Williams: Three Encouraging Signs From This Pirates Build

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.

Convergence

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.

THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

Williams: Three Encouraging Signs From This Pirates Build

Reacting to the Impressive Debuts From Oneil Cruz and Bligh Madris

Prospect Roundtable: The Book on Jack Suwinski

The Variable Approach to How the Pirates Are Developing Their Minor Leaguers

Cody Bolton Discusses Pitches and Limits

Dariel Lopez: Pulling The Ball More In Greensboro

PROSPECT WATCH

DAILY VIDEO RUNDOWN

PIRATES DISCUSSION

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Richard_B

I’ve noticed that Henry Davis already has five passed balls in very limited action. What’s going on? Should we be concerned about his defense at this point?

emjayinTN

It has been a more aggressive approach, but, had it not been for injuries, there is no reason to believe this aggressiveness would have ever happened. Now the question is will BC stick with this young and aggressive group.

About 3 weeks from the All Star break which is usually the start of the trade discussions. Gamel, Quintana, Vogelbach, Chavis, Underwood, and Stratton are legit trade pieces who should have interest from contenders – they are all with the Pirates already except for Gamel, therefore, either Mitchell or Madris will be sent back to AAA. Newman, ‘Sugo, VanMeter, etc. provide no value added and should stay at AAA or be DFA’d.

The Cobra

I’ve always been hopeful that this year would bring two legit starters in the field, with another two coming next year. That would give us six basically home grown guys (Reynolds was at least in the minors for a bit). Looks like it’s Cruz and Suwinski currently. What I’ve been most worried about was pitching. Conteras has been good, Keller has improved and actually Brubaker has as well. If we see Burrows and Priester in ’23 we may have a decent (1-5) rotation by the end of ’23.

This then points to the final piece of the puzzle. Is management willing to spend $$$ prior to ’24 to supplement the pitching (one quality veteran starter and maybe a quality bullpen guy or two) and the hitting (one or two quality everyday guys.) This may cost around 40M-50M.

As much as the excitement of a great game by Cruz appeases in the short-term. It’s these moves that will fully get me back “in”.

I live 4 miles from the ballpark and haven’t been there since 2019 (and that was only one game). I may be old (well, not really that old) and curmudgeony but I just can’t justify going and spending money yet on a team that at best will win 70, to help the owner who has decided we will not contend this year.

I truly do hope I’m driven to go back in ’23 or ’24….fingers crossed.

jon6er

I’m happiest for guys like Madris who has done the work to improve and give themselves a chance to get here and I hope he has continued success in the majors. Suwinski’s another guy with a great story because while not unheard of the jump from AA to the big stage and finding some success is uncommon. Both of these guys are an example of how easy these guys can get lost in a system. If circumstances would have been different Bligh might still be just a guy working hard in the minors who with this opportunity and his opening performance may have turned some other teams heads to keep an eye on this guy. And Jack while he was doing well in AA he could have got lost in the shuffle for a few more years without the opportunity that presented itself and he appears to have taken advantage of it so far.

emjayinTN

In 2019 Madris was a 23 year old at AA with a 703 OPS, after a .664 OPS at A+ in 2018. He used the pandemic off time well and returned in 2021 to AAA and posted a 786 OPS with 4 OF Assists. Glad to see him get his shot.

Bill

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Wabbit_Season

nice closing sentence

tedwins

Thank god I have almost every posted article here to remind me that Holmes and Glasnow (Glasnow has had 37 starts since start of 2019 btw) have done better since leaving us, who knew🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️… I would make fun of the posters who keep fixating on such if I wasnt more guilty for irrational constant Bae comments🙃😅🤣

dbsteel

Tyler Glasnow……..28 years old with a career record of 20-20. Kind of tired of hearing what kind of a loss he is.

roberto

I don’t think your comments are off base. The Rays just figured out how to use a pitcher with great stuff and lousy control. Only four innings per start, no problem.

tedwins

Unrelated but just a quick strange comment… I seem to be noticing some peculiar differences with BWar and FWar this year… Austin Meadows jumps out in my memory, anyways….just stream of conscience rambling🤣🤣

joebaseball

Now let’s get a few CATCHERS up to replace the ones we have now. Who is on the way there? Bins?

roibert.kasperski

Pretty much no one unless Delay, Ritchie or Bins catch fire in AAA. All three have been scuffling at the plate. The real depth is in AA and below.

roberto

Delay has been hitting well since April: BA over 300 and OPS of 900.

roibert.kasperski

Yes , he has worked his numbers up. Had a 4-5 game and a 2-4 game to help pull the numbers up. Steady otherwise. I agree that they probably should give him a shot but I don’t know if he would be appreciably better than the guys we in Pittsburgh against major league pitchers. Worth a look none the less. He couldn’t be worse.

jon6er

That’s the beauty of the word “try”, lol. We already know he couldn’t do worse so why not “try” Delay who is already on the 40 man, is playing better than Bins, Davis and Ritchie and is an organizational guy who deserves to be the placeholder ahead of the other guys until we get a guy like Davis or Sabol up.

AdministrativeSky236

Its on BC for not having better depth ready, but if Roberto perez hadnt gotten hurt we would all probably be pretty content running out lineups similar to last night for the rest of the year

bucsws2014

But Roberto Perez always gets hurt.

roibert.kasperski

With the guys up now and playing, I could care less about the catcher for this season. Will need a better one heading into 2023 since Roberto got hurt bad enough that I am not sure they should resign him or not going into next year. Need some to be better than who they have now to finish the bridge to Hank and Endy. with Hank hopefully up sometime mid season next year.

PiratePrimate

Where’s the money Nickles? We know you got it. C’mon, let’s go to the market and buy some pitching.

John Fluharty

More likely to see that this off season if the young guys finish well.

bucsws2014

Much more likely to field offers for Quintana and maybe Thompson than take on more salary for a team that’s not contending. I do think it’s actually possible Nutting opens the pocketbook in FA this offseason. Won’t be DeGrom, but maybe we get Musgrove back.

jimmyz

MLB contracts are fully guaranteed. Therefore long-term Musgrove will cost significantly more than DeGrom even though his annual average will be lower. No way Musgrove is signing for less than 5 years and given his age and health in recent seasons no chance DeGrom is getting more than three. Either way neither are realistic options for the Pirates. If the team can stretch financially into the Noah Syndergaard, Sean Manaea, Mike Clevinger tier of free agent starters I’d be thrilled.

roberto

Too soon. The rookies will have bad days too. Maybe at the trade deadline, but I doubt it.

JoeNastasi

Please no more trade deadline deals for veterans, overpriced & not worth it.
About 60 % of the guys here are worth having & more is on the way. The last thing the Bucco’s need is another Archer situation.
Stick with the plan

roibert.kasperski

Patience Grasshopper! Nothing really available worth getting in that market at the moment. Maybe we can buy one with our extra middle infielders at the deadline but can’t sign one till the offseason.

PiratePrimate

Taking on salary at the trade deadline is buying something. That’s in less than six weeks

roibert.kasperski

Prob will depend on what they can get for who they are willing to part. There will be a couple of vets that won’t bring much but possibly packaged with one of the extra MI might entice a decent return.

PiratePrimate

The only time I’ve ever been able to show any patience is when the dog’s on point.

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

The whole mindset situation feels like something that is so simple, yet so important. If we even just think to post-trade Glasnow and how he said the Rays essentially told him, “trust your stuff”, it makes you wonder what they were saying to him prior.

roibert.kasperski

Maybe they were telling him the same thing but did not believe the message till another team told him the same thing.

JoeNastasi

They were telling to be a cookie cutter version that they wanted all their pitchers to be. Throw every pitch to the bottom of the zone. When you can dial it up above 96 consistently the top of the can be a weapon. Glasnow & Cole both changed their approaches once leaving. I just wish CH & Uncle Ray would’ve been shown the door years earlier

roberto

That approach worked quite well in 2014 and 2015 even as swing paths were changing. Cole got better sticky stuff and threw a few more high FB in Houston. Glasnow’s approach was throw it down the middle. At that point command was not possible.

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

It’s possible. Cause lets be honest, there’s A LOT of players/prospects that see their potential outside their original organization.

roibert.kasperski

We have Reynolds that SF thought was a throwaway to get an aging McCutchen. Crick looked like the best piece of that trade up until did not take the Crash Davis advice and hit the Pitcher Who Shall Remain Nameless with his pitching hand and was never the same afterwards. Like you say, it happens everywhere. We got Melancon to perform as well.

AdministrativeSky236

Similar to what holmes said in new york, wonder if the old team was overloading them with info trying to fit everyone into the same mold

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

Idk. I don’t like seeing it, but it is hard to fully fault them with SP’s like Taillon, Holmes, Kingham (although he never found success), and even going back to Morton. We have plenty of other examples of presumed failure, and we likely could come to the conclusion they wouldn’t have reached their ceiling in Pittsburgh, but they also spent majority of their developmental years sustaining injury after injury after injury.

I’m also really beginning to wonder how much of an effect the 2022 ball is having. There’s been some weird numbers this year.

roibert.kasperski

Kingham was on his way to the show before Taillon and was being talked about in the same sentences with Cole and Taillon when his arm went and he had to have TJ and was never the same. Taillon himself had 2 TJ, cancer and other minor injuries.

Bucs'N'Pucks (Jeff Reed)

Kingham is one of the one’s that stings the most to me personally. If only because I can still vividly remember watching him in person at Spring Training and thinking, “Wow. This kid is gonna be good”, then TJS happened shortly after, and he was never the same. I still remember him post-game walking out of the facility and getting picked up by his mom lol

roibert.kasperski

Holmes was almost there with us. He had long stretches last year where he was unhittable followed but a clunker or two the got good again right before the trade. For him it was finally being able to be healthy and pitch. Was looked at as a starter the flipped to the pen in 2019. Missed all but 1 game in 2020 and finally was putting it together in 2021. Timing more than anything else for him.

roberto

The new development model sounds great, but I want to push back on the notion that lots of players improved dramatically after leaving the Bucs. There is one clear example: Glasnow. And that’s mostly the Rays figuring out a way to use a pitcher with great stuff and bad control. Cole mostly pitched well for the Bucs and pitched lights out for the Astros. He had better pitch selection and better sticky stuff. We could argue about a couple of other pitchers, but the ones who were good elsewhere were good with the Bucs. Nothing to see among position players.

jimmyz

To me it’s not that players have performed better elsewhere that is bothersome as that happens all the time across the whole league. The issue is that a sizable group of guys from the same timeline in organizational development have been doing better elsewhere almost immediately upon leaving the Pirates. Cole, Glasnow, Holmes, Taillon, Josh Bell and Shane Baz were all end of Huntington’s tenure guys who clearly had loads of talent that was fully realized only after moving to new teams. There’s hope that those situations will be less frequent under Cherington’s front office but it’s a big enough group to seriously question what was going wrong the last few years under Huntington. Was it dogmatic beliefs that stifled innovation, complacency, Kyle Stark being the baseball equivalent of Darth Vader, all of the above?

BuccoinTN

I would add Charlie Morton.

roibert.kasperski

Morton went through Atlanta Pittsburgh and Philly before he finally hit stride with the Astros in his early 30’s. Was good with Pittsburgh but never great until Houston.

roberto

I think he was trying to change in Philly, but got hurt.

bucsws2014

He was already implementing those changes in his final two months with Bucs.

Largie Condios

Hope everyone is well…are people that purchased this year’s Prospect Guide supposed tp have received them?…thanks

skliesen

Lord knows it’s easy to be critical of this organization. They have done so much more wrong than right in recent years, but last night more than anything gave us hope for brighter days ahead.

Cruz has unique skills that can’t be taught. He creates electricity. He’s the type of player who causes casual fans to become die hard fans. He will cause veteran in-demand FA’s to choose Pittsburgh as a place to play.

The ride us Pirates fans are embarking on will most assuredly be bumpy, but there’s no way it isn’t exhilarating.

Let’s Go Bucs!

tedwins

Yup, Cruz is exciting, maybe we have a very special player, twt, and Contreas is performing well in his time up, need him to be solid or more🙏… Suwinski sure has had some crazy big games/hits, interesting guy, almost have to believe he is a real mlb everyday player, seems that way🤞🙏

skliesen

I heard a popular national sports talk radio show host this morning say the Pittsburgh Pirates are the big news of the day because of Cruz’s arm, bat, and legs. He’s the kind of player who will cause the Pirates to be relevant again. Put enough pieces around him, and they will not only be relevant, but a true contender.

Cruz because of his size and his arm may be even more mesmerizing to watch than Cutch.

tedwins

Imagine if he gives us that 5-6 year cutch production, oh boy🤞🤞🤞🤞

JasonR33

Suwinski SEEMS to have that hard-to-quantify and oft debated quality known as “clutch.” Nojinx nojinx nojinx.

tedwins

I was thinking the same thing and trying to overthink what gives him that….landed on that he is just a seemingly happy in his own skin guy having fun…or maybe he is just really talented🤣🤣🤣 or both….

PiratePrimate

A short stroke, a good eye and a strong work ethic. And a lot of luck to be blessed with that kind of talent. I think he’s the real deal. I feel the same way about Madris and Peguero

Last edited 14 days ago by PiratePrimate
jaygray007

I do think it’s worth noting that a good bit of the aggressive promotions and youth movement have been simply because of injury. Njigba (when he was healthy), suwinski, marcano, mitchell, and i’m probably forgetting some guys, are pretty much only here because of injuries. I am kind of afraid of what will happen to the team when VanMeter, Yoshi, Allen, Newman, etc get healthy.

PirateRican21

They did, VanMeter, Maresnik, Knapp. Luckily they were able to stop!

roberto

It also helps to have lots of prospects.

roibert.kasperski

I think that all the injuries did was force the promotions just a few months quicker than was probably planned. Many of the vets that were signed were signed to be jettisoned sooner than later. Some of the vets will be traded for whatever they can get when healthy or DFA’d now that the young guys are up and playing mostly all well. If there were no injuries, the same guys would have been moved by the deadline and replaced buy the guys now promoted anyway.

tedwins

Yes JayGray, guess the sports drama becomes what does occur when ur last sentence becomes decision points🤔

tedwins

None of this seems real to me until Bae gets his deserved prospect rating increase/respect locally and nationally and the conversation becomes what do we do with Nick G….. Because he is blocked by a younger, better, and becoming more and more obvious higher upside prospect… Sorry I chose this great day for of all people, mr tedwins optimist, to rant🤣🤣🤣🤣

roibert.kasperski

This is what good teams get to deal with. Deals will be made to alleviate log jams and hopefully they pick the right players to keep. I truly can not remember a Bucs farm system being able to graduate more than a handful of prospects to the Show and actually still have several quality prospects still left in the system. Used to be if they brought up 4 or 5 prospects or brought up 2 or 3 and traded a couple of others, the cupboard would have been suddenly empty till the next draft.

roberto

Aside from Cruz these were not their top prospects.

roibert.kasperski

Contreras, Peguero(since returned) Swags (since returned) are. Depending on the publications, 4-5 others are in their top 30. You are correct that many of the top are not included but that is what makes this so good because for decades there were never this many players with talent in the system at the same time. They seemed like they might have had 1 or two Cruz level then a few a step below then roster fillers with a surprise or two. That is what has had me excited for the last couple of seasons and was looking forward to what is happening now. They kids are doing good and as you say several are not even the top dogs. They just have to keep it going.

ishman

I’d be interested to see how many other prospects had the same experience as Burrows with the old regime. Kevin Kramer recently spoke up about it and it was a little eye opening for me. Imagine telling a prospect that he’s never going to make it!

JeffK

At the game last night, and even my wife (casual baseball fan) said it was the best game she’s been to in years. (Thought the squirrel might have contributed to that assessment)

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