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.

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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