First Pitch

First Pitch: What the Lower Level Talent Gap Says About the Pirates’ System

Stephen Alemais is one of few strong position player prospects in West Virginia this year. Photo Credit: Tim Williams
First Pitch: What the Lower Level Talent Gap Says About the Pirates’ System

It’s hard to believe right now, but there was a time not too long ago when every time I mentioned the performance of a hitting prospect, I’d get a sarcastic question of “Can he pitch?”

Not long before that, when I would talk about a pitching prospect, the question would be “Can he hit?”

This would rotate depending on the current strength and weakness of the farm system, along with the current strength and weakness of the team. It always went in cycles, and that continues today and will continue for as long as MLB has a farm system approach to developing players. A farm system is never going to have an equal amount of prospects on either side of the ball, spread evenly through the levels. An MLB team is never going to have zero weak spots on the roster. And if you’re looking for that, you’re always going to be dissatisfied and capable of finding a weakness if you look hard enough.

That’s not to say the weak spots in the system should be ignored completely. They just need to be studied to see if there’s actually a problem, or just a down year in talent at a certain level.

We released our top 10 prospects today for Bradenton and West Virginia. The one thing that stands out with this pair is that West Virginia is really lacking in prospects. Granted, it’s unfair to stack any team next to Bradenton, since that team is loaded with some of the best prospects in the system. But the West Virginia team is having a down year this year in terms of talent, which is a bit unusual for that team, as they usually have the big breakout guys.

This is definitely a one year issue, right off the bat. West Virginia had a talented group last year, highlighted by the breakout player of the year, Mitch Keller. They also had Gage Hinsz, Taylor Hearn at the end of the year, and Cole Tucker and Ke’Bryan Hayes in the first half. Basically, at various points of the season they had almost everyone who makes Bradenton a great team to watch this year.

Next year will be very similar. The Pirates drafted a lot of prep pitchers, and the 2018 West Virginia Power preview will feature me drooling over the potential of Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, Travis MacGregor, and Austin Shields, with Ogle and Kranick standing out from the other two right now.

But why is the 2017 group so thin, and what does that say about the system? To understand this, let’s take a look at the type of hitters and pitchers who usually go to this level.

The Hitters

West Virginia typically gets the following types of hitting prospects:

**Top prep hitters from the previous draft

**Mid-round college hitters from the previous draft

**Promising international hitters making the jump to full season ball

The Pirates didn’t take any top prep hitters last year, so there’s no Tucker or Hayes making the aggressive jump to this team. They did take some college hitters in the last draft, with the most promising of the group being Stephen Alemais. The rest didn’t make our top 50. There are some international guys, led by Sandy Santos and Victor Fernandez, but that’s a far cry from a group like the 2012 class with Polanco and Hanson.

The takeaway here is that the Pirates just didn’t draft any prep hitters high in the 2016 draft, and went prep pitcher heavy, which limited the college bat upside in the middle rounds. There is some concern with the international side, as the Pirates have seen some of their biggest position player signings stall the last few years. Adrian Valerio will be the biggest international hitting prospect on the team when he returns from a broken hand. While I still like his future and upside, I don’t think he has a strong chance to break out this year.

The lone concern here would be the struggles from the international hitters. Everything else is just the profile of one draft, and you don’t draft to make sure that every team gets an equal distribution of prospects.

The Pitchers

The types of pitchers that come through West Virginia are the following:

**Prep pitchers who are in their second full season of pro ball

**Mid-round college pitchers

**International guys making the jump to full season ball

The Pirates went heavy on prep pitchers in 2014, which is why West Virginia was so loaded two years later in that regard. They went heavy on prep pitchers in 2016, and that means the 2018 group will have some talented young pitchers. But they didn’t go heavy on prep pitchers in 2015, hardly taking any at all, which leads to a lack of young drafted pitchers.

They did take some college pitchers in the middle rounds last year, and those guys are helping to make up the rotation, along with James Marvel, who was a 2015 draft pick out of college, but who returned from Tommy John last year. Typically, the middle round pitchers don’t rate as top prospects at this level, with most of them just fighting to get in the top 50. This class doesn’t seem any better or worse.

Finally, you’ve got the international guys, and this is where I see the most promise on this whole team. The top prospect on the team is Luis Escobar, and if you’re looking for a big breakout candidate, he would be it. But there are some other guys who are interesting wild cards. Oddy Nunez is a tall lefty with a deceptive delivery who saw his velocity increase from 87-88 to hitting 93 MPH consistently. Eduardo Vera saw his velocity tick up to the low-90s in Spring Training, after being an upper 80s guy in previous years. Both will be in piggyback roles at the start of the year.

There’s not really a takeaway here like there was from the hitting group, except that the Pirates didn’t draft many prep pitchers in 2015.

What This Says About the System

The big takeaway from all of this is that the big international hitters from the last few years have not worked out yet. Add in the fact that the best players from the 2016 draft are either above or below West Virginia, and you get a weak group.

The international hitting trend is a bit concerning, as you don’t want to see so many guys stalling or failing in the lower levels. But in terms of the entire system, I don’t think it’s an issue, and I’ve noticed the old trend of talent acquisition has reversed.

Several years ago the Pirates were drafting a ton of pitching, and getting a lot of their best pitching prospects from the draft as a result. They weren’t seeing many international pitching prospects. On the other side of the ball, they were seeing a lot of good international hitting prospects, but weren’t seeing many big hitters from the draft. With a few exceptions here and there, the pitchers were coming from the draft and the hitters were coming from the international side.

That has now been reversed. While the hitters aren’t being productive on the international side, the pitchers have really stepped up. Edgar Santana, Yeudy Garcia, and Luis Escobar are some of the promising guys who have emerged the last few years on the international side. The Pirates are still getting pitching on the draft side, but can’t take prep pitchers as often as they used to be able to do before there were spending limits.

Meanwhile, the Pirates are getting more hitting prospects out of the draft — Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Will Craig, and a series of mid-round picks who could reach the majors. It used to be that the hitters came from the international side and the pitchers came from the draft. Now it’s that the hitters come from the draft and the pitchers come from a cross between the international side and the draft.

You’d like to see the international hitters stepping up, and maybe they will. But in their place, the Pirates are still finding hitting prospects. You just won’t find as many top hitting prospects in the lower levels, as the Pirates aggressively promote those guys.

The system remains strong with a lot of depth, and prospects on the way throughout every level. There’s currently a bit of a gap in West Virginia, and that will carry over to Bradenton next year. Fortunately, there is still talent emerging in the lower levels, meaning this should be just a one-year down year for West Virginia, with the group next year looking strong again.

**The Silver Lining to Tonight’s Pirates Loss: Jameson Taillon Looks Like the Real Deal. The Pirates lost tonight, but the good news was that Jameson Taillon held his own against Chris Sale, and started to look like the real deal.

**The Bradenton Marauders Top 10 Features Most of the Pirates Top 10 Prospects. I look at the loaded prospect roster in Bradenton this year.

**The West Virginia Power Top 10 Shows a Rare Down Year For Breakout Candidates. John Dreker breaks down the top ten prospects for West Virginia.

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 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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