BRISTOL, Va. – This week I wrapped up my annual coverage of the Bristol Pirates. Some of the players at the level are guys I have seen already this year in extended Spring Training, although a lot changes in a quick amount of time at this level, and I like getting a late-season look at the lower levels to track those things. I was also seeing some of the 2017 draft picks for the first time.
The biggest takeaway was that Bristol was just a horrible team. The hitting was bad, the defense was bad, and the one saving grace was the pitching, which kind of gets hurt by the defense.
This is mostly due to the approach the Pirates take with their lower level teams. They send their recently drafted prep players to the GCL. They send their best college drafted players to Morgantown. The following year the prep hitters usually go to West Virginia. The prep pitchers are the only top draft picks who go to Bristol, although I’m not sure if that will continue with Shane Baz next year.
The Pirates used to send all of their prep pitchers to the New York-Penn League during their first full pro season, although that approach changed when they added the Bristol affiliate. They started sending guys to Bristol, which is still rookie ball, and mostly filled with JuCo players, later round college guys, and other recently drafted high school players. This transition is a little easier than sending a prep player to the college-heavy NYPL during their first full season.
As a result, one of the main reasons Bristol has been a team in the system is because of the additional rotation spots that an extra team can provide. This year they are able to give starting spots to Braeden Ogle, Travis MacGregor, Domingo Robles, Hunter Stratton, Jacob Taylor, and all while giving extended innings to other guys like Alex Manasa.
Meanwhile, Morgantown has rotation spots for Ike Schlabach, Sergio Cubliete, Gavin Wallace, Scooter Hightower, Stephan Meyer, and Beau Sulser.
Eventually, those two rotations will merge in West Virginia, and the best guys will get the rotation spots going forward. Some of the Bristol guys will only take one step up to Morgantown, spending another year in short-season to hopefully improve their stuff, which is what happened with Schlabach this year.
But the key thing is that the Pirates have plenty of innings to go around for these low-level pitchers, which means plenty of time to develop as many guys as possible, making it more likely that they will have a stronger rotation in West Virginia and with other affiliates going forward.
There are other scenarios where Bristol gets a top prospect. It happened last year at the shortstop position. Morgantown had recently drafted shortstop Stephen Alemais, and Adrian Valerio was ready to move up from the GCL.
Without Bristol, the Pirates would have had a decision to make with Valerio. They could either keep him back in the GCL for another year, or they could move him to Morgantown and have him split time with Alemais at short. Keeping him in the GCL wouldn’t have been much of a challenge, and putting him with Alemais would have robbed him of valuable development time, while also robbing the Pirates a chance to see how gifted Alemais was at the position.
But there was a Bristol team, which meant the Pirates were able to give Alemais time at shortstop in Morgantown, and Valerio time in Bristol. The latter paid off. I saw Valerio in Bristol last year at this time, and saw him last week in West Virginia. He looks much more consistent and much improved over last year, and I can only imagine the added experienced helped.
Of course, next year the Pirates will have a decision to make. Kevin Newman will likely start the year in Indianapolis, with Cole Tucker in Altoona. Stephen Alemais just moved up to Bradenton and has been doing well. Valerio is doing well in West Virginia. Newman, Tucker, and Alemais just reached their new levels, so it would make sense to start them back at the level again, waiting for Newman to move up. But that creates a log-jam that keeps Valerio back in West Virginia.
That’s going to end up happening as players move up, with better players getting the priority playing time, all while the struggling players get pushed to other roles until they can earn their way back into the mix.
However, in the lower levels, you want guys developing. You don’t want to quickly push guys to the bullpen or to a less valuable position. So having an additional lower-level team with eight extra starting spots and five extra rotation spots helps.
The downside to all of this is that when you’ve got a team that is just around to provide a few extra rotation spots, along with an extra starting spot for one or two real prospects per year, you end up with a poor performing team. Then again, the minors are all about development, and not winning games. So it really doesn’t matter if Bristol has a 10-38 record. What matters is they provide the extra room to develop guys who can hopefully benefit from the development like we’re seeing right now with Valerio.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.