First Pitch: Reviewing the 2014 Success of the Pirates Depth and Farm System

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.

The Depth

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

**Prospect Watch: Austin Meadows Picks Up Three Hits For West Virginia

**All-Stars Responsible for Pirates’ Early-Season Recovery

**Jeff Locke’s Success is Real, Thanks to His Drastically Improved Control

**Prospect Highlights: Taking a Look at Some of the Pirates Catching Depth

**Minor League Schedule: Have You Noticed How Good Jason Creasy Has Been This Year?

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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  • pilbobuggins

    Do not disagree with anything you say tim, the one thing I will add to this is,if the pirates do not prove they can beat the central the chance of a playoff berth become slim and a central title chance becomes none. At this point they have a very good chance to take first in the division, the question is can they keep it come late august early september when they play 15 in a row against the central? If the answer is yes then I think the division is theirs , if no then I don’t see a path to the playoffs or the division title,barring a miracle.

    • jaygray007

      at least they only have 18 games total left vs the good Central opponents that they struggle against. By my count.

      as long as those 18 games aren’t a disaster, they should be fine. Gotta beat the other teams though.

      • Lee Young

        Jay 9-9 would be a nice ‘jumping off point’ in those 18 games.

        • jaygray007

          yeah that’d be awesome. they’d be in good shape then. Especially since they have 13 games against the cubs, phillies, and red sox right after the big streak of 15 NLC teams.

  • emjayinTN

    I am down that they finished 2-5 before the AS Break, and very well could have been 4-3. But, coming out of April/May and not getting anything from Rodriguez, and very little from Liriano maybe we need to be happy they are still over .500. Going down the stretch, they have to put it all out there. Polanco is getting comfortable, Mercer is putting up some excellent numbers lately, but the time for experimentation is over at Cleanup. The Ike Davis and Neil Walker experiments have to be over. Alvarez can keep us agitated almost nonstop with his glove, arm, or bat, but he finished June with one of his best months in the past few years – .299/.396/,483/and an .879 OPS. In 87 AB’s 5 doubles, 1 triple, 3 HR’s and 14 RBI’s and a W/K of 13/28. Time to put him in the batting order following McCutchen at #4 against RHP’s and play the best possible hand we have available in 2014. I want to see Polanco mature like ‘Cutch did to where he can be a 20-30 HR guy, but I think we are a few years off of that happening..

    • IC Bob

      No!!!. Alverez does not protect Cutch. He still stinks against LHs. His success has been because he is down low in the order. Davis gets on base and when he sees a tough lefty incomes Sanchez. The order is not the issue. The issue is pitching and the constant injuries or absences the team seems to experience daily

      • freddylang

        The order is an issue. The high opb but low amount of runs compared to that is a problem. They need to improve their situational hitting and efficiency on offense. Davis hitting for some power would definitely help improve this.

        • https://profiles.google.com/102688850599440394897 craggy1000

          I’m sorry but Ike Davis is horrible. He lack of power and inability to drive in runs is unforgiveable for a guy batting clean up only against righties. He is easily the worst hitting first baseman amongst the contenders.

      • emjayinTN

        Bob: I stated that he should be the cleanup against RHP’s, and where he is in the order is not the answer to why his stats were better in June.

        • smurph

          emjay, a large part of the reason his stats are good in June is because he is being benched and sometimes pinch hit for against LH pitchers. I don’t have a problem with either Neil or Pedro hitting 4th against RHP, whichever of them is hotter at the time. Martin 5th, Pedro 6th works. Ike needs to do something in the next 3-4 weeks, or be benched.

    • Andrew

      In optimized lineup construction the most important spots for avoiding outs are #1 then #4. In no way should a career .310 OBP be in the 4th spot.

      Even after being moved down in the order only Casey McGhee and Ryan Howard have come to bat with more base runners on than Alvarez. And Alvarez hasn’t exactly scored those runners, his 11% is 3% below league average.

      Going forward that number should regressed toward league average, however the fact remains Alvarez as currently constructed is not a very good hitter, and is better positioned lower in the order.

      • emjayinTN

        I hear your sensible argument, but I want somebody following ‘Cutch who can change a game with one swing, and we only have one of them on this team. Our LH batters are Polanco, Walker, Davis, and Alvarez – who do you think should be the #4 hitter against RHP’s? And, in the back of my head is the thought that if he does do better or at least has a month or two similar to what numbers he posted in June, we get a lot of production and also increase his trade value if we do not think he is the guy to take into the future.

        • stickyweb

          Umm….Walker. Vs. RHP, he’s got better AVG and SLG and same OBP as El Toro. Plus he doesn’t pucker up when asked to hit “CLEANUP!!!!!!” or with RISP. Sure a HR threat is great behind Cutch, but a K and GIDP machine is awful. Oh and Walker’s HR/AB vs. RHP is essentially the same as Pedro’s and his driving in runners (14%) is league average (but even better for his career). As noted above, Alvarez is not, though his career numbers are better than this year..

        • leowalter

          Do you mean one swing like a Casey McGeHee,or one swing like a G.Stanton….who never hits cleanup by the way. So,say this emjay : Neil Walker !

        • Andrew

          What I would do and what is realistic are very different things, managers overvalue the third spot in the order. I really don’t have an optimal lineup, just certain things I don’t want to see.

          The reason I don’t want Alvarez 4th is because even though the has elite power home runs are rare events and just looking at them overrates his offense, for his career Pedro is 107 OPS+ hitter. I’m with Stickyweb I’m fine with Walker 4th, don’t love Martin there but if he continues to a this season pace he isn’t a terrible option. While Pedro is better this year with .339 OBP vs RHP, he .321 for his career, the 4th spot is too important for someone who makes outs at that rate.

        • smurph

          Alvarez 326 AB, 15 HR. Walker 306 AB, 13 HR. No real advantage there, except Neil is a better clutch hitter, higher avg., higher OPS.

          • emjayinTN

            excellent interaction and I guess we can agree to disagree. I like Neil Walker as most of you know because he is one of the folks I think we should try to sign long term, and he was also my suggestion for 1B during the off-season. However, I like Neil as our #2 hitter and I think his stats will bear out that this has been his most productive spot in the order this year. I like the 8 HR’s and 23 RBI’s from Alvarez as our cleanup man this year, and his ratio of 22 Walks to 38 K’s at the cleanup spot is much better than what he has posted in prior years. Pedro Alvarez is feared around the league, and that is another reason why he should be hitting behind ‘Cutch. And, unless I am mistaken, he will post his 3rd straight 30 HR season in 2014.

  • Tintin

    If the Bucs don’t make the playoffs this season, the terrible 4-15 stretch in April will be to blame. They have done a great job of coming back from being 17-25. While the sp’s seem to be doing it with mirrors and the bullpen is suspect, they seem to be better than most if the NL.

    • Lee Young

      Didn’t the Brewers have a similarly ugly stretch?

      • Tintin

        Yeah, but they offset that with a 20-6 run. I’ll be willing to wager that if we pull off a 20-6 stretch, we’ll make the playoffs.

  • ElGaupo77

    I think if you actually assigned Sickels style letter grades the amount of C- or better prospects in the system has never been so high. Might be a way of defining what you are saying.

  • Lee Young

    Tim: You wrote: This is the sixth season that I’ve been writing about the Pittsburgh Pirates and their minor league system.

    And I am hoping for at least 6 more…..maybe even 12 or 18 or……….

    :)

  • Lee Young

    IF Sampson can flash the changeup I saw on Saturday on a consistent basis, he WILL be a good MLB starter.

    Also, I think Elias Diaz will end up being a better MLB catcher than Tony Sanchez. jmo.

    • glassers

      I don’t remember seeing him so I am glad you have . It does look like his walks are up some just looking at his numbers , so hopefully his control is not an issue

    • stickyweb

      I hope you’re right on both counts Lee. Such an under rated part of the farm system is getting productive players outside of the top 2 rounds of the draft. Yes, Cole, Taillon, Bell, Pedro, Cutch and Walker are expected to contributed. But the guys like Diaz who seemingly come out of nowhere (Jordy, Marte and Polanco are other great examples), can be the real difference makers. The Cardinals have obviously had tremendous success the last 5 years or so with this. Let’s hope this is an indication that the Bucco FO actually has a successful development system in place, for both hitters and pitchers.

    • Dom DiDominic

      Got to see Sampson about a month ago & he was very impressive. The thing that stands out of the entire series when when Diaz made a throw to 2nd. Scouts were blown away with his pop time and throw.
      Got to believe he can be an improvement on our current backup.

      • leowalter

        If you are referring to the game in Altoona when he did that Dom,I can back you up on that. If you are referring to the away game where he did it,I just wanted to mention that I actually saw him do it in Altoona myself, and I am sure my jaw dropped a lot ! He has as good an arm as anyone I ever saw in their system,including Carlos Paulino. And offensively,he has looked head and shoulders better than any catcher I have seen this year with the excepton of Kevin Plawecki. However, I have only seen Gary Sanchez and Blake Swihart a couple of times though.

    • freddylang

      I agree on Diaz…just because of Sanchez’ defense. It is not good. Diaz may only be a .260 and 5-10 HR type of guy but the defense will push him past Sanchez by mid-2015 if he continues to make offensive strides. I don’t really see either of them as a starter though so hopefully Martin is resigned.

  • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

    I agree with NH that there are some internal issues with this team. Maybe it’s a lack of trust or confidence in certain individuals, but it’s like they haven’t peaked and may never this year because of it. The inability to sweep may be a microcosm of it?
    Is it because we are good but not great in many areas – SP, 3B, 1B, SS, LF/RF? I like to think that the CF, 2B, C positions are great, but usually you need some dominant starting pitching to put together a really strong run. I don’t see that yet – although the potential is still there IMO.

    • stickyweb

      Well half of the sweep attempts happen in day games (on Sundays) and probably close to half of the mid week sweep attempts as well. And they OPS .613 during the day (2nd worse in MLB) so that would seem to be a big culprit.

  • R Edwards

    First of all, let me preface everything I am about to say below that I do get that winning is not the primary aim for minor league teams – at least from the parent club perspective. With that being said….

    Why are so many of our minor league teams not only bad, but just horrendous? Altoona and WV have not been very competitive all season. I do realize that WV lost Meadows and Barnes early on, and did not have Heredia much this season. Bristol and Jamestown have been pretty weak as well. Only Indy and Bradenton above .500 mark.

    Are the records a reflection of the injuries, or the Pirates having an overall different philosophy than most clubs?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      I never even look at the minor league records. They really tell you nothing about the prospects on the team. Two years ago, West Virginia had Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Nick Kingham, Willy Garcia, and several other players performing well. They were one of the worst teams in the system from a record standpoint, but one of the best from a prospect standpoint.

      Then there’s Indianapolis. They have good prospects every year, but by the second half they’re filled with veteran org guys, or bench/bullpen depth for the majors. Yet they always win, despite having one of the worst teams to follow by the end of each year from a prospect standpoint.

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

    As someone who has followed Glasnow all year, I can tell you that he’s showing improvements. The walks are still high, but his changeup has improved this year. I’m not concerned that the walks haven’t totally been eliminated at this point, since he’s still young and still getting used to his frame. The rest of his game continues to improve, and he’s putting up video game numbers at a higher level.

    Hanson has been about neutral. It’s good that he’s hitting in Double-A, since that’s a difficult jump for hitters to make. However, the fielding is the same, and that needs to change.

    With a lot of the guys, you’re saying that they’ve got obvious flaws in their game. That’s the case with almost every prospect in every system. Most prospects have things to work on. They’re not completely polished, and just checking their time off at each level until they reach the big leagues.

    I look at it in three terms. Is the player improving, staying the same, or getting worse? The Pirates have a lot of players improving, which is great. They have a lot of guys who are staying the same, in the sense that they aren’t showing improvements on one big flaw. And they have very few guys who are getting worse, or just continuing to struggle with their overall game.

    • http://batman-news.com NMR

      “I look at it in three terms. Is the player improving, staying the same, or getting worse?”
      Tim, I literally did exactly that with the seven players I listed.
      .
      I love Tyler Glasnow as much as the next guy, but hard-throwing righties that lack command are the most overrated type of prospect in baseball. My personal opinion, but I’m looking at that a lot more than “video game numbers” in below AA.

  • R Edwards

    Jones is not repeating same level this year. Last year he was at Jamestown, before blowing his knee out. So, he would likely be at Bradenton by now, if not for that injury last year – and should be promoted soon.

    Sanchez was not a failure in the majors – he actually hit and played pretty well, despite being continually jerked around by the team for the past two years. IMO, he should be in Pittsburgh – he is as good, if not better than Stewart.

    Lambo got 45 some at bats this Spring, while learning a new position, and struggled big time – if that is your definition of failing in the majors, I beg to differ with that definition. He’s had very limited opportunities in the majors thus far.

  • leowalter

    Kris Bryant is considered by many as the best prospect in the minor leagues. He is a 22 year old third baseman who has a SO rate North of 30 % and a BABIP of .440 in AA and that is now around .400 in AAA. Anyone who knows baseball will tell you this is completely unsustainable. Now,do you think they are questions that really need to be answered about Bryant,much like your supposed problem areas for McGuire, Glasnow and others you mentioned ? What you probably need to do is sit down and get up to speed on all of the better prospects in OB to have some kind of perspective before inserting foot in mouth.

    • smurph

      Well put leo. In a sense, you are saying the same thing Tim said. It is the job of scouts to recognize talent – both current and prospective. It is the job of the minor league coaches to polish that talent, eliminate deficiencies, and make a kid with all that talent a major leaguer. That is why you rarely see a kid make the majors without at least 2 1/2 to 3 years in the minors. They have to learn to succeed against players who have just as much talent as they do.

      • http://batman-news.com NMR

        Oh really? Thanks for that explanation. This is my first season watching baseball.

        • leowalter

          You sure act like it. Sorry if that hurt your feelings.

          • http://batman-news.com NMR

            Says the guy referencing Kris Bryant in comparison to Reese McGuire and Jacoby Jones.
            .
            Can’t believe the guys at Baseball America aren’t beating down your door.

            • leowalter

              You really are as clueless as you appear to be. They might not be beating down my door,but I am sure they won’t be knocking on your’s.

    • http://batman-news.com NMR

      Hahahaha…

  • stickyweb

    Wow, some people are never satisfied. Since Tim already went into pretty detailed specifics which you largely chose to ignore (Sampson, Rojas, Creasy, Diaz) while finding one flaw in several top prospects game (did it ever occur to you if they didn’t have one flaw, they’d be in MLB by now), let me just summarize it for you. Exactly 1 top prospect (Heredia) took a significant step backwards so far this season, 4 have taken giant leaps forward (Polanco, Bell, Kingham and Sampson), at least 7 have taken solid steps forward (Hanson, JaCoby, Creasy, Kuhl, Rojas, Diaz and Ramirez) and the rest have either taken the developmental step you’d expect from a prospect or lost the year to injury.
    So what exactly are you complaining about? I think a lot of us have become spoiled by the earth shattering breakouts we’ve seen the last few years, with Polanco, Hanson, Glasnow, etc that we expect a coupld of them a year, but you just shouldn’t expect that every year. Of course this year we’ll probably still have a couple, but whatever.

    • http://batman-news.com NMR

      Only on this Blog would disagreeing with the author’s use of “great” equate to never being satisfied. You guys are precious.

      • stickyweb

        Precious? Awww, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s called me all day. But your disagreement isn’t with the author’s use of the word ‘great’ because you misrepresent what he said. From the article

        “Despite this, the Pirates have gotten some great results
        from the system this year” in a paragraph with 5 players listed that you agree with 3 of the evaluations. But you rebut this idea with

        “I have a really hard time calling the system’s performance
        ‘great’.” Oddly, a few paragraphs later the author says

        “The farm system has been good this year”. Isn’t that strange? Or precious?

        So forgive us if we detected a little a little snark in your comment and responded accordingly. I actually agree with you that Hanson and Glasnow haven’t been great, even though Tim classified them as such. I’d call both very good instead and give them the benefit of the doubt since they’re 3 or 4 years younger than their average competition. But I guess that only works one way, as you note JaCoby is too old for his level. Instead, I’d add Sampson, Diaz and Creasy as being “great” this year to Polanco, Bell and Kingham.
        Also forgive us for not taking you very seriously when you finish by calling to players MLB failures when they’ve combined for 170 ABs. I’d imagine a lot of successful MLB players “failed” worse in their first 100 ABs in the majors.

        • http://batman-news.com NMR

          If you’re considering Sampson, Diaz, and Creasy – three players with the UPSIDE of major league backups and back of the rotation starters – “great” then you’re making my argument for me.
          .
          And yes, Tony Sanchez and Andrew Lambo absolutely failed this year at the big league level. I said nothing of their future success or lack there of, which you seemed to insinuate.

          • stickyweb

            I can’t make your point for you if we’re having two different conversations? You keep going back to the farm system as a whole, whereas this article is about how the farm system has performed this year. Sampson and Diaz have had GREAT seasons so far, Creasy maybe a notch below that. So you’ve clearly listed these players UPSIDE from before the season and evidently nothing they do this year can change that.

            But if you want to evaluate the farm system as a whole, then you have to include Taillon, Meadows etc. who have essentially done nothing this year but will not lose anything as far as prospect status. Plus Glasnow and Hanson will not be losing any clout with their solid seasons.

            Playing into your conditions, let’s propose a little experiment: The Bucs farm system was widely regarded very high coming into the season, averaging #3 in MLB IIRC with 6 or 7 consensus Top 100 Prospects. Let’s see where they are after this year, even with graduating Polanco and possibly Kingham. I propose they’ll be right around the same rankings. Can I assume you disagree since the farm is not having a good year in your estimation?