First Pitch

First Pitch: The Pirates System is Built For Long Term Success

First Pitch: The Pirates System is Built For Long Term Success

For a few moments today, it felt like Spring Training. I was up at 5:30, got to the field at 7:30, and my phone was back on the charger shortly after 11 AM. Of course, it’s not Spring Training. It’s mini-camp, or more accurately it’s “voluntary workouts”, since “mini-camp” is restricted in the new CBA. Also, it’s definitely not Spring Training since it’s supposed to be 35 degrees tomorrow morning. That’s nothing compared to the zero degrees in Pennsylvania, but I’m pretty sure they shut the entire state of Florida down when it gets into the 30s.

This afternoon I talked with several players who are down here, sticking mostly to prospects. I spoke with Andrew Lambo, who talked about his time at first base over the off-season, and how he’s shooting for the open job in Pittsburgh. I also spoke with Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, with features on those two coming in the next two days. I talked briefly with Gregory Polanco, and watched him hitting a bit in batting practice.

Then the news came out about how the Pirates will have the top farm system in Baseball America’s upcoming Prospect Handbook. The typical response to the Pirates having a top ranked farm system is that they did it thanks to high draft picks. But that’s really not the case. A high draft position really only matters in the first round. After that, there’s little difference between the first pick in the fifth round and the 30th pick. The Pirates aren’t exactly limited to just first rounders fueling their rankings.

I thought about what was making up the system, then I realized that today I coincidentally talked to representatives from all of the main avenues of acquiring prospects. There was a high first round pick in Jameson Taillon. There was a middle round draft pick in Tyler Glasnow. Gregory Polanco was an international free agent, signed in April 2009. Andrew Lambo was acquired in a trade at the deadline in 2010 for Octavio Dotel. Out of the four players, he ranks the lowest in the farm system, falling outside of most top tens. That shows the strength of the system when a guy who hits 33 homers between the top three levels of baseball at the age of 24 can’t crack the top ten.

The rankings come from Baseball America, so to get an idea of how evenly distributed the system is, let’s look at where the Baseball America top 10 prospects came from.

First Rounders – Jameson Taillon, Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire

The Pirates haven't just had success with their first rounders. They've been successful with middle round picks like Nick Kingham.

The Pirates haven’t just had success with their first rounders. They’ve been successful with middle round picks like Nick Kingham.

Mid-Round Picks – Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, Josh Bell

International Free Agents – Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Harold Ramirez, Luis Heredia

There are a few disclaimers here. Bell was a second round pick, but was signed for a $5 M bonus. Heredia was signed to a $3 M bonus, so there was some big spending involved there that leads to top prospect expectations. On the flip side, McGuire wasn’t exact a high first round pick, going 14th overall.

Overall the Pirates have had a lot of success, system-wide. They’ve made some good choices with their first rounders over the years. They did go signability in 2009 with Tony Sanchez, and the prep pitchers they signed with the saved money haven’t worked out. But Sanchez is looking like he could take over as a starting catcher in 2015.

The middle round picks show either strong scouting, strong development, or both. Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham have both come a long way in a short time period. They’re exactly what you want from young, prep pitchers. If they keep up their current pace, the Pirates could have an outstanding rotation when those two are added to Gerrit Cole and Taillon.

The international free agents show a big strength of the farm system, and that strength is Rene Gayo and his team in Latin America. They’ve shown a great ability to find young talent for cheap prices. Polanco was signed for $150,000. Hanson was signed for $90,000. They spent on Harold Ramirez, but they were also the only team that felt he was worth that price, and he proved them right in 2013. Aside from the above players, they’ve found other values, such as Starling Marte ($85,000), Joely Rodriguez ($55,000), and possibly the next Harold Ramirez-type undervalued signing in Michael De La Cruz ($700,000).

The best part about the system is that the Pirates are having success with middle round picks, and they’re having success signing international players without spending a lot of money. Now that the Pirates are contenders, they’re going to be picking lower in the draft, and they will have less money to spend in the international markets. The lower draft pick means they won’t see prospects like Taillon in the first round anymore. They might still see a McGuire type talent in a better draft. Because of this, their ability to find players outside of the top ten picks will be important.

Smaller bonus international players like Alen Hanson will be even more important with less money to spend as contenders.

Smaller bonus international players like Alen Hanson will be even more important with less money to spend as contenders.

The lower international money shouldn’t really impact them as much as other teams. Some teams in baseball rely on money as a scout. They see who has the most buzz, then they go out to win a bidding war. The Pirates have been successful largely because they’re willing to scout in areas that other teams won’t go. That allows them to sign similar talent at much lower prices. This ability is going to allow the Pirates to continue getting strong international talent, even if their ability to spend has been reduced by their place in the standings.

The Pirates have the top farm system in baseball in 2014, and the future looks bright beyond the 2014 season. They might graduate Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco from the prospect ranks this year, but they’ll still have Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, Alen Hanson, and others. That doesn’t include any potential breakout players (becoming the next in line to follow Polanco, Hanson, and Glasnow from the last two years). The Pirates have also shown the ability to land talent in the middle rounds, and without spending money in the international market. Both of those skills will keep talent coming into the system, even with the restrictions of being a contender. The Pirates aren’t just set up to have a talented farm system in the short-term. They’re also set up for long-term success, which should allow them to have a shot at long-term success in the majors.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.

**We will be releasing our top 20 prospects over the next few weeks. Today the countdown started with #20 – Michael De La Cruz. He’s the first international player since Luis Heredia who has cracked our top 50 without playing a game in the US.

**An Early Preview of What Could Be the Best Outfield in Baseball. Quick read that includes pictures and video of Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, who were playing together today.

**Andrew Lambo Working at First Base; Hopes to Win Open Spot. It was only a few years ago that a guy like Lambo would have been guaranteed a starting job after his 2013 season.

**Pirates Will Have Baseball America’s Top Farm System This Year.

**Winter Leagues: Ramirez Leads Team To 6-5 Victory. If you’re looking for guys who could breakout and end up on a top 100 list next year, you might want to start with Harold Ramirez.

**Pirates Sign Chris Dickerson. He says he signed to compete for the open right field job. He seems like this year’s version of Felix Pie. He might get a long look with a really good Spring. He also might get a chance to be a backup plan out of Triple-A if he continues hitting well. He could even win a bench job. I just don’t see him getting a starting job over Travis Snider or Jose Tabata.

**Jameson Taillon Invited to Major League Spring Training. He’s not going to make the team, but he should get the same kind of look that Gerrit Cole got last year, and will probably be in the majors by mid-season.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Spring Training Tracker. This was uploaded Sunday, but Dickerson was added to the tracker today. All of the NRIs will be added to this list after they sign, along with their chances of making the team.

  • emjayinTN

    The Pirates have drafted very well, especially in the area of SP’s. They have proven to be an even stronger developmental program, because the acceleration of some of these guys through the various stages of the minors has been nothing short of phenomenal. When the Phillies came looking for one of the guys from our developmental staff, I think it sent a signal off to NH, who fought to keep the individual – he remained with the Pirates and passed on the Phillies offer. We need to do whatever is possible within reason to keep the entire staff together, or make sure we have backup talent available if someone leaves.

    Having Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, and then Glasnow and Heredia possibly by 2016, and a host of others on the way, they can flip the entire Rotation in a 3 or 4 year time period. The challenge will be who to trade and when in order to supplement future drafts by getting young pre-prospect pitchers from other teams. Nice to have that challenge.

  • Do scouts and scouting teams have strengths and weaknesses? maybe just preferences?
    I know NH loves them tall pitchers.
    I ask cause we seem to find many good pitchers and OFs, but not many IFers.
    or is this just a coincidence of the talent available at the time?

    • I think it’s more about the available talent.

      In most cases, you don’t draft certain infield positions. A lot of first basemen were originally outfielders or third basemen when drafted. Sometimes you’ll draft a shortstop and he’ll end up at second or third instead.

      Pitcher and outfield are the two most common positions, in my opinion. You’re going to see a lot of athletic players in the outfield. Those players usually can play all three positions, or first base down the line. In some cases, the outfielders could move to a different infield position, like JaCoby Jones.

      When you do draft a certain position, you have to be sure that the player can stick at the position. Drafting a shortstop comes with the concern that he could move to second. Drafting a third baseman comes with the concern that he could move to first. And those position changes are very common when you’re talking about guys out of college, and especially guys out of high school.

      If you look around the league, all teams are looking for positions like SS and 3B. The Pirates having a prospect like Alen Hanson, and someone in the majors like Jordy Mercer, puts them in a good position for that position. They only have Alvarez for 3B, but that’s another hard position to fill.

      • Y2JGQ2

        Yet some teams have a multitude of them…..

        The one issue is this: If you don’t draft shortstops or third basemen, chances are….none of those other players you drafted are going to move there, and noone is going to trade them to you without you handing over fort knox, so what exactly is your strategy on how to acquire these extremely important pieces of the puzzle that we’ve been so awful in accumulating?

        Up until now, it seems like your thoughts are simply…….well, if they happen to be the best player available during that round, you draft them, otherwise you keep drafting outfielders and pitchers, and then have 12 pitchers on your bench and just put 8 men on the field. I know i’m being ridiculous here, but seriously, where’s the line when you decide there is a serious shortcoming in your organization and how do you approach it?

        It’s like having a team of 9 all-star players, but 6 of them are outfielders. Okay….guess what, you lose. You have to trade 6 of them, and that means you flood the market and its a buyers market and you don’t get the value back. Sooner or later, we are going to be in that same situation if we aren’t already. We have top 100 prospects, but who is lining up to trade us the young all-star caliber talent at one of those premium positions in return? Noone

        • Y2JGQ2

          at the end i meant potential prospect all-star caliber talent, not major league all-star talent

  • thanx 4 the info Tim.
    thought maybe scouts had strengths & weaknesses in evaluating certain talent.
    the scouts in my baseball video game were like that anyways lol

    • emjayinTN

      I think the Pirates have a tendency to see power SP’s as the most liquid asset a team could have. Looking at what KC gave up to get James Shields last year, what teams are looking at for David Price this year, and if AJ Burnett would have opted to pitch another year, I think the Pirates would have made Francisco Liriano available for trade prior to the 2014 season. So, having the pitching strength we have already in the majors and more coming through the system, provides the Pirates a very strong position to trade from with teams in need of pitching. Right now the big deal is the Tanaka kid, but watch when that ends, and the losers have to scramble. And NH has shown the ability to be able to assemble a strong Bullpen, so pitching, which is where the defense of a team starts, is well taken care of for at least the next decade.

      Another thing is that when we selected Pedro with the 2nd pick, KC drafted Hosmer, 1B at No. 3, Cincy drafted Alonso, 1B at No. 7, and Texas drafted Smoak, 1B at No. 11. So we are now short a 1B? A few years later the Pirates decided to draft Jameson Taillon with the second pick of the draft. Then, the O’s drafted Manny Machado, SS, at No. 3, and KC drafted Christian Colon, SS, at No. 4. Thankfully, Jordy Mercer came out of nowhere last year, and Alen Rery Hanson is going to be at AA/AAA in 2014, which is very close. And, having a kid like Taillon to join the Rotation in 2014 is going to provide even more strength to what is now an excellent group of SP’s.

  • “The middle round picks show either strong scouting, strong development, or both.”

    Don’t fooget luck, either. The odds after the first round go down from 20% to 10% and lower by the time you hit the 10th round.

    To get even servicable players that low is impressive. To get a star….well, some luck is involved.

    The old adage: “If they knew the guy was gonna be that good, they’d have taken him higher” applies (not only for us but for every team).

    But……..after all of our drafting ‘bad luck’ we deserve some ‘good luck’. And the more ‘projectible’ pitchers you take, the more chance you have of hitting big. Compare ZVR and Glasnow when they were drafted and where they are now.


  • Tim….I read where St Louis is going to start concentrating on the Korean and Asian markets.

    Where do we stand in those markets. I know we got Wang and Chang. Any others?


    This thread warmed my -3 degrees outside heart.

    • Tim…sorry…CUBA and Asia.

  • Kevin_Young

    Don’t forget though that the Kingham and Glasnow types will be harder to land now (thanks Bud). And while I liked the pitchers we snagged this year, especially the lefties, the spending limits really complicate matters.

    • emjayinTN

      The great thing about MLB closing the barn door was that they did not do so until the Pirates had already maxed out, and teams like KC had already begun to take the same approach in the draft. The competition from other teams would have naturally caused the Pirates to get less in the future, but shutting down the whole process eliminated the possibility that other teams could get anywhere near the same benefit as the Pirates had already reaped. And what happened? The Posting Systrem for Japanese Players was a private playground for the Top 5 or 6 teams, but a Frank Coonelly-led protest from the small market franchises caused the posting fee to be dropped to $20 mil which means more money will have to go into the player’s contract, and that increased amount of money will have a better chance of showing up in the Revenue Sharing Pool that is apportioned out to the small market franchises.

      I would hate to have to negotiate with this Pirate Front Office – they do their homework. And in addition to the LHSP’s, check out our RHP’s like #7 Buddy Borden, #8 Neil Kozikowski, #9 Chad Kuhl, #10 Shane Carle, #16 Billy Roth, and # 22 Henry Hirsch, and all 6 for about $1.2 mil total.

  • piratemike

    Large market teams usually draft low because of their ability to sign quality free agents so they are usually competitive but they still have the same ability to find and sign prospects that successful SM teams have.
    Large market teams can bid on international players that small market teams cannot such as Tanaka.
    LM teams can offer large long term contracts to free agents that SM teams cannot.
    LM teams have the same ability to find and sign Latin players as SM teams.
    LM teams can trade good prospects without fear of messing up their future.
    Small market teams get to draft high until after years of doing everything right they finally have some success then the only advantage they have is taken away……….. Why?
    Because they have dared to have some success!
    Large market teams have all the same abilities to acquire players that SM teams have …PLUS…other advantages that SM teams do not.
    The only way to give a SM team the ability to have success and have a chance to maintain that success is to allow SM teams to be given permanent high draft status..
    That doesn’t mean one team will always draft #1 but teams can rotate or whatever other means is decided upon but teams like Pittsburgh should never draft lower than 15 and teams like Boston should never draft higher than 16.

    • i agree with this, and this idea has been brought up in columns b4. but how to rank and implement this is not easy.
      just know, this year NY teams will be drafting higher than us.
      who’d have thought

      • piratemike

        I don’t see why the implantation and ranking is that difficult, if MLB decided this was the proper thing to do. certainly no harder than replay. It just takes the will to do it.
        The Mets have poor ownership but their F.O. is now better and they have the money to get better and sustain their team in the near future. No need to address the Yankees, once the ARod thing is over it will be back to business as usual.

    • Y2JGQ2

      I’ve always liked your zeal and the idea behind this argument, but sadly, it is flawed. Large market or small market is irrelevant. a LOT of big market teams operate at significant losses because their ownership chooses to in order to maintain competitive. Just because a team is in a big market doesn’t mean they didn’t lose 20 million last year. At the end of the day, teams like the Pirates, do NOT operate at a loss ever, not since ownership change, at while we ARE a small market, we have a lot of money to spend, probably 50 million or more, before we’d be operating at the same losses some of the larger teams are. We CHOOSE not to spend it. Other teams do, not their fault. There are only a handful of TRULY large market teams. There isn’t a single team in our division which is a large market team except chicago……and I don’t think they deserve to have the additional burden of a low draft pick. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia……Boston, that’s really about it. Your notorious big spenders like Texas…..not really a large market, just spend a lot of money. Seattle is spending now, but they aren’t a large market, san francisco i wouldn’t consider a large market either nor would I for Detroit. Bigger Cities yes, big spenders at times yes, but just like Miami, or Texas when they see they can’t keep it up because they are losing money, it cycles back.

      So lets just say that you put san fran, Texas, and detroit in as large market teams, which i disagree with……that’s 11 teams….. we are still drafting 18 or 19 next year, so who cares? Most years top talent is in the top ten, or top five for that matter

  • csnumber23

    The system is in great shape! The present and future look great for the Bucs!

First Pitch

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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