The Pirates are often criticized for having a slow approach at promoting prospects through the levels. That’s not accurate criticism. There are plenty of examples where they’ve made aggressive promotions. The decision to send Alen Hanson, Gregory Polanco, Willy Garcia, and Jose Osuna to West Virginia this year was aggressive. Sending Luis Heredia to the GCL at the age of 16, and to the NYPL at the age of 17 were aggressive. They did the same thing with Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar going straight to the GCL. Skipping Matt Curry over high-A was aggressive. Even having Gerrit Cole reach Triple-A in his first year is aggressive.
I think there are two issues here. First, I think most of the complaints about the Pirates having a slow approach come from people who follow the Pirates. They’re only closely following one team, and comparing that team to every other team in the league. Second, I think there are some moves that are extremely aggressive which make aggressive moves (like Gerrit Cole going to Triple-A in his first year) seem closer to conservative. When you combine the two you usually get a situation where Pirates fans see one team being aggressive with one player, then wondering why the Pirates don’t take the same approach with every player in their system.
You also don’t really get much followup on the players receiving the aggressive promotions. Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer will always be compared to each other since they were top pitchers from the same school, in the same draft, and drafted in the top three picks. A lot of the early evaluations have revolved around Bauer reaching the majors first, with Cole only getting as high as Triple-A at the end of the 2012 season. Bauer is getting more credit for just making it quickly to the majors than he is for his long-term results.
Coincidentally, a lot of the off-season rumors lately have surrounded players who have been aggressively promoted. I was looking at a few of them today after Bauer was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and noticed a trend. A lot of the guys who were aggressively promoted have seen their values drop after reaching the upper levels. Here is a look at their situations.
Let’s start with Bauer. He was just traded by Arizona tonight to Cleveland in a three team deal. The main return was shortstop Didi Gregorius. Bauer was recently rated as the fifth best prospect in the league by MLB.com. Gregorius wasn’t in their top 100. He’s a plus defensive shortstop who had a .243/.288/.427 line in 185 at-bats in Triple-A last year. Heading into the 2012 season, Baseball America rated him the 8th best prospect in Cincinnati’s system. If the Pirates dealt Gerrit Cole and got the return Arizona got, I’m sure Pirates fans would be furious. From the looks of Twitter tonight, Arizona fans were furious. The Diamondbacks also received left-hander Tony Sipp and first baseman Lars Anderson, and gave up relievers Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers.
For the most part this was Bauer for Gregorius. That could be considered an over-pay for Arizona. It could be considered dealing from a position of strength to fill a position of need (which is an approach that can sometimes lead to bad trades). Or maybe it reflects Bauer’s value. He’s dealt with control issues in the minors, and in a limited sample in the majors he had a 6.06 ERA and a 17:13 K/BB ratio in 16.1 innings. Even though he made it to the majors a year after being drafted, he didn’t look ready for the majors. He’s walked batters at a 4.2 BB/9 rate in his minor league career. He also pitched nine innings below Double-A. Perhaps a slower approach and more time in the lower levels would have helped that control.
A name I saw a lot today was Rick Porcello. He seems to be the popular name to mention when talking about who the Detroit Tigers could trade to fill any of their needs. The right-hander pitched one season in the minors out of high school, making 24 starts in high-A. From there he jumped right to the majors at the start of the 2009 season, putting up a 3.96 ERA in 31 starts. He never recaptured those numbers. In 2010 he had a 4.92 ERA in 27 starts, and spent time in Triple-A. In 2011 he had a 4.75 ERA in 31 starts, and a 4.59 ERA in 31 starts in 2012.
Part of his problem is that he’s an extreme ground ball pitcher with a poor defense behind him. Looking at his advanced numbers, his xFIP is always much better than his ERA, around a 4.00 for his career. But he also doesn’t help himself by striking out batters. He has a career 5.0 K/9 ratio. That’s the exact same as Jeff Karstens. Perhaps some time in Double-A and Triple-A could have helped him develop a strikeout pitch. Pitching to contact isn’t a horrible thing though, as long as he has a good defense behind him. That would make him a good fit with the Pirates, which is why I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him in a Hanrahan deal. But that combination still seems more like a message board trade offer than an actual rumor based on actual talks.
The Pirates acquired Oliver last week in exchange for Ramon Cabrera. Here’s another situation where a player was rushed. Oliver was a first round draft prospect in 2009, but fell to Detroit in the second round. He made his pro debut in 2010, going straight to Double-A. After 14 starts in Double-A with strong numbers, he went to Triple-A. The results in Triple-A were good, although his control went from a 2.9 BB/9 in Double-A to a 4.2 BB/9 in Triple-A. Oliver was promoted to the majors that same year and had a 7.36 ERA and an 18:13 K/BB ratio in 22 innings. He had a 6.52 ERA and a 5:8 K/BB ratio in 9.2 innings in the majors the following year. His BB/9 ratio in Triple-A in 2012 was 6.7.
Oliver skipped over A-ball, and was sent to the majors in his first professional season. If I’m looking for a reason why his control has been so horrible, it would be because he was rushed.
That’s only a few examples, based on some of the names that have been talked about in the last week. I don’t think we can draw any large conclusions here, since it’s a small group of pitchers. There are other top prospects who weren’t rushed through the minors, and have struggled in the majors (Zach Stewart, for example). We can’t say that rushing a pitcher is guaranteed to lead to problems, or that taking a slower approach gives a guy a better chance at success. But perhaps we can stop giving credit to players and teams just because a player was moved aggressively, all while we stop criticizing teams and players who don’t move ultra fast through the system. Lost in all of this is how the player is actually performing, and more importantly, how the player will eventually perform in the majors.
The minor league levels are there for a reason. They exist to teach players and gradually get them ready for the majors. However, it seems that the focus is too often on how quickly a player is moving through the system, rather than what he is doing while he moves through the system. Perhaps that’s due to the ETAs we put on players before they even sign their first contracts. A player gets drafted and he’s assigned a random date to arrive in the majors. That date only assumes everything will go perfectly along the way. The ETA usually comes with a projection for that player. Lost in that projection is the definition of the word projection. The projection talks about what the player could become, and too often that’s confused with what the player currently is. That’s how we get situations where people call for Gerrit Cole to be in the major league bullpen in September 2012, noting that he’s supposed to be an ace. He’s not an ace. He will eventually be an ace, but right now he’s a Double-A pitcher with a taste of Triple-A.
That’s not a bad thing, even though it’s treated like a bad thing. The irony with prospects is that players tend to get more credit for rushing through the minors and struggling in the majors, rather than going slower through the minors aimed at being better prepared for success in the majors. The major league success is all that matters. That’s where the focus should be, not how quickly a guy arrives in the majors. We won’t know for sure what led to the control issues with Oliver, or the lack of strikeouts with Porcello. It’s too early to say much on Bauer’s career, although he does have some alarming control issues. I think in each case, the pitchers would have a better chance of improving their problem area if they were given more time in the minors to develop, rather than being rushed through the minors and straight to the majors. And that’s something to keep in mind the next time we see someone dominating after five starts in high-A, and see people calling for a promotion to the next level.
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Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.