From 2008-2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates spent a lot of money on young pitchers. Aside from the $14.5 M they spent on Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, they spent about $8 M on over-slot pitchers in the middle and late rounds, with many of them coming from the prep ranks. The goal was to get as many high upside pitchers in the system as possible, with the hope that a few of them would break out.

The Pirates saw that happen. Cole and Taillon have worked out so far, and while it’s expected that top ten picks will work out perfectly, it’s often taken for granted that this is far from a guarantee to happen. As for the middle round guys, they’ve seen Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Clay Holmes emerge as prospects, along with a few depth options like Casey Sadler and Brandon Cumpton.

A lot of those options are now starting to reach the majors. Glasnow is currently rehabbing, and good news came on that front this evening. He might not be a rotation option this year, but could be one next year. Kingham is returning from Tommy John surgery, and could be an option for the majors next summer. Holmes is in his first full year back from Tommy John, and has seen his numbers improve in a big way in the second half. He’s got the upside to be a middle of the rotation starter, and could work his way in the mix in the next year or two.

For the last two-plus weeks, I’ve been watching the lower level teams, getting my first views at the 2016 draft picks, while also following up on a few of the bigger prospects in West Virginia. One of the biggest themes I’ve noticed is that the Pirates are loading up on the next group of high upside arms, starting to see results from their recent drafts.

When MLB changed the draft spending rules in 2012, it prevented the Pirates from going all out in their spending on prep players. They were able to get four over-slot prep pitchers in the 2016 draft. They got three of them in 2014. But the entire draft in those two years was largely built around those groups of pitchers, and the Pirates had to spend up to the limit of losing a future draft pick just to get those seven players. By comparison, they drafted and signed five prep pitchers in 2011, while also spending big to get Josh Bell out of the prep ranks, and also spending big for Gerrit Cole. So there’s a massive difference in their ability to spend, with their opportunities to get pitchers under the new system going down.

That doesn’t mean they haven’t been going after those pitchers. And now they’re starting to see results.

Mitch Keller is the current highlight, looking like he will be the next in line as a future top of the rotation starter. I wrote a very detailed article on Keller on Sunday, pointing out several ways how he’s better than Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow were at West Virginia. He always had a high ceiling, but it was unclear how high he could go in the lower levels. Right now, it’s starting to come into focus that he could be a special pitcher, capable of being a top of the rotation guy. Or, you know, just another elite pitching prospect in a system loaded with them.

Then there’s Gage Hinsz, who I wrote about today. He’s always been a step behind Keller, and the fact that he remains a step behind Keller, even now, is a good sign. It shows that he’s also progressing forward, and moving up the ranks. He’s seeing his velocity increase, his control improve, and his secondary stuff develop. He’s not quite there yet with Keller as a guy who could be a top of the rotation arm, but if his current trends continue, he will get there.

I also got a chance to see Luis Escobar when I was in Morgantown, and wrote about him last week. He’s 20 years old, just like Keller and Hinsz, but a month or two younger and a level lower. He’s also more raw, with inconsistent fastball command, and with more work to do to develop his secondary stuff, although he’s making progress with the changeup. The biggest appeal here is that he’s sitting mid-90s with his fastball, touching 97, giving yet another high upside arm in the lower levels.

And then there’s left-hander Taylor Hearn, who really impressed me last week, and who I’ll be writing about in great detail tomorrow.

With the exception of Hearn, the Pirates got to this point by doing the same thing they did in the past: Draft enough projectable pitchers, and a few of them are bound to work out, with the hopes that you get a top of the rotation guy out of the mix. And they’re not stopping here. The 2016 draft saw Travis MacGregor, Braeden Ogle, Max Kranick, and Austin Shields (you can read about each player by clicking their names) drafted. Last year they took a few highly projectable guys, including left-hander Ike Schlabach, who I just saw pitch in Bristol over the weekend.

I don’t know if you can point to any one individual from this group as the next Keller, or Glasnow, or whoever you want to point to. You can look at each player and see a lot to like, and a lot of room to realistically grow. And because you can do that for every single player, you can look at the collective group and imagine that one or two of them will emerge as prospects, and maybe hope that another future top of the rotation arm comes from the group.

The Pirates are looking good right now with their future rotation (not to mention their current rotation is looking good for the first time all year). Gerrit Cole has been a top of the rotation arm since he entered the majors. Jameson Taillon looks like he’s already on his way there. I think Tyler Glasnow will eventually get there, even if it takes some more work and development. Then they’ve got a lot of other talented options like Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, and Drew Hutchison (*ducks*), plus guys right behind them who will be in Triple-A next year, like Clay Holmes, Brandon Waddell, and Tyler Eppler.

That will set the Pirates up well for several years. And then they’ll hopefully reload with the group in the lower levels. That group not only includes Keller, Hinsz, Escobar, Hearn, and the prep pitchers from the last few years, but also has a few lower upside guys like Yeudy Garcia and Stephen Tarpley.

There are currently ten guys in that upper level group who are in their age 25 season or lower this year, and that should be enough to give the Pirates a good rotation for years to come. And there are over ten guys in the lower level group who could step up as replacements in a few years when the upper level guys start to leave, although you’re probably going to see a higher attrition rate with this group. But you’ll also see the Pirates continue to add high upside arms, which is how they got to this situation in the upper levels, the lower levels, and how they’ll continue getting to this situation in the future.

Right now, all eyes are focused on that group cracking the MLB rotation this year. But below that group, another batch of high upside pitchers are starting to emerge, making the long-term future of the Pirates rotation look bright.

**Tomorrow I cover my final game of this road trip, with my fourth game in Bristol. This will make 14 games in 14 days in three cities. I’ll take three days off after that to visit some friends and make my way home to Florida. Then I’ll get back at it in Bradenton, where the current schedule has me seeing Jacob Taylor, Hector Garcia, Braeden Ogle, and Austin Shields in my first few days back. As if I haven’t seen enough interesting young pitching prospects in the last few weeks. I’ll still have features throughout the week, including the first look at Taylor Hearn tomorrow. That might actually be the first look at Hearn by any outlet in Pittsburgh, so if you want to know about the other half of the Melancon trade, now is a great time to give the site a try.

**Tyler Glasnow Cleared to Throw a Bullpen Session on Tuesday in Altoona. This is good news, as I don’t think he’d be throwing this soon, and re-joining Altoona, if there was cause for concern.

**Prospect Watch: Alen Hanson Hits a Walk-Off Grand Slam in Indianapolis Win. Live report from Brian Peloza in Indianapolis, along with my live report from Bristol.

**Gage Hinsz Gives the Pirates Yet Another High Upside Pitcher in the Lower Levels. Speaking of those high upside pitchers, Hinsz could end up being a top ten prospect in the system by the end of the year.

**The Twenty: Barrett Barnes and Frank Duncan Lead the System This Week. Our weekly feature, with a lot of live reports on the best performers from the last week.

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  1. Pirates have very few openings the next few years for position players. Meadows and Bell are starters, maybe Neuman and Diaz as a back up. The Pirates do need to be more aggressive both internationally and drafting position players. I wasn’t crazy about the pick this year, but he is a bat and that is never a bad thing.

    • I’ve been saying for 2-3 years that the Pirates need to do more in the International Market – they tend to go for low cost quantity over higher cost quality, which is not a long-term sustaining strategy. Yes, once in a while, you get a low cost signing like Polanco turn into an exceptional prospect and young player, but those are the rare exceptions.
      Some will say, well its because the Pirates cannot compete with the Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers, etc. I agree with that, but the Pirates should be able to compete with the Reds, Padres, White Sox, and Astros – and all of those teams are far more aggressive in the International market.

  2. I agree, the Pirates do appear to have an abundance of very good pitching prospects throughout the system. My concern is the general lack of high end position player prospects, once you get below the AA level. They are few and far between – Tucker, Polo, Hayes, Craig (debatable) – who else, other the very young and raw prospects in the DSL?

    • I understand the concern about the lower level hitters not being overly exciting outside of a few guys (I’d add Pablo Reyes, Mitchell Tolman, Eric Wood, and Sandy Santos as guys with potential to your list) but given the cost of a #3 pitcher on the open market at the MLB level is effectively the cost of the Bucs’ entire bench, if not more expensive, I’d rather see the lower levels prospects be dominated by pitching. Sure you can’t get Matt Joyce’s production off a minor league deal every year but you certainly can’t get an MLB starter of any quality on a minor league deal anymore period.

      • Yeah, those guys you list have potential, but none of them are considered top position player prospects – as of now. Wood is already in AA, and I was referring to levels below AA. Tolman is a former college player, drafted in 2015, yet he’s still in Low A and hitting around .260 – that doesn’t fit the profile of a future star. Reyes and Santos have tools, but both also have some warts – time will tell if either actually turn into a real prospect.

  3. When you factor in attrition and you look at the talent at West Virginia on down very sobering. If this team doesn’t start spending more on International Talent this system is going to dry up in a few years. Don’t hold your breath on Gayo finding another Polanco or Marte for less than 100K. Team is going have to start spending some money Internationally.

    • I know there’s basically a negative percentage chance this happens but I’d love to see the Bucs go after Shohei Otani whenever he is posted by his team in Japan in the next couple of years. It would definitely take the biggest contract the Bucs have ever given out to land him but at least try to take advantage of the fact that arguably the best international prospect is playing in a league that caps their posting fee which eliminates a bidding war just for the right to negotiate a contract.

    • I agree. I think Kingham is going to be a strong number 3. If you look at his career stats he has great control. Hopefully he and Clay Holmes follow the Taillon method and use the rehab process to work on their weaknesses and come back stronger and more mature than before.

  4. An abundance of riches. At least we hope so.

    Clearly identifying pitching talent, be it in the draft, or at the major league level, is a strength of the Pirates. That’s why I’m not nearly as upset as others about trading away McGuire and Ramirez for Hutchinson. Good chance they see something that makes them believe he will be much better than he has been after they coach him up.

      • Ok, I’ll start. Meadows, Bell, Newman are all high floor, high ceiling hitters drafted by the Pirates. When you add the likes of Marte and Polanco in, the Pirates have the makings of being a contending team in the post-McCutchen era, too.

        • Bell has been in a slump. I wonder if anyone can verify if this is as bad as he’s been or if it is just an ordinary slump.

          Meadows hasn’t bounced back like I hoped he would from his imjury.

          • This year’s first selection has the makings of an excellent bat, and he has done better than expected out of the chute. Hayes before he was injured was also performing extremely well.

            I think you’re being overly negative considering how highly ranked the Pirates system is ranked by most of those who get paid to evaluate such things.

    • If Hutch can rid himself of the gopher ball tendencies he has shown he will appear much better. Might be too much to ask tho.

      Looking forward to the article on Hearn.

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