space for disclaimers everywhere, so there is one at the start of the profiles talking about how prospects aren’t guaranteed. Then I just talk about their upsides.