Williams: Why It Feels Like 2012 All Over Again For the Pirates’ Organization

The 2012 season was a frustrating time to cover the Pirates, and their prospects. At the big league level, the team was contending in July, then saw an epic collapse in the final two months, sending them to their 20th straight losing season. In the minors, they were starting to build a strong farm system, four years after inheriting one of the worst farm systems in baseball.

The problem there was that the Pirates lost at the big league level in horrible fashion. And when the Pirates lose at the big league level, it’s not just alright to say that the big league team had problems. You had to say that the entire organization was in trouble.

So that’s what happened. The collapse of the Pirates at the big league level got a few amendments when discussing the problem.

“There is no one in the farm system either!”

“The front office doesn’t know what they’re doing, and they need to be fired!”

“Oh my god! They’re doing Navy Seal training that literally happens in every other sport!”

Now I don’t want to say that the complaints were unfounded. They were just exaggerated. But there were legit reasons to have concern at the time.

The farm system had a lot of promise, but most of the promise came in the lower levels. West Virginia had a group of breakout players, which eventually led to Gregory Polanco, Jose Osuna, Elias Diaz, and a combo that never reached their upside in Willy Garcia and Alen Hanson. Tyler Glasnow was starting to show some promise that year, and while he hasn’t come close to his upside, he’s still just 23 years old. Jameson Taillon was going through the bumps and bruises in the lower levels, working through the mechanical changes I’ve documented for years (there’s an interesting note about how Taillon that year changed our site coverage for the better, but I’ll save that for another time).

The farm system did have promise, but it also had a lot of projection. There were no guarantees that the guys in the low levels would reach the majors, and guys in the upper levels like Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Justin Wilson, and Jeff Locke had yet to make the successful jump. Even as outlets like Baseball America provided an outside view that confirmed inside praises for the farm system, you can see how there would still be concerns with so much projection involved in the system at the time.

The front office got credit for taking the Pirates from the worst team in baseball with the worst farm system to a team that was legitimately on the verge of contending, with a farm system that was now one of the best in baseball, and only increasing in value. But there were legit questions about whether they could take the next step and turn that near-.500 club into a contender. I wrote that offseason that they needed one more year to prove themselves. If they didn’t make the jump, then the Pirates needed to find someone else. Others wanted to find someone else that offseason. Either way, no one was certain whether they would be able to make that successful jump to real contenders that we saw starting in 2013.

As for the Navy Seal stuff, well, there’s really no legit reason for the outrage over that. It was a joke then, and it’s even more of a joke now when you look at how many organizations have used that training, not to mention the rise in popularity of programs like Crossfit has regular people doing more intense exercises than the Pirates were doing. If the Navy Seal stuff came out after the 2015 season, you’d have every MLB organization trying it.

So why am I talking about the 2012 season? Because I’m noticing a lot of similarities in terms of the feel of the 2017 season compared to 2012.

A Rebuilding Farm System

First, you’ve got the farm system. The Pirates have been downgraded from a top ten farm system to a middle of the pack system. I leave the farm system comparisons up to places like Baseball America and MLB Pipeline, since they track the other 29 clubs. And I don’t disagree with the idea that the Pirates are now middle of the pack. That will happen when you graduate all of the prospects they’ve graduated over the last two years (Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, Adam Frazier, Chad Kuhl, Jose Osuna, Trevor Williams, and so on).

Baseball America had this to say about ranking the Pirates 14th:

The skinny: Graduations have thinned the system, but Mitch Keller is still a great No. 1 prospect.

It’s not much analysis, but it’s true. They dropped because of all of the players they graduated. That’s not a bad thing, as those players are still in the organization, just not counting toward the prospect rankings. They still have a great number one prospect, and I’d say a great number two in Austin Meadows. But what about the rest of the system?

I’m seeing the same thing I saw in 2012. The current system has a lot of high upside guys in the lower levels. You’ve got guys like Gage Hinsz and Taylor Hearn in Bradenton, both sitting mid-90s with their fastballs. I wouldn’t classify Ke’Bryan Hayes, Will Craig, and Stephen Alemais as high upside, but you’ve got three guys there with paths to being starters in the big leagues.

West Virginia has been home to some of the biggest breakout players in the past, although they don’t have that this year. They do have some interesting guys at the level. Luis Escobar sits mid-90s with his fastball and touches upper-90s. Eduardo Vera and Oddy Nunez both saw velocity increases this year, along with improvements to their overall stuff. The right-handed Vera has been hitting 97, while the left-handed Nunez has been hitting 94.

On the hitting side, Adrian Valerio is a guy who I would classify as high upside, and he might be coming into his own this year. I haven’t seen recently acquired Oneil Cruz yet, but the reviews I’ve gotten on him so far have been very high praise, especially when focused on his raw power. I’m also seeing some positive things from Yoel Gonzalez in my current trip, although it’s a small sample size.

Most of the high upside guys come at the lowest levels. The Pirates went heavy on prep pitchers during the 2016 draft, and heavy on prep players in general in 2017. For that reason, the Bristol and GCL rosters look very promising.

The prep pitchers in 2016 have led to Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, and Austin Shields. With the exception of Shields, who is in the GCL, I expect to see these guys next week in Bristol. However, what I’ve seen so far has been promising. Add in some interesting guys from the 2017 draft like Alex Manasa and Hunter Stratton, and this Bristol team has some quality arms. I can’t say the same about their hitters.

The GCL team has first round pick Shane Baz, along with other prep pitchers like Steven Jennings, Cody Bolton, and Jacob Webb. They’ve got second round outfielders Calvin Mitchell and Conner Uselton, along with 17th round surprise Mason Martin.

Adding to all of the draft picks are a wave of promising international players. Edison Lantigua might be the only legit hitting prospect in Bristol. Lefty pitcher Domingo Robles adds to the group of quality arms at that level. In the GCL, Lolo Sanchez is quickly emerging as one of the most promising and electric players on the team. Jeremias Portorreal continues to show his power potential with his big frame. I’ve also been really impressed with shortstop Rodolfo Castro. And I’m not going to get into DSL guys until they enter the US.

The current system has a large group of talented prospects in the lower levels. In a few years, that should lead to another group of talented players in the upper levels, just based on the sheer number of prospects we’re talking about at the low levels. I see this group much like I saw the 2012 group, with a lot of potential for the future. However, since most of the potential is raw and at the lower levels, that won’t translate to top prospects right now, and won’t translate to a top farm system. Still, the Pirates have what they need to rebuild their farm system after the recent graduates dropped them down.

A Team on the Verge of Contending

The more obvious comparison for the Pirates between 2017 and 2012 is how close they are to contending. They were technically contenders in 2012, although they weren’t strong contenders, and certainly not as strong as they were in 2013 or 2015. They are technically contenders this year, but again, they’re not strong contenders. If the Cubs were having the season everyone expected from them, we wouldn’t even be talking about the Pirates as contenders right now.

At the same time, this team looks like they could be on the rise, rather than on the decline. That’s hard to see in a situation like this, just as it was hard to imagine in 2012. This team is young, with every single starting pitcher and starting position player under control through at least the 2018 season, and many beyond that. We’re still likely to see improvements from many of the young players on the roster, and we may already be seeing that this year, with guys like Gregory Polanco and Chad Kuhl stepping up over the last few months.

The Pirates made some key additions in the 2012-13 offseason, adding Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, and Mark Melancon. I’ve written recently about how this team needs to pick a direction and go for it. They either need to do a complete sell and reload to be a much stronger team down the line, or they need to seriously add to this team, trading away some of their prospect depth, while also spending that money they saved from Starling Marte, Jung Ho Kang, and Jared Hughes this year.

I would choose the latter. I think this organization is set up in a way where they could go for it now, then reload with all of those prospects in the lower levels in a few years. This team is already on the edge of being a strong contender again, and I think the right moves this offseason could get them there in 2018.

But going back to 2012, there were questions about whether this front office could make the jump to being real contenders the following year. I think there are similar questions now. The game has changed, and with all of the mega teams around the league, it’s more difficult now to join that group of strong contenders. So the question is whether Neal Huntington can continue to adapt and make the next jump, and make the right calls with the team at a crossroads.

I don’t think we’ve seen evidence either way that he can’t make that jump, since it’s a new situation. That’s much like my stance in 2012 about getting the team over the hump to being actual contenders. At this point, he’s earned the chance to try and make it happen.

A Repeat of 2012?

The Pirates aren’t technically out of it in 2017, although they have a very uphill climb. Right now they need to complete a sweep of the Padres, paired with the Brewers and Cubs losing their next two games. Then they need another three game sweep, paired with three game sweeps against the Brewers and Cubs, which would put them in first place. Basically, their hopes lie on a five game winning streak paired with five game losing streaks for the Brewers and Cubs, and then followed up by the same or better record than both teams. It’s possible, but it’s definitely not easy.

That’s going to lead to a lot of angry reactions after the season, and in true fashion, that anger will transfer over to the farm system, with blanket statements about how everything is going wrong in the system. If we’re lucky, we might even get some theatrics on par with the Navy Seals outrage.

But I see this organization very similar to that 2012 group. They’ve got a farm system with a lot of high upside talent in the lower levels, along with a young team in the majors that is a piece or two away from being true contenders. The hope would be that the 2018 season and beyond would turn out as well as it did in 2013 and the years to follow.

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.

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joe s

If they move Cutch over the winter then where will the power come from outside of Bell?

Thomas H

I hope you’re right but I don’t know. After the 2012 season I was bullish on the Pirates despite the collapse in the second half largely because McCutchen was under a long term contract and because players like Alvarez and Wilson looked like young stars in the making to me. I thought they were a team on the rise. I upgraded my season ticket plan from 20 games to a half season after 2012.

I look at the Pirates now and don’t see anything to be optimistic about. I used to say they were no jerks or criminals on the Pirates. After this season I can’t really say that. The “young stars” look very mediocre to me. Their only superstar looks to be past his prime and on his way out. I don’t get to see the players in the minors but most publications say the farm system isn’t as good as it was. I see a team who’s window has closed tight. I’m considering not re-upping with them because I just don’t enjoy going to see them like I used to.

We will see.

piraddict

I think the Bucs Mgt. had said is that their primary mechanism to build the team is internal development. They are going to “stick to their knitting” and let the developed talent come to them. I actually will surprised if they ever make the “big trade”. More likely there will be a lot of Rule 5 eligible thinning of the herd, like C Joe for S Rod. And there will be the trades of players on their last contract that they won’t resign, like Watson. And there will be targeted acquisitions, like Kang.

And I don’t see them ever doing a “blow up” unless they age out or have a severe rash of injuries that make it impossible to compete.

In summary I think the Mgt. team will bore those fans that are anxious for action. But the level of play and strength of the system will continue to improve. After all, how many years did it take the Cards to establish their juggernaut?

Tim, I agree with your assessment of the MiLB system. The Bucs have a lot of potential for years to come.

Bill Harvey

I’m going to start drinking heavily after attempting to read the comments.

tempman89

My question is this, lower level prospects, but what happened with the drafts between 12-15? I don’t see much talent there. And I’m not ignoring Craig, tucker, Newman, but I think they have had below average drafts

John Allen Habel III

I would love an article revisiting the whole seal training episode. And the overaction by certain members of the media

leefoo

I just heard that Connor Joe is going to Atlanta.

bucsws2014

SeanRod is back! Our worries are over, you’ll never have to see Jaso in RF again!

EWS34

I wonder if they will release Jaso to make room. Or will they send down someone.

leefoo

Mark Bowman @mlbbowman
·
12m
Source: The Braves have traded Sean Rodriguez to the Pirates for a catching prospect.

bucsws2014

I’m actually impressed NH could get a serviceable major leaguer who’s signed thru 2018 for Connor Joe.

Joe wasn’t going anywhere here even if he weren’t blocked for the next 3 years.

nmagera07

that’s pretty funny lol

leefoo

Funny? It is true! Adam Berry just tweeted it, also.

nmagera07

yes, that’s the funny part! i’m not surprised the pirates got sean rod back. he was good here, but i wonder how much of an impact he’ll have this season.

leefoo

My bet is that he’ll have more of an impact that Moroff, Goose, etc.

nmagera07

this year? dunno. maybe. next year, yeah he should

leefoo

Hide all of the Gatorade containers!

Edward C

I think the logjam of starting pitchers at the AAA and MLB levels will be interesting to follow. With so many guys returning from TJ they really have an excess of starters. Tim what is you idea on what should be done with guys like Holmes, Kingham, Sadler etc. And then you have the issues of Glasnow and Brault. I would point out that you have been dead on with your analysis on Glasnow. Last year you seemed really cautious. It seems to me that John is really encouraged by what he has seen lately. Personally I am more concerned about Ivan going forward. JT’s two bad outings don’t concern me due to the total hell he has been through this year. If some of these guys can’t go to the pen then do we trade them for relievers or maybe a third baseman?

piraddict

Kingham will inherit Williams’ opening day position.

leefoo

Tim…Interesting article. I hope this next wave is better than the 2012 wave.
From the guys you listed
Polanco is average
Diaz will probably be average…just a guesstimate
Mercer is steady but average
Osuna is a bench bat.
Wilson became Cervelli
And, while Glasnow and Taillon still have lots of upside, Glasnow got hammered and JT has gotten REALLY hammered in his last two outings.

Of the current crop, we better hope that Keller, Meadows, et al, produce some impact players (or Bell becomes one), because we need them.

If Glasnow and JT DO fulfill their potential and Kingham comes back to HIS former potential, we might be able to move Cole and/or Nova for some high end prospects?

As your ‘disclaimer’ says: Lots of uncertainty about prospects. But, if we can beat the odds here and there, then yes, 2018 and on can be successful teams

Keep those fingers and beer bottles crossed.

Scott K

Good article, Tim. One of the reasons I enjoy reading PP is a general positive tone to the organization.

This winter will be intriguing to say the least. Many different paths to choose for NH, with logical reasons behind each of them.

I personally hope they keep Cutch and Cole and try to make a genuine effort to win division by strengthening the bullpen. It was suggested by NMR, Glasnow be put into a role similar to how Indians use Andrew Miller next season. Considering how well Williams and Kuhl have pitched of late, and the unlikelihood of Nova being dealt, this makes sense to me.

Next, Pirates need to move on from Kang and spend some money to find a strong middle of the order bat who can play at least adequate defense at the hot corner. This will allow Freese to be a strong bench bat instead of a mediocre starter.

And lastly, promote Meadows to be the 4th OF. Allowing him time to spend time with Cutch and learn at the feet of the master can only help in his development.

John W

LOL Scott! I hope Tim’s analysis turns out to be correct. But you saying PP takes a “general positive tone to the organization” it is equivalent to me saying Ted Williams had a decent swing.

Scott Kliesen

I think they play to what is perceived to be the majority of Pirates fans. Mob mentality journalism.

I appreciate you guys don’t conduct your business this way. It’s refreshing in a world where few do.

Fact is Pirates organization has been one of the best in MLB by regular season wins over last 5 years. They have a young team with several players on rise. As the article stipulates, the future is bright for PBC. Unfortunately, some can’t see it due to the Nutting is Cheap and NH is an idiot blinders they wear.

Dale O

smh

John W

Whoever told you in 2012 that you were being too positive for saying the farm system was on the rise wasn’t too bright. That was hardly a revolutionary opinion at the time. They had been on the rise for some time and had risen from 13th to 8th according to Baseball America.

leefoo

Hoka Hey, DK? Btw, he spearheaded the NH sucks ‘movement’. I told him that he should stick to hockey and he blocked me…lol.

John W

Whoever was saying that was not informed at the time. The consensus in the industry in 2012 was that this was a very good system- in fact a much better system than it will be rated preseason 2018, I guarantee you that much.

Just because rabble rousers like Smizik and Kova- whatever the hell his name is were talking crap on the system doesn’t mean it was a bold opinion to say this was a very good farm system in 2012.

leefoo

I am a friend of Bob’s and he wasn’t the one panning the FO. It was mainly Kovajevic (aka, DK). Bob had the occasional critical article, but he has always felt that NH had a good plan.

John W

Shouldn’t have mentioned him. My point simply was that it wasn’t a bold, revolutionary opinion to say the PIrates had a very good farm system in late 2012.

leefoo

At the time, on our Pirate blog (now the Asylum) there were a few of us championing NH and the farm system.

Our 3 year winning window felt like vindication. Unfortunately, the last year and a half have felt like a series of kicks in the guts.

I have been pessimistic/realistic (depending on your point of view) about the Bucs future, so I sure hope that these young players blossom.

Otherwise, I might have to quit watching. There’s no way I’m going thru another 20 years of losing.

John W

This is nothing like 2012. First of all, as bad as the 2012 season ended the Pirates still had 6 years of a young, peak MVP cost controlled player in Cutch to build around with pretty much a guarantee of 6-8 WAR each year.

At that point in time it was a stronger system. Cole was rated 70 medium and one of best prospects in the game after 2012.

The Pirates highest rated prospect this year coming into this season was Meadows at 60 Medium and he is coming off a very poor year with an injury almost certain to reoccur. At the time Tailon was considered a better prospect than Mitch Keller(65 Medium vs 65 HIgh.

No high end position players after Meadows.

Gage Hinsz??? K-BB% 6% in 2016, K-BB% 7% in 2017. Heaven help us if this is one of our prospects we should be excited about.

John W

I suppose reality equals “absolute worst”. I’m a Pirates fan and will be to the day I die. I objectively think this situation is distinctly different than things in late 2012.

You are cognizant that on a percentage basis it’s clearly less than 50% probability Meadows matches Marte’s performance from 2013-16? And he is the best position player in our system.

It’s also well over 50% chance players like Hayes and Tucker never have a career WAR as high as 4.

John W

Haha, I know Tim, my “analysis” is less stringent than yours because you are a dispassionate objective analyst. My point was I truly hope you are right about your comparison. I’m highly confident you are not. Time will tell.

You seem to have this habit of acting as if all your predictions which were more positive than consensus end up being right? Remember the bullpen discussion we had earlier this season and you told me to “wait and see”. Well I think it’s fair to say we have received a pretty good glimpse almost 110 games into the 2017 season.

John W

No need to worry about listing those things. This asshole is well aware of many predictions or opinions he has had which turned out to be wrong.

2 things. While I may be an asshole, I don’t point out what you are wrong about to be an asshole. Anytime you are challenged on an opinion you see to have a habit(imo) of citing a prediction/opinion which was more bullish than consensus and it turned out to be right as if it gives you particular credibility on the current issue.

As I said above, you can point out the multitude of things I have been wrong on and I will smile. One thing you do do which I find irritating is intimating that because someone is a fan they are emotional and less objective than you. You will say you don’t do that, but that’s exactly how I read your response above. And I’ve seen you do it many times.

KennethBaldonieri

Nice comparison, Tim. I think the major difference in the two years is Cutch. The Bucs don’t have a superstar replacement for him.

AttyMike

I also think Cutch is the fly in your 2018 projection. He’s a big part of the team’s chance for success. The temptation to trade him in the off season or during next season will simply be too much for NH. Either way, it will put a big crimp in any projections for 2018. Meadows is simply not ready to replace Cutch. 3B is a big hole but I suppose they could trade to fill that — although I just don’t see NH doing that. He overvalues his prospects and is unwilling to trade them. I do agree that their rotation is in decent shape.

NC_Bob

I don’t think this is the right FO to take them to the promised land. I don’t think they are willing to take risks required for the possibility of a big reward.

Hoptown

I think I’ve hit the point where I’m ready to trade Cole. Gimme a couple of top 100 prospects and it’s a deal. He is 100% gone in 2 years. Next year’s rotation can be Taillon, Nova, Glasnow, and two of Brault, Kuhl, Kingham. Still have Williams who can help and maybe Holmes.

EWS34

You had me up until your assessment of Williams. He has earned a spot in the rotation. Until he loses it you keep him there. I like what Kuhl is doing too. Id put him ahead of Glasnow. Use Brault, Holmes and Kingham as depth.

Scott K

Williams is better than Brault, Kuhl and Kingham, in my opinion.

bucsws2014

I wouldn’t throw Kingham in there yet, but I do think Williams is at least as good as Kuhl on Kuhl’s better days and likely significantly better than Brault. Williams is that back end guy who likely is going to keep you in the game into the 6th most nights. I like his grittiness and mental makeup. I have a feeling Kingham shares that. Kuhl is getting there. Brault… don’t know yet.

beaverjp

I like Williams a ton and totally agree with Kingham being in that mold plus a pitch. I’ll say this for Kuhl he has the highest upside of these pitchers and for sure more downside potential. I think he’s trending in the right direction but he’s definitely risky.

Scott K

Kuhl starts showing he can pitch deeper into games and really has figured out how to get lefty’s out, he’ll be in rotation next season. Otherwise, I see him taking on the role Williams had to start this season.

leowalter

When Kuhl shows me some command, I ‘ll be a true believer. Till that time I think he belongs in the bullpen, where he would be a real asset.

jaygray007

i wish an outlet would do some sort of tracking/ranking of a combo of farm systems and pre-arb MLB players. That’s a lot more important and informative to what the future holds than just a raw farm ranking. It so happens that i’d bet that the pirates would rank pretty highly there.

wtm1613

KLaw normally does that.

Tyler S

What about Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker?

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