Grouping the Pirates’ Top Prospects in to Tiers

Earlier we posted our updated top 10 prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.  Ranking players is something I’ve been doing for a long time, even before running this site.  Prior to running this site, I provided content to various national media outlets, but also wrote about fantasy football and fantasy baseball.  Every year I would gather about 500 baseball players, and through hours of number crunching, formulas, practice drafts, and editing, I would come up with a draft cheat sheet that would end up being distributed by the company I wrote for.

The numerical rankings are convenient, but at the same time, they can be misleading.  They paint the picture that there’s a difference between two players ranked side by side, or that there’s a major gap between a guy ranked 10th overall, and a guy ranked 20th overall.  Because of this, I always found tiered rankings to be a better method of ranking players.  In each tier there will be subtle differences, but ultimately you’re talking about a group of guys with the same talent level.

We posted the top ten prospects earlier, but how does the system break down in to tiers?

Tier 1

Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon

These two stand above the rest.  I’ve said many times that they’re pretty much the same pitcher.  In fact, it’s almost scary how similar they are.  Both are big framed pitchers.  Taillon is 6′ 6″, 225 pounds.  Cole is 6′ 4″, 220 pounds.  Both have upper 90s fastballs, and despite those fastballs, both have been hit around more than they should due to leaving the ball up in the zone.  Both have exceptional breaking pitches: for Taillon it’s a curveball, and for Cole it’s a slider, both grading as plus offerings.

The main difference is that Gerrit Cole has a plus changeup, while Taillon is just starting to develop his changeup.  That’s not a huge concern.  Cole came out of high school in 2008, and didn’t fully develop his changeup until before the 2011 season.  Under the same time frame, Taillon has until before the 2013 season to develop his changeup.

Both pitchers profile as top 25 prospects in the game, and maybe even top 10 overall prospects.  They also both profile as ace starters, giving Pirates fans a rotation to dream about one day.

Marte falls in tier two thanks to his hitting and added power in Altoona.

Tier 2

Josh Bell, Luis Heredia, Starling Marte

This group features three young players who are all on the verge of top prospect status.  Some might disagree with Marte being in this group, but we’ve always been higher on Marte than everyone else.  This group has three guys who profile as potential above average starters, with the outside chance of becoming star players.

Bell has plus power potential from both sides of the plate, and could eventually develop in to a .300 hitter with 30 home run potential in the majors.  Heredia has the makings of four plus pitches, and can already throw in the mid-90s, even though he just turned 17 last week.  He could develop in to an ace, and might even be better than Taillon and Cole in the long run, although he’s raw, and thus, less of a guarantee than the guys in tier one.  Marte plays outstanding defense, and has great speed.  He’s also shown a good hitting ability, has lowered his strikeouts this year, and is hitting for power.  The lack of walks are what hold him back from the top tier, although that shouldn’t hold him back from success in the majors one day.

Putting these guys in perspective, I’d say they rank up there with guys in the 26-75 range in national prospect lists.  Again, Marte might not make that cut, but we’ve always been higher on him.

Tier 3

Stetson Allie, Robbie Grossman, Tony Sanchez

All three of these guys have the potential to become above-average players in the majors.  They fall out of the second tier either because of their raw stuff (Allie), their down years (Sanchez) or a simple lack of playing time in the upper levels (Grossman).

Allie is a guy who has top of the rotation stuff, just like Taillon and Heredia.  The problem is that Taillon’s fallback is his lack of a changeup.  Heredia’s fallback is his raw abilities and the control issues that come from his lack of experience.  Allie has both fallbacks.  He lacks a changeup, and he struggles with control, at an older age than Heredia.  He’s not a guy who is counted out yet, but those drawbacks drop him down a tier.

Sanchez would probably be in tier two, and maybe in the top tier, if he was hitting like we saw in 2010 in high-A.  A college hitter like Sanchez is obviously going to have an easier time in high-A than AA, but his troubles this year have exceeded the expected drop off.  If he was hitting for power at least, he’d be in tier 2, thanks to his defense.  If he was hitting for average, power, and continuing to improve his defense, he might have a shot at tier one.

Robbie Grossman has fewer question marks than the previous two players.  He’s stepped up his game this year, with a much lower strikeout rate, an extremely high walk rate, and he’s also hitting for average and a bit of power.  Defensively he won’t be as strong as Starling Marte, and offensively he won’t be as good as Josh Bell, so his upside is more of an above-average starter, with little chance to be more than a strong support player, unless he somehow adds more power to his game.

These guys would probably contend for the 76-100 spots in top prospect lists, and I’m sure would all at least draw consideration for top 100 lists.

Cain is part of the group of depth prospects, although he's still valuable, with the potential to be a #3 starter.

Tier 4

Colton Cain, Matt Curry, Alex Dickerson, Zack Dodson, Nick Kingham, Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jordy Mercer, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Mel Rojas Jr., Zack Von Rosenberg, Justin Wilson

You could probably break this group up in to smaller tiers.  This just makes up the group that battled it out for the final two spots in the top ten rankings.  This group includes the Altoona Four, all of whom have had down years this year.  It also includes a few of the top 2009 prep pitchers.  It includes the top two first base prospects in Alex Dickerson and Matt Curry, who both make the list due to their ability to hit for power, and hit for power to all fields.  Then there’s more top prospects, like McPherson, who is having success with good stuff in AA, Mercer, who is hitting for power from the shortstop position, Rojas, who is a projectable hitter with a lot of upside, and Kingham, who is one year behind the 2009 prep pitchers, but easily ranks right there with them, if not above them.

You won’t find any current top 100 prospects here, but this is a group with guys who can easily make the jump to the next level.  There might not be any potential tier one players in this group.  Not unless Alex Dickerson becomes a 40 homer a year guy, Zack Von Rosenberg discovers a 97 MPH fastball, or Mel Rojas Jr. takes his batting practice power and becomes the internal version of Josh Bell, only with Starling Marte defense.  However, some of these guys could jump to tier two, being above-average players with the potential to be more.  The conservative approach is that this is a group of guys who will be no better than #3 starters or average to above-average position players.

Basically, this is the top level of depth in the system, and it’s nice to see that the group takes the Pirates from their 9th best prospect to their 21st best prospect.  When you’ve got guys like Taillon and Cole who are blue chip prospects, and even when you’ve got guys with question marks, like Allie and Sanchez, this depth group can pale in comparison.  The reality is that this is an important group to have, and it’s important to have a lot of these players in your system.

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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