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.

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68 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t have the massive problem with Locke some others have. Sure they could do better, and hopefully the young arms can replace him eventually. But for what their paying him, the fact he’s LH? Jeff Locke will in MLB for a few more years as a starter.

    • I don’t have a problem with him. I have a problem with him being labeled as a “strong number four option”

    • Maybe we will have the opportunity to have a better #4 in the future, but we have been damn lucky to have Jeff Locke in the Rotation for 81 starts and a 25-24 record since 2013. He looks like he should get ripped, and some times he does, but his numbers have been better than expected, and especially for a guy we were paying, as you mentioned, the league minimum for those 3 years.

      Also, I am anxious to see how he throws next year, because he surprised me when he was hitting 93 and sometimes 94 in 2015. Very good article, Tim. I was one of those Rudy Owens guys, but injuries took a toll on him – I think he pitched in the DR this Winter. And I would have also been dead wrong about Grossman.

  2. Locke looks like a solid #4 if you look at starters who have pitched 100 innings a season or more the last 2 or 3 seasons based on FIP.

    FIP of 4.1 over last 3 years ranks 92 out of 132 pitcher who have pitched 300 innings over that 3 year span. Better than Estrada, Jason Hammel, and Pelfrey. Not far off from Mike Leake at 4.03.

    • And there are 150 rotation spots in MLB. Of that numebr 132 are accounted for in your criteria, some number are decent looking rookies/guys coming back from injuries to get under the innings criteria and then a lot of guys who are marginal MLB pitchers.

      So out of the 150 notional MLB rotation spots, the #4 range is 91-120 and an above average #4 is 91-105… Locke probably is picked somewhere between #91-105 against all projected Opening Day 2016 pitchers if there was a draft without regard to contract for a 2016 one time only projection.

  3. Just to put it into perspective the Mets 4th is Metz, SF is Peavy, DC is Ross, LAD is Ryu, Ari is De La Rosa, Cubs is Hamels, STL is Garcia, PGH is Locke.

    I would rather have any of those 4th starters over Locke. I guess and argument could be made with Hamels and De La Rosa.

    • And Peavy, who misses 2 months every season, and Ryu who is never healthy and Matz, who has pitched in 6 career MLB games and Hammel who was terrible in August and September.
      Locke is not great and I would love for him to be our five instead, but he’s not so awful that he’s a season killer.

      • John, comparing Matz and locke is like Tallion or Glasnow or Locke. yes, little experience, but a world of potential

  4. Prospect inflation of the Altoona Four can be excused due to inexperience; PP was just starting out and got a bit ahead of themselves after seeing actual warm bodies showing up instead of the previous regime’s mess of organizational filler.

    There is a lesson here, however, and that’s just how far the odds are stacked against a pitcher who cannot miss bats in the minors. The margin of error for a prospect without an out pitch is *extremely* thin, and that absolutely should be remembered when ranking the Kuhls, Holmes, Epplers, etc of the prospect world.

    The emergence of Yeudy Garcia and Stephen Tarpley was important because in all likelihood, the Pirates have staggeringly little pitching depth below the guys in AAA. This was the reason the Big Three ’14 HS arms were so important, and they’ve already lost one of those.

    There looks to be a small window where most or all of the rotation may be home grown, but the reclamation process has simply been too valuable to give up. If that strategy is truly as repeatable as some claim, you sure as hell don’t want to be passing up Lirianos and Burnetts because your have some Steven Braults ready to go.

    • We didn’t inflate their values. The upsides above were from the 2011 Prospect Guide. We were calling them relievers and back of the rotation starters mostly. I also looked back at articles where I said only 1-2 might reach their upsides.

      The Altoona Four nickname was more about pointing out the only four pitching prospects in the system at the time. We still recognized Taillon and Cole as the only guys with a strong chance to be top of the rotation guys (with Allie and Heredia having the tools, but being much bigger projects).

      • Anyone projecting Rudy Owens as a potentially #2 starter *at any point* in his prospect path was most certainly inflating his value, Tim.

        • Owens was a weird situation. I don’t know if it was inflating his value as much as a representation of the times. I was actually discussing this with JJ Cooper at the AFL futures game. We were talking about how many hard throwers there are now, and how every prospect seems to hit 94-95, even the lefties (this was while seeing every prospect in that game hit 94+). It was only a few years ago that a lefty throwing 92 was a hard thrower. Now you’ve got guys like Stephen Tarpley who can hit 97, and aren’t even considered some of the best prospects in the game.

          In Owens’ case, he was working 90-93 MPH consistently that year, which at the time was special for a lefty. He also had amazing control and some good off-speed stuff. Thus, the elevation to a possible number two starter.

          But Owens didn’t maintain that velocity in the future, dropping back down to the 88-91 range. If he never had that velocity spike, he wouldn’t have received the rating and upside. And I think if he had that performance now, even with the high velocity, he wouldn’t have gotten as high of an upside, since that velocity is so common now.

          Every year I look back at predictions that went wrong, and there are plenty to choose from when you’ve got 200+ predictions per year. In some cases, the players just didn’t develop as expected. In other cases, there was a clear lesson. I consider Owens to be in the latter category. It’s not that he was individually being inflated. It’s that the value of velocity was being inflated in the early days of the current age where velocity is so common.

          That said, I do wonder how Owens would have ended up if he hadn’t run into injury problems and if he had maintained the 90-93 MPH velocity range. Probably not a #2, for reasons stated above, but definitely an MLB starter.

    • You have it wrong. The reason those guys were looked at in that way is due to the fact that from 1999, when the Curve moved into Altoona, there wasn’t much in the way of true prospects in the system. Snell, Duke, Gorzelanny & Maholmn in the mid 2000s were the few bright lights as far as pitching was concerned. Then it was dead space till ’10.

      • “…instead of the previous regime’s mess of organizational filler.”

        It helps to read the words I write every once in a while, Leo.

        • I read what you said and you still had aspects of the discussion wrong. It also would help if you figured out that you don’t know as much as you think you do. Several prospects did come through the organization prior to the 2010 seasons, including those guys I mentioned along with Matt Capps, Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez a few years earlier. It was the 5 years in between Duke t al where there was nothing that had those 4 plus Watson, Hughes, and even Moskos look like there might be light at the end of the tunnel.

          • Ha!

            Coming from the self-appointed professional scout of the blog, that comment could not possibly be more hypocritical.

  5. Can someone give me a valid rational why the Dodger’s obtained Joe Blanton and did not attempt to retain Juan Nicasio? This move by the Dodgers baffles my little used mind.

      • No I just can’t see why they would let Nicasio go and then sign Blanton. I think Nicasio has more upside, but just looking at this from a signing standpoint can’t grasp it. More for the Dodger’s than us.

        • Some noted it was strange from the start; essentially why he immediately was thought of as one of the best pitchers to be non-tendered.

          I don’t think it’s really a question of Blanton > Nicasio, though. Just timing. If Aroldis Chapman doesn’t lose his mind, Joe Blanton probably isn’t a Dodger and nobody would be questioning why they chose Chapman over Nicasio.

  6. Tim…I agree with what you said in that last paragraph. It’s a shame it has taken this long, but when every one of those trumpeted ’09 HS pitchers fail, this is where we’re at.

    I give credit to NH and Ray the Wizard for keeping us afloat.

    Now, let’s all pray that Glasnow, JT, et al are all they are ‘cracked up to be’.

    • The failure of the 2009 prep pitchers, plus a heavy focus on offense in 2008, plus a heavy focus on offense on the international side, plus a lot of deals falling through with the 2010 prep pitchers have led to this. The 2011 class can really start to turn it around for the pitchers.

      • Bruce…. We have to have a guy with a headband and long hair to act lack a wild man during the bench clearing pushing matches. There is no one better in all of MLB at performing the “hold me back” dance. Serpico’s wild-eyed lunges and multiple attempts to break free from a one armed hold are worthy of an award. To follow that with a perfectly posed for TV boxing match with the cooler takes real talent. It also helps everyone forget his little league performance at shortstop in the second half of a key doubleheader.

        • I don’t know, Foo. He’s versatile, except for the position with the least depth and greatest need (SS) and if the entire point of the super utility guy is to avoid the awful, i.e. replacement level or worse players, then I’m not real sure Rodriguez qualifies at this point.

          • This. Of all the moves made this offseason, to me the most indefensible by a country mile is resigning S-Rod, particularly at his not insignificant salary. If the Pirates wanted a guy who can competently play 2B/3B/LF/RF, Kelly Johnson was available until 2 weeks ago, has a stronger bat, signed for less money and even hits left handed. Other options (Mike Aviles, Emilio Bonifacio) provide the same offensive production for less money AND have a solid secondary skill (Bonifacio’s speed/Aviles can play SS).

            But I guess he’s a good clubhouse guy, so there’s that.

            • Hell, I’d have taken Stephen Drew for even money. A lefty shortstop with above average defense is absolutely a role that could complement Mercer, who is slightly better than awful against RHP.

      • You look at this differently than I do….You look at it like Metz is a #2 or #3. i look at it where they’re slotted in the rotation.

        • Besides that, who in the baseball world has ever called Jeff Locke a “strong #4”?

          Is there one other outlet that agrees with this interpretation of “the stats”?

            • We’re talking about a guy who has lost his rotation spot in two of his three years as a Major League starter.

              I think he has the *ability* to be a solid #4 starter, but you don’t hand guys status they haven’t earned. Jeff Locke, in no way, has earned the reputation as a solid #4 starter.

              Put a full season together and we can talk.

              • He made 30 starts in 2013 and 2015. He only lost his rotation spot in 2015 because the following guys were ahead of him:

                Cole – 2.60 ERA / 3.16 xFIP
                Liriano – 3.38/3.16
                Burnett – 3.18/3.55
                Happ – 1.85/2.90

                That’s a great rotation. Even then, he didn’t really lose his rotation spot. The Pirates went to a weird six man rotation where Locke and Morton kept making starts. Neither guy pitched out of the bullpen.

                • “The Pirates demoted Locke to Altoona on Wednesday after the 2013 All-Star posted an 8.10 ERA over his last six starts while allowing an opponent OPS of .951. “

        • I don’t think I’d give Matz a hard rating, since he has 35.2 innings in the majors.

          But let’s go with your theory that he’s a #4 because the Mets have a great #1-3 group. If Matz is traded to a team with a horrible rotation where he is the best pitcher, does he suddenly become a number one starter? No.

          I rate players where they’d rank league-wide, and not in the context of how good their individual team is. That’s also how every prospect ranking service rates the upside of every prospect they rate. They don’t give a guy an upside based on his team, and they don’t give an upside based on one super rotation. They give it based on what each rotation spot does league-wide.

          • I guess my point gets back to teams that are contending for a WS don’t have Locke in the 4th spot and if they do, they wouldn’t call him a strong 4. He would be a strong 4 for the Phillies, not a contender.

            • The Royals won the World Series last year. They had the following guys making starts:

              Danny Duffy – 24 starts, 4.35 ERA, 4.80 xFIP
              Jeremy Guthrie – 24, 6.10, 5.24
              Kris Medlen – 8, 4.50, 4.58
              Joe Blanton – 4, 5.30, 3.54
              Jason Vargas – 9, 3.98, 4.74
              Yohan Pino – 1, 10.13, 5.91

              Locke has a 3.98 ERA/4.02 xFIP the last three years as a starter. The Royals had 70 starts last year with guys who put up numbers the same or worse than Locke. Their #3-4 guys the bulk of the year (Guthrie/Duffy) were worse than Locke, even if you only use Locke’s down year.

              The Giants in 2014 had Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain struggling, along with Ryan Vogelsong making 32 starts and putting up the same numbers Locke has put up the last three years.

              The idea that contenders don’t have guys with a 4.00 ERA or worse, outside of their number five starter, is false. Some teams have super rotations, but most have guys with those numbers, and they still contend (and sometimes win the World Series).

              • Literally has nothing to do with calling Locke a “strong number four option”

                SF won their WS because MB had a historic run and he pitched as often as he could because of SF’s lack of quality at the back of their rotation. KC just needed their back end 5 innings and not give up more than 3 runs, then hand it off to a historically good BP.

                • I love how people cite those Royals pitchers without mentioning the little part where Kansas City thought so much of them that they went out and found replacements in the second half. How is that helping the argument again?

                  • I agree with part of that, but it does help the argument is its an argument defending the notion that a team can contend with that level of production….because KC was in contention and leading their division most of the year (both with and without various names mentioned above).

                • Where are we going with this conversation?

                  You just made a point that teams contending for a World Series don’t have guys like Locke in their rotation. I pointed out the last two World Series winners had guys with Locke’s numbers or worse. Now we’re talking about the impact of Bumgarner and the KC bullpen.

                  • MB and KC’s pen saved their weak links….The back end of their rotations. Both were historically good and had to be in order to cover up said weaknesses.

                    PGH doesn’t have Bumgarner or KC’s pen. At least I don’t think Cole is ready to go on a run like MB in 2014, nor do I believe PGH’s pen will be able to duplicate KC’s pure dominance.

                    • Doesn’t Locke have terrible stats for the second half three years in a row and if so can one of you wizards post them for the rest of us?
                      Personally I think Locke has very good stuff when he is throwing strikes. When he nibbles and doesn’t get the calls he gets horrible results.
                      Maybe the Pirates are banking on another strong first half and then a move to the pen or a trade if the young arms prove to be ready. Locke, in my mind, has not shown the consistent mental toughness to be in the plans as a starter.

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