First Pitch: When Do the Pirates Promote Their Pitching Prospects?

The Pittsburgh Pirates have invested a lot of money into pitching prospects, especially through the MLB draft. They seem to have a very systematic way of moving guys through the system, with the innings at each level being a key trend to determine when a pitcher might move up. Ultimately, a player will only move up when he’s ready from a developmental standpoint. If he has the innings, but isn’t ready to move up, he probably won’t move up. If he doesn’t have the innings, the Pirates will probably wait until he gets to the low end of the normal range before a promotion, just to give enough time to see if the performance is legit.

There are going to be some questions this summer about the possible promotion of top prospects like Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, Adrian Sampson and more. To get an idea of when these guys might be promoted, I went through the minors in previous years, looking at how many innings a pitcher threw at a certain level before a promotion. Remember that the key for any pitcher is the performance — not only on the stat sheet, but from a developmental standpoint. If you’ve got a guy like Tyler Glasnow or Adrian Sampson dominating, then the question becomes “when do they get promoted?” That’s where the innings pitched history comes in handy as a nice guide to use.

I’ll take a look at some specific situations below. Also, if you’re interested in hitters, I plan on doing a similar article covering that topic.

Low-A to High-A

Nick Kingham – 127 IP

Phil Irwin – 113 IP

Tyler Glasnow – 111.1 IP

Jameson Taillon – 92.2 IP

Joely Rodriguez – 72.2 IP

Brandon Cumpton – 67 IP

Casey Sadler – 66.2 IP

Most pitchers in West Virginia spend the entire season at the level. The exception would be the advanced college guys or older players, who usually get moved up after about two months. The Pirates usually have a lot of prep guys at this level, or college guys with a lot of work needed on their secondary stuff.

High-A to Double-A

Jeff Locke – 213.2 IP*

Adrian Sampson – 140 IP

Casey Sadler – 130.1 IP

Jameson Taillon – 125 IP

Nick Kingham – 70 IP

Joely Rodriguez – 67.1 IP

Gerrit Cole – 67 IP

Brandon Cumpton – 66.1 IP

Phil Irwin – 53.1 IP

A lot of pitchers will move up to Altoona after half a season, depending on performance. The big outlier on the list above is Jeff Locke. He also comes with an asterisk, as some of his time in High-A came in another organization. Locke came to the Pirates with control problems, and spent extra time at the level fixing those issues. Adrian Sampson spent 140 innings at the level last year, although he skipped over West Virginia. Normally he’d have about 70 innings in West Virginia and 70 in Bradenton. Casey Sadler started as a reliever in the first half of 2012, then moved to the rotation in the second half. Jameson Taillon struggled the first half of the season, extending his stay at the level.

Generally it seems that players move up once they demonstrate the ability to throw a changeup and command the fastball. They don’t have to master these things, but they’ll need a good start in both areas.

Double-A to Triple-A

Phil Irwin – 191.2 IP

Jeff Locke – 182.2 IP

Brandon Cumpton – 162 IP

Nick Kingham – 144.1 IP

Casey Sadler – 130.1 IP

Jameson Taillon – 127.1 IP

Gerrit Cole – 59 IP

The one exception on the list above is Gerrit Cole. He was moved up after just half a season in Altoona. Cole also was far more advanced than most of the pitchers on this list. He was very polished coming out of college, and had a plus changeup, which is a key area of development at this level. The Pirates focus on the changeup in the lower levels, but this is the level where you usually see big improvements. This is also the level where pitchers start pitching more like they would in the majors, rather than working heavily on one specific pitch. Most of the time, you’ll see guys spend the equivalent of a full season in Double-A. If they get promoted for the start of the season, they will probably finish the season at the level. If they get promoted mid-season, they’ll probably return for the first half of the following season.

Triple-A to the Majors

Gerrit Cole – 74 IP

Brandon Cumpton – 65.1 IP

Casey Sadler – 33 IP

Jeff Locke – 28.1 IP

Phil Irwin – 28 IP

The jump to the majors is largely dependent on when a pitcher is ready. There have also been guys who have made the jump at different times, getting sent down after their initial arrival in the majors. For the purpose of this article, I’m only focusing on starting pitchers in Triple-A (even if they moved to the majors as relievers), and I’m only going to focus on the initial call-up.

Most of the guys above have been up-and-down players. They got their initial call to the majors early, but went back down shortly after. Locke was a September call-up two years in a row before being called up for the long-haul. Of course, he had a horrible second half in 2013, and ended up going back down due to performance issues. Cumpton has been called upon for depth purposes. Same with Sadler and Irwin, with the latter no longer being in the system.

Cole is the key guy here. He was held back for Super Two purposes, although he wasn’t exactly dominant from day one. He struggled the first month of the season, then pitched well in May. Unlike the situation with Gregory Polanco, who dominated the entire season in Triple-A, Cole was only held back for a few weeks due to Super Two, rather than over a month.

Current Pitching Prospects

The Pirates recently promoted Nick Kingham to Triple-A. He has just two starts at the level, and 14 innings. If he gets about 6 innings per start (his average this year), and gets 15 more starts (6 per month, plus two this month and one in September), then he will finish with 94 innings. I could definitely see him being called up in September if he’s pitching well and the Pirates still need pitching. I could even see him called up in August if he pitches the way he has been the last two starts. Super Two wouldn’t be an issue, because he’d already be past that for the 2014 season. The Pirates could just keep him up for good after he arrives in the majors. The key difference between him and a situation like Cole would be that the Pirates would miss out on 1.5-2 months of production during the first season.

The other top pitching prospect who could be in line for a promotion this year is Tyler Glasnow. He’s got 48.2 innings in Bradenton, while he works on his fastball command and changeup. Based on other pitchers, he probably has another month to go before he gets a promotion, assuming he does well in that month. He’s been on fire in his last six starts, but that’s only six starts. Jameson Taillon had six amazing starts to begin his season in High-A in 2012. He followed that up with two months of struggles before figuring things out.

Looking at the other pitchers in our top 20, I don’t see Adrian Sampson moving up until the end of the year. The numbers have been phenomenal in Altoona, but he has 76.2 innings. I could see him possibly going to Indianapolis for the playoffs. Joely Rodriguez seems less likely to move up this year, as his strikeouts haven’t been there in Altoona. He has 70.1 innings, and might be a candidate to return to Altoona for the start of the 2015 season.

The only other pitching prospects in the top 20 (minus rookie league guys) are Luis Heredia and Buddy Borden. Heredia will remain in West Virginia all season, and possibly move up to Bradenton next year. Borden could move up before the end of the season, since he’s a college guy. However, he seems like one of the college guys who could benefit from an entire year in low-A.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Josh Bell Having a Monster Month, Jordan Luplow Hits First Homer

**Stetson Allie Placed on the DL; Altoona Suspensions Announced

**Jason Grilli Removed From Closer Role

**Minor Moves: Jake Brigham Returns, Carlos Paulino on Rehab

**Minor League Schedule: Luis Heredia Headlines Busy Saturday

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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  • Dom DiDominic

    After watching Sampson’s last start, I was hoping he could move up for a handful of starts in Indy.
    Potentially start ’15 with Taillon, Kingham & Sampson all in Indy’s rotation.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Very difficult to plot the promotions of young pitchers when all we have is stats to support our opinions, and the Pirates are notoriously deliberate in their movement of young pitchers. More often than not, they see 25 as the optimum age for entry into the majors. Gerrit Cole was almost a finished product coming out of UCLA, but it still took him almost 2 years to his age 23 season to get through the minors. Nick Kingham is in his age 22 season and has been excellent in his 2 AAA starts, throwing 7 innings in both. I think he will be called up in September. Tyler Glasnow is in his age 21 season and is at Hi A. Do we move him quicker? I wrote something earlier about how Detroit handled Andy Oliver. Draft in 2009, start at AA in 2010 for 14 starts, then to AAA for 9 starts, and then up to Detroit for 5 more starts – all in his first year of full time baseball – any reason to wonder why he is now touching developmental bases they skipped years ago? Glasnow is our poster child for drafting projectable guys and paying over slot. Last year he had a breakout year second to none, with a FB that sits in the mid 90′s with ease and bumps the triple digit threshhold. He will have to mature and develop, and there is no place better to do so than at Bradenton, and I think he stays there as long as he needs. When he leaves Bradenton, he will need to be a 3 pitch guy with the ability to throw any of them for strikes in any count. As you stated in the Prospect Guide, “Glasnow has the highest upside of any pitcher in the system”, and he has done nothing so far in 2014 to disprove that statement.

    • freddylang

      Agree with your post completely emjay. The only thing I would add is as we all know, every player develops differently, so that’s why I like the Pirates approach of starting them slow with core things to master like fastball command, and learning the change-up. Then once the kid masters that they can move at their own pace according to how dominant they are…which we have seen a decent amount of guys do. I don’t think the Pirates are ultra slow per se…but they definitely start prospects slow…and there is nothing wrong with that because most kids have hit the ground running after callups rather than fail and then almost have to start over again from square one or two…like Oliver…Detroit is notorious for this as they have rushed many to mixed results. Glasnow is a special case because he is still really young but no one can touch him. Before this season I had the thought that they can take it slow one more year with him and then the sky is the limit of how you push him in his 3rd year of full season ball. The way he has dominated lately is speeding that along. But he is already zipping along because he will be in AA at 21 even if for some reason he doesn’t get there until 2015. There is a decent shot he will be in AA at 20 this year…not many guys do that. I know one thing, I don’t think I would trade Glasnow for any other prospect in baseball.

      • emjayinTN

        fl: I keep him in Florida simply because I cannot understand what has happened to the Altoona Curve. With the amount of talent going through the system, I would expect better. They were 16 games under .500 last year and are already 19 under .500 this year at the midpoint of the season. Just not a whole lot clicking at that franchise the past few years.

  • moose7195

    The answer to the article’s title is easy: when their fans are most annoyed. Or at least 2 months after the first fan suggests they call him up

    • Lee Young

      lol

  • bucsws2014

    I guess the good news here is that it seems not only possible, but likely, that Kingham is part of the Bucs rotation coming out of ST in 2015. I’d been assuming later than that. Lord knows Neal is not going to sign a top-of-rotation guy, so Bucs will need Kingham desperately.

    If it’s Cole, Morton, Locke, Kingham and Flotsam to start the year, I can live with that until Taillon returns mid-year.

    • freddylang

      I think it is far from Flotsam because you have Worley, Sadler, Cumpton, A.J. Morris, & Tyler Waldron all battling for a spot. That is a decent list of pitchers before you eve start looking at cheap free agent options. Volquez could still be in the conversation too but I doubt it/don’t care if he is…and I seriously think Glasnow may be ready in 2015…the Pirates should be good…I wouldn’t mind even seeing Glasnow up out of the pen down the stretch to save his inning count and get his feet wet. The Angels did this when K-Rod was a kid with them and they used him in the playoffs in the world series year to great results.

      • bucsws2014

        Yes there’s depth. But is it quality depth? I think Worley is the key. If he performs close to 2011 levels, that would rank as one of Neal’s best steals ever.

        IMO, Cumpton still needs a changeup, even if it’s just a show-me pitch. When you pound the zone, you need significant speed changes or pin point accuracy. Cumpton doesn’t have the latter yet, so needs the former if he wants to get through a lineup more than once.

        I think we’ll see AJ this year. His upside is probably only that of Maholm. I think he might be Brian Burres (who actually did pitch well in a couple of starts before returning to mediocrity).

        Sadler could use more seasoning. Maybe the rest of this year and ST will be enough. But I can’t get excited about him yet based on what I’ve seen. Small sample size of course, but his control went out the window with the big club.

        I haven’t really followed Waldron this year. He wasn’t great at AA, so I’m wondering what he’s added to account for his AAA success thus far.

        Just one fan’s opinion. I’m not a professional scout. Nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

  • leadoff

    I think the formula is simple for pitchers: Get 3 pitches that are good pitches, get some innings, get some success and hope nobody is blocking you and wait for the promotion or trade.

  • Spa City

    When are Kingham and Glasnow scheduled for their Tommy John surgeries?

  • piratemike

    David Manel has a very good interview with Adrian Sampson over at Bucs Dugout (don’t know how to add a link,,, and to lazy to learn).
    After reading this article I don’t know how anybody outside of the coaching staff or someone with a trained eye can really tell how a pitcher in the minors is coming along.
    Reading stats on a blog page is totally useless and people who call for a pitcher to move up a level just because a pitcher is putting up some nice numbers don’t have a clue.
    I urge people to give the article a look.