It feels like things have changed in Pittsburgh.
It’s easy to feel that way after watching Oneil Cruz smiling as he sprints around the bases in a game where the Pirates are blowing out the Cubs.
The arrival on Monday of Cruz and Bligh Madris was just the latest of a trend of positive movement in this system as the Pirates have seemingly progressed their “Build” to the next phase.
Here are three encouraging signs I’ve seen for the future of this process.
The Youth Movement
There have been 12 prospect debuts already this year in Pittsburgh. The latest to join the mix were Oneil Cruz and Bligh Madris on Monday night.
What is significant about this is that the Pirates are getting more aggressive with their prospects than we’ve seen in the past.
We’ve already seen Diego Castillo and Jack Suwinski emerge to have the fifth and sixth most plate appearances on the team. Suwinski arrived from Double-A, and Castillo spent 70 plate appearances in Triple-A before making the team out of Spring Training.
Cal Mitchell, Rodolfo Castro, and Tucupita Marcano are all in the top 15 for plate appearances, with Mitchell likely moving up inside the top ten in the next few weeks.
On the pitching side, the Pirates worked to get Roansy Contreras into the rotation quickly, and have given looks to quite a few prospects over the usual Triple-A and waiver wire depth that we’ve seen in the past.
The biggest knock on this team is how bad they were in the first two years under Ben Cherington, and how this year has looked just as bad at times.
If you look close enough, you can see that they’ve essentially been tanking at the MLB level. It’s hard to say that the Pirates have cared about MLB wins in 2020-2022, from their lack of offseason moves to the more developmental approach they’ve taken at the top level.
Now that the Pirates have an influx of young talent on the roster — and they still have a few more guys from Triple-A who they can recall — we’re starting to see a different phase of their build.
The young team that I saw on Monday was full of energy. They might be capable of losing in an embarrassing way, which is something we’ve seen a lot of the previous two seasons. A big difference is that this group is capable of the other extreme, winning in a big and exciting way.
The 2022 Pirates don’t look like a contender. However, from this point forward they look like a talented young team worth watching on any given night.
Creative Player Development
I’ve been covering a lot of the developmental changes in the Pirates’ farm system this year. Most recently, I talked with Pirates farm director John Baker about how the Pirates are focusing their development to match a college baseball development track at the rookie levels.
The Pirates didn’t have a shortage of prospects in the past. In fact, the 2016 season was supposed to be very similar to this one, with a lot of top prospects arriving in one year. Most of that group failed to live up to their expectations in Pittsburgh — and an alarming amount of those players who failed in Pittsburgh went on to find success elsewhere.
This was the biggest problem the Pirates needed to address. The creative ways they’ve been addressing this make sense.
At the core, the Pirates are instilling a more individually-driven approach, allowing the players to take more control of their career paths. The old development group had a more blanket approach. While the Pirates did allow for some individual variance in the past, it typically came after the initial approach wasn’t working. In a game where new prospects are arriving all the time, any type of setback can be bad for a prospect already in the system. If a setback comes and the prospect didn’t even have a say in the plan — well, you can see why players would have been frustrated.
I talked with a lot of people last year about the new system, before starting to write about it in detail this year. Probably the most eye-opening comments came from Mike Burrows, who was very candid last year about the impact of the old development approach.
Burrows has emerged under the new system as a guy who could join Roansy Contreras, Quinn Priester, and Mitch Keller in a future Pirates rotation. He always had good raw stuff, but that has become more refined the last two years.
What impressed me the most, and alerted me to change, was his confidence. Burrows spoke to me last year with the confidence and the knowledge that you’d expect from a veteran Major Leaguer — not a young prospect in A-ball who wasn’t even in the top 10 in the system at the time.
There’s a certain unwritten rule that you can’t say or do certain things unless you are a Major League player. The majors often get treated like a mythical dragon to slay, and that was true under the old system.
What I believe, after years of covering this game, and over a thousand prospects covered, is that being a Major League player is as much about attitude as it is ability.
The comments from Burrows were very direct, and unyielding in the criticism of the old approach. We allow an MLB player to say things like that, but some will draw back when an unproven minor leaguer says the same words with the same conviction.
The old system didn’t see many guys like Burrows speaking so candidly and confidently.
You watch Burrows on the mound, and it’s the same attitude. The way he carries himself, the direct approach, and the intensity are all the same attitude from the same person, applied to a different part of his life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his breakout came at the same time as the system allowing for bigger minor league personalities to shine.
Ultimately, the Pirates are treating their minor leaguers like people, rather than “prospects”, which is a term that inherently treats minor leaguers as less than major leaguers.
What I think this will lead to is more players like Burrows — who might have struggled and faded out under the old approach — now finding success with the kid gloves removed from his development.
The more talent you have emerging to the majors, the more likely you are to field a future contender.
The Pirates have seen a lot of prospect debuts this year. I’d still expect more by the end of the year, with Ji-Hwan Bae and Cody Bolton as two of the top candidates from Indianapolis.
Next year’s group could be just as big as this year’s group.
Henry Davis, Liover Peguero, and Nick Gonzales are all in Altoona right now. Davis is mostly working on his game calling and receiving skills. Peguero has the ability to make an impact anywhere on the field, but there’s an overall polish to his game needed to bring more consistency. Gonzales has struggled with his contact skills, which was what made him a first rounder.
Burrows and Quinn Priester could join that group as candidates to arrive in 2023, giving the Pirates most of their top ten arriving in the majors in a two-year span.
I mentioned earlier that the Pirates had a big group of prospects set to arrive in 2016. That group was disconnected from previous top prospects like Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and others who arrived one year at a time.
The result of that old approach was that by the time one prospect arrived, another was heading out.
The Pirates have built a foundation. At this point, they could field a lineup every night with players who could be on a future contender. That’s not a statement we could make in the early part of the season, when the lineup was filled with stopgaps and waiver wire claims.
The 2022 debuts represent a group the Pirates can build around, and build up from. It’s a group that will assist that build with their own development. The 2023 additions will only support that.
From there, the Pirates will have their foundation in place and together for many years.
This is how small market teams should be built. Add in a healthy farm system that continuously produces talent, and the Pirates have the makings of becoming the Oakland A’s or the Tampa Bay Rays of the National League.
The build has been slow to this point, but that slow pace has come with a lot of organizational improvements. Ideally, those will make it so that we never have to see such a prolonged stretch of losing in Pittsburgh again.
I mean, unless it comes from the Steelers.