Williams: Do the Pirates Have an Issue With Drafting or is it Development?

I have yet to see a study that shows the Pirates can’t draft.

Let me clarify that. I’ve seen studies showing the WAR results from players the Pirates drafted, comparing those to the results from other teams. But developing baseball players is a complex process, with many steps between drafting a guy and seeing him show up in the majors — not to mention steps that are needed after a player has arrived.

Baseball is unique in that way. You draft players in football and basketball, and they step into the pros right away. The NHL has a minor league system, but not nearly as deep as the one in baseball, and the best players tend to be up right away or within a year.

In those other sports, you can judge a team’s ability to draft by the results in the pros. In baseball, if you take that same approach, you leave out a huge part of the process: development.

A more accurate study for baseball would lump drafting and development together when looking at MLB WAR results. That would analyze everything necessary to get a guy to the majors. Unfortunately, this really doesn’t tell us much.

If you’re saying the Pirates have issues drafting and developing players, I’d agree. If you’re pointing to those studies and saying they show the Pirates have drafting and developing issues, I’d agree. But what exactly is their problem?

Is it drafting? Is it the development? And if it is, what stage of the development is the issue?

I’m not going to get scientific here and break down the WAR results. I honestly don’t know how to do that. Every time I start a study like that, I end up with too many questions along the way and can never get started. I could do another “draft and development” study, but I really don’t think that helps figure out the issue the Pirates have.

Instead, I’m going to take what I know about the team and the system and break down where I think the problem lies.

Let’s start with drafting, since that’s where it all begins. I do not think the Pirates have a problem with their drafting method. They have had some problems, specifically in 2015 and 2016 when they focused heavily on college hitters with lower upsides due to a lack of power. But for the most part, their drafts have been aimed at upside. Almost every year they have targeted high upside prep players, and have done so in big numbers, with the hope that drafting a lot of those prep players will lead to one or two working out.

As far as the draft goes, I look at the process, more than the results. The results are heavily dictated by the development. The process needs to give something to the development team, and the Pirates have a process where they give a lot for the development side to work with.

You can also look at some anecdotal evidence to show they’re making good decisions. Cole Tucker was originally seen as an over-draft, until we found out a few teams were just about to take him if the Pirates passed on him. Calvin Mitchell entered the year looking like a pick in the top half of the first round, but the Pirates got him in the second round, and he instantly looked like he should have gone in the first. Max Kranick was taken in the 11th round in 2016, and I heard of at least one team that would have taken him much higher if they thought he would have signed for the bonus he received. Then there are guys like Tyler Glasnow and Travis MacGregor who weren’t on the radar as top draft prospects, but who the Pirates went after with big bonuses and ended up getting interesting prospects.

The ultimate thing here is that the process for the Pirates is to draft for upside, which I think is a good approach. That puts the focus on their development team.

I don’t think the Pirates have an issue with development at the lower levels. I’ve had scouts tell me that they feel the Pirates are good at developing their lower level pitchers, and that seems to be the consensus inside the game when players are asking about how the Pirates handle their young players. I think you can look at the results and see this is true.

Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole were both high first round picks, but both very hittable for guys with their stuff. The Pirates improved both guys to be less hittable, allowing them to progress and put up good results in the majors. The Pirates have also seen several pitchers go from “random mid-round prep player” to a guy who looks like a first round talent.

I could hardly find any information on Tyler Glasnow when he was drafted, and he became one of the top prospects in the game. Mitch Keller was a second round pick, and is now one of the top prospects in the game. Guys like Nick Kingham and Clay Holmes have gone from big bonus prep pitchers to making their way into the majors now as starters. On the hitting side, you’ve got Josh Bell developing his power through the minors. You’ve got Calvin Mitchell already cracking top 100 lists. Ke’Bryan Hayes adding to his power, and Cole Tucker developing the tools to be a well-rounded shortstop.

You can even look beyond drafted players when looking at development. The Pirates have developed some nice lower-level international prospects. Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson were two big breakouts in 2012. The team has also taken Elias Diaz from a toolsy, strong defensive catcher to a guy who ended up being one of the top catching prospects in the system (granted, not a hard feat considering the system’s catching, but that doesn’t take away from how Diaz developed). They saw Edgar Santana go from hardly playing baseball to the DSL and then to the majors three years later.

In a lot of these cases, you probably have questions while you’re reading. Yes, they worked with Cole and Taillon, but neither of them have looked like top pitchers in the majors. Glasnow was a top prospect, but has hardly worked out. Kingham and Holmes aren’t proven yet. Polanco is another top prospect who hasn’t worked out. Hanson didn’t work out. Diaz is only just starting to make it as a starting catching option. Josh Bell hasn’t seen his results translate consistently over to the majors.

If you had those questions, then you might be right with me on where the problem lies for the Pirates and their development. The Pirates have an issue getting talent and upside to translate over to MLB results. I don’t know where this happens. Is it the jump to the majors and adjustments that happen after that jump? Work in Double-A or Triple-A to prepare for that jump? That’s something I can’t answer.

What I can say is that the Pirates have consistently seen their prospects under-perform expectations once they reached the majors. It has happened so often, with so few success stories on the other side, that it is a huge concern.

What is more concerning is that we’re starting to see some of those struggling players have success with other teams.

Gerrit Cole didn’t exactly struggle with the Pirates. He was consistently a 2.5 WAR player, reaching a 3.1 WAR last year, and a 5.5 in 2015. But he was also a guy who had the tools to be a 5+ WAR pitcher consistently, and not just once in a four and a half year stretch. He moved to the Astros and already he has seen a 3.5 WAR in half a season, which would be his second best career total, fueled by his best career strikeout rate by far (12.41 K/9 vs 9.00 in 2014). Cole is now looking like the dominant pitcher he was expected to be when the Pirates drafted him, and when he made the top prospect lists coming up through the system. But it didn’t happen with the Pirates.

Alen Hanson is a smaller case. He received zero chances with the Pirates, after being a top prospect with them for years. He spent half a season with the team in 2017 while he was out of options, and only got 59 plate appearances. The White Sox added him and gave him 175 plate appearances. The numbers weren’t great, but were better than what Sean Rodriguez put up. And now Hanson is with the Giants putting up an .817 OPS and looking like what some of my later reports projected of him after his value declined from 2012: still a major league player, a good bench option with poor defense and a good bat, and a potential starter if he hits enough. That didn’t happen with the Pirates, and what is worse is that he never got a shot with the Pirates.

We’ve seen this play out in other cases outside of internally developed players. The Pirates traded for Brandon Moss as part of the Jason Bay trade. He was replacement level with them, and was let go after 2010. Two years later he was a 2.5 WAR player with the Athletics, looking a lot like the player the Pirates expected to get in the trade. Granted, they did start to see results out of him in Triple-A in 2010 after some key changes, but this was another case where they didn’t give a guy a shot in the majors.

And now one of the big themes we’ve seen over the last few years has been players underperforming expectations and projections. Jameson Taillon was supposed to be a top of the rotation starter, and hasn’t consistently come close to that. Gregory Polanco shows flashes of potential, but can never remain consistent. Josh Bell showed some progress last year, but has taken a big step back this year. Colin Moran was added after making huge adjustments with the Astros to increase his power, but has been replacement level with the Pirates in his jump to the majors.

My concern is that we’re going to add a lot more Gerrit Cole type examples with this current group. I can absolutely see Jameson Taillon becoming an ace somewhere else. I can see Chad Kuhl becoming more than a back of the rotation starter. I can see Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco becoming impact hitters. I just don’t think these things will happen with the Pirates, and I honestly don’t know how to pinpoint the area where the Pirates are going wrong with these guys.

The Pirates have a good approach of aiming for upside with their drafts. They do well with development in the lower levels, turning those projectable guys into actual prospects who end up high on the top prospect lists. But they consistently fall short of those projections once guys reach the majors, with almost no one living up to their prospect hype once they’re in the majors, unless it happens with another team.

Any draft and development WAR analysis is going to grade the Pirates poorly. I think the reason for this is due to the team struggling to transition guys from toolsy, high-upside prospects to big results in the majors. The Pirates have yet to show the ability to get the most out of their prospects, and now that we’re starting to see other teams get the results the Pirates were seeking, we’re starting to learn exactly where the problem with their drafting and development might be.

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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