Three years ago, Neal Huntington took over a team with a farm system widely regarded as barren. Seven years of poor drafting, unwillingness to spend any money in Latin America, and general disinterest in the system on the part of GM Dave Littlefield resulted in a shockingly weak organization, especially for a team that had been drafting early in the first round for many years. Going into the 2008 season, Baseball America rated the Pirates’ system 26th in all of baseball. They would have ranked even lower, but two teams below them, the Tigers and White Sox, had just emptied out their systems in trades. In all of Littlefield’s time in the organization, he produced only one farm system that BA ranked in the top half, and that one was stocked almost entirely with players from Cam Bonifay’s tenure.
Naturally, there’s a lot of discussion online these days about the quality of the system now. Not many people would argue that it hasn’t improved, especially the pitching. Concerns remain about whether the system is short on high-ceiling pitching prospects at the upper levels. The importance of pitching depth, however, shouldn’t be discounted. Pitcher performance is highly volatile and unpredictable. Not all good major league pitchers arrive in the bigs as blue chip prospects. For example, the Pirates’ best pitcher, and one of baseball’s better relievers, in 2010 was Evan Meek. Their best starter was Ross Ohlendorf, who followed a strong 2009 season with a decent one in 2010, despite injury problems and a near-comical lack of support from his teammates. Both were regarded as solid but not outstanding prospects. Baseball America ranked Ohlendorf 9th in the Yankees’ system a few months before the Pirates acquired him. Meek ranked 22nd in the Pirates’ system two years ago, when the system was weaker than it is now. Just the same, they’re both good major league pitchers.
A quick way to assess the progress of the pitching depth in the Pirates’ system is to check the pitchers who opened the 2008 and 2010 seasons in the rotations of the top three affiliates. That’ll give us an idea of how many pitchers the system was producing who had a chance to help out in the majors in the foreseeable future. By that time, the prospects have largely separated themselves from the non-prospects. Going into the 2008 season, the system was still populated mainly by pitchers acquired under Littlefield, supplemented by ones that Huntington acquired mainly to fill holes. By the start of the 2010 season, the system was filled primarily by Huntington acquisitions.
(The number in paretheses is the pitcher’s age.)
|Bryan Bullington (27)||Brad Lincoln (25)|
|John Van Benschoten (28)||Donald Veal (25)|
|Jason Davis (28)||Kevin Hart (27)|
|Ty Taubenheim (25)||Brian Burres (29)|
|Luis Munoz (26)||Chris Jakubauskas (31)|
There were no real prospects on the 2008 team. Bullington had never shown the stuff as a pro that he supposedly had in college and had struggled to come back from labrum surgery. Van Benschoten was two years from labrum surgery and still hadn’t overcome his control problems. Both left on waiver claims later in the year. The other three were strictly organizational depth. Davis had been signed to a minor league contract, while Taubenheim was a waiver pickup from the Blue Jays, who’d decided he wasn’t a good enough prospect to keep on their 40-man roster. Munoz was a long-time organizational pitcher who’d been added to the 40-man roster after a peak year. Davis and Munoz were out of the organization by the end of the year and Taubenheim returned for one more year on a minor league contract. Neither Davis nor Taubenheim has pitched in the majors since that year. Munoz never did.
On the 2010 team, Lincoln and Veal were both good prospects, although Veal had Tommy John surgery not long after. Hart was expected to be in the Pirates’ rotation, but was struggling with what turned out to be a shoulder injury that required surgery. Burres and Jakubauskas, like Davis and Taubenheim in 2008, were organizational depth, Burres acquired on a minor league deal and Jakubauskas via waivers.
|2008||Altoona (AA)||2010||Altoona (AA)|
|Kyle Bloom (25)||Mike Crotta (25)|
|Derek Hankins (24)||Jared Hughes (24)|
|Jimmy Barthmaier (24)||Rudy Owens (22)|
|Yoslan Herrera (27)||Justin Wilson (22)|
|Corey Hamman (28)||Tim Alderson (21)|
Some of the members of the 2008 season-opening rotation could be regarded as prospects, but it’s a stretch. Bloom and Hankins had both struggled for two years at Lynchburg, but were promoted due to the new emphasis under Huntington of challenging prospects rather than holding them back. Bloom pitched well enough in AA to get selected by Detroit in the Rule 5 draft, but he didn’t stick and has since dropped off the prospect track. Hankins never looked like more than an organizational pitcher. Barthmaier was a former Astros prospect claimed off waivers. He had an encouraging season and for a while it looked like the Astros had made a mistake, but he was eventually felled by arm problems. Herrera was a Littlefield stunt designed to cover for his failures in Latin America. He never really looked like a prospect, although he reached the majors in 2008 due to injuries. Hamman was a minor league veteran acquired as roster filler.
On the 2010 team, Owens, Alderson and Wilson all clearly were prospects. Owens and Alderson were among the team’s top pitching prospects, although Alderson had a disastrous season. Wilson improved his stock with a strong season. Crotta and Hughes were Littefield draftees who’d never established themselves as prospects, although both have made strides during Huntington’s tenure.
|2008||Lynchburg (Advanced A)||2010||Bradenton (Advanced A)|
|Mike Crotta (23)||Bryan Morris (23)|
|Jared Hughes (22)||Jeff Locke (22)|
|Tony Watson (23)||Nathan Adcock (22)|
|Daniel Moskos (22)||Aaron Pribanic (23)|
|Brian Holliday (24)||Brian Leach (24)|
Once again, the 2008 rotation had some prospects if you stretch the definition widely enough. Moskos was in the process of proving he wasn’t a starting pitching prospect, although he may yet be a good reliever. Watson at that stage looked like a borderline prospect, although injury issues pushed him to the bullpen later. Crotta and Hughes hadn’t had much success as pros. Holliday had struggled for years with little success. He moved on to independent ball in 2009.
The Pirates’ 2010 high A affiliate had five undoubted prospects in the rotation. Morris and Locke were among the team’s best prospects; both could reach the majors in 2011. Pribanic and Adcock were solid prospects and Leach more of a dark horse whom the team surprisingly likes quite a bit.
The difference is stark. The three 2008 rotations were made up primarily of players barely, if at all, clinging to prospect status or still struggling to have success as pros. The rotations at the start of 2010 were made up primarily of real prospects. At least five–Morris, Owens, Lock, Wilson and Lincoln–could realistically hope to help the Pirates by the end of 2011. Not a single one of the pitchers in the 2008 rotations could realistically have been expected to play more than a fill-in role in 2009.