This is the sixth season that I’ve been writing about the Pittsburgh Pirates and their minor league system. For the first five seasons, I always did a season preview article, looking at X amount of things to focus on while the Pirates tried to end their losing streak (and X was always the year the losing streak was about to enter). This year there was no more losing streak, and thus the article format didn’t work.
I still did an article focusing on 21 reasons why the Pirates would have a good season this year. Some of those have worked out, and some haven’t come close. The bigger article was when I focused on the two important things that the Pirates would need to compete in the short-term and long-term. Those two things are a strong farm system and depth. It wasn’t earth shattering analysis at the time. A team with a strong farm system and strong depth over the years should be expected to contend. That’s how the Pirates had a winning season in 2013, and it’s how they’ll continue.
We’re at the “mid-season”, which is actually a few weeks later from the true mid-season, and a month after the minor league mid-season. Still, the All-Star break provides a convenient time to step back and take a look at how the pre-season projections panned out. Let’s take a look at those two aspects from the pre-season, and see how they’ve worked out this year.
The Farm System
The Pirates’ system received some major blows in the first half from injuries. Jameson Taillon and Clay Holmes went down for the year with Tommy John surgeries. Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, Reese McGuire, Harold Ramirez, Barrett Barnes, and several other guys who were top 20 prospects coming into the year also missed time.
Despite this, the Pirates have gotten some great results from the system this year. Gregory Polanco did about as good as anyone could have hoped in his time in Triple-A. Tyler Glasnow is finding a way to repeat his monster numbers from last year, only now at a higher level. Nick Kingham continues on a pace to be in the majors in the next year, and maybe in the next few months. Alen Hanson is still showing good offense from the shortstop position, and doing it in Double-A, although his defense needs consistency. Josh Bell is putting up monster numbers at the plate, possibly starting to tap into his offensive upside.
Then you’ve got the breakout players. Adrian Sampson looked like he could be a sleeper middle of the rotation guy when he was drafted. After improving his changeup last year, Sampson has had a breakout season in Altoona, using the improved changeup to post a 2.79 ERA in 113 innings. He’s looking like a guy who not only could be a Major League starter, but could be in the majors in the next year. JaCoby Jones has been the breakout hitter this year, and possibly the biggest breakout in the system. He was moved to shortstop in the pre-season, and it’s not out of the question that he could stick there. If he does, his bat would provide a lot of value at that spot.
Finally there’s the minor breakouts, like Mel Rojas stepping up to possibly be a fourth outfield option down the stretch. Bradenton has seen a ton of quality pitching, including starters Jason Creasy and Chad Kuhl. Elias Diaz has always had great defense behind the plate, but his offense in Altoona this year is making it seem possible that he could propel himself into the majors one day as a strong backup, with a slight chance to be more.
Not everything has been perfect. For example, Luis Heredia continues to struggle, and while he’s young, the struggles don’t justify his spot as a top 10 prospect that would be ahead of the usual prep pitchers who are all projectability and little-to-no results.
The farm system has been good this year. There have been some short-term setbacks. Long-term, nothing has really changed. The guys who were projected to join the majors in a few years are still on pace. New guys have stepped up to possibly serve as starters or impact guys. They’ve seen additional bench and bullpen options emerge. A good farm system will keep churning out Major League talent, and the Pirates’ system still looks like it could do that better than almost any other farm system over the next few years.
Last year the Pirates got some great results from their pitching depth, and at the beginning of this year I felt that the depth would be good enough to help keep the Pirates as contenders. It turned out that the pitching depth is the main reason the Pirates have been contenders this year, at least from a pitching standpoint. The Pirates haven’t needed as much help from the pitching staff this year, because the offense has been much better. But the guys they were counting on have not gotten the job done, while the guys who started the year in the minors have really stepped up.
Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez have done well from the Opening Day rotation. Wandy Rodriguez was a disaster, and was only around for a month. Francisco Liriano hasn’t been close to the pitcher he was last year. Gerrit Cole has been good, but not great. He’s missed time with injuries, and is another guy who hasn’t been as good as he was last year.
To make up for these struggles, Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, and Vance Worley have stepped up. Locke has the best numbers in the rotation, both in terms of ERA and xFIP. Ryan Palencer wrote about him today, noting that his improved control makes him look like the real deal this year. Locke has not only filled in nicely for the rotation, but he’s probably secured a job for the rest of the season, and possibly for good. He could still lose that job, but as of right now it looks like the job is his to lose.
Worley started the year in extended Spring Training, working with Jim Benedict on his mechanics. He looks like he’s close to where he was prior to the 2013 season, and that kind of pitcher is someone you want in the rotation. As it turns out, Worley might be the number six starter the rest of the year, once Gerrit Cole returns. For now, he has a 3.38 ERA and a 3.78 xFIP in a small sample size of 34.2 innings.
Finally, Cumpton’s numbers don’t look great, but they’re inflated by one horrible start. He’s got a 4.13 xFIP, which seems right for his talent level. He’s been great filling in for the rotation, and should remain in that role, starting out of Triple-A and serving as the seventh starter behind Worley.
For about a month, the Pirates didn’t have Liriano or Cole, and it was the three guys above, along with Morton and Volquez, who were carrying the rotation. That was mostly during the month of June, which is when Pirates’ starters ranked as one of the best rotations in baseball, both by standard and advanced metrics. The Pirates entered the All-Star break just 3.5 games out of first place, in large part due to what their pitching depth did when their top two starters went down.
There are other aspects to the Pirates’ depth, other than the pitchers. You could consider Josh Harrison to be depth, since he was just seen as a bench player who had the inside track in Spring Training, with low expectations for his performance. Jared Hughes stepped up in the bullpen. The Pirates haven’t really needed a lot of depth in Triple-A, aside from Tony Sanchez at the start of the year and a few guys off the bench. But the biggest depth impact has taken place in the rotation. The Locke and Worley moves specifically could be huge if both players continue what they’ve been doing. This is the time of year where Pirates fans start wanting the Pirates to make trades. If Locke and Worley are legit, then you’ve already got two in-season additions who could help push the Pirates to the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Links and Notes