Do the Pirates Have a Top Farm System?

With the Pittsburgh Pirates signing Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell last night, the question has to be asked: where does the farm system rank in all of baseball?  I follow prospects throughout the game, and I see plenty of them when I’m on the road, but I can’t say I follow other systems enough to get a feel for how the Pirates stack up against the rest of the league.  However, you don’t have to follow other systems to know that there’s something special going on in the Pirates’ system.

A year ago today (remember, the 2010 signing deadline was on August 16th) the Pirates didn’t have a single pitching prospect in the system with top of the rotation potential.  They had guys who were projectable, but no sure things.  Then, by the time midnight rolled around, they had top prep pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie in the mix.

Taillon was one of the best draft prospects in the last 20 years, drawing Josh Beckett comparisons out of high school.  He threw in the upper 90s, had a plus curveball, and the makings of a changeup.  His plus fastball and plus curveball gave him the potential to be a top of the rotation starter down the line, something the Pirates haven’t seen since Doug Drabek.

Allie fell to the Pirates in the second round after several teams passed on his $3 M demands on draft day.  The Pirates drafted him, and signed him for $2.25 M.  The right hander had the ability to hit triple digits with his fastball, and also had a plus slider.  The two issues were a lack of control, especially when his velocity was in the upper 90s, and the lack of a changeup.  Allie had only been pitching for a little over a year when he was drafted, so he was very raw, despite the plus fastball and the plus slider.  He wasn’t as polished as Taillon, but still had top of the rotation stuff.

Taillon is one of four starters in the Pirates' system with top of the rotation stuff.

A few days later, after bringing Taillon and Allie in to the mix, the Pirates signed top Mexican pitching prospect Luis Heredia.  At just 16 years old, Heredia threw 92-93 MPH, and had the makings of four potential plus pitches: his fastball, a slider, a changeup, and a curveball.  Just like Taillon and Allie, Heredia had potential top of the rotation stuff, especially if he added velocity to his fastball as he got older (something he’s already done).

In just a few days the Pirates went from having no top of the rotation pitching prospects to having three of them.  One year later, and the Pirates have added a fourth.  Gerrit Cole profiles most like Taillon.  He’s got a plus fastball, and a plus breaking pitch with his slider.  The difference is that Cole is a bit more polished, and also features a plus changeup.  Both pitchers have the potential to be stars one day if they realize their potential.

Think about that.  The Pirates have added four potential top of the rotation starters in the last year.  How many organizations have four prospects with top of the rotation stuff?  To get an estimate, let’s look at the top prospect rankings.  Looking at Baseball America’s top 100 prospects coming in to the year, only three teams saw four or more pitching prospects make the list.

The first team was the Atlanta Braves, who had five pitchers make the list: Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Mike Minor, Craig Kimbrel, and Arodys Vizcaino.

The next team was the Tampa Bay Rays, who had four pitchers in the top 100: Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Jake McGee.

Then there was the Kansas City Royals with five pitchers: John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, Jake Odorizzi, and Chris Dwyer.

Where did those teams rank in Baseball America’s overall rankings?  Kansas City was first.  Tampa Bay was second.  Atlanta was third.

It might be rare for teams to have so many guys with top of the rotation stuff, and the three teams that had the biggest quantity of top pitching prospects might have been the top three teams in the league.  However, I wouldn’t use that as my only basis for grading a farm system against other teams.  You also have to consider the depth.

The Pirates definitely have depth.  In the past three years they’ve drafted Zack Von Rosenberg, Brooks Pounders, Zack Dodson, Trent Stevenson, Colton Cain, Nick Kingham, Ryan Hafner, Bryton Trepagnier, Logan Pevny, Colten Brewer, Tyler Glasnow, Jake Burnette, Jason Creasy, and Clay Holmes out of the prep pitching ranks.  Add in Jeff Inman, Victor Black, Zac Fuesser, Nathan Baker, Tyler Waldron, Brandon Cumpton, and Vincent Payne from the NCAA and JuCo ranks, and you’re bound to see a few guys emerge as major league options.  None of this is considering the international players like Dovydas Neverauskas, Yhonathan Herrand, Orlando Castro, or Joely Rodriguez, who have all shown promise in their time in the US.  This doesn’t even consider guys like Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson, or Bryan Morris.

What about position players?  The addition of Bell is a huge boost to the system, and definitely adds a top 100 prospect.  Tony Sanchez has had a very disappointing year at the plate, although his defense hasn’t struggled as much, and he could still sneak in to the back of a top 100 prospect list.  Starling Marte’s great year in AA makes him at least a top 150 prospect, although his lack of walks are a concern.  Then there’s good stories this year like Robbie Grossman, Matt Curry, and the draft addition of 3rd round pick Alex Dickerson.

You’ve got four potential aces, who could all make a top 100 list.  You’ve got a switch hitter with potential power from both sides of the plate in Josh Bell.  Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte have their questions, but both are strong talents.  Out of these seven players, it’s very conceivable that the Pirates get five in most top 100 lists, especially when you consider that Cole, Taillon, and Bell are guarantees, and Heredia is a strong shot to make the list.

As for the teams with 5+ top 100 prospects in 2010: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and the New York Yankees (rated as the 5th best organization).  Based on top end talent alone, the Pirates arguably have one of the top systems in the game.  They might not have a top prospect at every position, and they might not have 2-3 guaranteed options at the positions they do have a top prospect for, but they’ve got the high end upside, and they’ve got a lot of depth, mostly with young, projectable talent.

So do the Pirates have a top farm system?  After all of the top additions they’ve made in the last calendar year, it would be hard to think otherwise.

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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, 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.

2011 Draft Recap: Don’t Draft Me

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After the Draft: Pittsburgh Pirates Top 10 Prospects

  • Anonymous

    Starling Marte will be a top 100 prospect next year btw…

    • white angus

      maybe, but hes still the bucs 2nd best OF prospect

      • Anonymous

        Oh Angus.. Buddy Marte > Bell.  I still like you though bro ;p. Just misguided.. haha.

        Let’s just hope they are both amazing.

        I do agree with Jimmer though.. if Marte finishes with numbers similar to what they are now extrapolated, he’s a top 100 lock, even with the low walk numbers.

      • Anonymous

        Angus –

        I read your comment on Bucs Dugout about being confused by my reasoning of Marte over Bell.  I don’t have a SBN account, so I’ll respond here.

        I ranked Marte ahead of Bell because he offers more options for success at this point PLUS his proximity to the majors.  Marte gives you defense/range in CF that Bell will not in LF (RF in PNC Park).  Marte gives you speed that Bell does not have.

        Marte is also on the precipice of contributing to the majors in 2012…no doubt he will start at Indy and it is not unreasonable to assume he will be in PGH by June.  Marte has the potential to move Cutch-22 to LF.

        Bell has not had one swing as a professional and will most likely be in WV to start his career.  He has many hurdles to clear to get to the same point as Marte.

        The way I rank prospects is I ask 2 questions: 1) What is the prospect’s ultimate ceiling? 2) What is the likelihood of that prospect reaching that ceiling?

        Question 2 involves distance from the majors, injury history, and previous stats accrued.

  • hemmist

    I strongly believe that drafting talent is the best way to rebuild a team. I think the Pirates have a great plan. I just believe they need some of their position players to develop, which I believe will take some time aka Pedro – look how long it took McCutchen.

    • Ian Rothermund

      I agree with you about Pedro, but I think McCutchen grew and advanced at an appropriate rate, usually spending a year at each level.  Or, at least, for instance, starting the year at high-A, finishing at AA, then starting at AA the next year and finishing at AAA.  Maybe they did advance Pedro a little quickly, but it wasn’t because he didn’t show his abilities at the minor league level.  I can’t necessarily disagree with sending him down, but I’m also not sure if I would have pulled the trigger on that move either.  However, a little extra time down, especially when you have Wood and Harrison replacing him and doing better, will most likely do him some good.  Then either bring him back in limited time with the September call-ups, and start fresh in spring training next year.

    • F Lang

      Pedro and Cutch are the same age so Cutch is way ahead.

  • Anonymous

    What a great night for the Pirates organization and the fans. This is how a five year plan should work. Over the last year the pirates have signed 5 high end players that they have control off at least for the next 10 years

  • Anonymous

    The pitching depth is what I’m anxious to see over the next 2-3 years. With so many arms taken over the last 3 years, we will hopefully get to a point where we can deal for “real” major league talent. It has been a long time since the Pirates have had depth to deal from. Hopefully if all these young arms can keep developing, they will have it.

  • Anonymous

    It’s tough right now to evaluate all 30 teams across the minors and gauge a ranking list, but I would say the Pirates are no worse than 15th.  The Royals, for instance, graduated 4 of their top 10 to the majors and had mediocre performances from 4 others, 1 TJ surgery (Lamb), and I good performance.

    They will drop, but they also just added Bubba Starling and Cheslor Cuthbert has had a great year in the minors.

    The Pirates were 19th by BA coming into the season, which I felt was low, but there are a lot of teams ahead of them that either graduated, traded, or just had bad farm years. 

    BA has always said “you win with stars” and they have ranked systems that were top-heavy very high.  This year will put that to the test for the Pirates.

  • Anonymous

    I rank them in the top half, between 12 and 15th

  • Anonymous

    I would think the Nats would be ranked highly. They already had Superman and picked up 3 or 4 nice signees last night.

     But the Pirates are definately better on paper than they used to be. Now, it’s time to translate to the field.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think where the Pirates farm is ranked means a whole lot, they were ranked somewhere 15th or lower on most ranking sites, but in reality when the big team went down with a slew of injuries the farm stepped up and sent some good (Not Superstars, but good) players to help the Pirates out, in fact many believe that the team with all the call ups was a better team than the one that is playing now. I am one of those that believes that speed is vital to a small ball team and they had it.
    When you look at rankings where was D’Arnaud ranked? Where was Harrison ranked? Where was Pressly ranked? Where was Tony Watson ranked? None of them in anyone’s top ten.

  • Kevin

    I think this group of prospects compares favorably with any from the Rays or Braves from the past decade. 

    It would be difficult to identify five teams with comparable pitching prospects.  You might be able to say the same about hitters after this draft.

    • Kevin

      The evaluations are just starting to come in …

      State College is widely viewed as the weak link in the Pirates farm system.  Here is a link with a mid-season top 30 propects list …

      There are 14 teams in the NYPenn League. You’d think a weak affiliate from a middling farm system would not be well represented.  We shall see …

      The list is still in progress but the Pirates are likely to have one of the larger and better collections of prospects.

      Sammy Gonzalez @ 29
      Ryan Hafner @ 24

      and several not yet ranked including Stetson Allie, Alex Dickerson, Carlos Mesa, Wes Freeman, and Nick Kingham.

      I’d guess that at least one of the above will be added to the list:) 

      Also, I’d guess that the Pirates will have as many top 30 propects as any team. 

      • Anonymous

        You might very well be right about every assessment that you just made. We shall see. 

  • Kevin

    Great job with your site Dave.
    It’s still not too late to make changes in your top 15:)
    What do you think about the question raised by Tim?  Do the Pirates have a top farm system?

    • Kevin

      Add Kingham at #11

      • Kevin

        Add Allie at #7

  • Kevin

    Does Wes Freeman rank in the top 5 or outside the top 30?

    Does Alex Dickerson rank in the top 5 or outside the top 30?

    I’m guessing Pirates Prospects will rank Freeman outside of the top 50, Dickerson in the 10-20 range, and Allie in the top 10.

    Dave Gershman may rank them in the exact opposite order.

    • Anonymous

      Tim and I normally agree on things. And I have no reason to believe we don’t come to terms on our Dickerson/Freeman thoughts. I’ll be doing a ranking after the season, maybe even with Tim so we’ll see what happens then.

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