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.

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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