First Pitch: Yes, The Farm System Has Been Dramatically Upgraded Since 2007

There’s been a lot of frustration with the Pittsburgh Pirates in recent weeks. The team went from 16 games over .500 at the end of July, to clinching their 20th losing season in a row on Sunday. The frustration has brought on a lot of criticism. A lot of that criticism is warranted. But some of the criticism has been a bit of a reach, which is confusing. There are things you can legitimately criticize this team about. There’s the second straight collapse, where the entire team fell apart. Their philosophy of ignoring the running game is something to question. Rod Barajas is still getting too much playing time over Michael McKenry, which raises questions about their values of game calling. There’s the overall lack of trust in younger players, even if it means playing a struggling veteran. There’s the questionable small ball strategy with a home run heavy team that seems to be built more for big innings and shouldn’t be giving away outs.

One area where criticism isn’t warranted is the quality of the farm system. I could talk about the talent in the farm system, but I’ll defer to the national writers. recently had six Pirates prospects in their updated top 100 list. Baseball America had four Pirates in their GCL top 20, and three in their NYPL top 20. Jim Callis mentioned this week that the Pirates were tied with four other teams for the most players on all of the top 20 lists this year, with 15 total. Last week, Ben Badler questioned why Pittsburgh writers were down on the farm system, noting the quality of talent.

The biggest argument against the farm system that I’ve seen has come from Dejan Kovacevic. On Friday, Kovacevic questioned whether the farm system was really upgraded.

The most common defense of Neal Huntington’s tenure as GM is that the farm system has been greatly upgraded.

I can reach up above my desk here — give me a sec — and pull down a copy of the Pirates’ 2008 media guide. Inside are all the names and stats of the players who were in the system in 2007,Dave Littlefield’s last year as GM.

Here are a few: Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Nyjer Morgan, Brad Lincoln, Sean Burnett, Steve Pearce, Ronald Belisario, Alex Presley, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Kyle McPherson, Duke Welker and Rudy Owens.

Now, that system had all kinds of other problems, notably filling out rosters with older players, prioritizing winning over development at times and an egregious absence in Latin America. And no, it wasn’t nearly deep enough.

But look at that list again.

Then, look at the upper crust of the current system.

Where is this dramatic upgrade?

I’ll say this again: A minor-league system isn’t about winning Baseball America awards as the players move along. It’s about developing major-league talent.

First of all, the comparison being made here is comparing two different things. We’re looking at the 2007 group in hindsight, and we’re looking at the quality of the current system as it stands right now. Those are two entirely different things. I have a book above my desk here — give me a sec — and it’s called the Baseball America 2008 Prospect Handbook. Let’s take a look at how Baseball America rated the above players heading in to the 2008 season.

Andrew McCutchen – McCutchen was the number one prospect. Baseball America said “he projects as more of a No. 1 or 2 hitter than someone who’ll bat in the middle of a major league order, so he’ll need to show more patience and draw some more walks.” They also called him the “one true impact prospect”.

Neil Walker – Walker was the number two prospect in the organization. Baseball America had good things to say, praising his power, plate discipline, and his makeup. At the time Walker was making the transition to third base, so they noted that he needed work defensively.

Steve Pearce – Pearce was the number three prospect in the organization. Baseball America praised his power to all fields, and noted he needed to learn right field with Adam LaRoche at first base. They said his bat was ready for the majors.

Brad Lincoln – Lincoln was the number four prospect in the organization. A lot of the writeup talked about Lincoln coming back from Tommy John surgery, and what kind of pitcher he was before the injury.

Duke Welker – Welker was the number nine prospect in the organization. He was listed as a guy throwing 91-92, who could hit 95, with hope that he could add velocity. BA projected him as a number three starter.

Tony Watson - Watson was the number 11 prospect in the system.  BA didn’t give a projection, but noted he would have to be fine with his control in order to succeed. They also noted he may run in to problems when facing more advanced hitters. Watson was throwing 86-88 at the time, with his velocity down after a labrum injury.

Nyjer Morgan – Morgan was the number 15 prospect in the system. BA noted he had game changing speed on either side of the game, that he was an excellent bunter, but a bad base runner, and that he lacked power and had an arm that was just playable in center field. They also noted his age, which was 27 at the time, and mentioned that he was the favorite for the center field job in 2008 (which wasn’t saying much in the pre-Andrew McCutchen/WHYGAVS time frame).

Sean Burnett – Burnett wasn’t a prospect heading in to the 2008 season. He lost his prospect eligibility in 2004 after pitching 71.2 innings, so he wasn’t included in BA’s handbook.

Ronald Belisario – Belisario wasn’t included in the BA handbook. He wasn’t even included among the 20 right handers that BA mentioned outside of the right handers in the top 30.

Alex Presley - Presley wasn’t included in the BA handbook. There were five outfielders listed who weren’t in the top 30.

Jared Hughes - Hughes wasn’t in the top 30, but was listed in the RHP depth chart as the 11th best right-handed starter in the organization.

Kyle McPherson - McPherson wasn’t in the top 30, but was listed in the RHP depth chart as the 7th best right-handed starter in the organization.

Rudy Owens - Owens wasn’t in the top 30, but was listed in the LHP depth chart as the 5th best left-handed starter in the organization.

Some of these players exceeded their projections. McCutchen obviously became a middle of the order hitter. The guys at the bottom of the list went from fringe-prospects or non-prospects to major leaguers. Some of these players fell short of their projections. Duke Welker isn’t going to be a number three starter, although he did add velocity and could be a late inning reliever. Brad Lincoln didn’t really have a projection due to his injury, but he never returned to being a possible number one starter. Tony Watson struggled in the upper levels as a starter, then found success in the bullpen. He also saw a velocity increase.

In summary, the results here don’t look strong. Baseball America noted that McCutchen was the only impact prospect in the organization. A lot of the guys Kovacevic is praising were guys who weren’t even prospects in 2007-08.

Look at the farm system now. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Luis Heredia all have the potential to be impact players in the majors. You could put Alen Hanson, Gregory Polanco, and Josh Bell on that list, although there’s a lot of projection involved with that analysis as all three have high ceilings but have a long way to go to the majors. There are a lot of talented, young pitchers in the organization outside of the big three. Three of the biggest success stories in the prep pitching ranks have been Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, and Clay Holmes. I wouldn’t put a ceiling on any one of those guys right now and try to cap off their potential. I will say that they’re a better group than some of the top pitching prospects in the organization in 2008, such as Bryan Bullington, Jimmy Barthmaier, and Yoslan Herrera. Just think of that for a second. Kingham, Glasnow, and Holmes might not be in the top five right-handed pitching prospects in this system. Compare that to 2007, when Bullington, Barthmaier, and Herrera were three of the top five right-handers, and three of the top six starters.

Then there’s the prospects we’re not talking about. We’ve had five seasons for those 2007 guys to make their way to the majors. In five years, which guys from the current system will go from marginal prospects to major league players or top prospects?

I’d also point out that most of those success stories speak well of the development system under Huntington. Kyle McPherson and Rudy Owens owe most of their success to their fastball command, which they learned in the lower levels the first few years Huntington was here. Alex Presley looked like he was heading out of baseball after the 2009 season, but turned things around in 2010. Watson and Hughes are common stories: failed starters who found success in the bullpen. Duke Welker lost his control in 2008, and struggled with that control up until last year. Not only did his velocity spike to the upper 90s, but he also drastically improved his control, putting him on a path for the majors.

A few days after posting this, Kovacevic repeated his stance. The following was sent to me this evening, and was posted in the comments section of this blog post yesterday.



I meant to comment on the Monday column:

You said that Littlefield’s production of MLB talent was “not exactly barren” because of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Nyjer Morgan, Brad Lincoln, Sean Burnett, Steve Pearce, Ronald Belisario, Alex Presley, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Kyle McPherson…

But aside from McCutchen and Walker, I would say that list is pretty terrible for 6 years on the job by Littlefield. Nyjer Morgan has a career .705 OPS. Brad Lincoln was a #4 overall pick who is now an OK reliever even though he was abysmal in Toronto and has a career ERA of 4.81. Burnett is pretty good, but once again he’s a first-round pick that is now a reliever. Belisario was signed at age 16 by the Marlins and made his MLB debut TEN years later so it is a little odd to say that after five years, Huntington’s drafts and international signings will not produce any players up to the lofty standards or Pearce, Presley and a bunch of RELIEF pitchers. Granted, I do like McPherson.

I don’t think Huntington’s goal was ever to draft “serviceable players.” You don’t get to the playoffs with a bunch of serviceable players. You probably don’t even get to .500 by trying to draft “serviceable players.” He saw the draft as the only place the Pirates could get STAR players, and so he went for the high-risk/high-reward types.

Even without signing their first-round pick this year, the Pirates have Cole/Taillon (who I think could convert into relief pitchers tomorrow and be just as good as Lincoln/Burnett), they have Hanson, Heredia, Polanco, Josh Bell, and then lower guys like Clay Holmes, Kingham, Tony Sanchez, Wyatt Mathisen, and Barrett Barnes who have the potential to at least as good as half the players you’ve mentioned. Even a guy like Victor Black could still become a good relief pitcher.

Now, you are definitely right that Huntington should have done better so far outside of the obvious picks like Alvarez, Cole, Taillon… But it’s a little early to give up on the thought of some of the high school players he drafted ever becoming as good as Presley.

DK: I appreciate that, Chris, but you’re measuring by intentions rather than by results. That train’s left the station. Littlefield had five drafts, not six. Same number as the current management team, same amount of time to evaluate both.

Let me restate this clearly: The concept that Littlefield’s system was barren in 2007 and that this one in 2012 is dramatically upgraded is easily blown to bits.

The only marked difference between the two, really, is that this management team spent A TON more money to get either the same or inferior results.

Oh, and this management team worked WITHOUT a meddling owner telling them who to pick, as happened when Kevin McClatchy insisted on a college player and pushed for the drafting of Bryan Bullington when the player Littlefield, Ed Creech and his people wanted was Clayton Kershaw.

Really, guys, this is one of those narratives that’s been repeated again and again and again, to the point that a lot of us — myself included at times — have accepted it as true that the minor league system is just exponentially better now.

It isn’t.

There are a lot of things incorrect in this statement. First, Littlefield did have six drafts: 2002-2007. So he had one more draft than this management team currently has. Second, I don’t think anyone would deny that the system looked barren in 2007. Kovacevic’s entire argument is based in hindsight around 12 players, with two of those players yet to make their major league debuts. Of the ten players in the majors, five are relief pitchers, and two look like bench players (Pearce and Presley). For an entire farm system to produce that result five years later is not good.

I also don’t think you’re going to find many people who think that this farm system compares to that one. Forget keeping things in perspective and only evaluating the systems as they stood in their respective years. Let’s give the 2007 system the benefit of hindsight, then ask ourselves this: in five years, do we think the current system will have better results? I don’t look at this system and see it limited to five bullpen players, two bench players, one star, and two starting fielders. That would be massively disappointing if that was the end result from all of the talent in this system.

Also, as I mentioned above, this group developed a lot of those players, despite Littlefield drafting them. So the strength of this system includes guys like Kyle McPherson and Duke Welker, who both still have prospect eligibility.

The Littlefield defense is strange, considering his track record of drafting was so horrible. Littlefield didn’t want Kershaw. The mention that Creech and his people wanted Kershaw is correct. I’ve heard this story. Littlefield saw Kershaw, wasn’t impressed, and went with Brad Lincoln — not Bryan Bullington, since he was taken in the 2002 draft and this was the 2006 draft. This was the same General Manager who didn’t want Andrew McCutchen the year before, and only made the pick because his scouts begged him to take McCutchen. It’s the same General Manager who passed on Jason Heyward, a Georgia prep player who was favored by Ed Creech, who was from Georgia and was pushing for Heyward. It’s the same GM who took Bryan Bullington first overall in 2002, then called him a future number three starter. Maybe Littlefield could have had a better system, but that was Littlefield’s fault.

There are things you can criticize the Pirates for right now. There are things you can raise questions about. But you can’t question that the farm system is significantly better. It’s not a “narrative”. It’s a widely held opinion, and it’s held by some of the most respected national prospect writers. A lot of the criticism from Kovacevic lately come across as a guy holding a personal grudge. The things he is focusing on — Navy SEALs, e-mails, and questioning the talent in the farm system — have very little to do with the collapse by the major league team this year. Some of those things are non-issues. Three days of intense training? A crazy sounding motivational e-mail? The only item of significance is the discussion of the farm system, and that’s off base.

The only people I’ve seen who have criticized the quality of the system have been in Pittsburgh, and a lot of the criticism is misplaced anger over the major league team. It’s a doom and gloom view, where it sounds better to say “the Pirates are horrible, and it’s not going to get any better”. These people also don’t see the prospects they’re talking about. The people who are watching the system, whether it’s this site, Baseball America, or Jonathan Mayo, don’t share the opinion that the system is weak. I’m not sure that there’s anyone who would look at what was left in 2007, and what the system has now, and would disagree with the fact that the system has been dramatically upgraded. It all just seems like a strange argument to make, and a strange one to continue. There are legitimate things to criticize, and things that actually cost the Pirates wins this year. There’s no need to try and criticize an area that is widely seen as a big positive, all while doing so without a lot of first hand knowledge of the subject.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Braves 5-1.

**Pirates Notebook: Correia’s Final Start as a Bucco?

**McDonald Steps Away From Game to Get on Track.

**Evaluations Being Completed On Second Straight Collapse.

**Alen Hanson and Nathan Kilcrease Nominated For Awards.

**The 40-man roster/payroll page is updated. Two performance bonuses were reached. Kevin Correia received $100,000 for surpassing 170 innings, and Joel Hanrahan received $15,000 for finishing 50+ games. Both of those are via Rob Biertempfel on Twitter.

**Starting in 2014, there will be no more blackouts for FOX Saturday out of market games for MLB Extra Innings and customers. Great news, but too bad it couldn’t happen next year.

**The average WAR by draft pick, via Ed Giles on Twitter. Note the massive drop off after the first 50 picks. It’s not easy getting a player in the middle to late rounds of the MLB draft.

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, 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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