First Pitch: How the Pirates’ System May Be Structured Going Forward

Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve probably already seen the last of the Pirates’ farm system as we’ve known it for six years (since they added Bristol).  There won’t be a minor league season this year and, next year, we’ll see fewer teams.  Given the current dire situation, MiLB will reportedly give in to MLB’s desire to eliminate about 40 minor league affiliates.  MLB’s intention is to do away with the short season leagues, except for the so-called complex leagues.  Those leagues — the Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues — operate out of the parent teams’ training facilities.

For the Pirates, that means no more affiliates in the New York-Penn or Appalachian Leagues.  The West Virginia Black Bears could survive, though, as they weren’t on MLB’s list of targeted affiliates.  Presumably, they’d move to a restructured, full-season league, although they wouldn’t necessarily be a Pirates’ affiliate.  The Dominican Summer League supposedly won’t be affected and the Pirates could conceivably operate more than one GCL team.

Obviously, the typical career path for prospects would have to change (apart from the fact that a new regime is running the show).  For some years now, the typical path for college draftees has been to report to the NYPL after signing.  The top guys and the ones who handle the NYPL well generally go to high class A for their first full seasons.  The others go to low A.  High school draftees, and international signees a year or two who’ve had a year or two in the DSL, go to the GCL.  The ones who do well generally go to low A the next year, the others to the Appy League or, sometimes, the NYPL.

The fundamental change that will have to happen with the Appy and NYPL teams gone is more aggressive assignments.  Unless the Pirates operate at least two GCL teams — which they already may have needed to do anyway given the large number of international signings they’ve made the last couple years — their players at the two class A levels are going to have less experience, on average, than in the past.

There should be little to no room in low A for college draftees, so they’re going to have to go to high A.  Given how badly the team’s college hitters have performed in low A the last couple years, that could be a rough assignment for many unless the drafting improves markedly.  Also, we could see the more advanced hitters (Like Nick Gonzales?) go to AA immediately, or very quickly.

High school draftees and international guys should get pushed to low A more quickly.  The days of seeing a prospect spend several years in short season ball should be over.  This is probably going to mean a lower level of play in low A, but other teams will have to deal with the same realities, so everybody should be on equal footing.

One other factor may lead to players with less experience at the class A levels:  Drafted players probably won’t play at all the year they’re drafted, except in Fall Instructs, which might be expanded.  MLB has been planning to shorten the draft and to move it later, which only makes sense if the short season leagues are being eliminated.

Another change we should see is a sharp reduction in the number of organizational players.  We’ve already seen evidence of that in the list of players the Pirates recently released, the bulk of whom figured just to be org. guys.

It was a stated goal of MLB’s to reduce the number of players on minor league rosters who have little chance of ever reaching the majors.  I don’t believe for a moment that MLB’s motivation in seeking to reduce the size of MiLB is anything other than cost saving.  Just the same, from a strictly development standpoint I think it makes sense to have a heavier concentration of actual prospects.  It also be better to push the better prospects more aggressively.  I tend to think that the ones who have to move up one level per year probably aren’t going to be productive big leaguers in most cases.

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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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