First Pitch: The Important Lower Tiers in the Prospect Rankings

For the last few years we’ve been hearing the same thing over and over about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system. They’re very top-heavy, but the system lacks depth. It was never clear what that meant. Did it mean they didn’t have guys in the upper levels who could take over in the majors in the next year or two? If so, then I think the 2013 season is proving that theory wrong. I feel it meant that they had A level prospects, but didn’t have a lot of B or C+ level guys. They had guys who could become stars, but not many guys who could become just good, reliable players.

The thing the Pirates did have was upside. While everyone was focused on Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and the other guys at the top of the system, people were dismissing the bottom of the system as “lacking depth”. The reality is that the Pirates had a lot of high upside guys who hadn’t broken out yet. Tyler Glasnow was lumped in to that group that lacked depth over the last two years. So were Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco. Nick Kingham got more recognition than those guys, but not as much as he’s starting to get this year. Dilson Herrera was another guy who was all upside, but not considered “depth”.

Today we released the mid-season top 20 prospects, and there were two things that stood out. First was how strong the list was. You could take the 11-15 prospects, and a lot of teams would take those players as their 6-10 prospects. A lot of teams would also take any of the 6-10 guys in their top five. The second thing I noticed was how the list changed after the number 14 prospect, or after tier 3.

The system is still top-heavy like it was before. However, instead of being six players at the top, or eight players, this time it’s 14 players. I wouldn’t say all of those guys are safe picks, but they’re all guys with a lot of upside, and probably rated as A or B level prospects. I would say that qualifies as depth, no matter how you classify “depth”.

The fact that the list seems to drop off after 14 doesn’t mean the guys after 14 aren’t good prospects. They’re just the next Tyler Glasnow/Nick Kingham pitchers, or Dilson Herrera/Alen Hanson/Gregory Polanco hitters.

Is Elvis Escobar the next breakout hitting prospect? He's one candidate.
Is Elvis Escobar the next breakout hitting prospect? He’s one candidate.

On the hitting side, there’s Harold Ramirez, Elvis Escobar, and Jin-De Jhang. All three will be breakout candidates to watch in Jamestown this year, and they could all have the potential to be future breakout hitting prospects in West Virginia. You could probably add Wyatt Mathisen to that list. He’s on the West Virginia disabled list right now, and wasn’t playing well when he was healthy. However, he’s got a lot of tools and has the chance of being a two-way catcher. The same could be said of Jhang, while Ramirez and Escobar are great pure hitters with a lot of speed and gap power.

The key here is that these hitters haven’t broken out. They’ve got a lot of potential, but haven’t had that big season like we saw out of Hanson/Polanco last year, or like we’re seeing out of Stetson Allie/Dilson Herrera this year. And that breakout might not come from those guys. It could come from Max Moroff, Eric Wood, JaCoby Jones, Jose Osuna, Willy Garcia, or even an upper level guy like Mel Rojas and Andrew Lambo (who are both doing great, but both have individual questions to answer before their recent success is considered legit). Not all of those guys will work out, but the Pirates have enough guys with potential that they should keep adding to the Hanson/Polanco/Herrera/Allie group of breakout hitters over the last two years.

Then there’s the pitching side of things. That’s the area where the Pirates have invested the most, going heavy on the prep arms. That approach has paid off big with Kingham and Glasnow, and there are a few other guys who have the potential to break out. Clay Holmes, Blake Taylor, Joely Rodriguez, Cody Dickson, and Adrian Sampson all have good stuff, but are still young and mostly unproven. Upper level guys like Casey Sadler, Stolmy Pimentel, Vic Black, Andy Oliver, and Brandon Cumpton have limited upsides, but higher floors with the ability to help out in the majors in the next year or two. Then there’s all of the guys who have good velocity on their fastballs at a young age, like Colten Brewer, Ryan Hafner, Jason Creasy, Hayden Hurst, Jake Burnette, and Jon Sandfort.

Once again, this is a group of guys with a lot of potential, but no breakout candidates yet. That doesn’t mean these guys won’t break out in the future. In fact, there are good odds that the Pirates will get at least one solid pitching prospect from this crew. It’s just hard to pinpoint who that prospect will be, just like it was hard to predict that Glasnow would be the one who would break out last year. It wasn’t that Glasnow didn’t have the potential. You just didn’t know when he’d make the switch and use his potential to get dominating results.

The Pirates have had some good fortune the last few years. They haven’t seen a lot of top prospects struggle and lose value. At the same time they keep adding breakout prospects to the top of the system. That’s how we got to this point where the top 14 prospect list looks loaded with potential impact players. The Pirates still have guys after 14 who could be the next breakout guys, and some of those guys will start to break out this year in the short-season leagues. The best thing about the way the current system is set up is that the Pirates can take their time with those guys. There’s not a lot of desperation at the major league level these days, and there are more and more potential impact players making their way to the upper levels. That means there’s no reason to rush guys like Escobar, Ramirez, Taylor, or Brewer. Anything you get from that group now is a bonus.

That group after 14 isn’t as exciting as the top 14. With the top 14 you have numbers to make you feel more comfortable. After the top 14 it’s mostly about potential, and the only thing you’ve got is hope that the player will realize his potential. Usually when fans hear that a guy has potential, but don’t see the numbers to back that up, hope is hard to come by. That’s understandable with individual prospects. However, the Pirates have so many guys like this in their system that it leaves a very strong chance of more breakout players in the future. As long as they don’t start seeing guys falling off from the top of the list, they should be set up well to continue with a top system loaded with a lot of impact players at the top of their prospect rankings.

Links and Notes

**Save $8 On The Pirates Prospects Books With the MLB Draft Sale. The sale ends today, so act quickly!

**2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Draft Pick Signing Tracker.


**Pittsburgh Pirates Mid-Season Top 20 Prospects, Minus Gerrit Cole.

**Prospect Watch: Cunningham Hits His 12th Homer; Bromberg Strikes Out 12.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Down Yankees, Polo Keeps Hitting.

**Minor League Schedule: One More Doubleheader For Bradenton Before All-Star Break.

**Pirates Sign 9th Round Pick Chad Kuhl, 19th Round Pick Brett McKinney.

**Pirates Sign 25th Round Pick Justin Maffei.


**Marte, Pirates Light Up Zito for Eight Runs in 12-8 Win.

**Pirates Notebook: 9 Best Perspectives on Cole’s Debut.

First Pitch

  • Hey Tim, between the top 20 and this article, I’ve seen no mention of Orlando Castro. He seems like his performance has been very solid. Where would you place him?

    • I had him 47th on my list. The numbers are great, but he’s also a lefty with great off-speed stuff and strong command in low-A. Low-A hitters aren’t used to that combination. As he moves up, he’ll face hitters who have seen pitchers like him. Usually that results in those types of pitchers fading out either before, or once they reach the Double-A level.

      Castro will be low on my list until he shows he can be the exception. Otherwise, he looks like another guy like Nelson Pereira, Eliecer Navarro, Jhonathan Ramos, etc.

  • Great article Tim. Really helps put the farm system into perspective.

  • I’ve been a fan of Neal for quite some time. You have to remember just how bad this team was when he took over – farm system and majors.

  • ‘Upper level guys… have limited upsides, but higher floors with the ability to help out in the majors in the next year or two.”

    This, I think, is the next thing that NH has to demonstrate he can do effectively – utilize guys who may not have star upsides but can contribute to the team. I recall an observation that someone made that St Louis always seems to do this – there’s some guy who gets called up from AAA for a season or two, puts up 2-4 WAR per season, then falls off the face of the earth, to be replaced by the next guy.

    One thing that has worried me a little bit about the Pirates’ promotion philosophy is that they don’t seem to have a lot of faith in these “fringe” guys. They will move top-end prospects like Alvarez and Cole quickly through the system and into the big leagues, but they keep grabbing major-league roster filler like Inge and McDonald instead of trusting the guys in the system like Mercer and Presley to fill that same kind of role – with the internal options having much higher upside.

  • Tim….those stats on Hafner jumped out at me this morn. He’s a ‘where did HE come from’ type of under the radar player, right?

    • Foo: Right now he has 53K/20W in 37 IP. Last year he had 29K/68W in Lo A. He is definitely a surprise, but with the 6’6″ frame, he could just be growing into himself and getting his pitches under control. Still only 21.
      I like NH a lot, but I never isolate him, because the entire management team has been a lot better than what we have been used to. He and Coonelly put out a list of goals when they got in here and in the Top 3 was to upgrade their minor league system which resulted in Pirate World in Bradenton, and another state-of-the=art facility in the Dominican. Another one of the top 3 was to draft better – they stuck their necks out, drafted aggressively, and made the amateur draft a laughing stock with their overpaying slot dollars to accumulate talent in great numbers. Only time I can remember MLB changing the rules to stop the Pirates from continuing. The third thing was instilling pride in the Pirate System and they have accomplished that also. Pay the man his money!!!!!

    • I talked about Hafner in ST.

      The increased strikeouts can probably be attributed to his new slider. He’s always had a good fastball, working in the 90-93 MPH range, and this year he’s been up to 94. Still has some control problems, but not as extreme as last year.

  • I am going to start the bandwagon …. Now is the time to lock up Huntington for many more years.
    Not just the big league club, but the minors were a shell of what they are now. Especially with the big league club playing so well, Huntington does not go the route of “College Pitcher that can help this year” in the draft. He totally stays with what works best, taking prep guys that have a ton of ceiling.
    Both first rounders go to guys that are 5 to 6 years away.
    Huntington built this team, he deserves the chance to see this team be playoff contenders for years to come. Also, he deserves to be paid like one of the top GM’s in the game.

    • I too believe he’s warrented an extension. 2-years max. That should be enough time for the team to succeed and if not, he’s gone. There is def. a light at the end of the tunnel. We have been seeing it for a year or two now and this year seems even more promising than last year. I think NH best is the assembly of the bullpen the last few years. Great value for the work provided.

    • Dom…I’ll save you the trouble. I have been on NH’s bandwagon for years. Welcome aboard.
      Plenty of seats left!