First Pitch: Can the Pirates Develop Talent? It Appears So.

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

**If you haven’t ordered the 2014 Prospect Guide yet, I just got a small shipment in from the publisher over the weekend. This year the Prospect Guide has sold three times as many copies as last year’s version. I thank everyone who ordered for the first time, or continues to order year after year. As long as there is a steady demand, and as long as the publisher offers me discounts where I can sell the book to you for $21 instead of $25 on the publisher site, then I’ll try to keep the book in stock. But right now the orders will be small and limited, usually aimed at keeping the book in stock for a few weeks at a time. You can order your books on the products page of the site.

**How Ryan Hafner Became a Pitching Prospect to Watch

**Luis Heredia, in Much Better Shape, Will Pitch a Full Season This Year

**Draft Prospect Watch: Fisher Out With Broken Hamate

**An Early Look at the 2014 Pirates Minor League Rosters: Position Players

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.

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I’ve been thinking about this same topic for several months now and wonder if the previous GM regimes were just as deficient at developing talent as they were at drafting it. Obviously when draft picks are complete busts, it’s impossible to tell what is more to blame, that they were taken when they were in the draft or that they weren’t developed to maximize their potential. It’s probably safe to say the development is more important than the drafting.

I think one of the biggest bonuses last year that doesn’t get discussed too much was Mercer’s development into a legit MLB SS. I know some don’t think he’ll be able to do it over an entire season, let alone be the answer for the next 5 years, but it’s impressive that he went from basically an after thought (most saw him behind D’Arnoud prior to last year) to a valuable contributor to the Bucs. What an advantage when a guy that probably wasn’t in the top 200 list of prospects turns into a productive MLer. If that doesn’t happen then we’re talking about a hole at SS just as much heading into this year as we’re now talking about 1B.
The Cards have been so successful at this (Craig, Carpenter, Adams just in the last couple of years) that they can overlook the fact that a few of their drafts (2007 and 2010 at least) were complete busts and they continue to be one of the premier franchises. Obviously the Bucs have had much more success with Latin American signings (Marte, Polanco, Hansen, Dilson Herrera) that were so “under the radar” that they’re comparable to late round draft picks. I leave Heredia out of this since he was a bigger bonus guy that’s more comparable to a 1st or 2nd rounder.
Here’s hoping a guy (or more) that nobody is talkiing about (Santos, Wood, Crumlich, Moroff, Weiss, Collins) develops into a lot more than is expected at this point and the IF situation becomes much better than thought.


I think the biggest problem with the previous front office regimes was lack of a cohesive, well structured, bottom up plan. It just seemed scattershot and everyone wasn’t on the same page. Now there is a framework in place for the entire organization at all levels. Now there seems to be a “Pirates Way” and all the staff and players within the organization understand what that it is. They’ve come a long.


i’d agree with that

Adrian Carnelutti

Good article Tim but one too many “can” in the title


SO the title should read. “The Pirates Develop Talent.” Save the “?” for another title.



Ryan Hafner is an excellent good news story of a young talent who has been up, down, and up again in 2013, and he is still only entering his age 22 season. A long relief guy at Lo A with a 3/1 K/W Ratio, and he is still growing into his 6’6″ frame. Whether he stays in the same capacity or moves to a SP role, depends a lot on the health of some of the SP’s who are slated to move up to Hi A this year. Question – he is at 92/93; if he remains a 2 seamer/Slider type pitcher can his velocity increase much further without losing movement on the fastball?

I plan to try to visit Bradenton next week, but see that most of the games are sold out – is there an active scalper group?


I am going to be there also emjay. But every year I have been there, there are always numerous scalpers outside McKechnie ( or any other ballpark ) before the game.

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