First Pitch: How Can the Pirates Catch the Cardinals?

Earlier today, John Sickels released his farm system rankings and had the Pittsburgh Pirates fifth overall. He also had the St. Louis Cardinals first overall. The Cardinals seem to be the consensus top farm system this year. I haven’t received my Baseball America 2013 Prospect Handbook yet, but I’ve already seen that the Cardinals ranked first in their preliminary rankings.

A comment was made in the comments of the link above, questioning how the Pirates can pass the Cardinals. Commenter “Ecbucs” noted that the Cardinals had the better major league roster, a slightly better minor league system, and more money to spend. The “more money to spend” aspect leads to a discussion about how MLB’s economic system is completely unbalanced. After going through that argument, you’re left feeling hopeless about the chances of any small market team winning it all. So we’ll skip that, assume MLB is a league where all teams have a fair chance, and look at the correlation between farm system rankings and future success.

I’ve gone through to see the farm system rankings and the records from the last few years. I used Baseball America’s final rankings (the ones that come out near the start of the season, not the ones in the Prospect Handbooks).

2009
Team Record BA Rank
Cardinals 91-71 8
Cubs 83-78 27
Brewers 80-82 10
Reds 78-84 14
Pirates 62-99 18

The Cardinals had the top record and the top ranking in the division, but finished in second place the next three years. The Reds were the fourth best of the group, and ranked in the middle of the pack in BA’s system rankings. They ended up in first place in two of the next three years, including having the best record in this four year span.

2010
Team Record BA Rank
Reds 91-71 17
Cardinals 86-76 29
Brewers 77-85 13
Cubs 75-87 14
Pirates 57-105 15

The Cardinals fell to the bottom. BA noted that they over-rated them the year before, although they also pointed out that Colby Rasmus was promoted and a lot of top prospects were traded. Everyone else was middle of the pack.

2011
Team Record BA Rank
Brewers 96-66 30
Cardinals 90-72 24
Reds 79-83 6
Pirates 72-90 19
Cubs 71-91 16

Milwaukee and St. Louis were in the bottom third of the league, yet both went on to winning records the following year. St. Louis saw their system ranking start to go up from here. Milwaukee hasn’t improved much, mostly because they’ve made a habit of dealing away top prospects.

2012
Team Record BA Rank
Reds 97-65 16
Cardinals 88-74 10
Brewers 83-79 26
Pirates 79-83 11
Cubs 61-101 14

The Reds were middle of the pack in 2009-2010, yet still moved up to the top of the rankings in 2012. The Cardinals stay the same, even though they’ve moved all over the place in the farm system rankings.

Is There a Correlation?

To address the “how can the Pirates pass the Cardinals” question, I’d first point out that a major league team can only be so good. I’ve seen that question a lot — pretty much every year when farm systems are announced and the Pirates aren’t ahead of everyone — and it always paints a picture that there’s no ceiling for teams. I don’t think that a good team and a top farm system means the Cardinals will keep getting better and better. I think it means that they’ve got a good team now, and the prospects in place to be a good team for years.

As for the correlation, I’m not sure that there is one. The Cardinals had the 29th ranked farm system prior to the 2010 season. Three seasons later and they were still one of the top two teams in the division. The Reds were middle of the pack, yet went on to be the best team in the division.

The reason that there isn’t much of a correlation is because you have to look beyond prospect rankings. The Cardinals were able to stay at the top of the NL Central in large part because they could spend $100+ M per year, allowing them to get guys like Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman. The Reds didn’t go out and spend on free agents. Instead they made smart moves — the Mat Latos trade, locking up their young, productive players, and getting surprise seasons from guys like Ryan Ludwick.

Going back to the Pirates and Cardinals, they both have a top five or top ten system, depending on who is ranking them. The Cardinals have the better major league team right now. As I said before, I don’t think the top system ranking will mean the Cardinals will keep improving with no ceiling in place. For example, they’ve got five pitching prospects with a Grade A or Grade B rating, according to Sickels. But they can only have five starters in the majors. That means that their young prospects will either replace the good starters they have now (thus keeping the rotation at the same level), or some of those young prospects won’t have a spot. Thus, they’ll remain a good team, but will a limited amount of spots to fill, there’s only so good they can get.

The Pirates don’t have as good of a team right now, but on the flip side that makes it easier for them to catch up. The Cardinals have a rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, and Chris Carpenter. That’s already a good rotation. You start replacing their pitchers with their top prospects and they’re just going to stay a good rotation. The Pirates, on the other hand, will see some big improvements when they add guys like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to the rotation. They don’t have a number one starter right now. They don’t have a guy who could be considered a number two on a contender. So the Pirates will see a bigger boost from their prospects than the Cardinals, simply because the prospects will be replacing players who aren’t as good as the players St. Louis will be replacing. That’s not something to celebrate. It’s just pointing out the reality.

It will take more than just prospects for the Pirates to catch up to the Cardinals, since both teams have a top farm system. They’re going to need to make some smart moves like the Reds did. They’ll need to identify their top players, and lock them up for the long term. They’ll need to get Ryan Ludwick type value from the free agents they do add, since they’re probably not going to be a team that ever makes a huge splash in free agency. That last sentence is kind of ironic since the Pirates added Ludwick at the 2011 trade deadline rather than making a big splash, and Ludwick waited until 2012 with the Reds to provide low cost value.

I generally look at farm system rankings as entertainment. That’s been my stance regardless of whether the Pirates are ranked top five, or ranked closer to 20th. It’s a good conversation topic in the off-season, and it’s a good way to see how people on the outside view the system. You need more than just a farm system though. That’s the key starting point for every team, whether it’s a small market team or a big spender. But there are a lot of other variables beyond the farm system ratings, such as prospects actually realizing their potential in the majors, identifying which talent to go with, and finding talent through other avenues. Having a top system should help the Pirates continue to improve in the standings, but they’re going to need more than just a good farm system if they want to be competitive.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. The 2013 Annual is also available for pre-sales. Go to the products page of the site and order your 2013 books today!

**The eBook version of The 2013 Prospect Guide is also available through our publisher. They also have a discount code during the month of January that allows you to save 20%. Use the code JANBOOKS13 to get the discount. This code is only valid on the eBook on the publisher’s web site, and not the books on the products page of the site.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Top Prospects: #5 – Luis Heredia.

**Is Cost Certainty Better Than Roster Flexibility?

**John Sickels Rates the Pirates as the 5th Best Farm System.

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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  • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

    Not that I think Ludwick was a great fit for the Bucs, it seemed to me that his playing time was a little spotty after his acquisition? I could be wrong. Cincy put him in the lineup and left him there in a home run paradise… easy to like a guy like Ludwick for that situation better than PNC.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.zielinski.169 Steve Zielinski

    It’s difficult to find players who produce at a level that they raise 85-win teams to 90-wins or more. These are the Pujols, Arods, Bonds in the league. Typically, the best teams have one or more of such players or one player along with one or more of players who are not quite that good. These players are rare, so rare that having a top farm system does not mean that it will include one or more of these rare players. Moreover, adding the four to eight wins two superstars would provide over good players will not make the 85-win team unstoppable. It will only make that team very, very good. Finally, once the superstars reach their free agent seasons, they will become prohibitively expensive for most ML teams. Since the Cardinals are already a good team, adding a few possible star or superstar players will either maintain its current success or add only one or two wins to an already impressive win-total. The rarity of these players and the overall quality of play in the league provide the ceiling for teams. It’s very, very difficult and, eventually, expensive to become really, really good.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    How can we catch the Cardinals?

    Well………….they DID just sign Ronny Cedeno.

    Heck, it’s a start!

    :)

    • joe g.

      Plus, we are developing Hell’s Angels. That is he we’ll catch the Cards! : D

  • http://AOL totall

    Its too late for my 1st idea, trade Lincoln and Jones to the AL team for a 3rd baseman. Move Pedro to 1st, he never was and will never be a 3rd baseman. Cutch to left and Marte to CF as Mate is the best CF on the team.

    Jones is a clone of Doumit, he hits well against righthanders and like Pedro cannot field. He is another DH type player. Another starting pitcher not named Karsens. That still leaves holes at short and bullpen. The team needs to hit the powerball.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

    how to catch the Cardinals?
    .
    pitching, baby!!! pitching!!!
    .
    pitching wins championships. NH is trying to build the franchise with pitching and the first wave is about ready to hit the Burgh. hopefully it works out this time around.

  • elgaupo

    We could “catch” the Cardinals this year if we wanted.

    Send Polanco, Taillon, Henson and Holmes to the Rays for Price, have Cole be in the rotation on Opening Day and sign Bourn…. and you’d probably win the division.

    But is that what we really want? I’d rather be in the race every year than back here in mediocrity in 3-4 years.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

      i have no problem sending Henson in that deal, but i would like to keep Hanson if possible.

      but Bourn??? ummmm, no.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

        Drew Henson?

        :)

        • elgaupo

          Smarta__es,

          I have a mental block on his name. Must be the “e” in Alen vice “a”

          Bourn was just an example of going all in to catch the Cards/Reds.

          • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

            i know brudder. and thanks for the compliment.

            anyway, i dont see bourn as helping this team out. marte could be his equal with the glove and their OBP might be around the same. neither one is a good leadoff hitter, IMO.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      ON a serious note, no way I do that deal for just two years of David Price.
      Unless we can trade him NEXT year for a similar package in return. Including Drew Henson….lol

      Foo

      .

      • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

        i wouldnt trade for price either. hes already paid like a superstar, cant see him getting much more from Bob “wheres my hassenfeffer” Nutting

  • kevin21

    I already miss being able to compare the Bucks with the Astros…

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

      you cant compare brandon jennings to jose altuve. you just cant!

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelVelaTTU MichaelVelaTTU

    You gotta win to get money

    Pirates haven’t been doing a lot of that; therefore, not a lot of money to spend.

    What everyone else has been saying is right though. Pitching will win you championships. 2015(’14 too?) will be a magical year for them.

    The Pirates have upgraded in every spot this offseason. They should finally break .500 next season. With the talent in the minors that’s about to come up, they’re only going to keep improving.

    Martin for Barajas – Big improvement
    Marte for Tabata/Presley – Big improvement
    Sands/Snider for Tabata/Presley – Jury is still out. Talent is a lot better though.
    Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Liriano, Karstens/McPherson. That already looks like a better rotation than last years.

    Improvements have been made. It should translate to the record

  • leadoff

    Head to head in 1012 the Pirates topped the Cards, so catching them is not the problem, I like our starting lineup over theirs, I like their pitching over ours. Beating the Brewers and the Reds is the problem and the Cubs will be tough on the Pirates next year IMO. The Cards have better pitching, catching and more power in left field, after that??? Some positions might be tossups but some clearly better for the Pirates.

  • Ecbucs

    You really like the Pirates line up better than the Cards? It would be great if the Bucs can score with Cards (the Cards did 765 runs last year and had an ops of 759).

    The Pirates scored 651 runs and had an ops of 699.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

      if would be better if the Pirates rotation could hold the Cards to less runs.

    • leadoff

      I was speaking of the 2013 teams. There is more to good lineups than runs scored, defense is also important. The difference in runs scored did not stop the Pirates from winning more games head to head last year, despite the Cards having the better overall team in a 162 game schedule. For a couple of months in2012 the Pirates had one of the best teams in baseball.

  • Ecbucs

    well the Cards gave up less runs than Bucs last year and gave up less unearned runs than Bucs.

    But it looks like you are looking at Cards position players and saying that overall they are not as good as Bucco position players. Not sure that there would be a lot of agreement with that (for example is Pedro better than Freese if you throw in defense?) or Jones better than Clark?

    Certainly the 2013 teams aren’t the same but still it is going to take improvement by Bucs and decline from Cards for the Bucs to catch them.

    It is great that the Bucs beat the Cards head to head last year but that doesn’t mean the Bucs are better.

    At this stage I’m concerned that not having Hanrahan could hurt the Bucs at the end of games. Grilli did get tagged for 6 losses last year, not sure how many of them would be considered blown saves. Anyway I could see the Bucs bullpen not being as efficient as holding down leads as it was last year.

    really hoping that Marte blossoms and provides good offense and defense to go with Andrew.

  • http://twitter.com/beatembuccos21 beatembuccos21

    Tim/Kevin – do you agree with leadoff? Do you think the 2013 Pirates lineup as it stands now will be stronger than the 2013 Cardinal lineup?

    • http://daleberrasstash.blogspot.com/ Kevin Creagh

      The thing about the Cardinals lineup is that they may not appear all that great on paper, but they are a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. They just know how to win, don’t wilt on the stage, that sort of thing. (Yes, not quantifiable).

      I have concerns about the mental makeup of some of the Pirates. Some players may have more pure talent than their Cards counterpart, but it does not always translate to the field or over a whole season.