First Pitch: The Pirates’ Farm System is Off to a Great Start

The 2016 minor league season is almost a month old, and according to every new mom that I know on Facebook, that means it’s almost time to dress it up in a special onesie with the number “1” on it, and take the first of many monthly snapshots to come. Unfortunately, they don’t sell onesies for the first month of a baseball season. I checked around, and as Babies ‘R Us put it, “Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave the store”. This seemed like more of an Etsy project anyway.

So for now, we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way, with an article. And this would be a great time to bring back First Pitch, after a brief break from the article so that I could fix some subscriber issues.

The Pirates’ minor league system is off to a great start. Guys who are needed this year and in the upcoming year are producing. Some of the top guys in the lower levels are off to hot starts, which will keep the system strong even after top prospects graduate this year.

At the top of the system, all eyes are on Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon — especially during every start made by Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio. Glasnow and Taillon are putting up strong numbers in their first three outings. Glasnow has a 3.60 ERA and a 19:6 K/BB ratio in 15 innings. Taillon has a 1.65 ERA and a 16:0 K/BB ratio in 16.1 innings.

Both are off to good starts, but neither pitcher is ready for the majors right now. Glasnow is having success against Triple-A hitters, but needs to improve on dropping his curveball in for strikes early in the count. Without that, he relies on the fastball alone to get ahead, and sometimes the fastball is off, leading to a rough outing with the control. That’s hidden behind the numbers in the minors, but he wouldn’t have the same success right now in the majors. He also needs to improve with the changeup, which he’s currently not throwing often enough right now.

Taillon just needs to get adjusted back to the game after missing the last two years. The Pirates are limiting his innings and pitch counts right now, making sure he has innings remaining at the end of the year. He also needs to adjust to upper level hitters again. This stood out in his second start, more than the first and third outings.

I think Taillon has less to work on than Glasnow, but each guy has a reason to be in Triple-A right now.

Behind those guys, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault are showing potential in their first few outings, with some good results from each pitcher. They also each have something to work on, so you’re not getting immediate help from the minors in the rotation right now.

On the offensive side, Josh Bell is playing about as well as you could ask him to be playing. During Spring Training, I broke down the changes to his swing, and noted why we could see more power from him this year. He’s off to a great start in that department, with four doubles, a triple, and three homers in 56 at-bats, leading to a .321/.424/.589 line.

The Pirates certainly shouldn’t be in a rush to replace John Jaso right now, as he has a .344/.403/.469 line in 72 plate appearances. But if things continue with both first basemen, the Pirates will have an interesting decision to make this summer. It’s certainly a welcome “problem” when you consider their recent history at first base, and lack of good options at the position in the past.

The other big guy to watch in the upper levels is Alen Hanson, who is hitting for a .327/.353/.408 line in 49 at-bats. Once again, the Pirates don’t need Hanson at the moment. Josh Harrison has almost identical numbers in the majors, with a .329/.359/.425 line in 79 plate appearances. Hanson might have an easier path to the majors than Bell, as he could help off the bench as a super utility player, or at another position if needed.

Below Triple-A, the Pirates are getting more good results than bad results. Reese McGuire is finally showing off his bat at times this year, with a .781 OPS in 42 at-bats. Stetson Allie and Erich Weiss are both off to hot starts at the level, although both would be bench guys if they ever made it to the majors with the Pirates. Tyler Eppler is showing why he has been getting an aggressive push, with a 3.00 ERA and a 14:3 K/BB ratio in 18 innings. Austin Meadows will make his debut on Monday, which will boost this team even more. On the downside, Harold Ramirez, Barrett Barnes, and the other members of the rotation have struggled.

Bradenton is getting some great early results from the 2015 draft class. Kevin Newman is hitting everything he sees, posting a .379/.439/.431 line in 58 at-bats. Brandon Waddell is the next college drafted pitcher getting an aggressive push, and has responded well, putting up a 1.17 ERA in 23 innings, with a 19:2 K/BB ratio. The downside is that Yeudy Garcia, Connor Joe, and Kevin Kramer are off to slow starts at the level.

As usual, West Virginia is where things really get exciting. Somehow, the Pirates always have a breakout guy at that level, and this is definitely not a common thing for a team to have a breakout guy at the same level each year. The list includes huge breakouts like Gregory Polanco, Tyler Glasnow, and Alen Hanson, to smaller scale guys like JaCoby Jones and Yeudy Garcia.

This year, the Pirates are seeing two of their top draft picks from recent years putting up great results. Ke’Bryan Hayes was a first round pick last year, and currently has a .962 OPS in 56 at-bats, while showing off a great glove at third. Mitch Keller, drafted in the second round in 2014, has yet to give up a run in 15 innings over three starts, with a 23:0 K/BB ratio.

I talked with a scout this week who saw West Virginia recently, and really liked Keller and Hayes. The scout was amazed at how West Virginia has a new breakout guy to follow, noting that every year when he sees that team, there is a new top prospect to follow in the system.

This is the most encouraging thing for the Pirates so far. They’re set up well for the short-term and the next 7-8 years with all of the talent they have in the majors, and the upper levels of the system. But they need talent to keep flowing through the system, and that’s going to be difficult when drafting lower each year. Hayes was drafted 32nd overall last year. Keller was drafted 64th overall in 2014. And even Kevin Newman was drafted 19th overall, and is looking like a potential starting shortstop in the future.

The Pirates didn’t just build their system on first round picks in the past. They were always boosted by breakout guys. But with the changes to the draft rules in recent years, there was a question as to whether they could continue this trend, even with less money and a lower draft position. It takes a few years for those types of questions to be answered, so we’re just now getting the early results. Those results are looking good to start the 2016 season.

The first month has exactly what you want from the farm system. The most important prospects in the upper levels are performing. You’ve got some breakout guys emerging in the lower levels. And overall, there are more people showing positive signs with their development than people struggling. If the rest of the season goes this way, the Pirates will have a lot of prospects who could make an impact in the Majors this year, and a lot of good prospects still remaining in the system after the top guys have graduated.

**Speaking of West Virginia, I’ll be heading up there for five games this week, and will have features on Keller and Hayes, along with other players.

**Prospect Watch: Holmes Overcomes Slow Start, Shaky Outings for Hughes and Luebke

**How Being One of the Most Athletic Pitchers in the System Helps Steven Brault. Ryan Palencer looks at Steven Brault’s athleticism, and how that is helping him this year.

**Over the last three days, John Dreker broke down the progress of the 2015, 2014, and 2013 draft classes.

**Giles: Looking at Jason Rogers’ Role With the Pirates. Ed Giles takes a look at Jason Rogers and his role now that he’s up with the big league club.

**Pirates Trying to Make David Whitehead More Than Just a Sinkerballer. My feature this weekend on David Whitehead, who the Pirates acquired in the Charlie Morton trade.

**Site Updates: What To Do If You Have a Problem With Your Subscription. Important site updates for anyone who might be having a problem with their subscription.

  • Tim, this was a decent article overall, but the first paragraph was just weird and creepy. Please don’t start an article that way ever again.

  • Look at my boy Kevin Newman tearing it up in Bradenton. 🙂

  • It is still early in the season and as the temps heat up maybe the players that are not performing up to our expectations will heat up as well. Can not wait for the DSL, and rookie ball teams to start up. How is the next great player to root for?

  • Tim – Welcome to WV!! Come visit the “Woop! Woop!!” ladies in section 112 – we can give you the lowdown on our faves in both WV and Bradenton. LOL

  • BallHeadWonder
    April 25, 2016 9:33 am

    I don’t worry about us picking lower!! I know if we keep giving qualifying offers to folks that have value enough to leave, we will get 2 in the Top 40!! Just like Hayes was that Comp Pick!! Looks like Cervelli is the next Qualifing Offer this season!!

  • I’ve been disappointed with a lot of guys down in the lower levels, but thanks for the uplifting information. I’m thrilled Meadows is coming back today.

  • This is for Blaine.

    No OSUNA??????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Lee Foo Please read the comments about Alen Hanson and report to the principal’s office!

    • Tim left out the 2 walks and 16 K’s in 51 PAs.

      That never bodes well for MLB success.

      Sorry Bill, but me and the Principal are ‘tight’. He likes me. He calls me a ‘good kid’.

  • Wondering if those who knocked my support of S Rod are still out there? Not over statement to say he’s worth his 2.5 salary.
    Next up Jaso signing as good as or better than Zobrist signing.
    NH el fuego!

    • There was a lot of haters of S Rod including the guy that called him Shawn Hurdle.

      • Well people disliked him because he stunk for the better part of 3 years. Can’t fault them for that….and he still has 5+ months left. I will be extatic with .250 and 5 or so HR the rest of the way. I think if you asked anyone “what if srod hit .260 with 8 HR in 225 ab 2016?” Anyone would be pretty happy with that.

      • That’s the same crowd that loves “no list”

    • ST1300….I got knocked for my SRod support in the PBC Asylum, too.

      It is lonely sometimes being right. 🙂 🙂

      • Yes and I did to for my “The Enforcer”. SROD is the kind of guy you would be comfortable walking into a seedy bar and not worry about your back.

      • Towards the end of last season I got disheartened by S-Rod’s complete lack of plate discipline and had to quite standing up for him. A lot of my more impatient fan friends had it in for him.
        This new player we see before us has completely changed his hitting process both physically and mentally. He just looks so dangerous up there, and the performance is demanding Hurdle find ways to get him in the lineup.
        But that stance and attitude… I now call him – El Serpiento, because he looks like a coiled viper preparing to strike when at bat.

    • They got around 0.6 worth of war out of him already…cut him now and lock in his value!!!

    • I’m not his biggest fan and admittedly questioned them bringing him back, but man I never understood the amount of hate he got on here. It definitely makes it funnier with the start he’s had tho.

    • This month’s Serpico is a different player than last year’s Serpico. I really hope he sticks around.

      • I, for one, believe a SeanRod think piece is long overdue.

        Inquiring minds want to know, is this .458 ISO and 20% walk rate sustainable? I’ll hang up and listen.

        • I agree, I find it highly unlikely he’s going to finish the season with an OPS higher than Bryce Harper…

          On the other hand, as much as it stings the pride to admit it, he’s darn near justified every dollar of the contract even if he doesn’t swing the bat for the rest of the season.

          • The problem is, he will.

            • You’re probably right, but I’ve eaten so much crow on S-Rod in three weeks of baseball that I’m not going to make any predictions about his performance for another few weeks.

              If he just matches last year’s production for the rest of the year, we’d be looking at a final line of a .258 BA, .713 OPS, 7 HRs, 28 RBI, and a 0.6 WAR. For $2.5M, that’s probably a tad more than acceptable.

              Trust me, I’m not calling him a stud or predicting he’s going to maintain…but he’ll, most likely, end up earning his check this season.

        • You may have misinterpreted my comment. I don’t think Serpico’s recent performance is in anyway sustainable, but I wish that it were. I was just pointing out that his recent performance is way far from his norm (as we have a good sized sample from the last several years) and therefore no basis for hasty conclusions.

          • No, I got it. I just lathered the sarcasm too thick in my response.

            Remember Emilio Bonifacio? Yeah, me neither. I’m not putting down payments on the SeanRod statue just yet.

  • Great write-up!….

    …but get ready for the complaints for not mentioning Osuna! 🙂

    The ML club is on pace for 85 wins…and, from what the pitching staff has shown thus far, it feels like that’s about right.

    The minors are pretty damned exciting though. It seems there’s, at least, two guys at every level that have me running to the box scores every night. I’m antsy as hell to see some of these guys finally start trickling onto the ML roster.

    • I think Pirates will win many more than 85 just because Liriano and Cutch will not continue to be this bad for much longer. Factor in JT & TG coming up to shore up the back-end of the rotation to average #3 SP levels and this team should give Cubs a run for the division title.

      • Hope you are right, and I agree with Blaine that thankfully, the Farm System is providing a great amount of interest while the Pirates are trying to find themselves.

        Am I mistaken, or did ‘Cutch have difficulty when the Pirates tried to move him from leadoff to #3 in the order? As I recall, they moved him back to leadoff where he got more comfortable and came back to have a solid season. Then, the following year he went to #3 and did well until 2016.

        Taking your most successful #3 hitter and moving him up in the order so he can get 4 more AB’s per month? How about moving ‘Cutch back to #3 and alternate JHay or Polanco at #2.

        • Scott Kliesen
          April 25, 2016 12:44 pm

          And last year people were saying Cutch cutting his hair was the reason for his early season slump. Maybe he’s just having another tough start to the season because baseball is hard sometimes even for the world’s best players.

          It’s human nature to look at what’s different and assign it blame even if it’s not the reason. I’d be beyond surprised if Cutch gave any credence to your theory of why he’s not hitting yet.

          I say let the season breath for a bit longer and then when it’s about 40 games old assess to see if what was expected is actually happening.

          • I would agree. I try not to get too excited about individual performances until a third of the way through the season. if Cutch is still putting up a sub-.700 OPS in early June, I’m going to start getting worried.

            Let’s not forget, he was sitting on a .691 OPS after 38 games last year and ended the season at .889. That was a .952 clip for the remainder of the season.

            • Scott/Blaine: I hear you but the idea was to get more action for ‘Cutch because somebody found that he and Goldschmidt in Arizona were coming to bat too often with nobody on base last year. But the plan has not worked. Cutch would be the first to say the move has nothing to do with his bad start, but he at No. 2 and Freese at #3 have not been what anybody was hoping for going into 2016.

              Instead, we have Harrison and Polanco having excellent years and we are not taking full advantage of their hitting capabilities or footspeed because they are usually in the bottom end of the order. Freese will not stay in that #3 spot very much longer and this would be a good time to shift him back to #6 or #7, Cutch back to #3, and Harrison or Polanco at #2 depending upon the arm side of the pitcher.

              Patience is nice, but the Cubs are putting a lot of distance between them and the rest of the Central. Go back to the lineup that won 98 games last year with ‘Cutch as the #3 hitter.

              • Scott Kliesen
                April 26, 2016 9:39 am

                Pirates may indeed do what you suggest, but not after 20 games. It sends a bad message to the players. Especially considering offense hasn’t been the problem so far this season.

        • My lineup:

      • Cole hasn’t pitched that great either. It’s a good problem to have when Cutch is your worst hitter.

      • Well, that’s one way to look at it…the other is…how much longer are the others going to play over their heads?

        Current OPS/Career OPS

        Cervelli: .820/.750
        Jaso: .872/.771
        Freese: .788/.762 (.722 from ’13-’15)
        Harrison: .784/.737
        Mercer: .771/.690
        Marte: .907/.791
        Polanco: .919/.702
        S-Rod: 1.333/.675
        Joyce: 1.000/.763
        Stewart: .850/.611

        You can make the argument, and I would probably agree, that Marte and Polanco are showing genuine development. But I think even they’re going to slip a little…after all, Marte is not going to keep up the torrid pace and get 77 2Bs.

        But, after Polanco and Marte? I think any and every one of those guys is going to see the offense dip. The questions are: by how much? And: will a rebounding Cutch be enough to make up the difference?

        • I counted four non-Rockies team BABIP’s over .320 in the last decade; the Pirates currently sit at .355.

          Add in Polanco, Joyce, Rodriguez, and Cervelli all walking over 15% of the time and you’re looking at some *major* OBP regression coming up.

          • Agreed. Everybody on this team with 20+ PAs and not named Cutch is playing at peak performance. It’s a fluke and I wouldn’t be surprised to see most of them revert to close to their career norms over the course of the season.

            The two I think have the opportunity to regress the least are Polanco and Marte…for obvious reasons. If I had to throw out one more name of someone who won’t dive too much, that would be Jaso. Without catching taking a toll on his body and a steady stream of PAs, he may be better than his career averages.

            On the other hand…thank damned goodness the freakishness is occurring now. With the pitching as bad as it’s been, if these hot streaks weren’t occurring simultaneously, the team could easily be down four more wins.

            • Yeah, Marte is who is he, and now maybe with a couple less strikeouts. Polanco has so much more in him – just wait til he starts pulling the ball in the air – and already looks ridiculous.

              Jaso is the interesting one for me to watch.

              I don’t believe we’re very good at actually understanding the publicly available batted ball data we have to date, first of all, but the guy is running huge BABIP’s while pulling a ton of ground balls into the shift and only marginal contact authority (86 mph avg exit velo). He’s also basically stopped swinging, and stopped missing, and NL pitchers are pumping him fastballs in the zone. The BABIP will drop, almost certainly, but how much I don’t know. The guy has been fantastic, and I’d say is still more valuable than Bell this year because defense, of all things, but I don’t think you have to squint hard to see the possibility of a stretch coming where he looks very pedestrian by 1B standards, and has Bell hitting bombs in AAA breathing down his neck.

        • There seems to be a synergy effect going on, the sum is greater than the parts. Maybe they are just mentally wearing the opposing pitcher out. The only “break” is our pitcher.

        • I am more sanguine about Harrison and Cervelli, agree about the rest.