It wasn’t long ago that the hope for the future of the Pirates’ rotation rested on four pitchers who were pitching in Altoona during the 2010 season. We called the group The Altoona Four, in a bit of a nod to the show LOST. The pitchers were Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, and Rudy Owens, and they helped lead the 2009 Lynchburg Hillcats and the 2010 Altoona Curve to championships. The hope was that they would eventually do the same for the Pirates.
This was during a very weak time for the organization. The team finished dead last in the majors in 2010. There were very few top pitching prospects in the system until they drafted Jameson Taillon and signed Luis Heredia. Heading into the 2011 season, we had The Altoona Four ranked in the 6-12 range of the top 50 prospects.
Bryan Morris was ranked sixth overall. At the time, Morris was seen as a future reliever, with a chance to be a middle of the rotation starter if he could fix his control problems. He ended up a reliever who has been replacement level, and was traded for the competitive balance pick that was used to draft Connor Joe.
Rudy Owens was ranked seventh overall. We were high on his upside, calling him a potential number 2-3 starter due to his increase in velocity in 2010. That didn’t return in future years, and the Pirates traded him to the Astros as part of a three prospect trade for Wandy Rodriguez. Owens suffered multiple injuries with the Astros to derail his career.
Jeff Locke was eighth overall, and has been the most successful of the bunch so far. He was seen with the upside of a 3-5 starter, and eventually settled in as a strong number four option.
Justin Wilson was ranked 12th, with the upside of a 3-5 starter or a late inning reliever, with his upside depending on his control issues. He’s been a solid reliever, and was traded for Francisco Cervelli prior to the 2015 season.
The hope at the time was that the Pirates got a few badly needed rotation options from this group. They got one, and two bullpen arms. They turned Owens and two other prospects into another starter (Owens was the middle ranked prospect in that deal, with Robbie Grossman being the key). They turned Morris into Connor Joe and Wilson into Francisco Cervelli, with an obvious spread in value at the moment in those results.
The Pirates ended up making up for the lack of prospects with reclamation projects. That’s not a total knock on The Altoona Four, as expecting them to go 4-for-4 in turning those guys into MLB starters would have been expecting too much. You would have hoped for one more guy to step up as a starter, but that wouldn’t have done much in a system that had very little starting pitching talent in the upper levels.
Fast forward to the 2016 season. The MLB rotation isn’t loaded with homegrown options. They’ve got Gerrit Cole, who was drafted first overall in 2011, and Jeff Locke is still around. The Tommy John outbreak in Triple-A last year led to the need for Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong to be added this off-season, bridging the gap until Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon arrive. Those are two pitchers who make The Altoona Four look like minor league depth options in comparison. And to prove that, you only need to look at the guys behind them in the rankings.
There are some talented pitching prospects who should be in the top two levels in 2016. Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams have a shot at Triple-A at some point this season. Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler should be in Altoona at the start of the year, while Stephen Tarpley and Yeudy Garcia could make the jump to that level by the second half of the 2016 season. There you’ve got seven pitchers who rank anywhere from 12th to 24th in our rankings. And if The Altoona Four were prospects today, they’d probably rank in this group.
More importantly, the expectations are much different for these guys. The current dream rotation includes Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and Jameson Taillon at the top, with Nick Kingham eventually taking over the fourth spot. Just like The Altoona Four, the Pirates won’t go 4-for-4 with the upsides of this new group. But they’ve got plenty of help behind them, with the seven pitchers I mentioned above, plus guys I didn’t mention like Cody Dickson, Austin Coley, JT Brubaker, Brandon Waddell, and others who could be in Bradenton and Altoona this year. That doesn’t include high upside guys in the lower levels, which is something the Pirates also had in 2010-11.
Pitching is a game of attrition, and the Pirates weren’t set up well back in 2010 and 2011. They were just starting to get top of the rotation guys in their system at the time, and didn’t have many back of the rotation options in the system. Now they’ve got several potential top of the rotation guys about to be in the majors, and plenty of back of the rotation guys to help fill in.
It made sense that the Pirates had to rely on so many reclamation projects the last few years when you look at how little they had in the system in terms of pitching prospects. In the future, if their rotation isn’t almost fully home-grown, it means something went alarmingly wrong. Not every pitcher will work out, but it’s reasonable to expect one of Glasnow, Taillon, or Kingham to join Cole, and at least two of the guys from Altoona or Indianapolis to join that group in the future, giving the Pirates a mostly home-grown rotation. If they get more than that, then the future teams will be in great shape.
**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #14 – Stephen Tarpley. We resume the top 20 countdown, and will be rolling out a player per day during the week from here on out. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.
**Tyler Glasnow Named Among Top Right-Handed Pitching Prospects. No surprise here. I do think Taillon could surprise some people, as his injuries have dropped him off the list, but the talent definitely hasn’t gone away.
**Details of Chris Stewart’s Contract Extension With Pirates. The Pirates got a great deal here, getting two years of Stewart for $3 M guaranteed (and they’ll probably get $6-9 M worth of value from him during that time).
**Pirates Claim RHP A.J. Schugel, DFA Yoervis Medina. Shuffling the final spots on the 40-man roster. It would be good if they were able to keep Medina in the system.
**Buster Olney Ranks Pirates Ninth Overall. If those rankings held up, the Pirates would be the second Wild Card, playing in St. Louis.
**Reese McGuire Named Top Defensive Catching Prospect. Add in the same award for Elias Diaz from Baseball America earlier in the off-season, and the Pirates have two of the strongest defensive catchers in the minors.