First Pitch: Will the Pirates Promote Aggressively in the Low Minors?

We’re always eager to see the prospects we like promoted quickly (especially when things aren’t going so well in the majors).  Considering the Pirates’ severe need for higher-upside players, not to mention the recent trade, that’s likely to be an especially strong sentiment this year.

Of course, there’s a cause-and-effect issue here.  You can’t turn a player into a premier prospect just by promoting him like one, so to a large extent promotions are more an indicator than anything else.  Still, the more I follow minor league baseball, the more convinced I become that the real talents shouldn’t need much time in the low minors.

I hate to point to MLB’s proposal to eliminate a quarter of all minor league teams — I have no doubt that, like everything else MLB tries to do, money is the only real motivation — but there’s some sense in it.  MLB’s proposed cuts will impact solely the short-season leagues, which should greatly streamline the low minors and lead to the better talents reaching the high class A more quickly.  From strictly a developmental standpoint, that’d probably be a good thing.  I’ve come to think that players, including prep draftees and international signees, who don’t reach high A pretty quickly aren’t very likely to be more than marginal major leaguers in most cases.  (Pitchers can present more complicated issues in many cases due to the health factor.)

Anyway, we’re all very curious how aggressively the Pirates will promote their low minors prospects and we have no track record to go on with the new front office, so I thought I’d look at Toronto’s recent practices.  PieRat in the comments yesterday asked about Boston, but Ben Cherington and Assistant GM Steve Sanders were both with the Jays more recently.  They were also more directly involved in prospect-related operations than a GM would typically be.  So I’m guessing that Toronto’s experiences would be more indicative of Cherington’s and Sanders’ current thinking on development.

Of course, I don’t know Toronto’s system anything like I do the Pirates’.  I’d need to know which players were the more promising ones, because it’s irrelevant how quickly they promoted players who figured to be organizational guys.  There’s also no point looking at Vlad Guerrero, Jr., or Bo Bichette.  Nobody other than a Dave Littlefield-run team would dawdle in promoting prospects that good and the Pirates don’t currently have anybody like that.  I can, however, check out Baseball America’s list of the Jays’ top 30 prospects that was published at mid-season in 2019.

As a general point, the top part of the Jays’ top 30 is heavy with prep draftees and international signees.  (BA recently ranked Toronto’s system sixth overall, despite Vlad’s graduation, and the Jays had seven players on BA’s list of the top 100 international signings, including two in the 20s.)  I think this is promising to the extent it reflects where the Pirates may go.  Cherington has talked about going for more upside (and risk), and about getting more out of Latin America.  His first meaningful move certainly reflected the upside part.  It’d be a change for the Pirates, too.  They got very little out of Latin America during Neal Huntington’s tenure, although things may have picked up the last year or two.  They also went increasingly for college players in the draft, especially in rounds 2-10, with increasingly bad results.

So here’s a look at how the Jays have promoted prep and Latin prospects in their BA top 30:

2.  Nate Pearson, RHP:  A 2017 first-rounder, Pearson was actually drafted, at age 20, out of junior college.  He threw 20 innings in short-season ball his first year.  The Jays then sent him straight to high A, where he missed nearly the whole season after getting hit by a line drive in the second inning of his first game.  In his third year, he went back to high A, but only for six games.  He then moved up to AA and finally to AAA for his last three games.

3.  Jordan Groshans, SS:  A 2018 prep first-rounder, Groshans went to the GCL and also got into 11 games in the advanced-rookie Appalachian League.  For his first full year, the Jays sent Groshans to low A.  (He also got hurt and missed the bulk of the season.)

4.  Eric Pardinho, RHP:  The Jays signed Pardinho out of Brazil in 2017 for a big bonus ($1.4M).  I’m not sure how conventional the development path for a Brazilian player might be, but the Jays sent him straight to the Appy League in his first year, at age 17.  For his second season, they moved him to low A, although not until July.

6.  Alejandro Kirk, C:  Kirk signed at age 18 out of Mexico.  He played in just one GCL game in his first year due to an injury, then spent the next year in the Appy League.  His third year, at age 20, he split between low A and high A, mostly the latter.  He’s expected to be in AA in 2020.

7.  Gabriel Moreno, C:  The Jays signed Moreno at 16, in 2016, from Venezuela.  He spent his first year in the DSL, then split the next between the GCL and the Appy.  He spent 2019, at age 19, in low A.

9.  Miguel Hiraldo, SS:  A Dominican signed at age 16 in 2017, Hiraldo played his first year in the DSL, but also got into ten games in the GCL.  At age 18, he played in the Appy, with one game in low A.

10.  Orelvis Martinez, SS:  Martinez signed at 16 from the Dominican in 2018.  Toronto sent him straight to the GCL for his first year, at 17.

11.  Adam Kloffenstein, RHP:  The Jays took Kloffenstein in the third round in 2018 as a 17-year-old prep player.  He threw only two innings that year.  In 2019, at age 18, he pitched in the Northwest League, which is the same level as the NYPL.

13.  Leonardo Jimenez, SS:  Panamian Jimenez signed at 16 in 2017.  The Jays sent him straight to the GCL for his first season.  He spent his second year, at 18, in the Appy, finishing with two games in low A.

25.  Alberto Rodriguez, OF:  Rodriguez signed at 16 from the Dominican.  He spent his first year in the DSL and his second, at 18, in the GCL.

26.  Jhon Solarte, OF:  Solarte also signed at 16, in his case from Venezuela.  Like Rodriguez, he spent his first year in the DSL and second in the GCL.

27.  Javier D’Orazio, C:  The Jays signed D’Orazio from Venezuela at 16.  He spent most of his first year, 2019, in the DSL, but moved up to the GCL for 13 games.  I imagine he’ll move up farther in 2020, when he’ll be 18.

From looking at these players, it seems as though Toronto tries to get its best prep and Latin prospects to full season ball while they’re still teenagers.  They had several of their international signees skip over the DSL entirely, and others move up to the GCL late in their first seasons.  They promoted Pearson very aggressively.  The two outfielders have followed more standard paths, but overall I’d say the Jays have been maybe a little more aggressive than the Pirates.

Aggressive assignments could especially impact the Pirates at Greensboro.  They have a lot of college draftees who struggled at Greensboro and at West Virginia in 2019, and some prep and international guys who’ve shown more promise.  It’d be unfortunate to see the former blocking the latter.  Hopefully, the new front office will focus on moving the players who have upside.


The Pirates didn’t get a catching prospect for Starling Marte, but . . .



By John Dreker

Only one former Pirates player born on this date, but we have three trades of note.

On this date in 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded outfielder Matty Alou and pitcher George Brunet to the Cardinals in exchange for outfielder Vic Davalillo and pitcher Nelson Briles. Alou was the big piece in the deal. He hit .327 over five seasons with the Pirates, winning a batting title in 1966 and leading the league in doubles and hits in 1969. Brunet was a 35-year-old pitcher who had a 9-7, 4.21 record in 36 games in 1970. The Pirates acquired him mid-season that year from the Senators. Briles was 27 and had a 61-54, 3.42 record in six seasons with the Cardinals, which included 19 wins in 1968. Davalillo was a 34-year-old outfielder, who hit .311 in limited at-bats with the Cardinals in 1970.

Davalillo played well for the Pirates. He hit .285 with 48 runs scored in 99 games in 1971, then followed it up with a .311 average in 117 games the next season. Briles went 36-28 over his three seasons with the Pirates, winning 14 games in both 1972 and 1973. Brunet made just seven relief appearances for the Cardinals, in what would be his last season in the majors. Alou hit .315 with a career high 74 RBIs in 1971, then followed it with a .314 average in 1972, before the Cardinals traded him away late in the season. Less than two years later he was released by the Padres, his fourth team in three years, which was the end of his Major League career. While Alou’s bat would have looked good in Pittsburgh for two more seasons, the Pirates won the 1971 World Series and Briles threw a shutout in game five.

On this date, in 1932, the Pirates traded Bob Osborn and Eddie Phillips to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association in exchange for 23-year-old pitcher Bill Swift. This trade worked out great for the Pirates as they gave up a pitcher in Osborn, who at age 28, had only 27 major league wins and 4.32 ERA. Phillips was a 30-year-old catcher, who had played parts of three seasons in the majors and never hit higher than .235 any year. Swift was in his fourth minor league season in 1930 and had just posted a 16-7, 4.54 record while playing in a high offense league. He immediately became a fixture in the Pirates rotation and would go on to pitch 305 games over eight seasons in a Pittsburgh uniform. He had a 91-79 record for the Pirates, winning at least 14 games in a season four times. Osborn never played in the majors again, while Phillips played parts of three more seasons, getting into a combined 135 games.

On this date in 1949 the Pirates purchased pitcher Murry Dickson from the St Louis Cardinals for $125,000. He was 32 years old at the time and was coming off of a 12-16, 4.14 record in 42 games, 29 of them as a starter. In 1946 he had a 15-6, 2.88 record in 47 games, 19 as a starter. For the Pirates he would play five seasons, throwing over 200 innings each year. In 1951 he won 20 games, despite leading the league in hits allowed. earned runs and home runs allowed. Overall he had a 66-85, 3.83 record with Pittsburgh, although his won/loss record was hurt by playing for some very bad teams over those years.

Jason Schmidt, pitcher for the 1996-2001 Pirates. The Pirates acquired Schmidt, along with two other players, in exchange for Denny Neagle on August 28, 1996. Schmidt had a 5-6, 6.45 record in 22 games over two seasons prior to the trade. After the trade he made six starts that season for the Pirates, going 2-2, 4.06 in 37.2 innings. He stayed in the rotation to begin the 1997 season and over the next three years (1997-99) he made a combined total of 98 starts, posting a 34-34 record. He made just 11 starts in 2000 before a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery put him out for the season. He returned in 2001 and went 6-6, 4.61 in 14 starts before he was traded to the San Francisco Giants. He would go 78-37 in six years with the Giants before signing a 3 year/ $46,000,000 contract with the Dodgers. He would make just ten career starts after signing that deal. He retired after 2009 with a 130-96, 3.96 career record.

Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.

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