First Pitch: Do the Pirates Have the Top Farm System?
The St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins get a lot of praise for their farm systems. However, Jeff Passan talked with one longtime scout who said that the Pittsburgh Pirates were the team with the top farm system, and that it’s not close.
Passan went on to highlight all of the usual names. He didn’t mention Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon, but did mention Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson. He focused a lot on Tyler Glasnow, who the scout focused on since he had just seen Glasnow. He mentioned Josh Bell and Nick Kingham.
The “top farm system” discussion is usually something for off-season entertainment. Those types of lists come out before the season, and they usually provide good discussion while we all wait for real baseball. The thing about the lists is they are all subjective. The scout Passan quoted feels the Pirates have the best system. Another scout may like the Cardinals better. A third may like the Twins better. I think the most important thing is the individual reports.
I think it’s pretty much a consensus that Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are top 25 prospects in baseball, and two of the top pitching prospects in the game. Whether you believe they can reach their upsides as number one starters, or settle in as number two or number three starters, the important thing is that any team would gladly take those two pitchers in their farm system, and in most farm systems they’d battle for the top spot in the organization.
Then there’s Gregory Polanco, who is starting to break out as a top 25 prospect in baseball. That gives the Pirates three of the best prospects in the game, and two more than average if you assume that every team should have one player in the top 30.
Alen Hanson had a rough start to the year, but outside of those first two weeks he’s been excellent. Hanson was benched for a few games to clear his head after a rough start. Ever since then he’s been great on both sides of the ball. On defense he has five errors in 42 games, and has looked much better on the field. Offensively he is hitting for a .311/.378/.466 line in 161 at-bats since being benched.
Josh Bell has been hitting this year, blasting his eighth homer of the year tonight, and putting up an .811 OPS on the season. Luis Heredia hasn’t made his 2013 debut, but he’s also 18 years old, so the fact that he’s not with West Virginia yet isn’t a total disappointment. By comparison, Tyler Glasnow was in the GCL at the same age. And speaking of Glasnow, he’s been a huge breakout pitcher with 72 strikeouts and a 3.21 ERA in 47.2 innings this year. Glasnow has a plus fastball and a plus curveball. If it wasn’t for the 32 walks, which mostly come from a lack of command due to an inability to repeat his delivery, Glasnow would challenge for the top spot in the system.
The thing about Bell, Heredia, and Glasnow is that two of those guys will be pushed out of the top five. Yet they’d probably be top five prospects in almost any other system.
You can make a similar claim about the top ten. Nick Kingham has a 3.09 ERA in 67 innings with Bradenton, along with a 71:14 K/BB ratio. He has plus fastball command, and throws his fastball consistently in the mid-90s, with an above average curve and changeup. Tony Sanchez is hitting for a .311/.408/.583 line with seven homers in 132 at-bats, and has good defense behind the plate. Dilson Herrera is hitting for a .294/.354/.449 line in 187 at-bats, and is looking like this year’s version of Hanson/Polanco. Barrett Barnes has missed time this year with injuries, but has the potential to stick in center field, hit for average, and hit for some power.
One of those guys would be pushed out of the top ten, and we haven’t even mentioned the two first round picks yet. The talent that is available where the Pirates pick could challenge for a top ten spot, even in this system.
In the past the knock against the system was that it lacked depth. My response to that claim was always that the Pirates had a ton of guys with potential who hadn’t broken out. We’ve started to see a few of those guys step up (Kingham, Glasnow, Herrera). There are still plenty of others behind them. Clay Holmes has had some serious control issues this year, but he’s a young pitcher who throws mid-90s and has a good curveball. Wyatt Mathisen and Jin-De Jhang are both promising catching prospects. They’re both more potential than results right now, but both have the tools to be breakout candidates one day. Max Moroff and Eric Wood are both promising infielders down in West Virginia.
And speaking of promising infielders in West Virginia, Stetson Allie is crushing low-A hitting this year, and has gotten back on the map as a prospect. I don’t know where he will end up ranking in our upcoming mid-season rankings. I don’t know if he’ll continue this when he makes the jump to the upper levels. The strikeouts are a big concern to me. But you can’t deny what he’s doing right now is impressive.
Then you’ve got guys like Elvis Escobar and Harold Ramirez, who will be the guys to watch in the GCL this year, and could be the next wave of Hanson/Polanco/Herrera hitters to jump to West Virginia and have success.
There’s guys in the upper levels who aren’t huge prospects, but are guys who can help in the majors. Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, Kyle McPherson, and Casey Sadler could all start in the majors (although Irwin and McPherson have injury question marks). You could probably add Andy Oliver to this list, and Vic Black if you want to look at relievers.
You’ve got guys who are still somewhat young who are finally showing signs of life. Andrew Lambo hit his 14th homer of the year tonight, and has a .905 OPS at the age of 24 with Altoona. We’ve gotten some favorable reports from scouts on his season this year. Mel Rojas has always been a streaky hitter, but has a lot of tools and is on a hot streak recently, with a .317/.372/.488 line in his last 82 at-bats coming into the week.
Joely Rodriguez, Orlando Castro, and Eliecer Navarro are all putting up really impressive numbers in the lower levels. I don’t usually trust international lefties (and I feel Rodriguez is in a different class than the other two), but there are things to like about those guys. Rodriguez would probably be in my top 30 right now.
There are a lot of really good things going on with the system right now. There are probably things I didn’t mention, although those things would probably fall under the “that’s what all systems do” category. Some of the above things may also fall into that category. But not so many. There are also some bad things, but not nearly as many as the good things. Also, a lot of the bad news has been short-term. Alen Hanson had a slow start to the year. Luis Heredia was out of shape and isn’t in West Virginia yet. Clay Holmes has control problems. Gerrit Cole is struggling with command and isn’t in the majors even though the Pirates don’t need him in the majors yet.
Not all prospects work out. Some of those short-term problems might turn into long-term problems. Maybe Cole never masters the command of his plus stuff and that limits his upside. Maybe Holmes doesn’t fix his control issues. Maybe Heredia struggles with his weight to a point where it prohibits his progress. Maybe Hanson’s two week struggles weren’t just a two week thing, but something that will keep popping up throughout his career. Or maybe none of those things will happen, but something will happen to a player who is performing well right now.
It’s impossible to accurately predict which players aren’t going to make it, and for what reasons. You can point to flaws and you can point to strengths, but the wild card is that we’re talking about individual people, and people are unpredictable. Therefore, it’s best to have as many prospects as possible. The more you have, the better chance you have of finding a star center fielder or an ace pitcher or a 30+ home run first baseman.
The Pirates were once at a point where they were only “top heavy”. Two things happened. The top got heavier, and they started adding established prospects behind those guys, giving them the depth that they lacked in previous rankings. So is that enough to be the top farm system? It’s definitely enough for consideration. Either way, it’s a great situation to be in, and that’s the most important factor.
Links and Notes
**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 7: Talking Pirates Draft With Jim Callis of Baseball America. The show features an interview with Baseball America’s Jim Callis, who breaks down the potential options for the Pirates, including Reese McGuire, Hunter Renfroe, and D.J. Peterson. Also on the show, John Dreker and I go over the Pirates Prospects 2013 Draft Top 100 Tiered Rankings.