It wasn’t long ago that Pirates fans were looking ahead to a Dream Outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. That future outfield would be continued when Austin Meadows eventually forced his way into the majors and led to a McCutchen trade.
The rotation had a similar situation, with Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow all looking like top of the rotation options, or at least better than average guys. They would be joined by guys like Nick Kingham and other pitching prospects to round out the final two spots.
As we know, it didn’t work out that way. Almost as soon as Gregory Polanco arrived and started performing in the majors, McCutchen started seeing a decline. Meadows was injured, which delayed his arrival until after McCutchen was traded, with no one really forcing McCutchen out the door.
Now the Pirates have Corey Dickerson performing better than expected, Starling Marte looking like his old self, Meadows finally arriving in the majors and showing some promise, but Polanco not reaching that impact upside. It’s hardly the Dream Outfield that was imagined, but the group does have the Pirates tied for the sixth best fWAR among MLB outfield groups.
The rotation didn’t work out as expected, which should actually be the expectation when dealing with pitchers. If you’re filling out a future rotation, you had better use pencil, and don’t press too hard when writing, because you want to make sure the names are easy to erase.
Cole was one of the better pitchers in baseball from 2013-2015, but fell off the last two years before being traded. He’s now seeing results with the Astros that the Pirates hoped for when they drafted him first overall. I’ve written a lot about this topic, so I’ll just link to that work for what is going wrong. Taillon and Kingham dealt with injuries, delaying Taillon’s arrival until Cole started going downhill, and delaying Kingham’s arrival until this year. And Glasnow dealt with control issues and didn’t make a successful jump to the majors until this year as a reliever.
The Pirates added some depth yesterday in the draft, getting an outfielder and two prep pitchers. Those are two positions where they are growing their lower level depth, and where a lot of options are emerging. They should continue to add to the lower level depth today.
But while projecting out how those new prospects fit in the system, and how they impact the future, it’s important to remember the lessons of the past. When Austin Meadows was drafted in the first round in 2013, the Dream Outfield was still just a dream, and Meadows was seen as a long-term replacement. When Mitch Keller was just another second round prep pitcher taken in 2014, the hope was that someone from his class would emerge and join Taillon, Glasnow, Kingham, and maybe Cole if they arrived soon enough.
Those are normal things, and not unique to the Pirates. I wanted to project out the new guys and how they fit in the system, but I also wanted to provide this disclaimer first, since we will one day look back on these projections and see a totally different team than what is projected today.
The Pirates took Travis Swaggerty in the first round. He’s got the defensive skills and the speed to be a good bet to stick in center field and make the majors at least as a bench player. He also has the ability to hit for average and get on base, plus enough power, that he could be a starting center fielder one day.
My guess is that Swaggerty will go to Bradenton next year, joining Calvin Mitchell, and staying in center field a step ahead of Lolo Sanchez. Those guys will be a few steps behind Jason Martin and Bryan Reynolds, along with Jordan Luplow, who should remain as depth in Triple-A next year. There are also some interesting options throughout the system, with Logan Hill and Jared Oliva being examples, although the outfield depth would probably put those guys in a similar role as Luplow.
The Pirates have Starling Marte under team control through the 2021 season, plus Gregory Polanco under control through 2023. Corey Dickerson is under control through next season, and Austin Meadows is under control through 2024 if he remains up for good. So it’s easy to see the lower-level group, now containing Swaggerty, as a long-term replacement for the guys in the majors, and maybe even competition for guys like Martin or Reynolds.
Of course, if all works out, the Pirates could have some nice trade depth. But until they have three productive long-term outfielders in the majors, and a few replacements in the minors, I wouldn’t be thinking hard about the trade opportunities.
The Pirates have been taking prep pitchers heavily almost every year since Neal Huntington has taken over. They’ve gone heavy with this approach in recent years.
In 2017 they took Shane Baz with the 12th overall pick, then added Steven Jennings in the second round, and surprise prospect Cody Bolton in the sixth round.
The 2016 draft saw them take Travis MacGregor in the second round, Braeden Ogle in the fourth round, and Max Kranick in the 11th round. All three are putting up good numbers in West Virginia so far this year.
The 2015 draft was more prep hitter and college player heavy, but 19th round pick Ike Schlabach is showing good results in West Virginia this year.
And of course that 2014 draft has produced Mitch Keller as a top prospect, with the hope that one of the following drafts will lead to another guy who can be a potential top of the rotation starter.
The Pirates continued their efforts yesterday, taking prep right-handers Gunnar Hoglund and Braxton Ashcraft. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them continue adding another prep pitcher or two either today or tomorrow.
This approach is all about numbers. Get a large number of prep pitchers together, and hope that a few of them work out. I don’t know right now if Hoglund or Ashcraft are going to be the guys to work out.
What I do know is that next year’s Bradenton rotation could include MacGregor, Ogle, Kranick, Bolton, and maybe Baz if he improves his command quickly enough. And behind that group would be Jennings, Hoglund, Ashcraft, and whoever else the Pirates take this year.
I won’t get into the upper level guys or the MLB rotation right now. When Keller was drafted, the MLB rotation had Edinson Volquez, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, and Vance Worley. Jameson Taillon had just gone down with Tommy John earlier that year, and Nick Kingham was a year away from his own Tommy John surgery. So much can change in that amount of time — and keep in mind that Keller hasn’t arrived yet — which makes it pointless to project a future rotation when these lower level prep pitchers arrive.
The good news is that the Pirates have plenty of those lower level prep pitchers, making it more likely that they’re going to find a few members for a future rotation.
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.