It was a little over a year ago that there existed some big questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates’ ability to draft and develop players. Most of the questions surrounding the minors were spilled over frustration from the collapse that the major league team suffered. It seemed to convenient to just throw in “and there’s no help on the way from the minors” at the end of every doomsday story about the Pirates.
For those who followed the Pirates minor league system, you could see evidence that the drafting and developing of players was working, and beyond just first round picks. It hadn’t spilled over to the national level, and it wasn’t apparent to the casual fan that doesn’t track the minors. All of that took place in 2013.
Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham were good pitchers before the 2013 season. You could point to them as proof that the Pirates could draft and develop talented, high-upside players outside of the first round. After the 2013 season, everyone calls Glasnow a potential impact arm, and Kingham a potential number three workhorse. But these are things that were pointed out prior to the 2013 season. It’s the same with Gregory Polanco being a future impact hitter. That’s a big feather in the cap of the development team, along with the ability of Rene Gayo and his team to find talent without spending big dollars.
There aren’t many questions now about the ability to draft and develop talent. Maybe that’s because the Pirates had a winning season. Sometimes I feel like the correlation between MLB success and the perception of the farm system is like the correlation between batting average and a Gold Glove. If the first thing is good, then you’re going to be rated highly on the second thing, even though the two have nothing to do with each other. I’m not saying that people who rank the minor leagues professionally do this, but it definitely seems like an approach for people who don’t follow the minors closely.
Or maybe the questions have subsided because of all of the national attention the Pirates have received for their farm system. They’ve been ranked with the number one to number three farm system by pretty much every outlet. Those rankings are heavily based on guys who weren’t high first round picks. Breakout stars like Glasnow, Kingham, and Polanco are getting national recognition as top prospects. Some of this goes back to the winning. Prospect evaluators were praising parts of the farm system last year, but no one really wanted to hear that at the time.
I was reminded of this today when talking with Ryan Hafner about his success last year. This was an over-slot pitcher who absolutely bombed in 2012 in his jump to West Virginia. The results were so bad that we dropped him completely out of our top 50 prospects heading into the 2013 season. But as I wrote this evening, the Pirates totally overhauled his game. They lowered his arm slot to give him a better fit. They switched him to a sinker, which he said feels more natural than his old four-seam fastball. They gave him a slider, which ended up being a dominant strikeout pitch.
In one off-season he went from a four-seam fastball/curveball pitcher who couldn’t get strikeouts to a sinker/slider pitcher who struck out over a batter an inning. A huge credit goes to Hafner for making the changes so quick, but you also have to credit the coaches and the development staff for making this happen.
That’s a 17th round draft pick. If you’re wondering how the Pirates can remain competitive without picking in the top of the first round, it’s this. Draft a high upside player (Hafner was only throwing upper 80s with a poor breaking ball when he was drafted), then find a way to develop that player into a prospect. It’s too early to say what Hafner could become. At this point he looks like he could at least be a strong reliever in the majors with his sinker/slider combo. He’ll get a chance to show what he can do in the rotation this year. But the success of the development staff doesn’t lie solely on Hafner, since there are plenty of success stories around the farm system. The Pirates will need a lot of that now that they don’t have the benefit of high first round picks.
Links and Notes
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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.