First Pitch: The Ripple Effect of Small Major League Moves

A lot of the time when the Pirates make minor moves at the Major League level, they’re dismissed as not being a big deal. The club traded for John McDonald, rather than adding Jordy Mercer or Ivan De Jesus Jr. to the active roster. Looking at that move individually, it’s not a horrible thing. They added a strong defensive shortstop, and have more depth. But when you start to look at the bigger picture, you’ll see how the move starts to look worse as it ripples down through the system.

If the Pirates Didn’t Trade For John McDonald…

…then Jordy Mercer or Ivan De Jesus Jr. would have been the backup middle infielder. My guess is that it would have been De Jesus, with Mercer playing everyday in Triple-A. Either way, the one who didn’t make it would have been getting everyday playing time. That would leave second base open…

…but Adalberto Santos, who hit for a .340 average with Altoona last year and tore up the Arizona Fall League, would have been a candidate to be promoted to Triple-A to get time at second base. Not only does Santos get a shot in Triple-A…

but it clears up the log-jam in Double-A. Currently the Pirates plan on having Santos get time at third base, which is a new position for him. The purpose is for him to find more at-bats. He needs to find more at-bats because his normal positions of second base and left field are taken by people who were supposed to be in Altoona. Even at third base he will have trouble. Stefan Welch will be getting time at third, but also getting time at first and DH. But Welch won’t get much time at first or DH because Alex Dickerson, Matt Curry, and Andrew Lambo will all be getting time there.

It’s not just trading for McDonald and adding a proven veteran instead of taking your chances on a young player who could end up a good option off the bench. You also block a guy worthy of a promotion. By blocking him, and others like him, you create a crowded situation at the Double-A level where you’re having to teach players new positions just to find at-bats. And that’s all so you can add a backup infielder, and add some veteran presence, even though the team already had veteran presence in Russell Martin, Clint Barmes, and all of the coaches on the bench.

That’s not the only move the Pirates made which created ripples. There was also the addition of Brandon Inge to the 40-man roster.

Brandon Inge

Brandon Inge

If the Pirates Didn’t Add Brandon Inge to the Roster…

…then the Opening Day roster doesn’t change. Inge was added, and placed on the disabled list. Josh Harrison would still be the utility player on the bench. Inge would return later in the month. One of two things would have happened with Inge…

…He would have asked for his release, and tried to sign elsewhere…

…He would have accepted a $100,000 retention bonus from the Pirates, which combined with his minor league salary probably would have been less than the $1 M he’s getting on the 40-man roster, and would have been stashed in the minors until June at the latest…

…Considering Inge signed very late in the Spring, and considering he was injured when the Pirates added him to the roster, I don’t think there was a chance he would have had much demand. Most likely case? The Pirates pay him $100,000 to retain him, their Opening Day roster stays the same, they have the option of bringing Inge up anytime until the beginning of June, and…

they don’t have to lose Clint Robinson on waivers. The loss of Robinson might not be a huge deal. We’re talking about a 28-year-old who has just four at-bats in the majors. He has the same situation as Garrett Jones. Jones was blocked in Minnesota, and never got a shot in the majors, despite great minor league numbers. Robinson had the same situation in Kansas City. Despite the similarities, there’s no guarantee that Robinson breaks out in 2013 like Jones did in 2009. But let’s think about something. If you’re given a choice, do you take…

…An injured Brandon Inge, who you could have tried to keep around as an option until the beginning of June, for just $100,000. Or…

…Clint Robinson, a 28-year-old first baseman who has hit for power throughout his minor league career, and has never had a shot at proving himself in the majors…

…If it’s me, I’m taking Robinson. The short-term value with Inge isn’t that great, and that’s if he’s healthy. The long-term value is non-existent. Robinson might not be a guarantee to have a Garrett Jones type breakout, but at least he has some sort of a chance, which isn’t something you can say about Inge. Also, consider who claimed Robinson…

…The Toronto Blue Jays. The Pirates play three teams in minor league camp: the Yankees, the Phillies, and the Blue Jays. They play the Blue Jays on average about every three days. That means the Toronto coaches and scouts got to see plenty of Robinson this Spring. They must have seen something they liked if they claimed him after watching him all Spring.

Eventually The Pirates Need to Go Young

The biggest complaint I had about Dave Littlefield was that he blocked prospects. Freddy Sanchez came up in 2005 and hit well. So what did he do? Signed Joe Randa and put Sanchez on the bench until Sanchez hit so well that it was impossible to not play him. I wouldn’t say Neal Huntington does this. He’s playing Starling Marte. Jeff Locke is the number five starter, even though it would have been easy to sign Jon Garland or trade for Chris Capuano and go for another veteran in the rotation. He’s given chances to Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, and Jose Tabata.

It’s not that playing veterans is a bad thing. A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are still good pitchers, for example. But when the veterans are bad, then it’s a bad idea to play them. That’s especially true when you’ve got options in the minor leagues who are ready for the same spots.

John McDonald is a good defensive shortstop. But having a good defensive shortstop on the bench makes no sense if you’re already paying your starting shortstop primarily for his defense. Barmes is a guy who you can play all season, and he’ll give you good defense at short. He didn’t hit well last year, and he shouldn’t be expected to hit well this year. But there’s value in the defense, and you can rely on him all year. So there’s no reason to add a Clint Barmes-lite. You’re better off seeing what you have with Ivan De Jesus Jr., who looks like he has the upside of a bench player.

Brandon Inge hits for power and plays a lot of positions, but not well. The Pirates already have power on their bench. Garrett Jones or Gaby Sanchez (whichever one isn’t starting) can provide power. They have a guy who can play multiple positions in Josh Harrison. They even have a guy in Jared Goedert who can hit for power and play multiple positions while still being under 30. And all of those guys are healthy.

When Wilbur Miller was down here in Bradenton a week ago, we had a few discussions about the Pirates holding their minor league players back in favor of veterans like McDonald and Inge. Wilbur’s take was that the Pirates are saying one of two things with these moves.

1. They have done a poor job of building up the farm system, which means they have to sign veterans in order to fill even the most minor spots on the roster.

2. They’ve done well adding young talent, but they’re making mistakes with roster management at the major league level.

I agree with Wilbur, and I don’t really think you could take anything else away from these moves. The moves say one of those two things. That’s not necessarily what the Pirates are saying with the moves, but that’s how it comes across. For me, the second statement seems accurate. I think there is some talent in the system. I’d like to see what guys like De Jesus can do in the majors. I think Clint Robinson should have been given a chance to have a Garrett Jones type season. But it seems like the Pirates don’t trust young players.

That’s not an accurate statement, since I’ve shown that the Pirates do trust young players. But their trust in young players is not only inconsistent, but flat out makes no sense. They’ll hand Starling Marte the starting left-field job with no questions, but they will add a veteran rather than giving a bench spot to De Jesus. Marte is a much better prospect than De Jesus, but the starting left field job is also much more important than the backup middle infield spot that never plays. Even if we look at prospects who aren’t the best international hitter since Aramis Ramirez, we see situations where the Pirates have trusted young players in bigger roles than a small bench spot. It makes no sense that the Pirates would need a veteran on the bench playing a minor role, while trusting a starting job to a total unknown. It’s not that the latter is bad. That’s what teams like the Pirates need to do.

Eventually, the Pirates are going to need to trust their younger guys. If you’re waiting for them to have experience, that will never happen. Clint Barmes and John McDonald are free agents at the end of 2013. Does Jordy Mercer become the starting shortstop, even though he probably continues to have little playing time in the majors at that point? Does Ivan De Jesus Jr. get a shot at his bench player upside? Or do the Pirates bring in veterans again?

Then there’s the ripple effect. If you keep holding back the Triple-A players, then by extension you’re holding back the Double-A guys. If you hold back the Double-A guys, then you’ll eventually hold back the high-A guys. The longer this continues, the lower you go. It’s a good thing when you’ve got a system full of blocked prospects. But only when you’re like Tampa Bay and the prospects are blocked because there are young players getting playing time at the top level. It’s not a good thing when you’re blocking prospects for someone like John McDonald or Brandon Inge.

Mercer and De Jesus aren’t in the majors this year, so Adalberto Santos gets held back. Next year if they’re still blocked, you’re holding back Santos again, plus Gift Ngoepe. Ngoepe is strong defensively at short, has plus speed, but doesn’t hit. Basically he profiles as a strong defensive backup middle infielder. They can’t get time in Altoona because Alen Hanson and Dan Gamache are probably moving up as middle infielders. The year after that you’ve got Dilson Herrera and Max Moroff. Not all of these prospects will make it. But if you’re not advancing people beyond Triple-A, then you’re going to have a traffic jam, even with some players flaming out.

Eventually, the Pirates are going to have to start trusting the young guys. They do that now, but they need to do it in all situations. Especially with cases like Ivan De Jesus Jr., where they trade for a guy who has the upside of a bench player and looks major league ready, only to later sign a veteran bench player and send De Jesus down. If you’re not going to trust a prospect in that case, then why even bother trading for the prospect to begin with?

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5. Get them both in time for the start of the regular season.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Preview: The Starting Rotation.

**The Depth At Triple-A Forces Some Position Changes and Returns in Altoona.

**Clint Robinson Claimed by the Blue Jays.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Minor League Rotations.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Minor League Lineups.

**Pirate City Results: All The Home Runs.

**Minor League Results: Dodson, Bell, Mathisen, Herrera.

**Pirates Acquire Brian Jeroloman.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Manaea Not Sharp, Bryant Homers Again.

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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  • http://twitter.com/Spazaru Spazaru

    I totally agree with this article. The constant bringing in of washed up veterans is frustrating and one reason I don’t watch the Pirates regularly even though I keep up with what they’re up to. It’s not worth a fan’s time to watch hobbled guys like Inge or players severely on the downside like Barmes. There is more interesting baseball to watch elsewhere. I’ve given Huntington a lot of time but at this point I really feel like he needs to go. Anyone could have drafted Cole or Taillon and Alvarez isn’t really what we expected him to be. Not bad, but not great. And anyone could have drafted him too. Add to the issues Tim brings up of blocking the younger guys from having a chance, and this team is a mess. I seriously think they will finish with less wins than last year, possibly a lot less.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

    Exceptionally well said Tim, couldn’t agree more. The missing ingredient with the current FO is the ability to recognize mid level talent as role players and develop/trust them to do the job.

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

    I am with you 94.5% on this Tim. The only one which doesn’t ‘faze’ me is Robinson. He is a slow footed defensive liability who should not be anything but a DH. Last I looked, the NL doesn’t use the DH. Plus, if sent to AAA, he is blocking Curry and Dickerson. Clint is 28. That is almost ‘veteranish’.

    However, you are spot on with everything else. I would’ve LOVED to have seen De Jeezuz up here.

    But remember ONE thing….NH has NEVER crafted together a playoff team. So….he is still learning and is erring on the side of washed up vets, unfortunately.

  • esd4

    The problem here is that you think guys like De Jesus and Mercer and Santos are “prospects.” They’re not. It’s not at all inconsistent to give chances to guys with major league talent like Marte and Locke while using guys with 4A talent as 4A depth. Nor is it a problem if non-prospects like Santos are “blocked.”

    WTM’s dichotomy about what this says about the Pirates is also pretty obviously wrong. Every major league team signs veterans to fill out the bench. Does that mean that every team is either failing at player development or mismanaging the major league roster? No, it just means that there are a finite number of guys with major league talent and major league teams prefer to give roster spots to them.

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

      I think they are prospects.

      Definitely Mercer and with that bat, Santos.

      I think DeJesus can be better than JHay who can’t field OR hit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brielle.reicks Brielle Schlittler Reicks

    To build on the post from esd4 which I agree with, management’s major flaw has been their inability to draft and develop talent good enough to fill role positions. That is simply a lack of quality talent in the system. I see people comparing what the Cardinal do with their minor league depth i.e. filling major league bench spots. The Pirates can’t do that because their high level minor league players aren’t good enough to compete at a replacement level. Guys like D’Arnaud and Mercer aren’t prospects. I have seen very little that leads me to believe that anyone in Triple-A is being blocked. They just aren’t and won’t help the team win.

    People on this site act like management won’t trust the youngsters. I would submit that anyone who sees these moves listed and believes the problem is lack of faith in youth, is blind to the fact that management recognizes that the high minors is barren of talent and is making moves to help the major league roster. I give management credit for recognizing that but it is essentially their own shortcoming.

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

      Not at all. They ARE giving youngsters chances everywhere but SS and C.

      It is in the backup positions they don’t trust youth (except for JHay who they seem to love. He is Hurdle’s Don Kelly?)

      • http://www.facebook.com/brielle.reicks Brielle Schlittler Reicks

        You keep using the term “don’t trust youth”. Those guys aren’t 22. The decision has been made by management that they aren’t good enough. I agree. If anything proved that it was the last two months of 2012. Our depth is nonexistent. Our bullpen is put together with bail twine. If this lack of depth gets exposed again this year Neal will get the exit he deserves.

        Nobody is keeping a 27 year old shortstop in the minors so he can play everyday.

  • cyphtime

    I like the article and I agree with you, I don’t see the point of getting McDonald, what a waste to have to bump guys off of the 40 man for him. The only counter argument I could see in this move is that Huntington wants his young guys to keep playing. Like you said in the article the backup middle infield positions hardly gets any playing time or at bats. Most likely they’ll see time on defense late in the game if barmes is pinch hit for with someone like jones or sanchez who has a strong bat off the bench. So how much does it help mercer or dejesus to be up with the major league club and get one start a week and one pinch hit or pinch run and an inning or two in the field. I could see that Huntington wants to keep his guys getting consistent at bats even if it does mean they stay in AAA a little longer instead of only seeing time at the plate in batting practice.

    But I still feel that all your arguments above outweigh this point but maybe not by as much of a long shot as it seems.

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

      I have less a problem with Johnny Mac than with Inge.

  • leadoff

    I believe there is a ripple down effect, but Wilbur is off base, neither one of his reasons is correct.
    Players are developed in the minors for 4-5 years, then there is a major league development process that takes 2-4 years, so the Pirates are doing what everyone really wants them to do, they are trying to win with this team. You can’t win with all your players being 1-4 years of experience.Two years ago they were picking up everyone’s cuts and actually putting them on the major league roster, this team is too good to do that sort of thing now.
    McDonald was brought in as insurance in case Barmes went down.
    The other problem is that Hurdle has proven that he does not like kids on his bench, he played Harrison because he had no choice.

  • TNBucs

    I think there is a 3rd explanation–the Pirates’ FO values “clubhouse presence.” Sabermetricians don’t buy it but is that because it doesn’t exist or because it can’t be measured? Unfortunately, clubhouse presence almost always requires a player to be a veteran–it’s not an age thing, it’s not a farm system failure, it’s simply prioritizing something that is too vague for us to know if it exists.

    And letting Robinson go helps clear a logjam involving younger 1B prospects (you make a good point about McDonald but then undermine it by saying you would have kept Robinson).

    • http://www.facebook.com/brielle.reicks Brielle Schlittler Reicks

      Intangibles in the clubhouse and on the field surely exist. Most who have played team sports recognize that. It is most definitely very hard to measure. Team building is an art, not a science.

    • leadoff

      The times are different these days than they once were. Todays players need leaders more than they used to, they get their feelings hurt more than they used to.
      Tinkers to Evers to Chance. Tinkers and Evers never talked to each other on or off the field, they hated each other, but they may have been the best double play combo ever. The Billy Martin era in New York, nothing but turmoil everyone hated everyone, all they did was win.
      I believe there are two chemistrys in sports, a locker room chemistry and a field chemistry. The field chemistry is much more important, without it does not matter what goes on in the locker room.
      Chuck Knoll once said if I have to get them up, I don’t want them.
      Crosby could hate Kunitz, but that behind the back pass to Kunitz was going to happen no matter what they think of each other, that is chemistry.

    • buster09

      I would add to TN’s comments ( which I agree with 100 % ) by saying that I think the orginization needs to find somewhere for Matt Hague to go to at this time. What purpose is he serving other than to block Curry and by default,Dickerson also ?

  • Ecbucs

    If either of these are true, and I believe that is the case then it is just more evidence that NH needs to be replaced.

    How can Nutting and Coonley not come to that conclusion when evaluating team and where it is headed?

    • leadoff

      Most winning clubs supplement their lineups with veterans instead of kids, if they don’t want to win then make the bench a bunch of kids. Minor league players have to play when they come up, the Pirates don’t have positions available for kids to play even if they are ready.

      Actually NH has a set starting lineup that is tough for any kid to crack, and a minor league system loaded with talent why would someone want to fire him for that?

  • Ecbucs

    because if 1 or 2 are correct they are making too many mistakes.

    At least a few people who post here often don’t like Hurdle as manager.

    Apparently NH and FC do so that could be another reason to replace them.

    Is the starting lineup too tough for kids to crack or are the kids not good enough? or is management not giving kids a fair chance at cracking the lineup?

    It just seems to me that if one writes that they agree with points in this article they shouldn’t be too thrilled with Bucco management. Certainly NH has made good moves but has he made enough to show that he is a top gm that the Buccos need.

  • buster09

    God bless James Mac,for after what I witnessed today,that third spot in the rotation is in a world of hurt.

  • Y2JGQ2

    Tim- I agree with this article 100% and I think you’ve seen me post the exact same things on your board over the last couple weeks. One question- Why isn’t anyone asking these questions to Huntington or Hurdle as to what their intent is here? There must be some plan right? I’d like to know what it is. Is anyone allowed to ask them the tough questions in an interview?