The first draft of the 2012 top 50 prospects for the 2012 Prospect Guide was completed last night, which means we’re about a thousand mini-changes away from the list being completed. As I was formatting the top 50 section of the Prospect Guide today, it really stuck out how many pitching prospects the Pittsburgh Pirates have, especially at the top of the rankings.
The top 20 prospects include a split of 13 pitching prospects and seven hitting prospects. That’s not a huge difference, although three of the seven hitters came in the 16-20 range, which means 11 of the first 15 prospects were pitchers. This isn’t a big surprise. The Pirates have focused a lot on pitching prospects, both in trades and the draft. We see the complaint a lot that the farm system lacks hitting prospects, specifically power hitters.
Some of this is due to unrealistic expectations, as if every farm system is expected to have a handful of guys who will eventually hit 30 homers. We’re still stuck in the steroid era of thinking, where 20 homers and 40 doubles a year doesn’t qualify as having “power”, and that the only definition of power includes home run totals, and starts with the number 30. There’s also the fact that a lot of the rebuilding focus has been on the draft, and a big focus in the draft has been on pitching. That leads to the question every year: what about hitters?
The Pirates definitely aren’t loaded with hitting prospects. They saw some of their best hitting prospects graduate in the last few years, with Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata all making the jump to the majors. Even guys like Chase d’Arnaud and Josh Harrison have lost prospect eligibility for the 2012 season, removing them from this discussion. You can count on one hand the number of hitting prospects at the top two levels that have a shot at being better than average in the majors.
The Pirates aren’t loaded with hitting prospects, but they do have some hitting prospects, and we got a glimpse of that yesterday when Baseball America released their top 20 prospects from the Gulf Coast League. Outfielder Jose Osuna was rated the number five prospect in the league, even getting rated ahead of Adonis Cardona, who received a $2.8 M signing bonus in 2010 from the Toronto Blue Jays. Infielder Alen Hanson also was in the top 20, ranking at 14th overall in the league.
While the draft has favored pitchers, the international signings have been very hitter focused. There’s the obvious exceptions to each category: Luis Heredia getting a large bonus in the international market, and Tony Sanchez and Josh Bell being selected with high picks in the draft. Osuna and Hanson aren’t the only talented young international hitters in the system. They both made the jump to the US this year along with several other high upside players, including outfielders Gregory Polanco and Willy Garcia, and shortstop Jodaneli Carvajal.
Next year the Pirates should see a few more position players make the jump to the US. Dilson Herrera, who signed for $220 K in August 2010, and Raul Fortunato, who had a 36 game hitting streak in the Dominican Summer League this year, are both in the Florida Instructional Leagues, which is a good sign that they will be promoted to the GCL in 2012. The Pirates also made two big signings during the 2011 international signing period, when they added outfielder Harold Ramirez for $1.05 M, and then signed outfielder Elvis Escobar for $570 K. It would be a surprise if either player made the jump to the US in 2012.
In the short term, the big concern is the lack of depth at the upper levels. That’s not a huge concern, as the Pirates have several positions filled for the next five or six years. However, it does become a concern at certain positions. The future behind the plate pretty much rests with Tony Sanchez. The same goes with Pedro Alvarez at third base. Neither player has put up a good season in 2011, and the Pirates don’t have any strong alternatives as starters in the upper levels of the minors. Shortstop is another area of concern, although that’s one of the hardest positions to fill in the majors, and the Pirates do have some prospects for the position. The final concern is first base, with Matt Curry and Matt Hague being the two options in the upper levels.
If you ask me, having a farm system that is heavy with pitching prospects, and light on hitting prospects, isn’t really a bad thing. Everyone wants that dream scenario with a 50/50 split, a few ace pitching prospects, and a few power hitting prospects, but you’d be hard pressed to find a system like that anywhere in baseball. If the 2011 season has taught us anything, it’s that you win with pitching, and that hitting is easier to acquire than pitching. The Pirates were winning with a poor offense and great pitching. The offense improved in August and September, but the pitching fell off, and so did the team. Meanwhile, we saw pitchers like Koji Uehara and Mike Adams fetch huge returns on the trade market, and they were just relief pitchers. At the same time, the Pirates added Derrek Lee, who was on a hot streak to the tune of .286/.323/.524 line in his previous 147 at-bats, in exchange for Aaron Baker, who was the fourth best first base prospect in the system.
If the Pirates are going to eventually contend, they’re going to need good pitching, and a lot of it. They will obviously need hitting, but as we’ve seen this year, hitting is easier to come by, probably because teams realize the importance of pitching. That’s why I’ve never been concerned with the balance of the current farm system. You can never have too much pitching, and if you do, you can always trade the excess for hitting. The idea of a farm system is to have the most talent possible, in order to help the major league team. When you start trying to fit your farm system to a limited criteria, and you start focusing on need, you move away from the goal of adding the most talent possible. The Pirates have some hitting prospects, but the shift is definitely in favor of the pitchers. Considering the value of pitching, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.