Williams: An Encouraging Change in How the Pirates Develop Upper Level Prospects

BRADENTON, Fla. – Tyler Glasnow looks bound for the bullpen in Pittsburgh. Steven Brault should join him.

Nick Kingham could be there too in the same role, but probably only if there’s an injury to one of the above guys, or someone in the rotation.

Kevin Newman is learning second base, rather than strictly playing shortstop in the upper levels of a system that has a better shortstop prospect.

These have all been stories in the first month of Pirates’ Spring Training, with the surface of those stories being roster moves that could impact the MLB or Triple-A roster. But there’s a story beneath those stories, and it’s a story about a change in approach for the Pirates.

For years it seems, we saw the Pirates building depth in the rotation with prospects in the upper levels, but trying to preserve that depth as much as possible. This led to MLB rotation options, but it didn’t lead to many prospects who could eventually help the bullpen. The Pirates had guys the last few years who might have been able to help the bullpen, or transition to that role and help eventually. But they kept those guys in the rotation, preserving as much depth as possible.

That reached a spilling point this year. They had about ten options who could start in Triple-A, including a few guys like Glasnow and Brault who would likely be returning to Indianapolis if they remained starters. Their choices were to convert those guys to relievers and move them up to the majors, convert other guys in the minors into relievers and keep Glasnow/Brault as starters, or hold guys back in Altoona, which would hold back guys from moving up in the lower levels.

The last option would have been a very bad choice. The middle option — to keep Glasnow/Brault as starters and have some of the lesser guys moving to the bullpen in Triple-A — would have been a slight improvement for the team, but would still come with the issue of holding guys back.

The Pirates made the right call with their decision that Glasnow and Brault need to be in the majors.

For years I’ve seen them take a sort of “up or out” approach in the lower levels. A guy would spend a year in Bradenton and struggle, which would land him back in Bradenton the following year. But if he struggled in that second year, he would either be pushed to Altoona in a sink-or-swim move, or he would be out of the organization (or just relegated to depth in Bradenton for the third year, which is essentially the same thing).

The Pirates took this approach in the lower levels, but didn’t do the same thing in the upper levels as aggressively or as often. It seems they’re now getting the same aggressive approach.

Brault should open in the MLB bullpen, rather than returning for a third year. Glasnow made the jump last year to the majors, rather than returning to Indianapolis for his third year. He eventually was sent back down, but will get another push to the majors this year, probably as a reliever this time. Kingham might not have a spot, but the Pirates will likely use him as a top depth option early in the season, no matter the role.

Then there’s Newman, who doesn’t fit into the pitcher side of this, but represents a different depth situation. The Pirates have Cole Tucker in Altoona this year, and Kevin Newman in Indianapolis. Last year they had a situation where Tucker was stuck in Bradenton until Newman moved up. That meant Stephen Alemais was stuck in West Virginia until Tucker moved up.

The move of Newman to second base gives the Pirates the option to move people up based on Tucker’s schedule. They don’t have to hold people from moving back like they did last year. Eventually, Tucker will be the starter at shortstop in Pittsburgh, and to me, moving Newman at this point — even if it’s part-time and to learn the position — is a sign that they acknowledge Tucker has moved past Newman. No need holding everyone back for Newman at this point, unless Newman takes a big step forward or Tucker takes a big step back.

These aren’t massive moves. We’re talking about filling the bullpen, or possibly having a stronger option on the bench in Newman if he doesn’t work at second base. But that’s one thing the Pirates have lacked in the past, was internally developed guys for the bullpen or bench.

Glasnow, Brault, and Kingham won’t be held back from being starters if they’re good enough in the majors. Just look at Trevor Williams for proof of that. Newman won’t be held back from being a starter if he’s good enough. But it helps that these guys are entering these roles early, rather than right when they make the jump to the majors.

This is an encouraging move for the Pirates, and should help them eventually get more home-grown production off the bench and out of the bullpen, rather than relying on veterans to fill those same roles.

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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tedwins

Interesting article and thanks to the author. I guess my two cents, which is usually worth just that, is that it may be less of a philosophy change and more a necessity as we now have a critical mass of folks who are AAA ready and ‘maybe’ MLB ready in varying degrees (which is a very very good thing)… but what do I know….

Eric Marshall

Sorry if I may have missed it but has there been any updates on Musgrove? If he doesn’t get started soon he could start the season on the DL. That would allow one of Glasnow or Brault to start in the rotation and maybe Kingham in the pen? Know we don’t need a 5th starter right away as well.

joe s

Any articles in the pipeline regarding minor league players?

Scott K

I like the plan to have both Brault & Glasnow in bullpen as long relief/SP depth options for a couple reasons. First, Nova & Musgrove are concerns from both performance and injury perspective. Plus, it gives CH more flexibility to have multi innings arms since I expect there will be more 5 IP starts than 7 IP.

clemo83

Good article Tim. Seems like this should’ve been common sense, not sure why it took this long for the management team to do this. Slow learners.

But, and a big but – I was thinking about this yesterday, they have significantly raised the bar of expectation. Three playoff teams in a row. Everyone’s furious the Pirates haven’t been contenders the last two years. In my distant memory- seem to remember 20 years without a winning season. The senior team leaders speak their minds, management making adjustments at major league level, improving their draft philosophy- I definitely have shifted my viewpoint – I think the culture is actually pretty healthy. It actually feels like there is some direction- and maybe this team will get back on top soon. Perhaps I’m just over-reacting to Corey Dickerson and we can’t win until we’re all in enough, per Tim’s recent articles. That’s how I used to think as well, I’m just feeling more positive lately – maybe its the spring training optimism trap.

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