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Williams: Bridging the Gap From A-Ball to Pittsburgh

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In my time covering the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system while Neal Huntington was the General Manager, I noticed a transition in the organization.

Prior to Huntington, the Pirates didn’t have great communication in their minor league organization. One of the biggest things that Huntington and farm director Kyle Stark did was turn the Pirates’ player development system into a more cohesive unit, rather than the disembodied mess it was under Dave Littlefield and every General Manager prior.

Thus far, under General Manager Ben Cherington’s “build” strategy, I’ve seen this cohesive minor league system maintained, with a few upgrades. One of the most important, perhaps, is that every level seems to have a clear, specific developmental purpose.

I’ve written about how the Pirates are trying to model their Bradenton facilities after the college development track. The idea is that a player leaves Bradenton when he knows what he would have learned about the game playing at a Division I school. As I wrote earlier this week, once they’re in Greensboro, its about letting them play and develop while many of these young players are on their own for the first time in their lives.

This is where the top prospects like Matt Gorski, Endy Rodriguez, and Dariel Lopez start to emerge as the cream of the crop.

And then, they make the most difficult jump for a player — the jump to Double-A, where everyone who is or was once a “prospect” plays, and where we first start to discover which of these prospects might eventually be a Major League player.

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It has been difficult to evaluate how the Pirates are using their Double-A level. The early reaction is that, once players show they can dominate this level, they don’t spend a long time here.

This is a big departure from the way the system worked under Huntington and Stark, where it was seen as important to get a full season of work in at each of the top two levels before sniffing the majors. The Pirates, under Cherington and new farm director John Baker, are a bit more relaxed about promotions in and out of this level.

In the last two seasons, the Pirates have promoted Rodolfo Castro, Jack Suwinski, Tucupita Marcano, and others from Double-A to the majors. I’ve written before about how this just wasn’t done at all under Huntington. This year, the Pirates promoted Suwinski and Marcano to the majors as COVID -IL replacements. Their short-term need allowed both players to show what they could do in the big leagues. That really worked out for Suwinski.

“[Suwinski] was really performing at an age appropriate level this year,” said John Baker, referring to Suwinski’s hot start in Altoona. “Because of the COVID IL, ended up in the major leagues before schedule, and because of the power, stayed for a long time and did a really good job.”

In both cases, and like Castro, the Pirates know these players need minor league at-bats to learn their own zones and pitch selection skills against upper level talent. However, most don’t return to Altoona for good.

The Pirates opted to send Suwinski to Indianapolis, due to his ability to crush velocity, but struggle against breaking stuff.

“Although sometimes you run into more raw stuff at the Double-A level, you’ll run into better, optionable Major League pitching at the Triple-A level,” said Baker. “Jack proved at the beginning of the year this year that just because guys are throwing 99, doesn’t mean he wasn’t going to hit homers, and rake like he did in Altoona.”

The Pirates have sent some players back to Altoona. Liover Peguero was called up as a COVID replacement, but returned and stayed in Altoona, where he has struggled. That wasn’t the story with Tucupita Marcano.

The Pirates sent Marcano back to Altoona after his COVID promotion. That only lasted for a short time, before Marcano showed he didn’t have anything to learn at the Double-A level. Marcano had a .303/.413/.475 line in Double-A. He didn’t have much to learn in Triple-A either, batting .362/.433/.500. That led to a return to the majors after 67 plate appearances in Indianapolis.

“In a very short sample, we saw Tucupita head to Indy, and really, really, really excel, forcing the organization’s hand,” said Baker. “How long can you let somebody hit .360 in Triple-A when you just sent him down?”

Prospect Roundtable: The Book on Tucupita Marcano

The Pirates haven’t been shy about using that revolving door to the majors and giving their young players real world experience. That door also returns a lot of players back to the minors, who might find themselves back in the majors in no time when it looks like things are clicking in Triple-A.

When I talked with Baker last week, he mentioned Rodolfo Castro as a guy who was similar to Suwinski — hitting for power in the majors, but struggling to hit for anything else. That’s a common issue in Pittsburgh this year that the Pirates need to figure out, and as seen with Castro, they’re going to give multiple opportunities for players to figure it out, rather than one extended look.

If a player is struggling in the majors, it doesn’t make sense to keep him at the level to figure it out. The data that is available in the majors has moved to the Triple-A level, making it a perfect practice ground for guys like Castro and Suwinski.

“Facing some of those veteran pitchers in Triple-A, with the information out on them, is really doing a better job of preparing them for a return to the big leagues,” said Baker. “I think that’s what it is, longer periods of stable, everyday at-bats against tough competition. That allows those players to emerge. And then obviously the work that goes into it in Indianapolis. We really appreciate the work that coaching staff has done there. Brady Conlin, Eric Munson, Gary Green, Miguel Perez, all the work they do with those guys, those offensive players, to get them ready.”

The gap between Triple-A and the majors is bigger than ever. The Pirates have the challenge of bridging that gap, which hasn’t been their strong suit in the past. They are definitely organized, with a purpose to the promotions and demotions. As an example, when Diego Castillo was sent to Triple-A, the Pirates sent him down to get consistent work on facing right-handed pitching, and specifically, right-handed breaking balls that he was overmatched against in the majors.

Eventually, Castillo will return to the majors, where he will be attacked by a heavy diet of breaking pitches from right-handers. He obviously wasn’t doing well in his limited time in the majors, and will get more experience against those pitches in the minors — especially when he’s been so exposed in the majors.

“In a lot of cases, these guys just need to play and be coached,” said Baker. “Fortunately, we’re in an organization where we’ve got very coachable players that work super hard, and coaches that are invested in getting those guys better.”

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The challenge the Pirates have in the upper levels is balancing the needs of the majors.

That hasn’t been an issue with a losing MLB team. The Pirates have been treating their Major League team like another level of the minors, in a way. It’s been more about development, which it always should be.

“Our Major League staff is recognizing that when you have all of these debuts, the development doesn’t stop in the major leagues,” said Baker. “We’re still going to make plays where we get picked off at second base.”

Baker said that we should see 99% of the promotions coming from Triple-A going forward, now that the organization feels that everyone is where they are supposed to be. I’ve written before about how Ben Cherington’s build was starting in Altoona this year. That group is now mostly in that revolving door between Triple-A and the majors.

After I spoke with Baker last week, he flew to the Dominican Republic for an organizational meeting to map out the minors for the rest of the year and to plan for 2023. One of the first moves that came following those meetings was the promotion of Rodolfo Castro to the majors.

I didn’t mention Castro once, but Baker brought him up three times in our conversation when talking about Suwinski and Marcano. It doesn’t surprise me that he got the call to Pittsburgh, as he stands out for Baker right now. Castro will be the latest young player to see if these repeat trips back and forth between the majors and minors can lead to lasting development.

“That whole [Pittsburgh] staff has been great about communicating, calling and asking questions and what we think about our players,” said Baker. “But then continuing developmental plans, and when guys get sent down, giving us very specific targets for us to hit. It’s been an exciting collaboration as we grow these young players and build a future contending team.”

THIS WEEKEND ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

Williams: Bridging the Gap From A-Ball to Pittsburgh

Prospect Roundtable: The Book on Tucupita Marcano

Dariel Lopez Continues To Answer Each Challenge Given

Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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