First Pitch: Why Does the Pirates Farm System Seem Different This Year?

I was on ESPN 970 this afternoon with David Todd, discussing our top ten prospects, and a few other topics in the minor league system. You can listen to the segment here. Towards the end, David asked me if it seemed like something was different this year in the minor league system.

The Pirates have started to get a lot of attention this year for the quality of their farm system. Nearly every outlet that grades prospects has the Pirates as one of the top farm systems in baseball. They’ve got a ton of impact prospects at the top of the system, and that’s true even if you remove Gerrit Cole from the rankings.

So what happened? Why is the system getting so much praise this year? What is different? I only had a few minutes to answer when David asked, so I gave an answer about how a lot of the players added by the Pirates needed some time to break out, and after a few years we’re now starting to see those guys breaking out. But there’s a lot of other factors to consider. So here’s five reasons why it appears that this year is different than previous years.

1. The Major League Team is Good

It’s kind of weird to talk about the major league team having any impact on whether the farm system is good or bad. But the truth is that the perception of the major league team can influence the view of the minors. Right now the major league team is good. Then you look to the minors and you see that Gerrit Cole could add to this team. Next year you could see Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, and Nick Kingham. That’s a pretty impressive group of potential impact prospects in the upper levels.

Last year I saw a lot of “the major league team is hopeless and there’s no help on the way” comments after the collapse. The way the Pirates ended their season left a feeling of hopelessness, and that was transferred to the minor league system. People who didn’t even follow the minors were just assuming that nothing was happening down there. But the truth is that Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon both finished the year strong. Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson were two of the biggest breakout prospects in the game. There weren’t many people who took a step back, and those who did (like Josh Bell missing all year with an injury) didn’t see their long-term values changed.

That last part has been a theme the last few years. The Pirates haven’t seen many people drop off as they jump to the upper levels, and they keep adding impact players. That brings me to point number two.

2. The Definition of “Depth”

What we’ve been hearing the last few years is that the Pirates have a “top heavy system” and lack “depth”. The depth comment is questionable, since there’s not really a good definition of what it means. Does depth mean the Pirates have nothing in the system behind their top prospects? Does it mean they don’t have upper level prospects? Does it mean they don’t have immediate help for the majors?

Tyler Glasnow was just another guy who wasn't considered depth a year ago. Now he's one of the top prospects in the game. (Photo Credit: Tom Bragg)

Tyler Glasnow was just another guy who wasn’t considered depth a year ago. Now he’s one of the top prospects in the game. (Photo Credit: Tom Bragg)

We heard the “lack of depth” comment in each of the previous two seasons. My thought on that was that the Pirates had a lot of depth. Behind the top prospects they had a ton of talented guys who just hadn’t broken out yet. And over the years we’ve seen new guys break out. Last year it was Polanco and Hanson. This year it’s Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham. You could also add Dilson Herrera to that list. He’s having a good year, but a good year kind of gets overshadowed in this system.

The Pirates keep getting guys who break out and become impact prospects. They aren’t seeing nearly as many guys dropping off the prospect list. And they still have a ton of talented guys in the lower levels, waiting to break out. Herrera is this year’s Hanson/Polanco. You could add Stetson Allie to that list if you don’t want to go strictly Latin American prospects. A few candidates who are currently in Jamestown, and who could break out in West Virginia during the 2014 season are Harold Ramirez, Jin-De Jhang, and Elvis Escobar.

We’re also getting to a point where the top of the system is so strong that legitimate prospects are seen as having little value. It seems like there’s a big drop off in our mid-season prospect rankings after the top 14 guys. But after that group you have guys like Stolmy Pimentel, Vic Black, Casey Sadler, Andrew Lambo, Phil Irwin, and more in the top 30. Those are guys who can provide value at the major league level. A lot of those guys would have been ranked in the top 10, and easily in the top 20 of old systems. In this system, most of those guys have no shot at the top 20.

Those guys aren’t impact players, but they are players who could provide value similar to Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, Jordy Mercer, Brandon Cumpton, and all of the other guys who weren’t elite prospects but have been key players for the Pirates this season.

3. First Impressions

I was talking with someone earlier this week about Nick Kingham, and mentioned that he’s been a very under-rated prospect. The response I got was a question.

“What round was he drafted in?”

“The Fourth Round,” I responded.

“There you have it.”

First impressions can be hard to overcome. If you don’t come into the league with hype, it takes a while before you build that hype up. This is the topic I talked about with David on the show. The examples I brought up were Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson. Next week teams will be lining up to sign international prospects for seven figure salaries. Those guys will be getting those seven figure salaries because, at the age of 16, they will be showing slightly more polish than the guys who are getting five figure salaries. That doesn’t mean the upsides will be different.

Alen Hanson signed for $150,000. Gregory Polanco signed for $75,000. Neither was polished when signed. In fact, Polanco was raw tools up until his breakout season last year. Now both are looking like potential impact players. If they signed for seven figure deals and had the seasons they did last year, we might have seen them in the top 25 coming into the 2013 season.

On the prep pitching side, the Pirates have gone with a “quantity of quality prep pitchers” approach. From 2008 to 2011 they added 13 prep pitchers in the middle rounds (pretty much everyone except Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie), spending a little over $8.6 M. Tyler Glasnow is emerging as a top of the rotation pitching prospect, and today I questioned whether Nick Kingham was doing the same thing. Glasnow received $600,000 and Kingham received $480,000. Glasnow was a fifth round pick, and Kingham was a fourth round pick. The tools have been there for each pitcher for most of the last year. Kingham started dominating in the second half of the SAL season last year, while Glasnow saw an increase in his velocity and the development of a plus curveball. If those two came in as top draft picks and big bonuses, they’d probably be ranked higher. Instead, they have to prove themselves a bit more than the guys who entered the league with hype.

4. The Numbers Game

Not every guy breaks out. Glasnow and Kingham have been great, but the 2009 prep pitchers have been a disappointment. Polanco and Hanson have been a steal at a combined $225,000, but Yhonathan Barrios and Jodaneli Carvajal both signed for more than that amount, and both are stalling out in short-season A-ball.

The thing about this approach is that it’s a numbers game. Do you sign one international hitter for $1 M and hope he makes it? Or do you sign 4-5 international hitters for $1 M total, all with a lot of tools and upside, and hope that 1-2 of those guys make it? With the draft you don’t have an either-or choice. However, you’re spending $8 M on Gerrit Cole because you think he’s going to be an ace. So if you spend $8.6 M on 13 pitchers, and you get two of them (Glasnow and Kingham) who look like potential top of the rotation guys, you’re coming out ahead.

That’s one reason why I’ve been higher on the system and the depth behind the top guys than most people. It’s because the Pirates have been loading up on these types of players. They have a lot of talented international hitters and prep pitchers coming through the system. They also have talented international pitchers and prep hitters, but the guys who have broken out the last two years have been more of the former. You don’t know which guys will break out. That 2012 West Virginia team had Willy Garcia, Jose Osuna, and Jodaneli Carvajal on the team. There wasn’t much that separated Polanco and Hanson. They just happened to be the guys who stepped forward with their game. You could say the same about Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes right now in West Virginia. Glasnow is stepping forward, while Holmes is struggling.

As long as you have plenty of talented guys with upside, you’re going to improve your chances of seeing a few guys break out. That might mean that you waste half a million dollars on Yhonathan Barrios and Jodaneli Carvajal. It might mean you watch a whole group of prep pitchers in 2009 become nothing. But the approach that led to those players is the same approach that led to Polanco, Hanson, Kingham, and Glasnow. I think anyone would take that trade off.

5. It Takes Time

Five years ago, the top ten prospects in the system included Daniel Moskos, Shelby Ford, Brian Bixler, Jamie Romak, and Brad Corley. The Pirates had nothing. There was Andrew McCutchen, a struggling Neil Walker, and a few guys who emerged as major leaguers like Jared Hughes and Tony Watson (and every team has those types of players in the system). They also had guys like Kyle McPherson, Rudy Owens, and Starling Marte, who were in the system already, but were developed by the current group. That’s especially important for the first two, because McPherson and Owens owe their development success to the focus the current group places on commanding the fastball (although both are down with injuries right now).

The big argument against the Pirates having a successful farm system, or the most common way to explain it away, has been “they should have a good system with where they’ve been drafting”. The Pirates have had high draft picks for a long time, and especially over the last five years. The position of those draft picks only really matters in the first round. After that, everyone has picked, and it becomes more about scouting than it does in the first.

If you look at the first round picks the Pirates have had over the last five years, you’ll see that they wouldn’t be expected to contribute much to the system.

2008 – Pedro Alvarez (lost prospect status in 2010)

2009 – Tony Sanchez (has struggled, saw his value decline, but has seen it bounce back some this year)

2010 – Jameson Taillon

2011 – Gerrit Cole

2012 – None (Mark Appel didn’t sign)

Cole and Taillon are obviously going to play a big role in the system rankings. But as we’re seeing this year, if you take Cole out, you’ve still got a strong system. Even if you take Taillon out, you’ve got a strong system. And it’s not like Cole and Taillon weren’t involved in previous rankings where the Pirates weren’t rated high (Taillon in 2011, both at the end of 2011 and the start of 2012).

The first round gives you one top prospect. To build a system like this, you need time. When people were talking about the lack of depth in 2011, Alen Hanson was in his second pro season, and just making the jump to the US. Tyler Glasnow wasn’t even in the system until later that year, and Nick Kingham was making his debut in the short-season leagues. The Pirates went heavy on high school and young international players. It was never going to be a quick journey to get to this point, especially when they were starting with nothing.

Links and Notes

**We’ve been doing the weekly podcasts, but we’re also starting something new: Google Hangouts. James Santelli will be hosting them. This week we had Pat Lackey (WHYGAVS), Brian McElhinny (Raise the Jolly Roger), Jim Rosati (North Side Notch), Cory Weibel (Three Rivers Burgh Blog), plus our own James Santelli and Tom Bragg. Check out the first show here: Pirates Roundtable Live – Episode 1. We’re hoping to make this a weekly thing, with new guests each week.

**Speaking of podcasts, we’re recording Friday’s episode tomorrow morning. There will be new intro music. I really like the song, and you may too if you like my taste in music. Either way, it doesn’t sound like a 1993 Sega Genesis game. Check out last week’s episode here: P3 Episode 10: More Stanton Talk and Should Polanco Be Called Up This Year?

**On the podcast front, I was hoping to go with two shows per week, with one show being a prospect show. With the draft, and then the Jamestown and GCL seasons starting, I didn’t get much of a chance to record shows the last two weeks. The prospect episode will return this week with reports from Altoona, West Virginia, and of course the action here in Bradenton. Hopefully going forward we will have podcasts on Monday and Friday, and the Google Hangouts on Wednesday. You can never have too much talk about the #FirstPlaceBucs.

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker.

**Is Nick Kingham a Future Top of the Rotation Starter?

**Prospect Watch: Lambo Hits His 20th; Barnes Hits Third Homer in a Week.

**DSL Prospect Watch: One De La Cruz Returns, The Other Continues Impressive Start.

**Minor League Schedule: Taillon and Glasnow Going Tonight, Sandfort Makes Debut.

**Herrera, Polanco named to Futures Game Roster.

**Taillon, Sadler, and Cunningham Are Eastern League All-Stars.

**Jeanmar Gomez Activated From the DL; Duke Welker Optioned.

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://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

    I wish they had a major league ready prospect for RF, maybe Lambo finally figured it out. I don’t know alot about him, but he couldn’t do much worse than their current options.

    • emjayinTN

      That will be Gregory Polanco, the guy who just moved up to Altoona. It would be a waste of time and effort to try anyone else at this point. Travis Snider is 23, a former first round pick, and we got him for the “bag-o-balls”. He was traded for Brad Lincoln who could not break this Rotation or this Bullpen, so this is a freebie. 200 AB’s, 11 doubles, 2 triples 3 HR’s, 22 RBI, and I think 2 or 3 of those RBI’s were game winners. ZERO errors, 3 assists in limited play, and seems to blend very well with the rest of the team. The alternating RF (Snider/Tabata) has been just Snider due to injuries and he has batted a lot against some tough lefties. I think it will help him as the season progresses and I like the way he can take the outside pitch the other way.

      • tmcgowan

        Travis Snider is 25, not 23

    • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

      Their options really aren’t that bad. Yes Snider has struggled some lately and Inge is certainly no RF but Tabata is on the way back and he has been fine so far this season. A 111 wRC+ is perfectly reasonable.

      • kelso

        Based on offensive numbers they have the worst RF in the NL.

        I would agree there is some potential in RF, but so far it has not worked.

        • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

          I realize that but if Tabata hadn’t gotten injured and would have continued at his 111 wRC+ that wouldn’t be the case. When you have a platoon and are forced to trot out the likes of Brandon Inge bad things will happen.

        • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

          Meant to add that the Pirates have actually been the worst hitting team in the NL at 3 different positions. A pretty rare accomplishment I’m sure for a team playing so well.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD

      If Snider does not improve, I would not be opposed to brining up Lambo and try him in a platoon – maybe with Tabata?

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: When the average stat nut looks at the numbers from the Pirate prospects, it is difficult not to appreciate the difference from past years. And the only reason that I did not see in there was the willingness of the Pirates to draft “tough HS signs” in later rounds and then pay overslot to entice them to join the System – when else can you remember MLB conjuring up rules to limit the aggressiveness of the Pirates or any other team? The Owner, Pres, and GM played within the rules to max out 2 or 3 years of the draft and their handling of the Josh Bell signing was the one that brought all of the crying and complaining from the other teams, and the ensuing rule changes for the draft.

  • https://profiles.google.com/100212786463678215436 Nathan Swartz

    It’s because of all the leadership qualities they learned in the boot camps last year. Seeeeee…and everybody mocked it…for shame. :)

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

      lol

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

    I guess NH HAS flooded the system?
    :) :)
    It was tough being an NH fan in the ‘early years’, because he took LOTS and LOTS of hits. I was in the minority. As a Pirate fan, I am glad my faith was proven correct.
    .
    Foo

  • https://profiles.google.com/106508220943703406151 Kevin Anstrom

    The Pirates have had a top (the top?) farm system for some time. That doesn’t seem different.

    To me the biggest change is the number of international FAs pitching at the lower levels (WV -> Bradenton, Jamestown, GCL).

    • deacs

      “Five years ago, the top ten prospects in the system included Daniel Moskos, Shelby Ford, Brian Bixler, Jamie Romak, and Brad Corley.” I’m speechless. I almost spilled my coffee when I read this.

      Also it sounds a little weird but I do think the Major League team playing well helps the perception of the farm. If you see the prospects come up and play well then there’s the perception that other players in the system can come up and contribute too so the Pirates must know what they’re doing to a degree. I think this does make some sense.

  • Curtis

    Last year at this time we had a number of highly touted draft picks under-performing or just plain failing: Cain, Allie, Grossman, Von Rosenburg, Sanchez, Stevenson, Bell, etc. We understood we likely wouldn’t sign our top pick and there were real questions about Pedro’s ability to stick.

    Now: We transformed some of those picks into Wandy. Sanchez has bounced back. Pedro looks stronger than expected. Allie has transformed. Wilson, Mercer, Cumpton, and Cole have contributed at the major league level. Black is ready. Polanco and Hanson have shown they aren’t one-year wonders. Etc.

    That’s a huge difference to celebrate.

    • emjayinTN

      I beg to differ on Robbie Grossman and Tony Sanchez. Both played at Altoona, with Sanchez earning a promotion to AAA. Grossman was only 21 or 22 at the time carrying a .783 OPS with 59W/78K – excellent for a switchhitting leadoff batter, and somebody the Astro’s really wanted. Sanchez hit 12 doubles, 8 HR’s and 26 RBI in a little more than 200 AB’s at AAA.

    • Cato the Elder

      Perception is a funny thing, because this time last year I would have told you: the major league ballclub was competitive, we had two future aces in the pipeline, Marte was on a tear and had star potential written all over him, and Hanson and Polanco were emerging as top prospects seemingly out of thin air. I for one was estatic. Then again, people (like you I suppose) couldn’t find reasons to get excited and/or were demanding NH be fired and Nutting “sale the team!” I’m glad we are all on the same page now and I really hope that, if for some reason the season ends in disappointment, the calls for regime change are not renewed, or at least are not heeded.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ToddSm66 Todd Smith

        If things keep going like this, pretty soon people will start yelling for Bob Nutting to buy the Dallas Mavericks.

  • pdad

    The biggest difference is it is a year later and a number of prospect continue to play well or improve. It is a lot easier to get excited about Polanco at AA than it is low A. Mercer is starting at SS for the big club, Cole is up contributing, Sanchez is up for his hitting (who would have thought last year). Most prospect are making progress rather than regressing and a closer to the big leagues. Getting two first round picks didn’t hurt either

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Why did Gregory Polanco move to Altoona and SS Alen Rery Hanson, 21, is still at Hi A? Who is the SS at AA? Gift Ngoepe, 23, who is hitting a whopping .177. Both he and Hanson are switchhitters – nope, sorry – Hanson is a switchhitter, Ngoepe is a switchbatter. Hanson is hitting .290 now at Hi A with 27 EBH. Hanson started out with a .150 average and 13 E’s in the first 16 games. Since that point, both he and Ngoepe have 8 E’s in about 50+ games. So what are the Pirates doing? Hanson was either No 1 or No. 2 last year in our System, and the fact that he has gotten his game together has to say something for the kid.

    • http://www.facebook.com/susanne.klichlangford Susanne Klich Langford

      Ngoepe is getting pushed due to his age. It can definitely be argued that he should be at Bradenton still. He has showed some signs of life at the plate in June but he is still bad. His fielding is very advanced though so I am sure that factors in. Also gift has the maturity and mental stability to deal with being overmatched so I am hoping he figures it out. Despite being 23 he has had some injuries and still has a low number of minor league abs so there is still hope.

      - Fred

  • http://www.facebook.com/susanne.klichlangford Susanne Klich Langford

    I don’t have time to read the article right now yet I am compelled to answer. Two things stand out to me: 1) Maturity of the system – we are seeing the maturity of all of NH’s players over and extended time period. 2) The # of guys that you would consider to have high upside is better than I have ever seen it. Sorry if I am redundant. One more thing I think people don’t think about because they feel the Bucs fo doesn’t push guys fast enough: The farm teams other than Indy aren’t necessarily dominating but they do have a lot of guys who are being pushed to higher levels rather than dominating at a lower level…they could have better records but guys are getting challenged…as they should be.

    - Fred Langford

  • smurph

    #5. It takes time. Prior to NH the minor league system was the joke of baseball. Building it back up took time, and developing these young kids takes time.
    The other thing I would add is this: Last year we knew the Pirates had some fabulous pitching prospects, had a couple of very good outfield prospects, but there were definite questions about the catcher and middle infield positions. No one knew then if Sanchez would be able to be a good ML player. Now not only is he in the majors, but the Pirates have McGuire, Mathieson, Paulino, and Jhang. Catcher looks to be in great shape for the future. Same thing with the middle infield. D’Arnaud did not perform when he got a shot with the big club, and there didn’t seem to be much else. Now we have Jordie Mercer as the starter, with names like Hanson, Cunningham, Tejeda and DeJesus, and d’Arnaud still could be a solid major leaguer. All of a sudden they look deep there. Not to mention they have added even more highly rated pitchers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/susanne.klichlangford Susanne Klich Langford

    Tim’s article about all the guys they have that throw 98 or whatever is an important thing. Littlefield for some inexplicable reason thought guys with low upside were the pitchers to get. @%#%!!!!!!!!!!! Also, I try so hard not to say “We, us, and our” when talking about the pirates. I don’t want to be “That guy” but then again I have been following the minors like Tim or Wilbur for 10 years and suffering for 20 years…they have been my pet project and all these minor leaguers do feel like mine. (You guys started the sites and pages I dreamed of starting) Thanks guys. I am moving to the Tampa Bay area soon so if you need a lackey who knows the Pirates let me know.

  • michaelbro8

    Also, a “shout out” should go to all unsung coaches and development guys in the minors. It’s apparent that as a staff they’re doing the job well. It’s one thing to draft and sign players with potential, but if you don’t have the guys to develop them well, nothing good happens. The A’s & Rays have some solid minors staffs, and apparently now the Bucs do too. I’d like to see a post highlighting some of these guys; who they are, where they came from. Does NH get more credit for putting that staff together, or were a lot of them already around ?

  • beatembucs222

    Just out of curiosity…Say last year we met Appel’s bonus demands and lost this years pick (so no Meadows nor McGuire obviously), do you think our farm system would be rated any differently? I know it’s impossible to predict since we will never know how much different Appel would be right now after a year with us and not Stanford but try anyway :) Also, if Houston offered Appel for Meadows (given he signs) and McGuire would you do it?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      It’s not just those two. If you go over-slot for Appel, the trade would be:

      Meadows, McGuire, Taylor, plus next year’s 1st and 2nd round picks.

      Long-term I don’t think Appel is worth that.