What Can the Pirates Learn From Nathan Adcock?

Adcock currently has a 2.03 ERA in 13.1 innings for the Royals.

Yesterday I started working on an article talking about how I’m still not sold that Nathan Adcock is completely lost.  As you may know, a player isn’t officially lost in the Rule 5 draft until he has spent an entire season on a major league 25-man roster.  From the time Adcock was selected back in December, it seemed like a long shot that the Kansas City Royals would be able to keep him.  Prior to this year, he has yet to pitch an inning above high-A ball, so the jump to a full season in the majors would be extreme.

Adcock made the team out of Spring Training, which wasn’t noteworthy, since a lot of small market teams like the Royals and Pirates hold on to their Rule 5 picks in to the season.  At the time I mentioned that I wasn’t concerned, but might be if May rolled around and Adcock was still on the active roster.  It’s now May, and not only is Adcock still in the majors, but he’s got a 2.03 ERA in 13.1 innings, with a 4.1 K/9, a 2.0 BB/9, and a 1.4 HR/9 ratio.  The secondary numbers are nothing special, although the results have been good thus far.

It’s still very early in the season, and far too early to say that Adcock is lost for good.  Just like no one would say the Pirates are a lock to finish around .500, based on one month, no one should say that Adcock is a lock to stay on the Royals’ roster based on one month.  A lot can happen from now until the end of the season.  Teams could catch on to Adcock.  He could have a few bad outings.  The Royals could need a roster spot.  Unless he continues with the current results (and based on his low strikeout numbers, I don’t see that as a strong probability), I don’t view him as a lock to remain with the Royals all year.

Now that’s not saying he doesn’t have a chance.  All he has to do is make it to September.  He also only has to spend 90 days on the active roster, which means that his current service time, plus September, leaves him short about a month.  The Pirates found some minor injuries with Donald Veal a few years ago, allowing them to protect him all year.  I’m sure the Royals could do the same if they wanted to.

I also want to make it clear that I like Nathan Adcock.  If you bought the 2011 Prospect Guide, you would see that he was included in the book, and would have been the number 25 prospect in the system, had he not been selected.  You might also recall that back in November, I had Adcock on my list of people to protect, although I was a bit concerned about his second half regression last year.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have caught the discussion between myself and Dejan Kovacevic last night about Adcock.  The Rule 5 draft presents an opportunity to provide criticism using nothing but hindsight.  If a player is drafted, it’s only because the team didn’t protect him.  Players get drafted all the time.  Players get protected, although not as frequently.  It’s not the worst move in the world if you have a player drafted.  Obviously you want to keep as much talent in the system as possible, but it’s one of those things that happens, and one of those things that tends to even out (the Pirates gained Evan Meek and Donald Veal, who is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, from the Rule 5 draft so far).

What I don’t believe in is looking back, taking the first player who was removed from the 40-man roster, and suggesting that a team made a mistake by keeping that player on the roster instead of the player who was picked.  You protect the Rule 5 eligible players in the middle of November.  By the time December rolls around, you’re usually removing players from the roster to create room for players who weren’t previously available.  That’s how the conversation started last night, when Dejan mentioned that Ledezma was released three weeks after the Rule 5 draft, and I pointed out that he was waived, to make room for Aaron Thompson, who was claimed off of waivers from the Washington Nationals.  Thompson currently has a 3.49 ERA in 28.1 innings in Altoona this year.

I don’t intend to re-live the conversation here.  A discussion about Wilfredo Ledezma isn’t the most interesting topic in baseball.  I’m also not going to discuss what a bad decision it was to leave Adcock available, mostly because that type of analysis is done with complete hindsight.  How many people would have released Daniel McCutchen last November to create an extra Rule 5 spot?  I’m guessing 100% more than you’d have now.

As with any move, my interest is to look deeper, and see why the move was made, and what can be done to either repeat a good move, or prevent a bad move.  With Adcock, it’s obviously a bad move any time you lose talent, especially when you lose it for nothing.  At the same time, it’s not uncommon for teams to have a player selected in the Rule 5 draft, so this is not a situation that can be prevented 100% of the time, and the Pirates may run in to trouble again this coming off-season.

I mentioned back in November about my concerns with Adcock, his second half struggles, and the fact that he would be skipping over AA and AAA.  To me, the big problem here is that those question marks existed in the first place.  It’s not that Adcock was selected.  It’s not who they protected instead of Adcock.  It’s that we didn’t really know if Adcock should have been protected, because he just finished spending his second straight full season at the high-A level.

Adcock put up a 2.85 ERA in 68.1 innings during the first half of the 2010 season, along with a 68:18 K/BB ratio.  He wasn’t as effective in the second half, with a 3.84 ERA in 75 innings at the high-A level, and a 45:20 K/BB ratio.  The second half wasn’t horrible, but why wasn’t he promoted after the first half?

The big issue here could be that the Pirates take too long to promote people.  They have a somewhat conservative approach at times, especially when it comes to pitchers.  That’s not a bad thing in most circumstances.  For example, a few weeks ago there were calls for Rudy Owens to be promoted to the majors after two strong starts at the AAA level.  Those calls have been silenced after his last two starts.  But what about more extreme situations, such as the one Owens was in during the 2009 season?

Owens had a 1.70 ERA in 100.2 innings in West Virginia in 2009, along with an 8.1 K/9 and a 1.3 BB/9 ratio.  He was deserving of a call up over a month before he was actually called up.  You could argue that he was deserving of a call up to AAA last year, after putting up a 2.46 ERA in 150 innings, again with strong ratios.

The Pirates aren’t conservative with everyone.  Take Starling Marte, for example.  He was moved right from the foreign rookie leagues to West Virginia in 2009, and two years later is at the AA level at the age of 22.  Left handed pitcher Porfirio Lopez jumped from the Dominican Summer League in 2010, to high-A Bradenton, where he currently has a 5.40 ERA in 10 innings, but very strong secondary numbers, with an 11:2 K/BB ratio, and a 1.10 WHIP.

You don’t want to be too aggressive with players, especially pitchers.  You need to mind their innings totals, and make sure they can handle the level after opponents start to make adjustments.  That said, there have been some glaring lack of deserved promotions the last few years.  Owens in 2009 was one of them.  Kyle McPherson led the organization in strikeouts per nine innings for a starter, and put up a 3.59 ERA in 117.2 innings in West Virginia, but spent almost the entire year at the level, only moving up to Bradenton for the playoffs.  McPherson, who was protected for the 2010 Rule 5 draft, is currently in Bradenton, with a 2.78 ERA in 35.2 innings, along with a 30:1 K/BB ratio.

Just because a player is putting up good numbers at a level in half a season, doesn’t mean he’s ready for the next level.  Take Nathan Baker.  He had a 2.99 ERA in 87.1 innings in low-A last year, before moving up to high-A for nine starts.  He posted a 3.02 ERA in 44.2 innings in Bradenton, but returned to the level in 2011.  So far he has a 5.00 ERA in 27 innings, with a 1.67 WHIP, although his walk and home run rates are both down from last year.

If you promote a guy too soon, you might rush him, which could be damaging to the career of a pitcher if his confidence is broken.  At the same time, you could potentially miss out on a surprise, such as Adcock for example.  Adcock made the jump from high-A to the majors, and so far has looked good in a limited amount of innings.  It is nearly impossible to predict that a player could jump from high-A to the majors and have this type of success early on.  With Adcock, the Pirates could have been better prepared to make such a prediction.

Had the Pirates promoted Adcock following his strong start in the first half of the 2010 season, we would have seen him pitch about 75 innings at the AA level in 2010, which would have given a much better indication of how close to the majors he was.  I’m not saying he’s a major league pitcher now, but he’s obviously a guy who should have been promoted from high-A a long time ago.  The Pirates had a strong Altoona rotation (Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson), but it’s not like they didn’t have room for Adcock.  They didn’t need Tony Watson and Jared Hughes starting, as both players profile long term as relievers, and this was known during the 2010 season.

As with any move, I’m not looking to whine constantly about a move gone bad, or celebrate daily about a move that worked out.  Instead, I’m looking at the process.  I’m looking at why the move went bad, or what happened to make a move work out.  In this case, it’s not that they left Adcock unprotected, or that they protected someone over Adcock.  It’s that the Pirates were too conservative with Adcock, and didn’t find out what they had in him at a higher level.

From there, I’m looking to see if they make the same mistake again.  That’s something that will have to be judged throughout the season.  It’s too early to suggest that someone HAS to be moved up a level, although there are several candidates who should be moved up if their current success carries over to June.  Some examples:

-Aaron Pribanic has a 1.86 ERA in 29 innings, with a 13:2 K/BB ratio in Altoona.

-Kyle McPherson has a 2.78 ERA in 35.2 innings, with a 30:1 K/BB ratio in Bradenton.

-Jeffrey Inman has a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings, with an 8:4 K/BB ratio in Bradenton.

-Jeff Locke has a 3.71 ERA in 26.2 innings, with a 27:6 K/BB ratio in Altoona.  In 2010 he had a 3.59 ERA in 57.2 innings at the level, with a 56:12 K/BB ratio.

-Brooks Pounders has a 2.25 ERA in 12 innings, with an 18:1 K/BB ratio in West Virginia, and is pitching out of the bullpen.

-Jason Townsend, a college reliever from the 2010 draft who throws in the mid-90s, has a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings, with a 12:1 K/BB ratio in West Virginia.

You could make similar arguments for hitters (Aaron Baker, Matt Curry, Alex Presley).  Now it would be hypocritical to suggest that it’s too early to make any judgements about Adcock in the majors, and then suggest that all of these players need to move up.  That’s not what I’m saying.  What I’m saying is that these are guys who, if their current results continue, need to move up, rather than being exposed to the slow track that held back Owens in 2009, McPherson in 2010, and of course, Adcock.  That’s the mistake the Pirates made with Adcock, and it’s a mistake they can’t afford to keep making, especially when the major league team is in need of as much talent as possible, and as quickly as possible.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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