First Pitch: The Pirates Have Answered Their Draft and Development Questions

I was reading Grant Brisbee’s article today detailing how the Pittsburgh Pirates were built, and how they’re a legitimate contender this year. Or, another way to put it, I was reading the annual “Grant Brisbee article that dooms the Pirates to a collapse over the final two months of the season”. Brisbee detailed how every player was added to the team — whether via draft picks, international free agent (not plural for a reason), free agents, or players acquired via trade. If that kind of topic is something you’re interested in, then I’d also check out David Kaleida’s trade tree on the subject.

One thing that stuck out to me was the draft pick section. I’ve been thinking about this topic all year. It was less than a year ago that people were questioning whether to fire Neal Huntington and the current management group. Some of the reasons to fire them were totally ridiculous and non-baseball related. Of the baseball-related reasons, the biggest was the questioning of the drafting and the development of players.

Anyone complaining about the drafting and development at the end of last season had a totally valid argument. At the same time, anyone saying the results were inconclusive also had a valid argument. There were really two camps: those who felt Huntington and company should have been fired, and those who felt one more year was warranted. The system looked pretty much the same to everyone. There were some top prospects, and there were some breakout players. But there were also some concerns that may or may not have been eased in the following year. The debate was whether you should give the current group one more year, or if you should move on and get started a year earlier with a new group.

As I said before, both arguments were valid. Here is a summary of each draft at the time, along with a summary of the international market.

2008 Draft

Pedro Alvarez was coming off a breakout year from a power standpoint. After that, there wasn’t much, but there was still potential. Here was my summary of the middle rounds at the end of last year.

In the middle rounds, a few more players have emerged around the majors. The Pirates haven’t had any of those players. They have a few guys with the potential to play a bigger role in the majors. Jordy Mercer could have a shot at being a starting shortstop. Justin Wilson could still make it as a starter, or a power left-handed reliever. The guy with the biggest potential impact was Robbie Grossman. The Pirates paired him with Rudy Owens and Colton Cain to get a more immediate impact in Wandy Rodriguez.

Typically you want to see three players from each draft make the majors and have an impact. Alvarez is number one. You could count Wandy Rodriguez, although that gets tricky, since that trade also involved a 2007 draft pick and a 2009 draft pick (though Grossman was the key piece). The Pirates need at least one more player to emerge. The best bets are Mercer and Wilson.

Justin Wilson breaking out this year has been huge for the 2008 draft success. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Justin Wilson breaking out this year has been huge for the 2008 draft success. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Mercer and Wilson have both emerged this year. Mercer took over as the starting shortstop, while Wilson settled in as a power reliever. Neither of those guys are safe for the long-term. We’ve certainly seen plenty of examples where players put up a good rookie season then struggle in the years to follow. It’s also not like their success this year was any guarantee. They still had the upside for the majors, and this year they started to realize that upside, which helps make the 2008 draft look really good.

2009 Draft

Tony Sanchez started hitting for power at the end of the year, but his bat was still struggling overall. That has certainly changed this year. Vic Black was looking like a future closer in Altoona, and carried that success over to Indianapolis. He even made it to the majors briefly this year, and should be back in September. The re-emergence of Sanchez this year, and Black continuing his dominance has provided some value from this draft. Phil Irwin also emerged last year, and continued his success this year, looking even more like a back of the rotation candidate until he went down with an injury. He still has that upside when he returns.

The downside with this draft is that it doesn’t look like it has impact potential. That could change if Sanchez proves to be a starting catcher who can hit. But it’s also hard to shake the disappointment that the main focus of this draft was on the prep pitchers in the middle rounds, and none of those pitchers have worked out.

2010-2011 Drafts

It was too early to grade these two drafts at the end of last year. The 2011 group just went through their first season, while most of the 2010 group had their first year in a full season league. The first round picks — Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole — were performing reasonably well, although neither pitcher was dominating. 2010 second round pick Stetson Allie had disappointed as a pitcher, moved to a hitter and struggled. 2011 second round pick Josh Bell missed most of the year with a knee injury. The Pirates spent about $7.25 M combined on both of those players, so the lack of results was a concern.

Outside of that, there were guys with potential. Nick Kingham from the 2010 draft. Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes from the 2011 draft. But none of those guys had their breakout season yet, and that’s never a guarantee with young players in the lower levels.

This year the results from these two drafts have been huge. Nick Kingham broke out in high-A and Double-A. Tyler Glasnow had a huge breakout, and is now a top 50 prospect in baseball. Clay Holmes struggled early, but has been showing his potential and is still regarded as a mid-rotation starter. Stetson Allie stepped up as a hitter, although he has struggled since moving up to high-A. Josh Bell is healthy and is showing his power, though he has some issues with his swing. Gerrit Cole made the majors and is showing flashes of being a future ace. Jameson Taillon just got promoted to Triple-A, and looks to be on pace to reach the majors in June 2014. Then the unexpected development, 2010 ninth round pick Brandon Cumpton emerged as a back of the rotation starter, making four strong starts in the majors this year.

International Market

Starling Marte had made his debut last year, and showed flashes of his potential. Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson had huge breakout seasons in low-A. Luis Heredia was developing well even with his aggressive push at a young age. There were also some promising international prospects in the lowest levels. The international market was looking more promising than the drafts. I always credit Rene Gayo and his team for the international signings, whether the GM is Neal Huntington or Dave Littlefield. I do credit Huntington for increasing the budget to around $3 M per year, up from Littlefield’s budget of “Where is the Dominican Republic located again?”

The international market continues to look strong. Marte has emerged as an impact player in the majors. Polanco and Hanson both continued their strong results in high-A, and both have made the jump to Double-A. Heredia has struggled with his control, but he’s also a year younger than guys like Glasnow and Holmes, and at the same level, so the aggressive push needs to be considered.

There have also been new prospects to emerge. Harold Ramirez is showing off some amazing hitting skills. Jin-De Jhang is doing the same behind the plate in Jamestown. Dilson Herrera isn’t having an Alen Hanson type breakout in West Virginia, but he is putting up good numbers considering is age and the fact that he jumped over short-season ball. Ulises Montilla is tearing the cover off the ball in the GCL, and Michael De La Cruz is doing the same thing in the DSL. There are also some interesting pitchers, including Joely Rodriguez and Wei-Chung Wang. In fact, if we just listed every interesting player, this list would get real long, real fast.

There was never any reason why the team associated with Roberto Clemente should have had struggles signing players in Latin America. Now that they’ve actually made the international market a focus, the results are starting to show. The Pirates could have a top international prospect at every full season level at the start of next year. Polanco at Triple-A, Hanson at Double-A, Herrera in high-A, and Ramirez in low-A. This continues to be a good area for the Pirates.

Drafting vs Developing

The debate of drafting vs developing is a “chicken and the egg” type situation. It’s hard to say which aspect led to the success of certain players. For example, the Pirates drafted Phil Irwin in the 21st round and Brandon Cumpton in the 9th round. Both have emerged as back of the rotation starters. Is that a sign of good drafting, or good development? You could ask the same questions about prep pitchers like Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow.

Then there’s the first round picks. How much credit do you give the Pirates for drafting and developing Pedro Alvarez, Jameson Taillon, and Gerrit Cole? All three were top draft prospects, and sure to go within the first few picks in their respective years. That’s kind of a lose-lose situation. If they work out, it’s because they were supposed to work out because they were taken so high and paid so much. If they don’t work out, it’s a development issue. I don’t think the drafting skills matter in these situations, but I do think there is some development work to credit, since you have to do something to take these guys from draft picks to major leaguers.

Then there’s the international guys. Those players don’t impact the drafting argument, but they definitely can impact the development. Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Alen Hanson were all small bonus guys in relation to the big bonus players on the international markets. Yet this development team took all three and turned them into impact players, or potential impact players.

If you look at how the Pirates operate, it’s easy to see that the process of drafting and developing work hand in hand. The Pirates aren’t drafting random people with random skills. It’s always the same. Every pitcher is a tall, skinny pitcher with the chance to add velocity (or they already have velocity), and a good off-speed pitch. Most of them throw on a downward plane, and/or use their off-speed pitch to induce ground balls. Then the Pirates teach these pitchers how to command their fastball and throw on a downward plane, all while adding or improving on a changeup. You saw this in the 2013 draft when the Pirates took Blake Taylor and Cody Dickson — two lefties who can eventually sit 92-94 MPH with strong breaking balls, poor control, and no changeups.

This year has been a big boost in favor of the process. The 2008 draft has emerged as a good one. The 2009 draft doesn’t look as good, but players are emerging to the majors from that group. The 2010-2011 drafts are stepping up, with top prep pitchers having breakout seasons, top overall picks reaching or getting close to the majors, and sleeper picks like Brandon Cumpton emerging. The international market is lining up to produce hitting prospects in waves.

Last year the debate of whether the Pirates could draft and develop players was totally valid. This year it’s looking like there’s no debate to be had.

Links and Notes

**The site was down a lot today due to issues with our web host. The issues seemed to be pretty widespread for all sites that use Hostgator or Blue Host. Because of the issue today, I’ve decided to change hosting companies. I’ll be switching to the new host this weekend, and I’m hoping it will provide some behind the scenes stuff that will make the site better. I’m still getting familiar with the new features, but two things that might be possible are faster load times and better mapping of the site, including the different sections of the site. Somehow we got eight articles and a podcast uploaded, even with the downtime, and those links are below.

**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 15: Recapping the Slow Deadline; The Pirates Are Legit Playoff Contenders.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Osuna Goes Deep Twice, Sadler Goes Six Shutout Innings.

**Jameson Taillon Getting Promoted to Triple-A.

**Reese McGuire Named the GCL Player of the Month For July.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Beat Yankees, Lose Tough One Against Angels.

**Minor League Schedule: Heredia Goes Tonight In West Virginia.

Pirates

**Rockies Deploy Three-Run Inning to Beat Pirates 4-2.

**Pirates Notebook: Jared Hughes Rides Again.

**Pirates Activate Jared Hughes, Option Vic Black.

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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  • brilemon

    Great piece.

  • brilemon

    Btw Tim or whoever- appr. of nothing:
    please never go to Facebook commenting… Unless somehow you make serious bank over it.

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

      I have no intention to go to Facebook commenting. I don’t know why sites are going that route. I get the benefits. You post a comment and it appears on your wall, which advertises the site and also probably cuts down on trolls and spammers.

      The downside is that you are only accepting comments from people with Facebook. I’d rather accept comments from everyone, including Facebook users, Twitter users, or people who don’t use any social network. So the comments will probably stay the same, using WordPress comments.

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

    “If they work out, it’s because they were supposed to work out because they were taken so high and paid so much. ”

    And quite a few Pgh Pundits have taken the latter view in denigrating NH. And we all know their names….lol

    Hoka Foo

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

    Thanks for switching hosts. Not having P2 to read, was like an addict not having his drug of choice.

    Ok, maybe not THAT BAD, but…………

    :) :)

    Drug Free Foo

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Great update. Pirate fans these days have your books on the subject matter, and following the players in the various levels can be an interesting sidelight to the action at PNC. It was not long ago that long-suffering Pirate fans could have had a one page description of the most talented, and our annual off-season and pre-season discussions were whether John Van Benschotten or Bryan Bullington would ever be ready, or whether Wilson-the-Large would ever be a middle of the lineup hitter. Being able to have a resource like PP that spends so much effort on the kids in the developmental process is a tremendous benefit for Pirate fans. Coonelly and NH have been very good for the Pirates showing no regard for spending on the physical infrastructure of our minor league system (esp Bradenton and the DR), filling the rosters with talent, developing that talent, and watching the results come to PNC on a regular basis – Marte, Mercer, Cole, Wilson, and Morris all in 2013, with 5 more in the Top 100 Prospects Lists. And, give Nutting a lot of the credit for picking the upper management team and trusting their recommendations with his money.

  • Bucco_Joe

    I think the jury is still out on this team’s drafting and development ability. Are they in a better position now than 5 to 6 years ago of course the answer is yes. This organization had nothing for prospects going back to 2007 so there was only one direction to go but up.

    The 2009 draft was a bad one. How many people here would have rather selected Mike Trout, Mike Leake, Zach Wheeler, or Shelby Miller instead of Tony Sanchez? Last year’s draft isn’t looking all that good at this point. The drafting of hard to sign high school pictures and paying them well over slot hasn’t worked all that well either. Just look at Zach Van Rosenberg, Colten Cain, and Stetson Allie. Hopefully Glasnow and/or Holmes changes this trend.

    The international signings have not progressed to the MLB level except for Marte. and so making a read on them is premature at this point. I think the jury is out on Marte’s future too unless he can somehow learn the strike zone. Too many bad strikeouts for a guy who isn’t a power hitter.

    • Kevin_Young

      smh

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

      I don’t know how you can look at the Pirates and say the jury is still out. They have the best record in baseball, and the team is filled with players who came up through the current development system. They have one of the best, if not the best, farm systems in the game. How can you look at those two things and say the jury is still out?

    • NastyNate82

      You can do hindsight like that all you like, and you can do that with just about any team’s drafting You’re pointing out all of the flaws in one draft, and ok…its not the best. But I’m not really sure what you’re hoping for with a projectable pitcher theory either. The goal is to invest in a lot of them and hope a few work out. If Glasnow does, then it doesn’t matter about the failures the previous years.
      International signings often take longer to judge than draft classes. While you’re right in that its a little soon to tell, guys like Hanson, Herrera, and Polanco show that the talent they’ve signed is developing well.
      Bottom line: Huntington and his crew have had some mistakes to be sure, but the thing I’ve noticed is that most of the big mistakes they’ve made were in the first couple of years of their tenure. From 2010 on, they’ve looked a lot better and appear to be learning from their mistakes.

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

    BJ, Really? Trout didn’t go until late in the first round, it’s not like any other teams saw that in him. Sanchez is a guy who I see getting better year after year. A catcher for 10 years? All day I take that.

    Marte’s talent and approach are absolutely unquestionable at this point. Strikeouts are a part of his game, and they don’t bother me at all if it comes with the aggressive attacking approach he brings every day and that cannon he shows off.

    Tim, I’d like to know are the Pirates taking advantage of Gayo to his full potential? This guy seems to have the magic to identify talent at a really high level – Should his role expand larger than just the Latin America? If not, with the recent changes to restricting spending in the CBA is there any opportunity to expand the budget – or perhaps develop another prospect market?

    • Y2JGQ2

      I concur- BJ really? Marte is almost a star player in his first full year. He does need to learn the strike zone and have a better hitting approach (sorry brian) but even if he never does, he’s still a 3-4 WAR player with his legs, defense, and his gap to gap power.

      I’m guessing you are saying the jury is out because we don’t have star players in the ML yet from those drafts……well neither do most teams. We will- Saying Allie hasn’t worked out and questioning Polanco, Garcia etc…..is just sour grapes man. Just shows you haven’t been paying enough attention

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

      I’m not sure that Gayo would want his role expanded beyond Latin America.

      • BostonsCommon

        If it ain’t broke…

    • moose7195

      I most certainly have an issue with Marte’s plate approach, the kid plays with a strike zone from his toes to his eyes, and pitchers are figuring that out. However the kid is young, and there is no reason that some experience wont teach him the value of taking a pitch that is crossing the middle of the left-handed batter’s box. His talent is unquestionable though. I don’t think too many guys could put up his numbers swinging at what he swings at.

      • BostonsCommon

        Gotta think that going to work with Cutch everyday would rub off in Marte at some point. Elite zone command is one of the biggest things preventing Marte from turning into a hitter like Cutch. There is no reason Marte won be just as dangerous as soon as he starts swinging at better pitches.

        • moose7195

          Entirely agree, but I think if Marte finds an elite level of strike recognition, he could be better than Cutch. And that’s only because I don’t see an elite level of strike recognition from McCutchen this year. For most of last year we saw it, and he was the best player in the NL. Both could use an overhaul with this very difficult skill to varying degrees.

          • NastyNate82

            Some guys take a long time to work it out. If you look at a guy like Carlos Gomez, it took him several years and different organizations for teams to settle on him. Marte may be a flawed player, but even if he doesn’t progress beyond what he is now, he’s still a valuable regular.
            And Cutch’s strike zone judgement is fine. A bit fewer walks is what he’s on pace for, but he’s also on pace for about 30 fewer K’s than last year.

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

    Tim – i have to ask it. Bay is out there DFA. If there was ONE flyer that I’d have to consider is there a little magic/fate there? RF, RH.

    • duckwoes

      I have thought about that as well. I think Bay would be worth a flyer because the fact of the matter is, he has continued to do well against lefties in spite of his overall struggles since 2010. Would cost next to nothing so…… why not?

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

      If Jason Bay was never a Pirate, then Pirates fans would currently have no interest in Jason Bay.

  • Y2JGQ2

    Bay is garbage Brian- He can’t hit lefties or righties and hasn’t been able to since he left boston. Washed up times 4

    • emjayinTN

      Y2: 11 HR’s in 206 AB’s equals one for every 18.7 AB’s – only one HR hitter better on the current roster, and that is Pedro with 1HR/13.6 AB’s. This was my pick when we were wandering in the desert with INGE. Lots of games left in Chicago, Cincy, Milwaukee – all short porches in LF. The Mariners had him signed for $1 mil, so? That was late July, and since then we brought up Harrison and he is 6 for 14, .429 with 5 RBI’s in his last 10 games since July 20. Makes for a tough decision, or would the Pirates send down Tabata and ruin any possibility of trading him during the off-season? But, Jason Bay has that ability to change a game with one swing off the bench.

  • Andrew

    Hopefully this is not extrapolation from the peak, but I feel like there is a growing body of evidence that the current Pirate’s regime have an effective blueprint of how to run an organization. The description of drafting similar type, tall and skinny, pitchers, is similar to how SI described the group homegrown Rays pitchers as lithe and athletic. Complaints about how other GMs hate to deal with Huntington because he places such a high value on his prospects. Fangraphs has an article discussing how the Pirates, use of shifts and athletic players who field well, is similar to As, and Rays, leading to run premiere prevention. Maybe one of those 39 baseball operations people has been reading this site and picked up on Tim’s frequent affirmations that the model small market franchise is the Rays.

    Maybe not, but it is nice to have a site that provides intelligent, objective, and in-depth coverage of the Pirates organization, and please draft arguments about Player A, B, C, developed quicker/turned out better than Player X drafted by the Pirates, is fraught with hindsight bias and fails to consider player D, E, F, who have fared worse. There are constructive critiques to be made about Pirates drafting/development, this is no one of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.beam.16 Matt Beam

    Tim – what about Casey Sadler? He was a 25th round pick in 2010 and his numbers seem on track to be very similar to Brandon Cumpton’s at AA last year. Both guys don’t get a lot of respect because of their draft position and K numbers, but getting a back of rotation starter and/or middle reliever out of the 25th round is impressive

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

      I thought about including Sadler and a few other players. I think Sadler is the same as Cumpton and Irwin. He’s a middle to late round pick who could be a back of the rotation starter. But the other two have had success in Triple-A and have reached the majors for at least one start. I believe Sadler can do the same, but I left him and a few other people off this list until that happens.

  • rburgh

    I think, from what I have read on this site, that NH and company have instituted a definite progression of things for players to learn, starting at the lowest level. This makes enormous sense to me. And the results seem to be coming from that.

    As far as Marte developing a good eye, John Sickels has done some work on that and from what I can gather, it is extremely unlikely that Marte will ever draw 80 walks in a season. But I think he does a fairly good job of working into hitters’ counts; he just seems to think that it is mandatory to swing from the heels at every 3-1 pitch.

  • Curtis

    I agree and am very excited about the Pirates farm system. Just think how good it would be with even an average 2009 draft!

    But I will point out that the jury is still out on their ability to draft hitters. The great hitters in the Pirates organization pre-dated NH or have come from the international scene. There are still question marks concerning Alvarez, Sanchez, Mercer, Barnes, Bell, etc. Part of this is because they threw a lot of picks and money into pitchers and got better results than the average team, but in doing so they threw fewer into hitters and got worse results than the average team.

    Hopefully the 2013 draft will begin to balance that out and Sanchez and company will break out like our pitchers have.

    • rburgh

      Great hitters are few and far between. Suppose we define that as the top 30 hitters in MLB by BtRuns on bbref. Cutch is 12th.

      Farther down the list, Marte and Alvarez are 69th and 81st respectively. All of them are 26 or younger, only 24 of the top 90 are that young. And we have guys on the way (Polanco, Hanson, Bell, Meadows, McGuire to name a few of my faves) that could easily break into that exalted company.

      For the love of Pete, this team has had 20 losing seasons in a row, and people are ignoring the fact that the current squad only has the best record in the National League, the best pitching staff in baseball. They’ve gotta cry that it doesn’t score enough runs to make them happy?

      Go soak your heads.

      • Curtis

        rburgh: If you will take a moment to read my message you replied to, you will see that I was referring to hitters drafted by NH. Cutch, Marte, Polanco, and Hanson do not fall into that category. I covered the others you mention with my statements about question marks and the 2013 draft.

        If you wish to argue against my comments, feel free. But in this you were just making things up that you could easily tear down.