I was reading Grant Brisbee’s article today detailing how the Pittsburgh Pirates were built, and how they’re a legitimate contender this year. Or, another way to put it, I was reading the annual “Grant Brisbee article that dooms the Pirates to a collapse over the final two months of the season”. Brisbee detailed how every player was added to the team — whether via draft picks, international free agent (not plural for a reason), free agents, or players acquired via trade. If that kind of topic is something you’re interested in, then I’d also check out David Kaleida’s trade tree on the subject.
One thing that stuck out to me was the draft pick section. I’ve been thinking about this topic all year. It was less than a year ago that people were questioning whether to fire Neal Huntington and the current management group. Some of the reasons to fire them were totally ridiculous and non-baseball related. Of the baseball-related reasons, the biggest was the questioning of the drafting and the development of players.
Anyone complaining about the drafting and development at the end of last season had a totally valid argument. At the same time, anyone saying the results were inconclusive also had a valid argument. There were really two camps: those who felt Huntington and company should have been fired, and those who felt one more year was warranted. The system looked pretty much the same to everyone. There were some top prospects, and there were some breakout players. But there were also some concerns that may or may not have been eased in the following year. The debate was whether you should give the current group one more year, or if you should move on and get started a year earlier with a new group.
As I said before, both arguments were valid. Here is a summary of each draft at the time, along with a summary of the international market.
Pedro Alvarez was coming off a breakout year from a power standpoint. After that, there wasn’t much, but there was still potential. Here was my summary of the middle rounds at the end of last year.
In the middle rounds, a few more players have emerged around the majors. The Pirates haven’t had any of those players. They have a few guys with the potential to play a bigger role in the majors. Jordy Mercer could have a shot at being a starting shortstop. Justin Wilson could still make it as a starter, or a power left-handed reliever. The guy with the biggest potential impact was Robbie Grossman. The Pirates paired him with Rudy Owens and Colton Cain to get a more immediate impact in Wandy Rodriguez.
Typically you want to see three players from each draft make the majors and have an impact. Alvarez is number one. You could count Wandy Rodriguez, although that gets tricky, since that trade also involved a 2007 draft pick and a 2009 draft pick (though Grossman was the key piece). The Pirates need at least one more player to emerge. The best bets are Mercer and Wilson.
Mercer and Wilson have both emerged this year. Mercer took over as the starting shortstop, while Wilson settled in as a power reliever. Neither of those guys are safe for the long-term. We’ve certainly seen plenty of examples where players put up a good rookie season then struggle in the years to follow. It’s also not like their success this year was any guarantee. They still had the upside for the majors, and this year they started to realize that upside, which helps make the 2008 draft look really good.
Tony Sanchez started hitting for power at the end of the year, but his bat was still struggling overall. That has certainly changed this year. Vic Black was looking like a future closer in Altoona, and carried that success over to Indianapolis. He even made it to the majors briefly this year, and should be back in September. The re-emergence of Sanchez this year, and Black continuing his dominance has provided some value from this draft. Phil Irwin also emerged last year, and continued his success this year, looking even more like a back of the rotation candidate until he went down with an injury. He still has that upside when he returns.
The downside with this draft is that it doesn’t look like it has impact potential. That could change if Sanchez proves to be a starting catcher who can hit. But it’s also hard to shake the disappointment that the main focus of this draft was on the prep pitchers in the middle rounds, and none of those pitchers have worked out.
It was too early to grade these two drafts at the end of last year. The 2011 group just went through their first season, while most of the 2010 group had their first year in a full season league. The first round picks — Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole — were performing reasonably well, although neither pitcher was dominating. 2010 second round pick Stetson Allie had disappointed as a pitcher, moved to a hitter and struggled. 2011 second round pick Josh Bell missed most of the year with a knee injury. The Pirates spent about $7.25 M combined on both of those players, so the lack of results was a concern.
Outside of that, there were guys with potential. Nick Kingham from the 2010 draft. Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes from the 2011 draft. But none of those guys had their breakout season yet, and that’s never a guarantee with young players in the lower levels.
This year the results from these two drafts have been huge. Nick Kingham broke out in high-A and Double-A. Tyler Glasnow had a huge breakout, and is now a top 50 prospect in baseball. Clay Holmes struggled early, but has been showing his potential and is still regarded as a mid-rotation starter. Stetson Allie stepped up as a hitter, although he has struggled since moving up to high-A. Josh Bell is healthy and is showing his power, though he has some issues with his swing. Gerrit Cole made the majors and is showing flashes of being a future ace. Jameson Taillon just got promoted to Triple-A, and looks to be on pace to reach the majors in June 2014. Then the unexpected development, 2010 ninth round pick Brandon Cumpton emerged as a back of the rotation starter, making four strong starts in the majors this year.
Starling Marte had made his debut last year, and showed flashes of his potential. Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson had huge breakout seasons in low-A. Luis Heredia was developing well even with his aggressive push at a young age. There were also some promising international prospects in the lowest levels. The international market was looking more promising than the drafts. I always credit Rene Gayo and his team for the international signings, whether the GM is Neal Huntington or Dave Littlefield. I do credit Huntington for increasing the budget to around $3 M per year, up from Littlefield’s budget of “Where is the Dominican Republic located again?”
The international market continues to look strong. Marte has emerged as an impact player in the majors. Polanco and Hanson both continued their strong results in high-A, and both have made the jump to Double-A. Heredia has struggled with his control, but he’s also a year younger than guys like Glasnow and Holmes, and at the same level, so the aggressive push needs to be considered.
There have also been new prospects to emerge. Harold Ramirez is showing off some amazing hitting skills. Jin-De Jhang is doing the same behind the plate in Jamestown. Dilson Herrera isn’t having an Alen Hanson type breakout in West Virginia, but he is putting up good numbers considering is age and the fact that he jumped over short-season ball. Ulises Montilla is tearing the cover off the ball in the GCL, and Michael De La Cruz is doing the same thing in the DSL. There are also some interesting pitchers, including Joely Rodriguez and Wei-Chung Wang. In fact, if we just listed every interesting player, this list would get real long, real fast.
There was never any reason why the team associated with Roberto Clemente should have had struggles signing players in Latin America. Now that they’ve actually made the international market a focus, the results are starting to show. The Pirates could have a top international prospect at every full season level at the start of next year. Polanco at Triple-A, Hanson at Double-A, Herrera in high-A, and Ramirez in low-A. This continues to be a good area for the Pirates.
Drafting vs Developing
The debate of drafting vs developing is a “chicken and the egg” type situation. It’s hard to say which aspect led to the success of certain players. For example, the Pirates drafted Phil Irwin in the 21st round and Brandon Cumpton in the 9th round. Both have emerged as back of the rotation starters. Is that a sign of good drafting, or good development? You could ask the same questions about prep pitchers like Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow.
Then there’s the first round picks. How much credit do you give the Pirates for drafting and developing Pedro Alvarez, Jameson Taillon, and Gerrit Cole? All three were top draft prospects, and sure to go within the first few picks in their respective years. That’s kind of a lose-lose situation. If they work out, it’s because they were supposed to work out because they were taken so high and paid so much. If they don’t work out, it’s a development issue. I don’t think the drafting skills matter in these situations, but I do think there is some development work to credit, since you have to do something to take these guys from draft picks to major leaguers.
Then there’s the international guys. Those players don’t impact the drafting argument, but they definitely can impact the development. Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Alen Hanson were all small bonus guys in relation to the big bonus players on the international markets. Yet this development team took all three and turned them into impact players, or potential impact players.
If you look at how the Pirates operate, it’s easy to see that the process of drafting and developing work hand in hand. The Pirates aren’t drafting random people with random skills. It’s always the same. Every pitcher is a tall, skinny pitcher with the chance to add velocity (or they already have velocity), and a good off-speed pitch. Most of them throw on a downward plane, and/or use their off-speed pitch to induce ground balls. Then the Pirates teach these pitchers how to command their fastball and throw on a downward plane, all while adding or improving on a changeup. You saw this in the 2013 draft when the Pirates took Blake Taylor and Cody Dickson — two lefties who can eventually sit 92-94 MPH with strong breaking balls, poor control, and no changeups.
This year has been a big boost in favor of the process. The 2008 draft has emerged as a good one. The 2009 draft doesn’t look as good, but players are emerging to the majors from that group. The 2010-2011 drafts are stepping up, with top prep pitchers having breakout seasons, top overall picks reaching or getting close to the majors, and sleeper picks like Brandon Cumpton emerging. The international market is lining up to produce hitting prospects in waves.
Last year the debate of whether the Pirates could draft and develop players was totally valid. This year it’s looking like there’s no debate to be had.
Links and Notes
**The site was down a lot today due to issues with our web host. The issues seemed to be pretty widespread for all sites that use Hostgator or Blue Host. Because of the issue today, I’ve decided to change hosting companies. I’ll be switching to the new host this weekend, and I’m hoping it will provide some behind the scenes stuff that will make the site better. I’m still getting familiar with the new features, but two things that might be possible are faster load times and better mapping of the site, including the different sections of the site. Somehow we got eight articles and a podcast uploaded, even with the downtime, and those links are below.
**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 15: Recapping the Slow Deadline; The Pirates Are Legit Playoff Contenders.