Williams: The State of the Pirates’ Farm System Heading into the 2018 Season

In the last week, I’ve written about the projected 2018 rosters for all four full-season minor league teams in the Pirates’ system. This process allows the chance to not only see where everyone in the system could start off next year, but also where the strengths and weaknesses are in the system, and the state of the overall system.

If you missed those articles, you can find them here:




West Virginia

Now that I’ve covered each individual level, I want to take a look at the overall system, focusing on the areas of depth, the weak areas, and the potential breakout guys in the lower levels.

Where is the Depth?

The depth in the system was obvious at two positions in particular. The first was with pitching, specifically right-handed starting options, and back of the rotation/bullpen candidates. It’s common for teams to have a lot of these types of pitchers. You’re not going to see a team loaded with Mitch Keller type prospects, and most of their pitching prospects will be back of the rotation guys in the future.

But the Pirates have a larger amount of these guys than normal. It’s to the point where they have ten starting options for Indianapolis, along with more starters than spots in Altoona. The Bradenton rotation is a little easier to manage, although there are two college guys being held back from Altoona for the time being due to a lack of space. Then, in West Virginia, you’ve got another talented group with more starters than rotation spots.

It’s not a bad thing to have “too much pitching”, if that’s even a thing. But realistically, the Pirates won’t have space for all of these guys. Even if you factor in injuries, promotions to the majors, and moves to the bullpen, there are too many guys. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the team relieves some of this depth with a few trades in the offseason.

That’s something they have done in the past, trading away some of their fringe options for help in the offseason, or in-season. I’d expect that to continue this offseason. These types of prospects won’t land a big power hitter or a top of the rotation pitcher, but they could land a helpful bench or bullpen piece.

The other position of depth was the shortstop position. The Pirates have Kevin Newman at the top level, with Kevin Kramer looking like a candidate for the position. They have Cole Tucker in Altoona, with arguably more upside than either player in Indianapolis, but also with things to work on at the Double-A level.

Stephen Alemais is the best defensive shortstop in the system, but is blocked by Tucker, and should start back in Bradenton. I’d project Adrian Valerio at the same level, splitting time with Alemais. Valerio showed more consistency last year, and has some strong defensive skills, along with some offensive potential to make him a legit prospect. Behind all of those guys, I’d expect Rodolfo Castro to get a push to West Virginia, adding another talented, young shortstop option with potential on the field and with the bat.

The shortstop position isn’t like the pitching situation. There’s not really a rush to trade away one of the shortstops in order to make room for the others. Also, the Pirates are well set on back of the rotation options in the majors, with guys like Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams having a grasp on rotation spots, and several others looking Major League ready in Triple-A. Meanwhile, the Pirates will definitely need a starting shortstop to emerge soon in the majors, which means they should be maximizing their chances by keeping their options around until someone does emerge.

If they do trade a shortstop, they should get a better return than they would with the pitchers, although none of these guys individually would be enough to land an impact talent, as you’d need multiple top prospects to do anything like that. And while the Pirates have been known to trade from their back of the rotation stock, they haven’t been known to trade multiple top prospects, and very rarely deal top prospects at all.

Where are the Weak Areas?

When looking at the weak areas in the system, you could focus on individual positions, or specific skill sets. The Pirates are thin at the catching position. Elias Diaz is the only potential starter from A-ball to the majors, and his chances aren’t close to guaranteed. They’re weak at third base, although they do have Ke’Bryan Hayes as a potential starter, with his defense and contact skills being good enough to give him a strong shot at being a league average starter at least.

The outfield is also weak throughout the system, but only comparatively to what we’ve seen in the past. There are still some top prospects like Austin Meadows, and a lot of talent growing in the lower levels, led by Lolo Sanchez. Not to mention the Pirates don’t need outfielders in the majors for a few years, with the exception of Meadows eventually taking over for Andrew McCutchen. And if Meadows doesn’t work out, there are a few contingency plans, with Jordan Luplow leading the way in that area.

As for skills, the system is weak on power in the upper levels, but that is changing in the lower levels. The most recent draft put more of an emphasis on power, leading to some interesting prospects from the prep ranks like Calvin Mitchell, Conner Uselton, and Mason Martin. There are even some interesting power options from the college ranks like Bligh Madris. This new power focus carried over to trades, leading to the acquisition of Oneil Cruz in the Tony Watson deal. So while power is a weakness in the short-term, it looks to be improving for the long-term.

A System in Need of Breakouts

The Pirates have seen a lot of promotions to the majors in recent years, with a lot of top prospects losing their eligibility, which led to the current rebuilding system. From what I’ve seen, the system should end up ranking around the middle of the pack in the majors. That can feel like the bottom of the majors for a few reasons.

The first is due to a simple comparison between the old system and the current one. The Pirates had a ton of talent in their system in previous years, with guys breaking into the top 50 every year, and a top 50 prospect ready to step into the majors year after year. This led to some of their best MLB talent, such as Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco, and the lower ranked prospects have stepped up in important roles, like we’ve seen with Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and others.

Going from that system to the one the Pirates have now, especially when looking at the top levels, can feel like a massive decline. But it also feels like the Pirates might be lower than middle of the pack due to the nature of farm systems these days. You’ve got teams like the White Sox who are going all-in on rebuilding their farm system and stocking up on prospects. Because of this, the gap from the top farm systems to the middle farm systems is wider than it was in years past. So while the Pirates are legitimately a middle of the pack farm system, that top tier is now further away than before.

Fortunately, the system looks to be on the way to a good rebuild. They still have prospects in the upper levels, with starting options in the form of Meadows, Newman, Tucker, Kramer, and Hayes. They have plenty of pitching talent, and that extends beyond the back of the rotation guys, as they’ve got one of the best pitching prospects in the game in Mitch Keller.

Lower in the system, we’re starting to see the old formula for breakouts. The West Virginia group in 2018 is loaded with young talent, more than any team I’ve seen dating back to the 2012 group, and possibly more than that group. There are plenty of breakout candidates there, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see at least two of those guys emerging as top 50 prospects by this time next year (my candidates right now would be Shane Baz and Lolo Sanchez). There are also some breakout candidates in Bradenton, with many of them looking to follow-up on big seasons in West Virginia last year.

The Pirates will need this to play out like it did the last time around. They will need the breakout candidates to step up and propel the farm system to the top of the majors again. They will need to continue adding talent like they’ve done in recent years with the drafting of guys like Baz and Mitchell, or with the signing of international guys like Sanchez, or promising lower guys like Samuel Inoa or Sherten Apostel.

The upper levels will still provide some starting options in the short-term, and a few impact players in the process. In the long-term, the Pirates need those breakout guys in the lower levels to start stepping up, in order to make sure the system starts trending back up, rather than further down when guys like Meadows, Keller, and so on eventually graduate.

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.

Support Pirates Prospects

Related articles

join the discussion

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

That’s a great point on the ranking of farm systems since the top ones are so stacked. Also consider the gap between middle of the pack systems like the Pirates and this lower quality ones like the Giants, Angels and Marlins. I think the Pirates have lots of potential starters I their ranks like Hayes and Kramer and a couple potential stars like Keller and Baz.


Great job with this series, Tim.

Certainly nailed it; this org is in need of breakouts.

While the standard WV flavor would portend good things for the start of the next decade, what’s really needed are some “post-hype” improvements from the likes of Bell, Glasnow, Meadows, and Newman. Like the previous young core of Cutch/Walker/Marte/etc, the current group centered around Taillon, Bell, and Rivero run the risk of poorly concentrating talent. Huntington fixed this problem previously with incredible veteran acquisitions that enabled them to peak, but as we’ve seen recently those will be much harder to come by.

Either rev up that cheap veteran signing engine again, or get some huge improvements from the upper levels. Otherwise, there’s really no other alternative than to rebuild, and heavily.


There are a couple of intriguing C’s available in Rule V. Max Pentecost and Nick Ciuffo. It wouldn’t bother me to see one of those guys replace Chris Stewart as the backup C. And Diaz could C regularly in Indy for the few weeks that Cervelli is healthy.


Pentecost’s physical problems were so bad they kept him off the Jay’s 40 man roster. He hasn’t even advanced beyond A+ because can’t throw due to 3 shoulder surgeries, so ” it wouldn’t bother ” you to see him replace Stewart ?


Diaz is out of options, and would have to clear waivers to catch in Indy.

Zach Wolfe

Diaz is out of options


It would really help the Pirates if Tyler Glasnow figures it out!

Daniel D

I won’t mention Will Craig or how the lack of a marquee prospect from the 2016 draft is a drag on the perception (if not the reality) of the current state of Bucs farms system. Since I don’t want to beat the dead horse, I won’t mention Craig, but there really needs to be a break out from that class to give the system a bump.


Will Craig did not look like a strong draft pick from Day One!


He was a reach – and the fact that he was/is projected as DH/1B, made it an absurd selection – especially with Delvin Perez sitting there and available….

IC Bob

Another Ben Vanshocton

Daniel D

Yep. Ominously, he was announced as a pitcher when he was selected.

Travis P

Do any of you think part of the AA and AAA replenishment could come from a Cutch, Cole, JHay, etc trade? There’s few middle ground people in terms of NH…so I guarantee at least one person who will say, “NAH will mess it up so it doesn’t matter.” I’m not defending NH, but he’s done some nice things with fewer tools in the shed and I believe he could get back a nice haul. I still believe the Watson trade could bear some pretty good fruit in the future after we’ve long past thrown Neal off the Clemente Bridge.

Eric S

Off season questions.

1. Can they trade Cole for young 30/100 (or 25/85) OF at roughly the same cost?
2. Can they trade Cutch, Cervelli, and Harrison for 2-3 real prospects that could arrive in 2019-2021?
3. Would they sign a free agent 3B that can hit with some of the $35M savings from Cutch/Cervelli/Harrison trades?
4. Would they trade a couple top 10 prospects for a quality MLB starting catcher?

Then at the trade deadline, if Meadow’s is ready and we are out of the race, trade the better playing of Marte/Polanco for a couple real prospects that could also arrive in 2019-2021. The farm system would now have 3-5 real prospects from the trades above that could arrive in 2019-2021, and the MLB team would have taken care of OF, 3B, and C in the near term.

Travis P

Selling Cervelli is a pipe dream barring an injury to a contender who needs the help IMO. Getting rid of him can be done with one swipe of a pen but to actually sell him and get a return, I just don’t see it happening. He’s an “at value” guy so there’s no positive nor negative value to the contract (assuming he can play 115). If Polanco and Marte are playing well, I just don’t understand the narrative of people wanting to trade them, yet also talk about competing during the time the Pirates still have them under contract.

If Cole, Cutch, JHay, Nova all go…you should be able to get the replacement parts from those trades as well as the current farm to compliment them. I also believe Rivero could be closing games for another organization that just waaaaaay overpays for his services

Daniel D

I think that is what they want in return for Cutch. I think Pirates will trade Cutch if they get the right offer that includes a Victor Robles type prospect. I do not think the decision to trade or not trade Cutch derives from any preordained stance, but rather the quality of the offers they receive.

Travis P

I agree…no one has mentioned it, so I suppose that means I’m the idiot for thinking it, but Cutch to the Red Sox seems to make sense for both sides based on their desire for an OF…not saying it’s the right move for the Sox, BUT they’re making some noise that they’d like to do something. And we all know their GM has no problem destroying the rest of their farm system as he did in Detroit (with no rings and only huge contracts to show for it).

Adam Y

Why do the Red Sox need an OF? Their OF seems pretty set to me. Bradley, Betts, and the other guy I can’t remember. Or maybe I just can’t spell his name. But he’s good.


needz moar pahr

Stephen Brooks

Benintendi is the guy you’re thinking of.

Adam Y

That’s the one. Still couldn’t spell it.


Far from hopeless and far from guaranteed. A ton hinges on the low A guys. I see someone like Clay Holmes sliding into the MLB pen. They will have to swing trades with a bunch of the pitchers if the ryon Healy trade is indicative there will be low key moves available. One silver lining is on teams in contention a few years ago they’re now scrambling just to get their hands on Tyler Chatwood the Cubs big signing looks to be Alex Cobb there’s a vast inability to fortify pitching internally.

Scott K

This system’s impact will rightfully judged in next 12 months by development and/or contributions of Meadows, Keller, and Hayes, in that order.

Certainly would be good to see some strong seasons from the group of power hitters in WV, but this isn’t an urgent concern.

Bill W

Glasnow needs to step up.

Scott K

Pretty sure that was reason number 1 why Meccage was promoted to ML team. Meccage is the Glasnow Whisperer.

Scott K

Ok, reason 1A.


Elephant in the room.



Agree….Keller and possibly Meadows, if he can stay healthy appear to be the only potential stars?

Although I am still bullish on Tucker and Hayes.

As you state, and I think Tim suggests, we need some breakout stars.

Daniel D

Implicitly then, you’re bearish on Newman at this point. If so, I agree. Newman could be the next.. umm.. Jordy Mercer. Sigh.
I am still bullish on Kramer and Valerio at SS and we should learn a lot about Cole Tucker this year.

John W

Mediocre system with a lack of high end talent. Maybe a lot of guys break out, maybe the don’t. If I had to guess (beyond what we draft in the 2018 draft) I don’t think we will have a disproportionate amount of breakouts in this system relative to other systems in baseball.

It would be less concerning if this middling farm system was a result of graduating a lot of high end talent that was fortifying the MLB team. But the MLB team is middling as well.

Scott K

I think I can speak for everyone who contributes to this site in saying I’m not surprised you would guess the Pirates will flounder.

John W

So… you think the Pirates will have a disproportionate amount of breakouts in the lower levels this year relative to other systems in MLB?

Because aside from their 2018 draft they are going to need that(lots of lower level breakouts) to get this farm system anywhere close to 5-10 in MLB.

I’ve been saying for many months I’m guessing BA will rate this system between 13th-17th. Maybe I’m wrong, we shall soon see. But going into 2019 a system I think is average at best right now will probably have lost or be losing soon, Meadows, Keller and Newman.

So they are going to need A LOT of breakouts to get this system back into the 5-10 range even if one assumes a good 2018 draft(far from a guarantee with NH’s drafting track record)

Scott K

I’m saying it comes as no surprise you’re looking at the Pirates future and all you see is meh.

Minor leagues are all about hope, and even in that environment, you project hopelessness.

It’s rather sad and pathetic, John.

John W

So… the plan is to hope. In that case I can see why you seem to be a strong supporter of this FO.

Sadly Scott you miss the point. If the minor leagues were simply about “hope” there would really not be much of a distinction between the New York Yankees farm system and the LA Angels system. We would just accept the fact that all these prospects are essentially lottery tickets. As you know, that’s not how it works.

There is significant risk around even the most elite prospects, but people who do this for a living understand that all that risk is relative and is part of the process in differentiating different systems.

If you or someone want to make an argument supported by empirical data which supports the notion that the Pirates are likely to have a higher percentage of lower level breakouts relative to other systems across MLB I am more than willing to listen.

Scott K

If you read the article, you’ll note Tim, who has more expertise on Pirates minor league system than you and everyone at BA combined, said the group of players going to full season ball next year has the most potential since 2012. That is good enough for me to be hopeful, John.

Thomas H

Maybe I misreading the article but I think with Tim is saying is that the group in A and AA is the best we’ve seen since the 2012 group. So the group that’s there now is as good or better than the Marte, Cole, Taillon and Polonco group. So in two or three years will see a team very somewhere to the one we saw for the last two years, right?

joe s

I like Lo Lo but a few good weeks in rookie ball does not seem to me that it would make him a potential break out candidate.

Travis P

I’m not trying to have this come across as smart…but isn’t that exactly what leads to a “potential” breakout? If you say you think it’s slim….I agree with you, but I do think the skill set is there for that potential breakout after a small sample we saw.


Baseball America picked 3 of the GCL Pirates in their Top 10 of that league: LoLo Sanchez, OF, 18, 2nd; Shane Baz, RHSP, 18, 3rd; and Mason Martin, 1B, 18, 6th.

There are a few others on that GCL Roster who could be possible breakout candidates. Rodolfo Castro, Calvin Mitchell, and Jeremias Portorreal are a few, and we have yet to see Conner Uselton. How nice would it be to see a SS like Kevin Maitan, and a Catcher like Abrahan Gutierrez (two of the former Atlanta prospects) added to that group?

Share article

Pirates Prospects Daily

Latest articles

Pirates Prospects Weekly

MONDAY: First Pitch

TUESDAY: Article Drop


THURSDAY: Roundtable

FRIDAY: Discussion

SATURDAY: Pirates Winter Report

SUNDAY: Pirates Business

Latest comments