Cory Giger reports that the State College Spikes are considering changing organizations and cutting ties with the Pittsburgh Pirates when their deal runs out at the end of the year. The main reason is due to the lack of winning in State College.
Most teams put the development of players as a priority over winning in the minors, especially at the lower levels of the minors. A combination of draft trends, development strategies, and aggressive promotions has made it nearly impossible for State College to compete.
In the past few years the Pirates have taken a lot of prep pitchers in the middle rounds, and have pushed them to the New York Penn League, which is typically dominated by college hitters. Ask any pitcher in State College what they’re working on, and the answer is usually the same: “Fastball, fastball, fastball”.
The Pirates put a priority on fastball command, and can be a bit aggressive promoting prep pitchers to the NYPL in their first full season. The combination of prep pitchers vs college hitters, and a heavy dosage of fastballs can make the team hittable at times. That was the case in 2008, the first year of the “Fastball Academy”, when almost every pitcher had an ERA over 5.00. They’ve since changed the strategy — mixing in a few more breaking balls, occasionally starting with an off-speed pitch to keep hitters honest — but the overall focus is on the fastball, which means the pitchers are going to be throwing it the majority of the time.
The problem in State College the last few years has been the offense. That has to do partially to the old draft rules, but mostly due to the fact that the Pirates haven’t drafted many hitters. Most of the guys they’ve taken in the middle rounds — such as Mel Rojas, Evan Chambers, and Drew Maggi — were a bit raw coming out of the draft. A few of those players have shown improvements as they’ve moved up. Rojas, for example, looked horrible in State College, but has been showing more of his potential on the field as he moves up in the system.
The aggressive promotions have also hurt the offense. The Pirates have pushed a few international guys to State College, which didn’t work out in cases like Exicardo Cayones and Jorge Bishop. In some cases, they’ve been very aggressive, pushing guys past State College and straight to West Virginia. It happened with Starling Marte and Ramon Cabrera in the past, and this year it happened with Alen Hanson, Gregory Polanco, Willy Garcia, and Jose Osuna. The same could be said for Josh Bell and Robbie Grossman, although I’d imagine most organizations would take the same approach with those players.
The old draft rules have hurt the offense in the past two years. In 2010 the best hitter on the team was Matt Curry. In 2011 the best hitter was Alex Dickerson. However, both players waited until mid-July to sign. For Curry, it was because his team was in the College World Series. That wasn’t the case for Dickerson. In a season that lasts only two and a half months, missing your biggest bat for a month really hurts.
The Spikes want to focus on winning, but that shouldn’t be the focus for the Pirates. They could easily win in State College if they hold guys like Hanson and Polanco back, or if they let their starting pitchers go 5-6 innings each start, while throwing their full arsenal. But the goal isn’t winning in State College, just like the goal isn’t winning in West Virginia, Bradenton, Altoona, or Indianapolis. The goal is winning in Pittsburgh, which is why it’s fine for the Pirates — or any organization — to sacrifice minor league results for the development of players that can help one day in the majors.
The Spikes are a great fit for the Pirates. The field is designed to the exact specifications of PNC Park, with the only difference being the size of the right field wall. The location is close to the Double-A team, and not far from Pittsburgh. It’s reasonable for the Spikes to try and find a winner. They’re running a business and trying to sell tickets. But that shouldn’t be a focus for the Pirates. Their focus needs to be on player development, even if that leads to a losing record in the lower levels of the minors.