The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Justin Morneau today for Alex Presley and a PTBNL, who is reportedly Duke Welker. For our analysis on the first part of the deal, check out the trade article. I was thinking about the two players involved in the deal, and thinking about how they got to where they were.
First, this is another deal where the Pirates are getting short-term help, but not giving up anything they will miss. Morneau is a better option than Presley this year. Presley would have been lost in the mix of outfielders in September that will include Jose Tabata, Travis Snider, Felix Pie, Andrew Lambo, and maybe even guys like Jerry Sands. Morneau should start at first, and when he’s not starting, he’s the top bat off the bench. Next year Presley is out of options, and once again would have been lost in the mix, or DFAd over the winter. Welker is a good relief prospect, but the Pirates haven’t had any issues finding guys like that. When I was looking over the September call-ups, I didn’t see him as one of the top 36 guys who could make the team. That says more about the roster than Welker. The Pirates won’t miss either player in the short-term or the long-term.
That’s not to say these two players don’t have value. I’ve always felt that Presley could be a good fourth outfielder. He’s still cheap, and is under control for five seasons. Welker is a hard throwing right-hander who is on the older side for prospect status. However, he throws upper 90s, can touch triple digits, and has a hard slider that’s a good out pitch. At the least, he could be a good middle reliever, and he would have been in the majors this year for the Pirates if their other relievers weren’t so good.
Both Presley and Welker have value, just not to the Pirates. Another thing they both share in common: both players looked like they might not make it out of A-ball.
When I first started this site, I only covered the Lynchburg Hillcats in the minor league system. Lynchburg was about 40 minutes away from where I lived, and they ended up winning a championship that year, so I drove over for every game, waited with the autograph hounds after the game to get some interviews, then drove home and wrote until 2 AM for the 50-100 people who read the site at the time. It kind of sounds crazy to me now.
After most games, I noticed a guy walking out of the clubhouse after almost every game. He was young, short, clean shaven, and he was usually one of the first to leave the locker room. I thought it was the bat boy. Instead it was Alex Presley. He was in the middle of a forgettable season where he was hitting for a .257/.305/.379 line in 417 at-bats. This was his second year in high-A, and the results both times were poor. He was 23 years old, which combined with the numbers in high-A at that level for the second year in a row meant he wasn’t likely to go any higher.
So it was crazy when the Pirates started him out in Double-A the following season. Or so it seemed at first. Presley spent the previous off-season focused on his game, and had a breakout season in 2010. He hit for a .350/.399/.533 line in 246 at-bats with Altoona, followed by a .294/.349/.460 line in 272 at-bats with Indianapolis. He even earned himself a callup to the majors. I remember his first game specifically, as I was in Altoona at the end of their season, and they put his first at-bat up on the scoreboard.
In one season, Presley went from a guy who looked like he could justifiably be released, to a guy who was in the majors. The next year he returned to Indianapolis, posted strong numbers again, and the #FreeAlexPresley campaign started, which was the first #Free campaign. Presley hasn’t done much in the majors, but considering he was a guy who put up a .691 OPS in high-A over two seasons, the fact that he’s in the majors is impressive.
Duke Welker Learns Control
At the end of the 2010 season I was in West Virginia. It was Labor Day, and the Power had an afternoon game to finish their season. I showed up a few hours early and one scout was in attendance. This was a veteran National League scout who had covered the Pirates throughout the year. There wasn’t much to talk about with the farm system at the time. It was in the early stages of the rebuilding process that led to the current state. The talk was limited to the 09 Lynchburg/10 Altoona team, and the new additions of Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie.
I don’t remember much of that conversation, but one thing that stuck out was the evaluation of Duke Welker. The scout raved about Welker, calling him one of the best prospects at the West Virginia level that year, and saying he has a major league arm. This was 2010. Duke Welker was 24 years old, and spent half the season in low-A. He walked 24 batters in 22.1 innings at the level. He went on to high-A where he walked 23 in 24.1 innings. Welker did strike out 45 in 46.2 innings between the two levels that year, but the control was horrible. That said, the scout noted that he got his velocity back.
The next season Welker spent between Bradenton and Altoona. The walks were cut in half, with a 3.8 BB/9 after a 9.1 BB/9 the previous year. The strikeouts were down a bit, but most encouraging was that the velocity was still there. Welker was starting to work in the upper 90s, which is where he was the previous year with horrible control. He was also showing a sharp slider which was an effective out pitch. From that point forward, Welker was consistent. He had control problems, but never as bad as 2010. His velocity sat in the upper 90s, and hit triple digits at times. His slider became a borderline plus offering at times, leading to a strikeout per inning in 92.2 innings at the Triple-A level.
The Pirates have had success teaching fastball command, and getting pitchers to focus on attacking hitters, trying to induce contact, and working efficiently. When you’ve got the stuff Welker has, you can pound the zone aiming for easy contact, and get nothing but swings and misses. In 2010, Welker was a 24 year old relief pitcher who was walking a batter an inning and didn’t look like a prospect on the surface. A year later he improved his control and got back on the prospect map, and three years later he made his major league debut.
The Bonus Prospects
Everyone pays attention to draft picks, especially the first round guys. Everyone focuses on young breakout players like Gregory Polanco or Alen Hanson. But you don’t get much focus on the guys who look like they’re on the way out. Usually that’s because a large majority of those players are on their way out. But sometimes you’ll get a player who turns things around and goes from a non-prospect to a guy who actually has some value. Most of the time the value these guys bring is an extra bullpen arm or a bench player, such as the case with Presley and Welker. Two other examples are Tim Alderson and Andrew Lambo.
You’re relying on the draft picks and the young breakout players, but these guys are bonus. A few years ago Presley and Welker looked like they were on their way out of baseball. They both adjusted, and the Pirates got 656 at-bats of .718 OPS from Presley, plus one month of Justin Morneau during a playoff run for both players. That’s not bad.
I don’t know how much you can credit the development system for these guys, since this kind of stuff happens with every team in baseball. You can credit the Pirates for their roster management. It would have been extremely easy to get rid of either of these players. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people say that Presley or Welker should be designated for assignment to clear a roster spot in the past. Instead, the Pirates saw value in both players, and it’s obvious that other teams did as well, since the Pirates were able to trade both for Morneau. Coincidentally, part of what made Presley so expendable was the emergence of this year’s bonus prospect Andrew Lambo.
Other teams have bonus prospects who emerge, but it seems like the Pirates have at least one per year. I don’t know if that’s common elsewhere. The Pirates have built a strong team, and a strong system, so they’re no longer at a point where they need to rely on these bonus prospects. Therefore, with some good roster management, they could continue dealing these bonus prospects for major league help, while not sacrificing their future in the process.
Links and Notes
Morneau Trade Analysis